Alec Baldwin calls a truce
The man who declared war on Hollywood saying that 'nothing is worse than the movie business' has finally made his peace with the film industry. As he prepares for the prestigious role of co-hosting the Oscars, John Hiscock finds out what changed for him. Alec Baldwin is sipping a cup of coffee and speaking slowly and deliberately, relishing the luxury of being able to do so. In his role as the shameless corporate TV executive Jack Donaghy in the hit American TV comedy series 30 Rock, he is required to adopt the show's rhythm of fast talking. When the cameras are not rolling he forces himself to revert to his normal speech pattern.
"A condition of the show is that we all have to talk very fast," he explains. "We figure it's funnier if it's paced that way so we all come to work and drink 10 cups of coffee first thing in the morning. My hair is falling out by the end of the season because I drink so much coffee. Look at me now, man. I'm addicted to coffee and I'm trying to deliberately speak slower to you now because I can. In my real life I'll be in a restaurant and I'll say, 'I'd like. To have. A Cobb salad. Please.' I speak slowly because at work I can't."
Our interview takes place in New York, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Central Park, just a short walk from the flat Baldwin uses when working on 30 Rock (he also owns a farmhouse in the Hamptons). He's clearly in good spirits, pausing on our way to the hotel to pat a passing dog and chat to its owner, then posing for photographs with a pair of Russian tourists. It's something the old Alec Baldwin would probably never have done. In the past his sometimes belligerent attitude and outspoken comments about the film industry ("Nothing is worse than the movie business") caused problems in his personal life and led to him to be passed over for leading roles and banished to supporting parts in films that were too often not worthy of his talents.
But now, at the age of 51, both the passage of time and 30 Rock have given him a more upbeat outlook and a new lease of professional life. In fact, it seems as if everything has finally come together for Alec Baldwin. He's won four Screen Actors Guild awards, two Golden Globes and two Emmy awards for 30 Rock, and has also received the ultimate accolade in Hollywood - he has been chosen to co-host this year's Oscars ceremony with Steve Martin, his co-star in the new romantic comedy It's Complicated.
"I'm going to host the show that recognises the highest achievements in moviemaking in the industry," he says with a satisfied chuckle, reflecting on the irony of this. Choosing his words carefully, he adds, "The moviemaking business is a system and sometimes it doesn't do what you want it to do and some people complain about that louder than others, but I would say that I've definitely made my peace with Hollywood.
"It's going to be the greatest Oscar broadcast in the history of the motion picture business," he says with a wide grin. "That's what we're setting out to do - the most exciting, dignified, important, fantastic Oscar broadcast ever achieved." Baldwin is a big man with a commanding presence and a deep, gravelly voice. Volatile and unpredictable, he can also be charming and very funny. He exudes the same masculine confidence he brings to Jack Donaghy and to Jake, his character in It's Complicated, a romantic comedy in which a fifty-something divorced couple, Jake and Jane (Meryl Streep), rekindle their relationship, despite the fact that Jake has since remarried. The situation is made even more complex when Jane starts dating Adam (Steve Martin).
Written and directed by Nancy Meyers, whose previous films include What Women Want and Something's Gotta Give, it's occasionally funny in its depiction of an extramarital affair between two fifty-somethings, but much of the dialogue doesn't ring true and the world of carefree wealth and material delights in which the characters live seems far removed from reality. Nonetheless, it has been nominated for three Golden Globes - Best Actress (Meryl Streep), Best Film and Best Screenplay - and as the paunchy, boastful Jake, Baldwin has one of his best film roles in years.
"It's an adult movie about adult relationships and the trouble people get into in these relationships," he says. "I've always loved Nancy Meyers's films but another reason I wanted to do this film was Meryl. Like most actors working today I've worshipped her for a long time." The film's major themes - marriage, divorce, relationships - probably have a strong resonance for Baldwin, whose very bitter and very public divorce from the actress Kim Basinger has been well documented. They were finally divorced in 2002, after nine years of marriage, and though they legally agreed to joint custody in 2004, a similarly nasty custody battle over their daughter, Ireland, ensued amid accusations of abuse, unfit parenting and emotional instability. In 2007, when the 11-year-old Ireland did not answer one of her father's allotted phone calls at a scheduled time, Baldwin left a now infamous voicemail message (leaked to the press, he believes, by Basinger's camp), calling his daughter "a thoughtless little pig". His visitation rights were suspended, and he embarked on a damage control mission around the PR circuit. These days, he's allowed to see Ireland again, and he wrote a book, A Promise To Ourselves: A Journey Through Fatherhood And Divorce, about his experience.
