'Feud' Star Talks Surprising Bette-Joan Love Triangle

Alfred Molina also discusses leaked gossip and Robert Aldrich's "tense" relationship with Jack Warner.
Suzanne Tenner/FX

[This story contains spoilers from the second episode of Feud, "The Other Woman."]

Heading into Ryan Murphy’s FX anthology series Feud: Bette and Joan, it’s easy to feel sympathy for the two leading ladies, Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon). They were, after all, caught up in a love-hate relationship with Hollywood and a system that cast aside women of a certain age.

But following the second episode, “The Other Woman,” viewers will inevitably feel for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), too. Although the episode revealed his own part in Crawford's and Davis’ feud — he leaked gossip to Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) at the request of studio head Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) — it didn’t exactly make his life as a director any easier.

As Aldrich navigated a disintegrating marriage, two leading ladies with big personalities and the demands of the aforementioned studio head, he also managed to reject Crawford’s sexual advances while getting closer to Davis through private rehearsals. It all culminated in Davis and Aldrich giving into their romantic tension behind-the-scenes as Davis worried she was making a fool of herself with the role and had grown into an old hag.

THR caught up with Molina to discuss his portrayal of the underrated director, crafting the role alongside Sarandon and Lange, and his original experience with the movie that kicked off this whole feud in the first place.     

Were you familiar with Robert Aldrich’s work before the series?

I was a little familiar, I’ve seen a few of his movies over the years obviously. Oddly enough I was quite a fan of a movie he’d made quite late in his career. In England, it came out under the title Mean Machine, but over here it was called The Longest Yard, with Burt Reynolds and Bernadette Peters. I remember loving that movie. And I’d seen Dirty Dozen and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and a few of his movies. But I’d never studied him as a filmmaker until I got cast as him in Feud. Then I went crazy. I read two books that were published on his films and a collection of all the interviews that he’d given over the years of his movies. It was interesting to read, as the years progressed, how he changed his mind about certain films and what he thought of them. I realized very quickly that this was a director that covered every genre. He made horror movies, westerns, situation comedies, dramas, actions films. He covered every genre and is very much regarded as one of those directors that could turn his hand to almost anything. That has its pluses and minuses; it was a big testament to him as a technician but it also meant that as far as the industry was concerned, he was never taken quite as seriously as an artist as many of his contemporaries were. That must have affected him somewhat.

How did you prepare physically for a role like this, given that he wasn’t as prevalent onscreen as someone like Joan Crawford of Bette Davis would have been in real life?

I looked at a lot of photographs of Robert and it was clear from the way he stood and held himself he was a big guy, but he belonged to an era when big guys didn’t apologize for being big guys. Men who were large didn’t spend all their time thinking they had to go on a diet, that was just what they were. So there’s a kind of confidence in the way he held himself so I tried to get a sense of that. I couldn’t find any footage of him working, but I did find an interview much later on a chat show on the days where people smoked and drank and didn’t care, and he was very much a man of his time. Being a director, he expected people to jump when he said jump, but that was very typical at the time of men then, certainly men in show business. So I tried to embody that as much as I could.

How did you navigate your onscreen relationships with Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon and what kinds of conversations did you have about this sort of triangle?

We talked about how to play the scenes as they were laid out in the script. The worst thing you can do in that situation is to show up with any kind of attitude about how it’s supposed to be. We looked at the scenes and tried to play them as required. There were scenes when it was clear that both Joan and Bette were using their femininity to influence him in some way, and like any man, he wasn’t immune to that. From what I could gather in my research, he was an enthusiastically heterosexual man, so there’s little doubt in my mind that he probably responded the way they’d hoped he would. But throughout the story and throughout his career as a filmmaker, it’s clear that his focus was always on the movie. That was his priority always. He sacrificed a marriage for it and he certainly sacrificed a lot of relationships. He was very single-minded in what he did; he made films and that was his overlying priority. I hope we made that clear — he was willing to do almost anything in order to make the movie.

Do you believe that’s why he sleeps with Davis in this episode?

There’s no real way of knowing what the real motivation was, but I suspect it was a combination of things: the movie, wanting to keep his leading lady happy and basic attraction. They were clearly attracted to each other, and all the research we did led us to believe it happened. So we felt it was valid as part of the story.

What do you historically know about his relationship with Jack Warner that resonated in episode two?

The relationship was certainly tense. There was mutual disrespect. But at the same time, both of them were smart and canny enough to know there was something worthwhile in each other. Jack knew that given the right material, Robert could make a great movie and make money. And Robert was smart enough to understand that, however much he disliked Jack’s methods or personality, as head of the studio given the system that existed at the time he was the gatekeeper. In that respect their relationship was probably very honest. They didn’t pretend to like each other, they didn’t pretend to be friends, but they were smart enough to understand that this was a symbiotic relationship. This was before the modern trend of everyone being all loving and sweet and caring about other people’s feelings. Now we’re careful not to say the wrong thing about each other when it comes to fellow professionals. But in those days things weren’t so circumspect, hence all these rivalries and feuds that went on. People weren’t as discreet, and they were able to be because they weren’t working under this microscope that we all are now with social media and so on. It was a different era. But that relationship was one of mutual need and understanding.

Do you think Aldrich really did feel conflicted about pitting these women against each other or is that something you need to play in the dramatized version to create sympathy?

He was conflicted because he’d been friends with both of them at different times of his life. His conflict was genuine; he believed he could make this movie without exploiting their rivalry and distrust of each other but he was forced into a corner. But he did it. He could have — had he been a bit purer — refused to do it but he didn’t. He needed to get the movie made and that was his priority. I don’t think he was happy about it, he tried to make amends in later years by working with them again, but I think he was very conflicted.

What was your original experience with Baby Jane?

I must have been in my teens when I first saw the movie on TV back in the U.K. I remember really enjoying it and not really knowing who these women were. I had heard of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, but I hadn’t seen many of their movies. I remember liking it, which surprised me because I’ve never been a big fan of the horror genre; it’s never been something that’s attracted me. But it’s a terrific piece of work with some fantastic camera angles in it. The performances are fantastic. Joan is heartbreaking — that scene when she’s watching one of her own movies, the heartbreak on her face is so fantastic. I saw it again knowing I was going to play Robert and watched it critically, examining every angle, trying to imagine myself making it, as it were, trying to get into his artistic head.

Feud: Bette and Joan airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on FX. Thoughts? Sound off in the comments below. Click here to read our interview with Feud creator Ryan Murphy about Sunday's episode.

Twitter: @amber_dowling