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.
From the Print Edition:
Alec Baldwin, May/June 2004
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Baldwin, dressed casually in a black turtleneck, black jeans and a black leather jacket, sits comfortably in an oversized red velvet chair at New York's Grand Havana Room. He looks out over the glittering lights of the Manhattan skyline and guffaws with delight after repeating that last line. "I would love to give that line as a newly minted Oscar winner," he says.
That Baldwin can even use the word Oscar in a sentence about himself is a simple testament to a career that has been unexpectedly resurrected. He felt revived in mid-February as he readied himself for a trip to Hollywood to await the verdict of the academy for Best Supporting Actor. Although he didn't get an Oscar statuette for his work in The Cooler, a small-budget but critically acclaimed independent film co-starring William H. Macy and Maria Bello, the recognition of his acting performance is more than enough to help restore Baldwin's reputation, and maybe his movie career.
The heady recognition is a far cry from the territory Baldwin has occupied for the past six or seven years, a professional landscape of cable TV miniseries (Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial, Path to War), obscure independent films (State and Main, Outside Providence) and stage plays. In the midst of his languishing career, he also endured the dissolution of his nine-year marriage to actress Kim Basinger, a painful and often public spectacle that fueled a tabloid frenzy about him and his life. The experience apparently has left him a quieter man, less prone to outbursts that tarnished his reputation earlier in his career. Although Baldwin projects the aura of a man who has been battered and slowed and, in his words, humbled, he is definitely not beaten.
"You can go for a whole year and then one day you wake up and go, 'I'm dead', It's like The Sixth Sense. I see dead people. I'm dead and I don't even know it. You go back to try to figure out, 'What date did I die?' You realize you're just not there anymore. You don't have it anymore. You don't even have the opportunities anymore," Baldwin says, puffing on a Punch Double Corona. "The really painful thing was what my agent said to me: 'You think that people don't like you and they don't want to work with you, or that they don't appreciate you. It's not that they don't like you or appreciate you—they don't think of you at all.' All you can do is say, oh God, and go off and do TV, independent films, Broadway.
"But you know, I don't have any fear about it anymore," Baldwin says, comparing his dark period to the days when the spotlight shone brightly on him in the early 1990s. "I was riding the wave, and people were talking about a movie career for me," he says. The decline, in his mind, is easily explainable. He traces its origins to the decision in 1992 not to reprise his role as CIA analyst Jack Ryan from The Hunt for Red October, the hit 1990 film based on the popular Tom Clancy novel. Rumor has it that he had a dispute with Paramount Pictures over money and script changes. The studio recast the role with Harrison Ford as Ryan in the film's two hit sequels, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger.
"A lot of people treated me like I had a weird disease after that…the "He Doesn't Get It" disease. They wanted me to come and be a part of that experience and do what they told me to do. There's a big part of me that wishes I had done that, that I had done it their way. I didn't know better…. Then in the mid-1990s, I wasn't asked to do those films anymore. It takes a while to get used to that," he says. "But you learn that you only have so many coupons, and if you don't sell tickets, you're out." That epiphany has led him to a carefully protective rationalization, which he describes as "whatever happens for me in movies, happens."
Redemption arrived in an unlikely package in 2003. With a $3.2 million budget, The Cooler, written and directed by Hollywood newcomer Wayne Kramer, presented itself mostly as another opportunity for Baldwin to work with one of his favorite actors, William H. Macy. The duo previously teamed up in 1996's Ghosts of Mississippi and 2000's State and Main. "I read Wayne's script, and I liked it a lot," Baldwin says. "I met him [Kramer] and…he obviously had the writing talent. So I took the chance. And it paid off." His character, old-guard casino executive Shelly Kaplow, projects a suave nastiness, with a constant undertone of potential violence wrapped in sharkskin glitter and a pinkie ring. It was a difficult role partly because the character lacks sympathy, and it required a tough guy persona at a time when Baldwin's personal life was in shambles.
But the modest scale of the movie didn't matter to Baldwin. "I look at all movies, and I've borrowed this line from David Mamet: 'They are all orphan children when I write them.' As an actor I'm in the same boat. They are all orphaned children. There's a movie when it's done, and I say to the director, I wish you well. I hope it goes the way you want it to. I shoot [The Cooler] and I never, never—it's my nature, kind of pathetic maybe—but I never had an inkling of it doing it for me, or me gaining anything from it," Baldwin says.
