The Water Man's Alfred Molina on the Power of David Oyelowo's Directorial Debut

No matter when you grew up or where you lived as a kid, you likely heard about some sort of urban [...]

No matter when you grew up or where you lived as a kid, you likely heard about some sort of urban legend in your community, some of which were disturbing in nature, others which were much more magical. In The Water Man, an urban legend is both mystical and rooted in reality, inspiring a child to seek out the being in hopes of helping his mother with her terminal illness. Alfred Molina plays an expert on this mystical "Water Man" in the film, with the role not only allowing him the opportunity to take part in what could become a formative classic for audiences going forward, but also the chance to collaborate with David Oyelowo, who is making his directorial feature-film debut. The Water Man is in theaters now.

In The Water Man, Gunner (Lonnie Chavis) sets out on a quest to save his ill mother (Rosario Dawson) by searching for a mythic figure who possesses the secret to immortality, the Water Man. After enlisting the help of a mysterious local girl, Jo (Amiah Miller), they journey together into the remote Wild Horse forest -- but the deeper they venture, the stranger and more dangerous the forest becomes. Their only hope for rescue is Gunner's father (Oyelowo), who will stop at nothing to find them and in the process will discover who his son really is. recently caught up with Molina to discuss his interest in joining the project and desire to star in a "kosher science fiction" film.

the water man alfred molina 2021
(Photo: RLJE Films/Karen Ballard) Before we get too deep into The Water Man, I was looking back over your impressive career. You've done so many awesome things that I personally love, and I would say your scene in Boogie Nights is one of my favorite scenes in any movie ever.

Alfred Molina: Thank you very much. I appreciate that.

With that movie, I'm sure the experience on set was entirely different from how things looked in the finished product, so I wondered, whether it be Boogie Nights or The Water Man or any other movie you do, is it more rewarding to perform the material or to see how audiences engage with the end result?

Well, I think it depends very often, it really depends on what the material requires. A certain style of script will lend itself to a certain way of approaching it. And it also all depends on who's directing, who wrote it, who else is in it. All these factors play into it. But with The Water Man, David Oyelowo, our director, sent me the script. I read it and loved it, and for all the reasons that he's been talking about why he made the film, because he's a big fan of movies like The Goonies and Stand By Me, as I am, and I really responded to it. But the writing was so well in place and so well-conceived already, that we didn't need to approach it in any way like we did Boogie Nights, which was much more of a free-for-all, because the material was still very much in flux.

Here, with The Water Man, we had a very well-crafted, beautifully finished script, so we just dove into that straight away without any need to goose it up in any way.

Speaking to David's script, of course he's a super talented actor, but not all actors can be just as talented as directors. So what was it about David's vision -- was it just the script, was it a description -- what gave you the confidence that this would be the right picture get involved in?

Everyone's saying that this is ... they're making a big emphasis that this is David's first feature film, which, of course, is true, but he directed a short called "Big Guy," which I was in. That was about 10 years ago now, maybe more. And that was a real eye-opener to me, in terms of David's quality as a director.

He and I have been friends since the early 2000s, when we worked together on a film with Ken Branagh, and I was very impressed with him, not just as an actor, but also just as a human being, and we stayed in touch. And then when he sent this script, the short, that's when I thought, "Hmm." And I go, "Well, not every wonderful actor makes a wonderful director, but I'll throw the dice," as it were. And I thought it might be fun just to hang around with David for a few days.

On that movie, he absolutely, absolutely revealed skills as a director that I thought, "Hmm, yeah. This isn't just a vanity thing. This isn't just an actor saying to himself, 'Oh, I think I'll be a director.'" That happens often enough, but this is seriously a guy who had chops as a director. So when he offered me The Water Nan, I didn't hesitate.

I can't help but wonder, since there is this concept in The Water Man of an urban legend, this magical realism, I wondered if, growing up, did you have any figure, maybe not like the "Water Man," an urban legend in your community that resonated with you?

Yeah, but it's interesting; we use terms like "magical realism" as if it's some mystical, magical, weird thing that only a few people know about. But, think about Mary Poppins. If that wasn't magical realism, I don't know what is. I mean, Jurassic Park, all those movies. Any movie that is bringing in some level that is other than human, you're in a kind of magical place.

And I think what David did, I think, was very much ... I don't think he meant it as an homage. Perhaps he did, I don't know. Only he could say. But certainly, the fact that his film reflects all those wonderful family movies that we saw in the '80s, E.T. and Stand By Me, all the ones that we mentioned, there's a wonderful continuity there, that it is possible to make these films.

I think the magical element in Water Man isn't too fanciful, it's rooted in something very earthbound. I can't explain it any better than that. It doesn't feel like airy-fairy stuff. It feels like something that comes out of the ground, you know what I mean? There's a darkness to it, or a depth to it that's really intriguing, and I loved all that. I loved that element in the movie and the story.

There's a universality to it. No matter how old you are, there's something in there that'll really resonate with you, whether it's the grounded elements or the more mystical components.

Absolutely. Because he's got two really interesting stories going on. He's got the whole story of the kid on this quest to find something that's going to save to his mum, that's his priority, which is a fantastic through-line. But then you've also got the story of the parents, the mum who's very, very ill, worried about what's going to happen to the two men in her life if she goes and all that, and the tension between father and son and the effort to reconcile that. You've got all that going on at the same time, which appeals to young and old simultaneously. That's why I think those movies were always so successful, so satisfying, was that very thing, they had cross-generational appeal. That's the most PR thing I've ever said in my life.

Since early on in your career, like with Raiders of the Lost Ark, then growing over the years, you've been in all these beloved franchises, but is there a series, like a Star Wars, that you haven't gotten to be in yet that you'd like to join?

Well, I've never done an out and out science fiction movie. I think that would be really cool. I've never done one of those. I've done some action films and dark dramas and a few comedies along the way.

So not like a Species, which was horror/sci-fi.

Yeah, not horror/sci-fi, no. Proper, kosher science fiction. There's a genre for you. "Kosher science fiction."


The Water Man is in theaters now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can contact Patrick Cavanaugh directly on Twitter.