Many traps await the memoirist: writing a self-serving “I’m great” memoir or a self-pitying “poor me” memoir, to name two. Then there’s the ugly score-settling “fuck you” memoir.
In his new book, Nevertheless, Alec Baldwin—movie star, TV star, SNL host extraordinaire, Trump caricaturist, tabloid press magnet, and hugely charming American treasure—largely avoids these dangers. Yet there is more than a whiff of payback in some neat putdowns, including the widely noted knock on the acting skills of Harrison Ford, and the less noticed takedown of New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley.
However, Baldwin’s memoir proves that Jerry Seinfeld was onto something when, in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, he called Baldwin “a gifted, gifted actor who is cursed with the mind of a writer.”
I should mention that I was a segment producer on Baldwin’s short-lived MSNBC talk show which ended in controversy after Baldwin allegedly called an aggressive paparazzi a “cocksucking faggot”—an accusation that he vehemently denies in Nevertheless. And frankly, I feel bad even typing that revolting epithet because the Alec Baldwin I worked with—a man who, let’s be honest, has at times exhibited a short fuse—seemed incapable of a homophobic slur.
I had forgotten how much fun it is to talk to Baldwin before we met last week in a Midtown rehearsal studio where he was teaching a class of acting students.
It’s difficult to convey just how charismatic he is in the flesh. Though he insists that he’s not funny in the way that Saturday Night Live or 30 Rock writers are funny, I can report that he is the most gifted storyteller I’ve worked with in over three decades in television—and I’ve worked with some really funny comics.
When Baldwin tells a story or describes a scene from a classic film, he becomes the characters he’s talking about. It’s wrong to describe his impressions as mere mimicry: They’re visitations from the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Marlon Brando, John Travolta, et al. And what I found so winning about Baldwin is that he’d tell these stories—perform them really—for a handful of staffers or even when talking one-on-one. The stories never seemed to emerge from a typical performer’s need to be liked, but rather from the sheer joy of storytelling, a generosity of spirit.
Baldwin is also man with a million creative projects going at once, a man who is used to being heard, used to getting his way more often than not.
“Let’s find somewhere we can talk,” he said, leading me to the elevator along with his assistant, Casey Bader.
We crossed the street and entered a mostly empty steak house where Baldwin was met with astonished smiles. A corner table where we could easily chat in the late-afternoon quiet was quickly arranged.
And Lord knows there was a lot to talk about.
Nevertheless begins with Baldwin’s childhood in Massapequa, Long Island, where he was the eldest of six children in a household always short of money. Next comes his early soap opera work, satisfying theater work, less satisfying network drama career, movie stardom, disenchantment with Hollywood, and sitcom immortality on 30 Rock. Along the way, there’s also a shocking descent into cocaine and alcohol addiction that easily could have ended not only Baldwin’s career but his life.
In the “devastating mistakes” department, Baldwin describes his decision to take a million-dollar payday to star in the film of Neil Simon’s The Marrying Man, rather than do Prelude to a Kiss on Broadway.
The memoir also delves into the tortured negotiations that led Baldwin to forgo starring in the sequel to The Hunt for Red October and instead do A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway; his marriage and divorce from Kim Basinger; his great good luck to find love and start a family late in life; and the controversies that have dogged his career, including the MSNBC fiasco.
About the latter, I’ll say only that it was edifying for me to witness events that were later either distorted or lied about when reported in the tabloid press.
I’ll only add that somewhere in the MSNBC vault are Baldwin’s interviews that rival the best of what he does on his public radio podcast, Here’s the Thing. Baldwin’s interview with Mark Ruffalo was filled with the sort of intimate knowledge of filmmaking that one star might only share with another. And the never-aired conversation with Robert Kennedy Jr.—done in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the death of his uncle JFK—included the revelation that Kennedy believes that the Zapruder film of the assassination had been edited. That bit of news prompted my fellow producers to look at each other in the control room and say something like, “Wow.”
