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Alfred Molina Wasn't Acting During His Queasy Indiana Jones Tarantula Scene

Nov 01, 2023

Reflecting on making "Raiders of the Lost Ark," Steven Spielberg was amazed his stunt team survived the shoot. Writing for the American Society of Cinematographers, he recalled how even Harrison Ford put himself in harm's way to bring the 1981 adventure classic to life, including when he outran a 300-pound fiberglass boulder as part of the now famous opening sequence. Spielberg summed it up with this brief admission: "Harrison had to race the rock 10 times. He won 10 times — and beat the odds. He was lucky — and I was an idiot for letting him try it."

Elsewhere on the high-risk production that was "Raiders," half the crew were struck with dysentery and Ford almost shattered his knee after his leg was run over by a plane wheel. But that opening scene, wherein Indiana Jones traverses the Temple of the Chachapoyan Warriors before stealing the Golden Idol and outrunning the boulder, not only remains one of the most culturally iconic moments in cinema, but one of the most thrilling action sequences of all time.

While the image of Indy claiming the Idol from its pedestal or fleeing the giant boulder might be the most memorable parts of the film's opening moments, it also happens to be a significant episode in Alfred Molina's career. The esteemed actor played Indy's Peruvian guide Satipo, who ultimately double-crosses Dr. Jones in order to try to claim the Golden Idol for himself. Much like Harrison Ford, it seems Molina also put himself in harm's way during his brief time on the film.

As Alfred Molina movies go, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is one of his smaller parts. In fact, it doesn't really count as an "Alfed Molina movie" except that the actor's brief screen time is much more memorable than it should be. After leading Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones to the temple and following him through the various booby traps, Molina's Satipo reveals his treacherous true nature, stealing the Golden Idol and leaving Indy for dead with a cruel "Adiós, señor." Unfortunately, he's very quickly impaled on a spear trap, putting an end to his villainous scheme and Molina's screen time. But perhaps simply by virtue of appearing in such an iconic Indy sequence, Satipo is fondly remembered by many an Indiana Jones fan.

For Molina, the role was similarly significant, primarily because this was the British actor's film debut and he would be working for Steven Spielberg who had, at the time, already become one of Hollywood's biggest directors following the success of 1975's "Jaws." Unfortunately, though Molina's part was small, it wouldn't be all that straightforward. Speaking on the "Never Not Funny" podcast, the actor recalled how, after he auditioned, Steven Spielberg asked him a quick question:

"As I'm leaving, as I'm literally in the door about to walk out of the suite, Steven says, 'Oh, Alfred, you don't have a thing about spiders, do you?' Because I was on my way out and I could see there were people coming in I didn't feel I could engage it or ask any questions [...] and I just went 'No.'"

Soon, Molina would discover why Spielberg had asked him that question, and why he probably should have asked a few of his own before agreeing to the part.

Born and raised in London's Notting Hill, Alfred Molina was used to playing characters of color early in his career due to his parents' Spanish and Italian heritage. And that would be no different with "Raiders," where he was asked to portray a Peruvian native. Yet, to display his unprecedented range and talent for character acting on-screen, Molina's first film role would therefore see him putting on a fake Spanish accent while guiding Indiana Jones to the location of the Golden Idol — and to think Molina saw Hollywood as an escape from typecasting. He'd also find out exactly what Spielberg was getting at with his ominous audition question.

Continuing his story on the "Never Not Funny" podcast, Molina explained how he was offered the job a week or so after his audition and would eventually find himself at the UK's Elstree studios, where "Raiders" was filming and where he'd encounter a guy walking around with compartmentalized perspex suitcases filled with straw. After shooting the escape scene, where Satipo steals the Idol and drops Indy's whip, Molina was told he would be "doing the spider sequence," and finally everything started to make sense. He said:

"I see the guy [with the suitcases again] and I put two and two together and underneath each tuft of straw there's this great big tarantula like fighting together [...] and then they started [putting the tarantula's on me] and this handler he's kind of going 'Don't worry Mr. Molina, they're perfectly safe, they're harmless, they only start acting up if you put a female amongst them.'"

You can probably guess where this is going...

As shooting for the "spider scene" started, Alfred Molina found himself covered in dozens of tarantulas. As the actor recalled, "There must have been about maybe 30 of them." When the cameras rolled, the creatures were sitting dead still, which Steven Spielberg evidently felt wasn't going to look all that scary on-screen. Molina continued:

"We start shooting and Steven says 'They look like they're asleep, can we get them to move around?' And the guys are spraying little air things at them to try to make them [move]. They're not moving. They're terrified. So this guy says 'Well, they'll only move if I put a female among them,' [so] Steven goes 'Well, do it.'"

After the handler put the female on Molina, the actor claimed the rest of the spiders went "nuts," adding, "You can see in the movie they're scrambling about everywhere one of them crawled up on in my face. And I was going 'Oh god,' and then as they're shooting I hear Steven shout out 'Alfred, look scared.'" Of course, Molina didn't have to tap into his character-acting talent in order to convey his fear at the moment, and everything wrapped up without injury in this instance.

Was there any danger to Molina? I'm no tarantula expert but a cursory online search appears to suggest you shouldn't put females and males together unless they're ready to mate simply because the female will try to eat the males. But presumably, Spielberg didn't know that, and in retrospect would likely view this as another aspect of "Raiders" and its slapdash production process that he probably should have taken a little more care over.