"Where people make some of their worst mistakes in life is in their personal relationships," he says. "I meet people who are captains of industry and enormously successful men and women, but the part of their life that's driving them insane is that they can't find someone they're compatible with." He adds, with a wry smile, that the only good to come out of his divorce battle is that he thinks he's become funnier. "If humour is founded in pain then my divorce is the source of my humour. See, I'm trying to tie it all into a little bundle."
Despite his long and, many actors would say, enviably successful career, Baldwin seems to have scant regard for his cinematic accomplishments. "There are people who are very talented and hard-working and whose careers are about accessing the most important material and making the finest films and being recognised for their work," he says. "Tom Hanks, Sean Penn- they win multiple awards and make great, great films that you could go and see again and again. I didn't have a lot of those experiences in the film business.
"I never, never, never, not one day in my life have I ever sat back and said, 'You know, I was good in that movie.' Or, 'I was pretty good in that scene.' I have never had one ounce of self-satisfaction from anything I've ever done in film or television." Could It's Complicated change this? After all, some critics have said Baldwin could scoop a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance.
"When films don't perform and attract an audience, it's very dispiriting, so I'm happy about It's Complicated," he says. "Nancy Meyers has the recipe for making successful adult romantic comedies more than anybody else in the business today. I hope we have a good showing with the film because I think it's a good one and that's the reason you make films - to attract an audience. Writers can write; painters can paint; a musician can sit alone and play the piano, but actors have to have an audience. So when people don't come and see the project it's tough and that's the part that has been tough for me: when it doesn't work it's very, very painful, quite frankly."
The son of a schoolteacher, Baldwin was born and brought up on the south shore of Long Island with his three brothers and two sisters. A liberal in a conservative neighbourhood, even as a teenager Baldwin, a committed Democrat, had a reputation for his outspokenness on local issues. He studied political science at Georgetown University but left to join the famed Lee Strasbourg Theatre Institute to pursue an acting career. In 1980 he was cast in the long-running daytime soap opera The Doctors, and three years later moved to Los Angeles, where he divided his time between acting, politics and public service, landing his first film role in 1987 in the quickly forgotten Forever Lulu. A flurry of more successful film roles followed, including Married To The Mob, Working Girl and Beetlejuice. He joined the Hollywood A-list in 1990 with the leading role of hero Jack Ryan in The Hunt For Red October, one of the year's top-grossing films.
But Baldwin was developing a reputation for his outspoken criticism of the politics and players in Hollywood and the following year, while co-starring with Kim Basinger in The Marrying Man, he went too far. His alleged violent outbursts on the set and his arguments with Disney executives led to him being barred from ever working for Disney again. Basinger, too, was accused of causing problems, and they developed a reputation as one of Hollywood's most difficult couples.
Nevertheless he was offered a contract to star in the next Jack Ryan film, Patriot Games, but in a snub that had long-standing repercussions, he turned it down in favour of a Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Harrison Ford was cast in the Ryan role and Baldwin had lost his shot at true Hollywood stardom. His career for most of the Nineties was marred by a spate of bad films. The occasional public tantrum didn't do his reputation much good either (Jan Maxwell, his co-star in an off-Broadway production of Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr Sloane, quit the show because she said she feared for her physical safety after Baldwin allegedly punched a backstage wall because the theatre's air conditioning wasn't working.)
But in 2004, he earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role in The Cooler, and he had begun making his mark on TV. He won Emmy nominations in 2005 and 2006 for his recurring role on the sitcom Will & Grace, while his 13 appearances as the host of Saturday Night Live confirmed his hitherto little-known knack for comedy. It also introduced him to the actress and comedian Tina Fey, who wanted him for 30 Rock, the new comedy series she was writing and developing.
