When actors take a role, they'll often sketch out a backstory for their characters to help them figure out why they do the things they do. No such legwork was necessary, though, for Alfred Molina's latest role in TNT's miniseries "The Company."
"The script was so well-detailed in terms of these characters and what they did and why how they did it," Molina notes. "The material was so rich -- I think that's why they ended up doing it as a miniseries" rather than a feature film.
The six-hour miniseries, which will run over three Sundays starting this week (Aug. 5), delves into the history of the CIA during the Cold War. Based on a novel by Robert Littell, the story spans several decades and revolves around operative Jack McAuliffe (Chris O'Donnell), who's witness to a number of CIA successes and blunders, from Hungary in 1956 to the Bay of Pigs to the hunt for a KGB mole in later years.
Molina plays Harvey Torriti, aka "The Sorcerer," an old-school agent who runs the agency's Berlin section in the post-World War II era and teaches Jack lessons in on-the-ground espionage. Though their characters and several others in "The Company" are fictional, the story also weaves in real figures from the period, including counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton (Michael Keaton), British double agent Adrian "Kim" Philby (Tom Hollander) and CIA chief Allen Dulles (Cedric Smith).
Torriti is a blunt, hard-drinking man who relishes the cat-and-mouse aspects of his job, Molina says: "One of the characters in 'The Company' calls it 'the great game.' Which is precisely what it was. ...
"[Torriti] was almost like a cop. He relied on gut instinct and hunches, the information he got from local informers. There's a sense of absolutely getting your hands dirty, getting into and being involved in the immediate locale."
He stands in contrast to the more buttoned-down McAuliffe, who's recruited out of Yale and is more concerned with ends than means.
"Jack McAuliffe represents the newer generation [of agent] who were all university-educated and brought to the job a kind of cooler, intellectual analysis," Molina says. "So you've got two very, very different men playing the same game, but in a sense for different reasons. It was always suggested that Harvey played the game just for its own sake. He just loved it, whereas Jack was a man with an ideology. He had a mission."
Molina, whose recent movie credits include "Spider-Man 2," "The Da Vinci Code" and "The Hoax," has long been a fan of spy novels, graduating from the James Bond books he read as a teenager to the more morally ambiguous work of writers like John Le Carre and Eric Ambler. He says he loved the "paradox" inherent in those works -- "[the characters] were doing their job, their duty, but at the same time hating it. Those kinds of stories I always find fascinating."
That grayness also informs his character in "The Company," who talks about staying within the rules of the spy game, while men on both sides are planning and executing some pretty unsavory schemes.
"It was like a very complex, very dangerous, very intricate game of chess, but with enormous repercussions and enormous implications," Molina says. "... They operated intellectually on a very high level of deduction and intuition, but dealing with the nuts and bolts of people getting blown up, people dying.
"There was something incredibly elemental about it, and primal, as well as it being rather sophisticated. It operated on all kinds of levels, and I think it was no wonder that when the Cold War was over, there was a whole generation of men who I think probably missed it."
Alfred Molina stars in TNT's CIA miniseries
Alfred Molina in 'The Company'