The name Alfred Molina isn't exactly synonymous with charisma.
For three decades - in productions that range from the elegant Enchanted April to the bombastic Boogie Nights - the 51-year-old British actor has earned a reputation for performances that are inventive, intelligent and sometimes larger-than-life.
But charisma? Not so much.
"I belong to a very honorable tradition, and I'm very proud of it," said Molina. "The character actor tradition."
That's why some movie mavens were puzzled by his being cast as Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2, which opened last week. Those comic-book villains, after all, are usually as alluring in their wicked way as the superheroes are in their meritorious manner.
Wouldn't someone like Molina, whom critic Leonard Maltin has described as "ungainly-looking," be more appropriately cast as, say, an arch-villain's less-scintillating toady?
The answer, in this case, is no way! Molina's negative energy turns out to be just right for this particular super-villain, who wears fairly ordinary clothing and sometimes even hides his eyes behind sunglasses.
"Doc Ock doesn't snarl," said the actor, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. "He's not one of those mustachio-twirling villains with an arched eyebrow and some sort of weird, exotic foreign accent."
There is, adds Molina, something "almost businesslike" about the evil character. As director Sam Raimi has noted, he starts out as a "misunderstood man," scientist Otto Octavius, and turns into a "beast" after a lab accident fuses four metallic tentacles to his body.
Those tentacles - the powerful artificial limbs that circle him as if they had minds of their own - are the main reason that Doctor Octopus doesn't come off as drab. In a sense, the tentacles are the charismatic villain, and Doc Ock is their assistant.
Molina, of course, hasn't always had those tentacles to help him out.
Born in London to a Spanish father and an Italian mother, he read Spider-Man comics as a boy and, of course, identified with the hero. Meanwhile, he was keenly aware of his parents' foreign origins.
"It was quite a big factor of my life," he said. "I was always very conscious of coming from somewhere else, even though I was born in England."
Not surprisingly, the young misfit was bitten by the acting bug at an early age.
"All the geeks and nerds in my school, of which I was one - I think I was the chairman - we all ended up at the drama club," he recalls. "By the age of 9, I already had a very active and very satisfying fantasy life where I could be anybody I wanted to be."
Those early experiences led to drama school and then to a stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He entered the world of film with the small role of a guide in 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Since then, Molina has appeared in some four dozen films, often playing ethnic roles. He was a Cuban in The Perez Family, an Iranian in Not Without My Daughter and the Mexican artist Diego Rivera in Frida. On Broadway, he is currently Tevye, the Russian-Jewish dairyman, in Fiddler on the Roof.
Although Molina enjoys the challenge of these roles, he feels closer, in some ways, to the Hispanic ones.
"There's more connective tissue, in the sense that I speak a little bit of the language," he said. "Just the fact that I can go to Mexico City and order a meal."
The role of Doctor Octopus is, he said, a dramatic departure. That's one reason he grabbed it.
"It's just so different from anything else I've ever done before," he said. "The films I'm ordinarily associated with tend to be lower-budget, less mainstream." For Molina, appearing in Spider-Man 2, "the epitome of mainstream cinema, was a treat."
Understood. But is this unassuming "character actor" really ready for the sort of mega-stardom that often goes along with a big role in a blockbuster franchise?
"You know, I've been acting for 30 years," he reflects. "Part of me is saying: `It's about bleeding time!'"
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.