Somewhat reluctantly, Baldwin agreed to be in the pilot. When the NBC network said they'd only take on the series if Baldwin was in all 21 episodes, he signed up - but only after much soul-searching. "When you do a television show it's such a huge time commitment and that's something you need to consider very carefully," he explains. "I'd spent about five years examining that possibility with different people and then this opportunity came along and everything just came together. It's shot in New York, the schedule was going to be very favourable in terms of me being able to see my daughter, and almost everything I needed to make it work came to pass.
"There was no way I could say no and I was ready to have a normal work schedule because what used to be exciting to me about filmmaking is now tedious. You never know where you're going to be in three months' time, and I used to kind of like that when I was younger but now that I'm not young any more I wanted a schedule that I could rely on, so it was kind of a nice lifestyle choice as well. "And it's turned out to be the greatest experience I've ever had. I love the show. It works, it's funny, and the people I work with are wonderful and everybody gets along great. We go to work every day, tell jokes and have fun. I think the material is pretty actor-proof. It's a great job; it's the best job I've ever had in this business, bar none."
His role in 30 Rock has opened his eyes to the power of television and the impact it has on the people watching it. "Sure, we want ratings but the show has been something of a critics' darling for quite a while now and everybody has said nice things about it. It's not like making films where you feel the hand at your throat every day and everybody is usually so tense. "If a film is successful, maybe 10 million people see it and that's a lot of people, but when you do a television show, even if it doesn't have the highest ratings, if it is getting five and six million people for every one of 22 episodes then 125 million people have watched the show in a season.
"When you do a TV show it's immediate; it's right in your face. People see the show that night and the next day you're walking down the street and they say things to you. It used to be people coming up to me, wanting to meet me and telling me, 'You know, my mother loves you.' Now 13-year-old kids come up and say they watch the show." Despite his new-found success as a television star, Baldwin thinks 30 Rock will be his final acting job. He's looking for a change of direction. It has long been suggested that he might one day enter politics (in addition to his allegiance to the Democrats, he is a fervent activist for energy conservation). But if that is the direction he is heading, he is not saying.
"30 Rock has been a great opportunity for me career-wise, but I think how many years do I have left to do other things I want to do? I'm in the fourth year of a television show that takes up seven months out of the year, so the time commitment is a lot and I think to myself I would like to do other things for a while," he says. "I really enjoyed writing my book and I would like to write another. Acting takes up so much time. You either do only that or you stop doing it in order to do something else. I'm not Anthony Quinn so I'm not going to start painting tomorrow, but there are other things I'd like to try. Maybe go back to school. There's a lot of ideas I have."
Alec Baldwin isn't the only actor to enjoy a revival after falling out of Hollywood favour-
Oscar-nominated at 28, his substance abuse problems saw Downey Jr spend most of the late Nineties in and out of rehab and jail. After completing a last-ditch attempt at rehab in 2001, he was back on casting lists again, assisted by Mel Gibson, who paid an insurance bond required for his first major role, 2003's The Singing Detective. After a steady run of great performances, he made last year's Oscar shortlist for Tropic Thunder and is up for a Golden Globe for Sherlock Holmes.
Rourke's compelling performance in The Wrestler landed the curiously cosmetically enhanced actor Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, ending 15 years in the Hollywood wilderness. The Eighties heart-throb became a star in films such as Rumble Fish and Angel Heart but had a reputation for being difficult and a knack for turning down great roles. After his fall from favour, he quit Hollywood in 1991 to become a boxer. He returned four years later, but attracted only minor, sporadic roles, his credibility and good looks gone. Since The Wrestler, he has eight films due out, including Iron Man 2, co-starring- Robert Downey Jr.
A smouldering sensation in Fifties classics including A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront, Brando was nominated for an Oscar in each of the first three years of his career. But by the end of the decade his star was on the wane and during the next 10 years he squandered his talents in potboilers and flops such as Mutiny On The Bounty and was considered "box office poison". His comeback performance, in 1972's The Godfather, is recognised as one of the greatest of all time.
Published: January 2, 2010 04:00 AM