As seen on screen

Alfred Molina talks bringing ‘Monsters’ character to life

Jason Kempin / Getty Images for UGG

Having done his heavy share of drama, Alfred Molina found more laid-back voice work especially appealing in Monsters University.

The Englishman, 60, is probably best known for star-turning roles in Prick Up Your Ears, The Perez Family, Chocolat and Frida.

These days Molina is Professor Knight, a gruff figure with a grotesque under bite, dinosaur scales and threatening tail, who shows his young charges how to become better “scarers” in Disney Pixar’s prequel to the (dare we write?) monstrous hit, Monsters Inc.

We chatted:

How did you first get involved with this project and how did you find the overall experience?

I just got a call asking, ‘Would I be interested?’ then they showed me some visuals, and the guy looked conceivably like a family member [laughs]. When you’re recording in the studio a video camera catches little idiosyncrasies and facial expressions so the animators can incorporate the actual person into the character. I hadn’t done much voice work, but I started thinking this could be a whole new thing for me. I had a wonderful time. And I’ve finally made a film that my grandchildren can see without it being awkward or uncomfortable.

How is this kind of acting unique?

One’s priority here is to tell the story, and the beauty of animation is you’ve only got the voice to express yourself. You really kind of focus in on it, and it gives you a chance to be much more inventive. The only shame is you often tend to be on your own as we record separately, though the director [Dan Scanlon] was in the room with me giving me suggestions, telling me to put an emphasis on this word, give this a tweak or raise my voice a little. Nothing is arbitrary, which is interesting.

How did you prepare?

When I first read the script I thought Knight seemed like a drill sergeant, all the shouting and snarling. We toyed with him having a British accent but ended up giving him a regional American accent, vaguely from the East Coast somewhere. We had a lot of fun not making him sound intellectual at all; he sounds more like a sports coach rather than someone on the academic staff.

‘Monsters’ is partly an observation of today’s campuses. What was your time at university like?

Americans tell me the way college life is depicted in this film is very accurate and that it caught all the subtleties. In England, it’s a slightly different system. We had these little cliques: the sporty types, the ones who did their work. I didn’t fit in. I was terrible at sport, I wasn’t successful socially. The only crowd I could hang out with was the drama crowd. We were basically viewed by everyone else as the losers because we spent all our time pretending to be somebody else. We walked around with that slightly defensive snobbery, like we thought we were kind of special, but it was a front because we all knew we were kind of pathetic!

Your father was from Madrid. How’s your Spanish?

It isn’t perfect, but it’s serviceable. I can struggle through an interview in Spanish, but it’s always a bit frustrating for me and the interviewer. I can go shopping and can certainly live my life speaking it, but a lot of the jargon I wouldn’t know.

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