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Back On Track

Alec Baldwin has emerged from every actor's nightmare—a career downturn and a nasty, public divorce—with the ultimate accolade, an Oscar nomination.
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Alec Baldwin, May/June 2004

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William (or Billy, as Alec calls him), who has appeared in hit films such as Flatliners and Backdraft, is overseeing a $50 million fund created by the state of New Jersey to bring film projects to the state. Baldwin says it was his brother's initiative that captured the state legislature's attention by pointing out that although many film industry employees live in New Jersey, they had to travel to New York or Canada for work. He says Billy has worked out a formula to get funding for films, which includes a $5 million cap on the expenses for an individual project, and that 50 percent of the shooting and 75 percent of post-production has to take place in the Garden State. "They all have to be low-risk ventures, but one of the first films they're making this summer, I'm in," Baldwin says.

He laughs and adds, "My brother Stephen is on ["Celebrity Mole"] eating bugs. I'm joking. But here's Billy making movies with $50 million and Stephen's on ["Celebrity Mole"]. They've all figured out that if you have this passion, then you find a way to keep working at it and there are multiple ways to do it…. They've had varying degrees of success, and they've struggled. But the thing you learn in this business as you go along for a time, is that it's up and down, up and down, it's all about how you handle things when you're down, and how you survive in the white water." He says, for instance, that his brother Daniel, who has appeared on the gritty television series "Homicide: Life on the Street," is now directing movies for cable television.

"I'm very close with all of [my brothers], and sometimes we do talk about what's going on in their careers and what choices they are making," Baldwin says. "And about once a year, somebody comes to us with ideas for projects that we might do together. I'd love to work with them.

"Stephen and I have tried to come up with a TV show several times, and Billy and I have tried to do it, too," Baldwin says. "If we could find something worthwhile, we'd do it. But I don't want to do a show with all three of us. It would seem hokey, and we won't want to do that."

Baldwin enrolled in George Washington University in 1976 and majored in political science, but in 1979 he gave up the dream of going to law school and entered New York University's drama department to study acting. He quit school and quickly segued into acting roles in New York City. In 1993, he returned to NYU to finish his course requirements and graduated in 1994.

His first acting jobs included a regular role on the daytime soap opera "The Doctors" and then several television series, including "Knots Landing." He made his Broadway debut in 1986 in Joe Orton's Loot, for which he won a Theatre World Award. He subsequently appeared on Broadway in Prelude to a Kiss, winning an Obie Award, and then played Stanley Kramer in A Streetcar Named Desire in 1992, receiving a Tony Award nomination for his performance. He managed to squeeze his Broadway aspirations between his movies, but it was his reflexive desire to do Streetcar that took him away from the Tom Clancy sequels. And Broadway gave him a touchstone to come back to when his movie career stalled.

He's not quick to label Broadway his first love. "I think you go for good material wherever you can get it," Baldwin says. "I'm in a position now where I say, Well, I'm doing what I'm doing for myself. If I earn one-fifth of what I used to earn, that's OK with me now. If I don't get the same kind of response from people who make movies, that's OK with me. You take the victories that you get, wherever they are."

Nonetheless, his early career is marked by his devotion to and his obsession with learning about the stage and the craft of acting. "Look, I arrived in New York in 1979, at the last gasp, the last whiff on stage for that generation of actors—Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Raul Julia—people for whom if you didn't pay your dues in the New York theater, you were nothing. Nothing. You weren't a complete actor." He describes standing offstage during the run of Loot, scrutinizing the performance of Joe Maher, who played Truscott in the Broadway production. "His gifts, his skills and his technique were like bullets in a gun. He would go out there every night and mow everybody down every night. His words and ideas and delivery and his grace and his wit: I would sit and say to myself consciously, 'That's what I want to be. I want to be able to do what he does,' because he would hold the audience in his hand like marbles."

Baldwin's passion for acting caught the eyes of some important people in the movie business. Two well-regarded casting agents, Jane Jenkins and Janet Hirshenson, had seen Baldwin on stage and cast him in She's Having A Baby with Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern. "Things just took off after that, because word gets around that you're good in supporting roles," Baldwin says. "So I banged off a lot of supporting roles." Five of them in a row, in fact. In a two-year period, he did Talk Radio, Married to the Mob, Working Girl, Beetlejuice and Miami Blues. After Miami Blues, he won the role in The Hunt for Red October, and his career took off.

It wasn't a choice that was predicated on a preference for film rather than Broadway. "I wanted to be a Broadway actor, and I wanted to do more of that," Baldwin says. "The material was so much better, or it's a different animal. But one is more literary, and the other is a more visual medium and you can do things without saying them. In the theater, the skill of the actors comes to the fore more and I found it more interesting."

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