Last of the Line

Stephen Baldwin, the youngest of Hollywood's four Baldwin Brothers, takes cigars seriously, not acting.
| By Michael Kaplan | From 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."

The muscular bulk, explains the usually slender Baldwin, was put on for the role he plays in One Tough Cop, a film based on a true story of a New York City detective named Bo Dietl (profiled in the February 1998 issue of Cigar Aficionado). "I not only lifted weights every day for six weeks before we began shooting, but I actually chose to be a little chubbier," Baldwin says, resting one hand on his stomach, which actually looks pretty flat. "I wanted to look like one of those barrel-chested New York City cops who have the big arms so that they can choke you out." Perhaps because Baldwin was quite the carouser during his drinking days in New York, the question arises whether the choke hold is something that he knows about firsthand. "I've almost known about being choked out. But I'm the kind of guy who's smart enough to get a smack on the forearm and say to the cop, 'OK, I'll do what you tell me.' "

Despite his inherent aversion to violence--especially when it's directed at him--Baldwin's title role in One Tough Cop required a take-no-bullshit exterior. And that came with its own set of potential problems. "Bo Dietl's a pretty fearless guy who speaks his mind," says Baldwin, a believer in Method acting. "I tried to actually be him only about 50 percent of the time. If you play a guy who won't hesitate to punch somebody in the mouth and all of a sudden you find yourself feeling that impulse, well, let's just say that it can be a little risky."

In preparation for One Tough Cop, Baldwin and fellow brother-of-the-famous Chris Penn spent lots of time in the company of law enforcers and one another. They were in on at least one missing-persons case and used the time to develop a sense of synergy. "Chris Penn's a great guy," Baldwin says. "Somebody once asked me who would win a football game between the Baldwins and the Penns. I said that, unequivocally, the Baldwins would easily win. This got back to Chris and he said, 'That may be true, but the Penns would win the fight at the end of the game.' Now, I don't know about that, either." Baldwin hesitates for a beat, as if contemplating the logistics of a post-scrimmage imbroglio. "Chris could kick my ass, but I've got a big brother, too. Me and Billy would get Sean. My brother Dan would get Chris and we'd still have Alec."

Ironically, famous-family football sounds like the type of Hollywood schmoozing that Baldwin enjoys best. Unlike most of his contemporaries in Hollywood, he devotes as little time as possible to the West Coast--"I would never live in a state where the ground moves," he quips--and has spent the better part of his career living in Tucson, Arizona. At the time of the interview, he and his family were planning a move east to a Connecticut farmhouse.

Baldwin got his first taste of Tucson seven years ago, when he was on location for his TV show, "The Young Riders." He fell in love with the city, married (he and his wife, Kennya, met on a Manhattan bus when Baldwin was a struggling actor working in a pizza shop) and began his family there. The rural pace and picturesque setting suit Baldwin. Getting off on the vibe of a small town, he plays bogey golf whenever he can squeeze in the time, rides motorcycles and rebuilds old cars for fun (the current project is a 1965 Ford F100 big-window pickup truck).

Already in Baldwin's garage is an impressive fleet that includes a 1965 Mustang Fastback, a '68 Camaro, a '69 Firebird and a '68 Charger RT. "I like the Detroit muscle cars," he needlessly says. "They're so ballsy and they look cool when I drive around, doing the American Graffiti thing. But I have to tell you that I like high-performance vehicles as well. One of my favorite cars in the world is the one that my wife drives--a Volvo 850R sport wagon, the turbo. It looks like a station wagon but it moves like a rocket ship. So it's kind of cool to be Steve Baldwin at a red light in a station wagon, blowing some Porsche off the road."

This sounds like a metaphor for Baldwin's overview of Hollywood, a place and a state of mind that can be easily symbolized by the highest-end Porsche in any one of Wolfgang Puck's parking lots. Although his last name basically anoints him as automatic royalty in Tinseltown, Baldwin insists that the world of stardom is one in which he is not 100 percent comfortable. Conceding that it's convenient to be bumped up on the reservation sheet at Nobu, he maintains that star-studded events are not his milieu.

Baldwin's face creases a bit, making him look older than his 31 years, as he explains, "When I was younger I wanted to be in the loop and pimp around town with the big shots and supermodels and all that crap. These days, though, I'd rather ride my motorcycle during the day, then have my kid chase me around the living room with a broom when I get home. I don't feel the need to feed my ego the way I used to."

That didn't stop Baldwin from recently appearing on the E! channel mingling with a fairly star-studded crowd backstage at a U-2 concert. He didn't seem to mind the company one bit. "I enjoyed being backstage at U-2, waiting to meet [lead singer] Bono, because I admire Bono," he allows. "But there were all these supermodels and record company people back there, with all this energy about us being the elite, and I don't get that. I wasn't going out of my way to intermingle with all those people who were intermingling with each other. It just doesn't feel right to me. I guess there is a certain acceptance that you need in order to feel right in that crowd. There's a place in celebrities' egos where they have to be comfortable enough to feel that they have a right to be who they are and where they are. I just don't feel that way."

