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Last of the Line

Stephen Baldwin, the youngest of Hollywood's four Baldwin Brothers, takes cigars seriously, not acting.
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Sylvester Stallone, Mar/Apr 98

Resembling a hip-hopping teenager in ultra-baggy blue jeans and a torso-hugging polo shirt, his head crowned with spiky straw-colored hair, Stephen Baldwin turns a key and pops the lock with barely contained gusto. Eager to see his swag, he smiles broadly, accentuating high-definition cheek bones while cracking open the small door as if it secures a safety deposit box. Baldwin's eyes, blue as a Siberian Husky's, practically sparkle when he steps back and surveys a treasure trove of Cuban cigars. Boxes marked with the logos for Partagas, Cohiba and Montecristo compete for space in the small humidified locker that he keeps at the Grand Havana Room's New York City outpost.

Baldwin selects a pair of Montecristo No. 3s, passes them under his nose and sniffs appreciatively. Next out of the box is a Fuente Hemingway, which he sticks in my shirt pocket as a gift. Fresh from the Toronto set of One Tough Cop, he's managed to horde an impressive cache of smokes. "I've been enjoying cigars pretty solidly for the last three years--I even had a humidor on the set of the movie--but I really don't smoke all that often," maintains Baldwin, leading the way through a nearly empty post-lunch Grand Havana, with its sky-high view of Manhattan and tobacco-colored club chairs. "I'm just as interested in collecting them as smoking them. I give a lot of cigars away." He gestures back toward the humidor room. "What you just saw in my locker? I'll give more than half of those away."

Baldwin has become so interested in cigars that he recently partnered with businessman Anthony Martino in a Tucson cigar shop called Anthony's Cigar Emporium. They will soon open a second Tucson store, and are considering a venture in a cigar-friendly New York hotel.

Sitting down for a mid-afternoon booster rocket of Coca-Cola and double espresso--Baldwin stopped drinking liquor years ago, but he's still very much into caffeine--the actor recalls a dinner he attended the previous night with Harrison Ford. The story he tells would sound like shameless name-dropping, were Baldwin not so clearly tickled by the notion of breaking bread with a role model for nearly every young actor who's recently graced the silver screen. The degree to which Baldwin was bowled over by their meeting becomes evident in what seems to be his inability to refer to Ford solely by his first name. "I was pleasantly surprised that Harrison Ford was so funny," Baldwin says, gently coaxing a flame onto the tip of his Monte.

Baldwin enjoys his work, he has fun with it, he accepts roles on projects solely because they interest him as a fan. The way Baldwin tells it, his decisions to take on movie roles often revolve around his desire to work with an admired actor already committed to the project or with a director whom he greatly respects.

Sometimes this rather idiosyncratic method of selection leads to gold. Such was the case when Baldwin signed on to play a short-fused con man in The Usual Suspects. "I read the script and knew it had the potential to be great," he says, accenting the word "potential" because he has learned that many things can go wrong between final script and final cut. "But I had a much better indication when I was there on the set and Kevin Spacey came limping in and Benicio Del Toro was talking with a crazy stutter," he says. "I knew that the movie would be something that was very different. And as a result of The Usual Suspects, I think that Hollywood's perception of what I can do has changed. After the release of that movie, I had a meeting with Jerry Bruckheimer [producer of Crimson Tide, The Rock and Con Air]. He told me that I had done good work and that now it was time to make the right choices in terms of the characters I play and the movies I get involved with."

Coming from such a commercially successful producer, this advice is particularly poignant in light of Baldwin's stunning disregard for whether or not the critics like his movies. "I don't care what reviewers think," he says flatly. "If somebody hates a performance of mine, I kind of get a kick out of it. It amuses me when critics take something so irrelevant as a movie so seriously. Movies are silly. They're entertainment. For someone to take time out of his own life and sit down and dissect a movie..." Baldwin's voice trails off, then he adds, "What's the point?"

Although Baldwin has shined in films such as The Usual Suspects, 8 Seconds and Threesome, he's also appeared in enough clunkers--1995's Fall Time with Mickey Rourke and 1996's Fled with Laurence Fishburne and Bio-Dome with Pauly Shore--to make the above sentiment sound a bit too convenient. Even his big brother, Alec, responded with incredulity upon hearing about the Shore project. "I called Alec up and said, 'I'm going to do a comedy with Pauly Shore where we play two stoners trapped in a biosphere,' " Baldwin recounts. "My brother replied, 'I think that is the single most career-ending decision you can possibly make.'"

While the film hardly ended Baldwin's career--and went on to finish in the black--it clearly does sound like an oddball project for an actor who is not desperate for a payday. Baldwin defends his decision to play stupid onscreen: "I thought Bio-Dome was pretty cool. I had fun making it and I'm a huge Pauly Shore fan. I'd go to his movies and be on the floor of the aisle, convulsing with laughter. And in the meantime my wife would sit in her chair, saying, 'Honey, what's wrong with him?' She just didn't get it. But Bio-Dome was whack. Now I get all these seven- and 12-year-old kids coming up to me on the street, saying, 'Yo, dude! You rule.' That was what I wanted, for those guys to dig me."

Baldwin interrupts his comments to take a couple of calls on his constantly ringing cellular telephone, stomping off to engage in an argument about some wrinkle in the scheduling between a meeting in New York and another in Los Angeles, before returning to his seat and turning his phone off. Puffing hard on his Montecristo, Baldwin says that the issue has been resolved and he can now relax. "Lovely," he sighs, exhaling a plume of smoke and stretching out his limbs to reveal biceps that look like the business ends of twin baseball bats. "I am happy now."

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