To color his portrayal of Rothko, actor Alfred Molina studies the artist's works

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010; E01

The man who plays Mark Rothko is standing in a room in the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, surrounded by Rothkos. He seems awestruck, delighted, bowled over by the display of his character's unvarnished imaginative power.

"To see them in the flesh is just extraordinary," Alfred Molina says as he takes in the abstract paintings, which at first glance look darkly monochromatic and only slowly yield up subtler textures and kinetic brush strokes and feathery bands of color. "Amazing," the actor adds. "It's sort of like you're walking into your own life."

Nearby, his Broadway co-star, Eddie Redmayne, gazes at one of the works from a strange perspective: His face is virtually pressed against the wall. He's examining the precision of the stapling on the edge of the canvas, it turns out. Which makes a lot more sense when you know he plays the role of Rothko's assistant, responsible for preparing the canvases on which the artist will meticulously add layers and layers of paint.

Molina and Redmayne have just begun the Broadway stay of the British-born production of "Red," a new play by American dramatist John Logan ("Never the Sinner") about the brilliant, abrasive abstract expressionist and his contentious relationship with a keen-eyed and stiff-necked helper. With an official opening set for this Thursday, the two-character drama arrived at the John Golden Theatre with a pile of sterling London reviews and attendant high expectations; last weekend, Redmayne, 28, earned a coveted Olivier Award for his supporting work in the piece's London incarnation.

And now, the two actors are on a whirlwind side trip to Washington, to gaze upon the city's singular trove of Rothko paintings and sketches on paper. It was Molina's idea on this rainy Monday, the day that "Red," now in previews, is dark, to hop on an 8 a.m. Acela. His plan was to take in exhibitions at both the National Gallery and Phillips Collection, the National being the world's largest repository of Rothkos and the Phillips home to the remarkable Rothko Room, a chapel-like chamber of four large paintings, one on each wall. At first glance, many of the late-career works look like two-toned panels of intense color: greens and tangerines, ochres and reds, blacks and grays, oranges and maroons. Of course, once you peer more deeply, or simply stand close and quiet for a few minutes, they begin to change. Or you do.

"When I look at this kind of color, they seem just full of so much love. You know what I mean, Eddie?" Molina whispers to his younger colleague as they take in one of the untitled Rothkos -- he didn't go in for labels -- in the East Wing. "There's an exuberance."

You hear a lot about actors and research, how they often like to bone up on the people they play, particularly if that person actually existed. Sometimes, you do have to wonder whether the activity is essential to what ends up on the stage or the screen, or if it's mere indulgence. The protean Molina, 56 -- whose transformations have been jolting audiences since he made his first splash as the pathologically erratic lover of Gary Oldman's Joe Orton in the 1987 film "Prick Up Your Ears" -- seems to grasp the potential for the actors sounding on this day a tad grand. So he does what he can to burst any possible bubble of pretension. "Let's move on," he says to Redmayne as they contemplate a painting, "before we make complete idiots of ourselves."

Of course, there is some method here, even if the exercise is not intended so much to clarify Rothko's world as to expand the actors' embrace of it. "You soak up something ephemeral, something emotional," says Molina, who has shaved his head to play the balding artist. "It doesn't affect me on a conscious level. It's a bit like something marinating, steeping."

"Red," directed by Michael Grandage of London's Donmar Warehouse, where it premiered in December, delves in five brisk scenes into the struggle of the fictionalized assistant, Redmayne's Ken, to establish an intellectual bond with the hyper-judgmental Rothko and then to break free of his influence. The entire piece takes place in Rothko's New York studio on the cusp of the 1960s -- about 10 years before Rothko's suicide -- when the artist was at work on one of his most important projects, the creation of a series of murals for the walls of the Four Seasons, the high-end restaurant in the newly completed Seagram Building. (For reasons that "Red" tries to unravel, Rothko ultimately returned the money and refused to have the Seagram Murals installed there.)

Though the tension between Rothko and Ken never completely abates, Molina and the boyish Redmayne, an on-the-rise English actor -- he played the son of Angelina Jolie's character in "The Good Shepherd" -- and Burberry model, exhibit an unencumbered rapport, joking about the hermetic aspects of being in a two-man show. Both men are tall, though the younger one is leaner. (Molina sighs when he sits down to a grilled chicken salad for lunch at the National Gallery and sees that Redmayne has ordered a bacon cheeseburger. Ah, to be 28 again.) They're dressed for sightseeing -- Molina in black, Redmayne in denim -- and they all but pounce on some of the exhibited artwork: veritable Rothkoholics.

They shower copious thank-yous on their guides, the National Gallery's Ruth Fine, curator in special projects in modern art, and the Phillips's chief curator, Eliza Rathbone, both of whom seem a little beguiled by their presence. (The Phillips has, in fact, opened up its galleries to them on a day the museum normally is closed.) But it's not so much their celebrity as their knowledge of the art they're seeing that tickles the curators.

"The more you see, the more you realize how complicated they are," Fine tells them of Rothko's large canvases. She is currently assembling the catalogue raisonné of Rothko's works on paper, believed to total up to 3,000, and was set to make a pilgrimage to see the Broadway play on Friday. "I know I'm going to love it," she says. While snapping some photos in the galleries, Redmayne -- who confides both that he studied art history at Cambridge and is red-green colorblind -- notices that Molina is starting to show telltale signs of an occupational hazard: identifying with his character.

"Look at how Fred walks right past the pop art -- he won't look at it!" Redmayne says of Molina's seeming refusal to acknowledge the works on the walls by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein -- artists whom Rothko disparages in the play. Molina hears him and responds with an enigmatic grin.

At the Phillips, though, Molina cannot hide his agitation. On the precipice of the intimate Rothko Room, he hesitates. "I feel a bit nervous about going into this room," he says, and as Redmayne takes up his now-familiar stance, glancing sideways at the frames of the paintings to check the state of the canvas, Rathbone explains how, based on Rothko's wishes, the room came to be. She points out the provenance of the single, low-slung bench with wooden slats in the middle of the room. Molina seems a little stunned.

"So Rothko sat on this bench?" he says, and you can watch as the actor takes a kind of psychic possession of the object, absorbing its history and its significance. "At the Tate, they don't even have a bench!" he adds, referring to the London museum's presentation of its Rothkos.

Soon it's time to get back on Amtrak. Molina's got a ticket to the new musical version of "The Addams Family" that night. He and Redmayne offer still more praise and thanks, and they jump into the car that will take them to Union Station.

You can tell they're stoked, their minds full up on Rothko. Molina's feeling pretty good about playing the cultural tourist, and with an articulation of pleasure that seems more characteristic of the actor than the artist, Molina heads back to Broadway.

"What a day!" he exclaims.

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