This is not to say, however, that Baldwin doesn't admire some of the most accomplished people in his profession. He mentions Sylvester Stallone ("A big stogie man"), Gary Oldman and Mel Gibson as actors with bodies of work that he aspires to.

"If there are any two people I admire tremendously, they're Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford," gushes Baldwin. "They've had enduring careers and they're regular Joes. I'll never forget being in the Grand Havana in Beverly Hills at 1:30 in the morning on Oscar night when Mel Gibson comes walking in with a statue in each hand. That picture is burned into my memory forever. He walks up to his locker, pulls out a box of Cohibas and starts handing them out."

The tenor of Baldwin's voice ratchets up a notch, showing his surprise. "Mel Gibson is giving me a Cohiba Robusto on the night that he won two Oscars!" he exclaims. "I have the cigar in a Baggie, thumbtacked to the wall of my locker in the Grand Havana. I have a note in there saying that on the night I win my Oscar, I will go to the Grand Havana in Beverly Hills and I am going to smoke that fucking cigar. Then I can say, 'Mel, I know how you feel.'"

Stephen is the youngest of the four Baldwin brothers. The talented brood was raised in the middle-class town of Massapequa, New York, where Stephen quickly established a reputation for being a gifted kid with an impressive singing voice. He won a state award for a cappella singing and considered pursuing a career as a vocalist before getting a clear grasp on the level of discipline that would be required.

Acting must have appeared easier, and it would be difficult to deny the destiny of his gene pool. Like most talented young actors, Baldwin bopped around Hollywood and appeared in small films that few people saw; then he landed bit parts in Last Exit to Brooklyn and Born on the Fourth of July before winning a role on the TV version of "The Young Riders." "That was the biggest and quickest exposure that I got early on," he says, adding that the show came at a point in his career when Alec was still serving as a father figure and doling out advice. "He told me, 'Shut up, know your lines, don't walk into the furniture.'"

However, while the two Baldwins relish spending time together, smoking cigars ("Alec," Stephen says, "calls them 'dogs'"), the paternal aspect of their relationship seems to be waning. "These days," the younger Baldwin continues, "I give him more advice than he gives me. Of course, he'd smack me if he heard me say that. But the reality is that about two years ago he was in a meeting and a producer said, 'So, I hear you're Stephen's brother.' That was a rude awakening for him."

Whatever the case, in talking to Stephen Baldwin, you get a strange feeling that he's somehow locked himself into a "kid brother" mode. Even though he is himself a family man with a wife and two daughters--Alaia, 5, and Hailey, who turned 1 in November--and loads of responsibility, he has long seemed weirdly hung up on remaining rebellious. But that may soon change. While continuing to embrace life with the unbridled joy of a teenager--evident in everything from his cutting-edge fashion sense to the thrill he gets from motorcycle riding and bungee jumping to the tattoos that cover a chunk of his body--he seems to think that it's about time to grow up.

In Hollywood, growing up means producing pictures. Though Baldwin has yet to get a project off the ground, he's working diligently at it. "Getting movies made is not as difficult as people think," Baldwin says, watching the afternoon get dusky over Manhattan through floor-to-ceiling windows that line a wall of the Grand Havana. Mentioning that he is working with a partner on acquiring interesting properties and that he already has his eye on a Salvador Dalí biography, he continues, "Making movies is easy. You get a script, you get a director, you raise the money, you make the movie."

Baldwin quickly shoots the kind of look that says he's half-joking, that he realizes the big difference between making a movie and making a good movie. "I am trying to position myself with a finance company in Los Angeles that will allow me to be the captain of the ship within the production scheme of things. I'll need to know that I will have a lot to say about the financial process. I've had a lot of experiences where the financial people involved are steering the ship, and usually they are people who have absolutely no idea how to make movies."

Clearly, it's a craft that Baldwin hopes to master. When considering his future in the industry, he acknowledges that a long-rumored western starring all four Baldwin brothers is still in the offing. Whatever comes up next for Stephen Baldwin, whether he sits in the producer's seat or occupies an actor's trailer, you can bet that he is one star who will not be going Hollywood in the narcissistic sense of the word.

After stating that he'd rather hang with the siblings of celebrities than with the celebrities themselves--"When you're a celebrity, what is there to talk about other than the fucking business or what your next gig is?"--Baldwin becomes a bit somber. "There is not a lot of reality to Hollywood; it's very superficial, very meaningless," he says. "I act in movies because I think I have a talent and a gift for making the believable from nothing. I do it because I can make people laugh and I have fun. Everything else that comes with it--except when I need a table at Nobu--I don't take it seriously." He enjoys a final draw on the waning Cuban. "I really don't."

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