In contrast, and as an example of how he has matured as a Hollywood actor, Baldwin recalls Prelude to a Kiss, the 1992 romantic fable with Meg Ryan. He had first played the film's protagonist, Peter Hoskins, at New York's Circle Repertory and then on Broadway in 1990, and watched a feeding frenzy of potential movie producers, including Steven Spielberg and Quincy Jones, flock to New York to see the play and start a bidding war for the rights. ("Someone joked that the MGM Grand flight from Los Angeles to New York would fly and half the people on board were coming to see the play.") He describes the film as "one of the best experiences I ever had creatively in my life."
When Prelude to a Kiss wrapped in April 1991, Baldwin remembers asking the producer when the film was scheduled for release. He recalls the date was in December to put it in contention for the Oscars. "'Great,' I said, and without a molecule of irony, I went on to predict that 'we are going to win everything: best picture, best director, best screenplay, best actor. This is the most beautiful piece I've ever worked on.' The movie was released instead the following July and it sank like a stone. It did no business. It was a fucking disaster. Ever since that day, I've never thought about what a movie can do for me."
Don't take Baldwin's cynical reticence the wrong way, however. He is thrilled to have been recognized with a Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Cooler, and grateful, too. "Well, it's better this way than the other way. I'd rather have people like what I do and be unafraid to say so," Baldwin says. But he also can't help exposing his disbelief about Lady Luck's unlikely spotlight on him. "I mean I did it, and it was over. I loved Maria [Bello] and I loved William [Macy]. But it was fast. It was over and I left. Then you get a phone call, and it's like a slow-burning fuse. They say, you're in the Sundance Film Festival. Then they say, you're in Toronto, and in the Hamptons Film Festival, and then the Berlin Film Festival, and then, you won the National Board of Review, and you're going to be nominated for a Golden Globe." There's a pause in Baldwin's rapid-fire patter. His eyes brighten, he waves his hands, and almost shouts, "You go, how can that be? Don't they know it's me?"
He's proud of the movie and of all the obstacles it overcame. "[Kramer] made a lot out of nothing, $3.2 million," Baldwin says. "I defy anyone to tell me that movie looked like it cost $3.2 million." He credits Kramer's skill as a director for using time efficiently and for capitalizing on some lucky breaks, such as being given free run of a casino in Reno while it was undergoing renovations. And he praises the film's director of cinematography, Jim Whitaker. "He shot the shit out of it." Baldwin continues. "It's fate. You come together, and while you know this about independent films, you don't want to say it. There is no margin for error. The unstated thing is you know you could do your job perfectly. Everyone could do it perfectly, and the movie would still be mediocre. You don't have the money to buff it up and polish it. In fact, you probably know there's not enough money to make the movie you promised yourself you were going to make. But you do it. Sometimes you do one, and it's a really good movie. The Cooler is a really good movie."
Baldwin extols the virtues of other films from his filmography. One of his favorite roles was Robert Green in the action picture The Edge, with Anthony Hopkins. "When I worked with Tony, it was he and I throughout, and he's one of my favorite movie actors alive," Baldwin says. "It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I'm an unabashed fan."
Glengarry Glen Ross, the classic film about ruthless real estate agents in a game to succeed at any cost, is another favorite because Baldwin "loved working with those guys." "Those guys" included Kevin Spacey, Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Jonathan Pryce and Ed Harris.
Rob Reiner's Ghosts of Mississippi, about the quest for justice in civil rights leader Medgar Evers, 30-year-old murder, was another powerful experience, Baldwin says, because of Reiner's skill with the actors. "He was brave. He would walk right up to you and say, 'I need you to do it and do it this way.' He was very commanding. I need that. And I loved that," Baldwin says. He had been riveted by the story because he believes that all actors dream about doing a great "social drama."
"I was disappointed when the movie did not do well," Baldwin says. He added that Evers, wife, Myrlie, pulled her support from the film before it was released and "ran for the hills and left us hanging…but I'm proud of the movie."
Alexander Rae Baldwin III was born on April 3, 1958, in the Long Island community of Massapequa, New York, the second of six children. His father, Alec, was a local history teacher and football coach; his mother, Carol, was a homemaker. A close-knit group, the Baldwins often did things together as a family. But as the years went by, Carol Baldwin began to show signs of weariness, which is understandable, Baldwin says, "because it must have begun to sink in that she had six kids, and she had a lot on her plate. She just seemed overwhelmed." His mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1990. She started the Carol M. Baldwin Breast Cancer Research Fund Inc.' and has been very active raising money for the organization. "She is one of those people who have had a second act in life," Baldwin says, "And, in the smaller world she operates in, she has been very successful. I'm very proud of her."
