It’s not unusual for a romance or relationship movie to culminate in a lavish wedding. But in Love is Strange, the plot is set in motion by a wedding — a gay marriage between Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), who are taking advantage of New York’s marriage-equity laws and tying the knot after being together for 39 years. Unfortunately, the Catholic school where George teaches does not approve and they reluctantly fire him, forcing the couple to split up and stay with friends while they sell their apartment and look for cheaper housing. George crashes with two gay police officers, while Ben, who’s a painter, bunks with his nephew’s family in Brooklyn. “These men have flaws and their relationship has flaws,” says Molina, “and the central event of the movie in a way reveals them.”
Directed by Ira Sachs (Keep the Lights On), Love is Strange is obviously about a gay marriage, but it’s really more about marriage, period. “The starring role in this film is a marriage, and that role is played by both people,” says Lithgow, who like Molina, has been married to the same woman for more than 30 years. “It’s not really a relationship about two gay men,” agrees Molina. “This is a movie about a relationship. It’s about what happens in a marriage, and that is a kind of universal theme that I think everybody can relate to.”
If anything, the two actors found the most unique aspect of their movie their characters’ ages. “You don’t see many films about a married couple of this age,” says Lithgow. “Certainly not any films that I can think of about an old gay couple of this age.”
“There is the occasional exception, like Beginners, which is a wonderful example,” says Molina. “But usually, it tends to be about younger people, particularly when it’s about a relationship.”
The two actors have been friends for years and their easy camaraderie instilled their characters with an old-couple familiarity. “At one point, the director had to separate us because we were sort of giggling in the way school boys giggle at a dirty joke, snickering away like idiots,” says Molina. “All of that became incredibly useful.”
Lithgow wasn’t aware of the frequency of such teacher-firings when he first accepted the role, and he was surprised to read headlines about such occurrences.”There were newspaper stories piling in every day of exactly this thing happening,” he says. “It’s no judgement on Catholic doctrine at all, but it does address the reality that even though the law has made great strides and marriage equality is this almost voguish thing right now, there is still a gigantic proportion of the population that is very uncomfortable with the idea.”
But according to the actors, Sachs didn’t set out to make a politically-charged movie. “Ira Sachs’ view of it was very cool,” says Molina. “Not dispassionate, but objective. The film doesn’t have any particular axe to grind. I used to describe it as a sort of bittersweet romance and that description seemed to satisfy until we started making it and I realized actually there’s so much more to it than that: the end of the story is one of great hope and optimism and the power of how love can transcend everything.”
Click below for an exclusive video clip from Love is Strange.
Love is Strange premieres at Sundance on Jan. 18. The festival runs Jan. 16-26.