Talking to John Lithgow and Alfred Molina is like stepping into the middle of an old Monty Python sketch, with just the right touch of literate loopiness.
The scene: A suite at the Four Season Hotel on a seasonably warm afternoon; the two gathered to chat about their romantic drama "Love Is Strange," opening Friday, in which they play a gay couple who marry after being together for 39 years.
Lithgow's gray beard was in full bloom for his role in the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park production of "King Lear," which opened in Central Park a few weeks ago. Molina — whom Lithgow calls Fred — had come from the set of his new TV series, "Matador," for Robert Rodriguez's El Rey network.
Let the silliness began.
"How are you, Mr. Lear?" asked Molina.
"I'm good," said Lithgow.
"I am far too young to play Lear," cracked Molina. "I was in Donald Sinden's 'Lear' at the Royal Shakespeare Company. I played a character that didn't even have a name. I had to say, 'If it be man's work, I'll do it.' It was very important because 'King Lear' is all about the guy who brings the cart on before the battle scene."
They both erupted into loud laughter until a beep from Lithgow's cellphone interrupted them:
Molina: "I think it's telling you it's time for your pills."
Lithgow: "No, it's saying it's time for Fred to talk."
Molina: "I went for the cheap gag. I am going to get something like that on my phone."
"Love Is Strange" director and co-writer Ira Sachs confirms what is clear from the conversation. "I think they have really grown into dear friends — they were fond friends and now they are dear friends. I think they fell in love. They have gone through a lot of the same experiences, having been in the business and caring about the same things. They share values."
They share something else — an extravagant acting style. Lithgow and Molina both describe themselves — unapologetically — as "hambones."
"Let's face it, both John and I, in our separate ways, are fond of a little bit of scenery chewing," quipped 61-year-old British actor Molina ("Spider-Man 2"), who is a three-time Tony nominee ("Art," "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Red") and is nominated for an Emmy Award this year for "The Normal Heart."
But the two tone down the histrionics in "Love Is Strange." Instead, they bring a sweetness and simplicity to this delicate love story about artist Ben (Lithgow) and music teacher George (Molina), who take advantage of New York's new marriage laws and tie the knot.
But the Catholic school where George teaches doesn't approve of gay marriage and reluctantly fires him. To make matters worse, the couple must sell their apartment and are forced to split up until they can find a new home.
George ends up with friends, two hard-partying gay cops who live in their building, while Ben goes to live with his nephew and his wife, where he must share a bunk bed with their surly teenage son.
The separation is painfully difficult for them both. At one point, they reunite in the nephew's apartment, embrace and begin to cry.
"The most touching thing about Ben and George's relationship is they can't do without each other," said Lithgow, 68, who has earned Oscar nominations for 1982's "The World According to Garp" and 1983's "Terms of Endearment" and is an Emmy ("Dexter," "3rd Rock From the Sun") and Tony Award winner ("The Changing Room," "Sweet Smell of Success").
Sachs ("Keep the Lights On"), who co-wrote the film with Mauricio Zacharias, didn't have any rehearsals before production began in New York last year, which was initially difficult for his stars.
"We are theater actors, and we love to rehearse," said Lithgow. "Ira's most frequently uttered direction was 'no acting now,' which got under our skin at first."
"Mostly, what I have is conversations with them individually," said Sachs. "It creates a very spontaneous atmosphere. Our rehearsal for the three of us is we went out to dinner at a steak house in L.A. and talked about life."
"Eventually, we began to absorb this and work in Ira's mode," said Lithgow. "I swear to God, you can see it up on the screen. I have never seen myself work with such simplicity and honesty."
"Me neither," joked Molina.
The conversation turned more serious as they began talking about Ben and George and their own relationships.
Lithgow has been married to UCLA history professor Mary Yeager since 1981 and Molina to actress Jill Gascoine since 1985.
"Our long marriages were our strong reference points for playing this relationship," said Lithgow. "I think there are certain things that long relationships have in common — just shared history, ups and downs."
Lithgow remembered a conversation he had several years ago with a friend, actor René Auberjonois, about his enduring marriage and asking him, "'How have you made it this long?' He said if you have been married for 35 years, that means you have had seven marriages, because marriage is different decade by decade."
Sachs too related to the characters and their situation, particularly as it involved gay characters comfortable with their identity.
"I came out at 16, though I really didn't come out until I was 40 in a sense of being who I am in a public way," noted Sachs. "I think what is so nice about the characters Ben and George is that they are two men who know and like themselves. I think that is really central to the health and the joy of their relationship."
Molina relished that the film focuses on men "who are really in the autumn of their years." Though there have been films that have dealt with long-term gay partnerships, including the 1978 French classic "La Cage aux Folles" and the 1996 remake "The Birdcage," most films about "same-sex relationships — it is invariably young men or young women at the beginning of their lives together," Molina noted.
A few weeks before filming began, Sachs texted Lithgow and Molina a video he had shot of an elderly gay couple walking down the street in Greenwich Village. And that video inspired the sequence in which Ben and George are rushing down a street in New York trying to find a cab so they can get to their wedding on time.
It's an intimate moment between the two, even though they never touch.
"It tells you that these guys who have lived the last 40 years of gay history don't hold hands as they walk down the street," said Lithgow. "They are so accustomed to pretending not to be gay or at least choosing not to show off the fact."
Molina doesn't see "Love Is Strange" as a film about a gay marriage but rather the "effect on a marriage of this kind of perfect storm of bad luck and ill fortune, which could happen to anyone."