The memory of his father, who passed away in 1983, still haunts him. "He died so young, and it was so wrong to me and so unfair. He was 55 years old. He had broken his back for everybody. He had six kids and no money. He was a good guy. When he died, the whole town came out to his wake and his funeral," Baldwin says. "I used to ride the Long Island Railroad, and guys would come up to me and ask, 'How's your dad? He was my teacher.' And I,ll tell them he had died, and some literally burst out sobbing on the train." In one important way, he remains attached to his childhood roots and the memory of his father: he has a house in the Long Island hamlet of Amagansett, one of the tony weekend retreats for New York City's elite.
Baldwin also remains close to his three brothers, William, Stephen and Daniel. In an anomaly not often seen in any industry or career, all of Baldwin's male siblings have become actors. His two sisters, Beth and Jane, followed different career trajectories. "Oh, in my family, familiarity does breed contempt," he says wryly. "It's like, 'if Bozo can get on TV, we can get on television.' They watched me do it and then one by one they started doing it." But Baldwin is quick to add that his brothers have made it on their own efforts and talents. "[You] could be the most famous actor in the world, and that may open some doors for your brothers," Baldwin says, "but I'm a firm believer it doesn't get you the job." He acknowledges that while he has had the most successful acting career of the Baldwin brood, all of his brothers are involved in some aspect of the film or television business.
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."
Baldwin says he has had a lot of good and bad experiences during his career. "I have some movies that were less than wonderful," Baldwin said. "But those you tend not to remember. The ones that weren't any fun, I've forgotten them already."
Baldwin thinks the dynamics of an acting career have changed in the last 25 years, and he divides Hollywood stars into two categories: pre-1980 and post-1980. He argues that before 1980, the only way for people to experience an actor's performance was by going to a movie theater or a playhouse. "Now you have DVDs, VHS, Pay-Per-View, and HBO and "Entertainment Tonight," and actors and their personalities and their essence are stuck up the ass of the American public like a suppository all day long," Baldwin says. "It's a different ball game. And I find it kind of harrowing that some people will have these combustible careers for like three years and then burn out. They are stars and then they are gone.
"To have a career that lasts 20, 25 years has become increasingly difficult. But that's what I want to do. I want to work in films and television and then come back and do [things like Twentieth Century]. I love doing this. It's the ultimate lifestyle."
The often-criticized actor still has high praise for some of his post-1980 acting peers who've become stars while remaining dedicated, serious actors: Academy Award winners Kevin Spacey, Sean Penn ("a lot of A-listers would love to have his weight as an actor") and Gwyneth Paltrow. He also says his "enervating second-guessing" has given him a different attitude about some actors who've done it right, like Tom Cruise. "I look at Tom Cruise, and he is a fucking genius. He's like Tiger Woods for me. He hits the ball, he knows what to do and he knows how to play it…. When he did Magnolia, I thought to myself, 'Oh my God, look at him.' He was wild. He was great. Tom is a good actor. But he knows that's not always what's called for," Baldwin says. "He's worked very hard for his audience, rewarding that audience and pleasing that audience. It's the overwhelming part of what he does. Other actors have tried to mix it up, but it doesn't work. They go back to what works, which I understand."
He also recognizes that the days of megastardom may be past for him, even with the success of The Cooler. "There are some different kinds of phone calls coming in now," Baldwin says. "But in the end, I say to myself, it's never going to be the same. I had to make a choice, or I perceived that I had to make a choice, and I said to myself that I had to make a choice between [whether] I wanted to be an actor or a movie star. It sounds corny, and I'm gagging hearing myself say it…this is nothing against action stars, and leading men of that ilk, guys who star in spectacles.
"After all, we're in an age when the studios are going for films that reach a big demographic, that are going to sell a lot of tickets. They make snack food. They are like McDonald's, and they make French fries," Baldwin says. "And that's OK…but I look into that world and I don't see a table reserved for me anymore. I'm going to come and go and come and go, but I won't be a permanent resident. I'm not going to get tenure in the movie industry anymore."
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