I wanted to talk to Baldwin about all of this, of course, as well as the love of the craft of acting that comes across so vividly in his memoir.
The following is an edited version of our hour-long conversation.
Was writing the book at all pleasurable for you?
No. I think that for me, someone who is not a writer, to write a book required more time than I had. So this is what I kind of served up, if I were to use a culinary metaphor, this is not some kind of fantastic creation, it’s macaroni and cheese with truffles on top in terms of what I could whip up. I tried to shave a little truffle on there. I think it’s flavorful, and there are a lot of things in there that I wanted to say.
You write that William Holden is your favorite screen actor. Why?
He was a great movie actor. He could play everything. He could do Sabrina. He could do Stalag 17. He could do Sunset Boulevard, Bridge Over the River Kwai. He could do serious, serious drama, heavy drama, light comedy. But I don’t see him as somebody who twisted himself up in a ball in order to do the work. And I admire that the older I get.
You talk a lot about directors in the book. What makes a good director and what makes a bad director?
The directors I have not liked are the ones who are unprepared. Because an unprepared director is almost an unforgiveable sin in terms of thoughts about the material. And number two, someone who is quick to remind you that you’re not that important and that the star is important. And I haven’t had a lot of that in my life. I think that most people who hire me hire me to do something that they think is important, even if it’s small. So there’s a very collaborative feeling. I’m very critical of [Oliver] Stone in the book because Stone was someone who has subtle, almost masterful ways of reminding you that he was the star of the movie that he was shooting.
There’s always this tension between on-camera people and behind-the-scenes people. I see it in television.
The relationship between studio people and talent has always been the same. Which is, even if you’re the biggest star in the world, in their mind, “I’ve made you. I’ve contributed to making you the biggest star in the world. When you’re around me you’re not a big star. When you’re around me, you’re an employee.” I mean, most studio executives I have met have a sexual level of pleasure from being able to treat these stars in a way that no one else would dare treat them.
In your book you write, “The list of actors who are invited to front big studio films is short. And once you get on it, you will do almost anything to stay there.” So what is it that you’re not willing to do?
I think that’s really, really hard to say because it sounds very self-serving. There are people I know [who made stardom] the most important thing in their lives to the exclusion of almost anything else. Some of them would tank their health because the stress of it made them into smoking and drinking and drugging furnaces. They just became these insane maniacs chasing the glory of this admittedly very rare position: movie stardom at the highest level. Who doesn’t want to be (Jack) Nicholson in terms of your creative output? Who doesn’t want to be somebody who, the force of your performance alone—not camera work and spaceships and girls busting out of some outfit, you know, sex—but the force of your acting, the creativity that manifests itself in your acting, is what made the movie powerful. I mean no one has more titles to his name in the modern world… none of them have what Nicholson has. None. I think to myself: Cuckoo’s Nest, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, all of them. Terms of Endearment. Ironweed. Who doesn’t want that? But the path to get there… I mean, I know Jack. He’s a houseguest of a friend of mine in East Hampton every summer, and he’s all about his kids. And now, at this point, he’s made all these movies, he’s won Oscars, he’s this legend, and if you’re around him, he’s obsessed with his daughter, he’s obsessed with his son, he’s a dad.
So my point is that… the business is always like, “Are you in? Are you in? We don’t offer this kind of work to that many people—for you to star in a movie. We could have anybody do this. You are going to be rich and famous and have a chance of something that very few people ever have. Are you with us?” And if you sit there and you hesitate, they say, [laughing] “Get rid of him! Get rid of him! He’s a moron!” They freak out. When you say no to movie stardom, you’re a communist. It’s un-American.
You write that in retrospect 30 Rock was the best job you ever had, but you would bitch and moan about it…
Which all actors do by the way. Jimmy Galdofini, I said to him, “Jimmy, you’re the most respected star in TV. You’re rich, you’re famous.” And he’d say, “Oh, I gotta get up at 4:30 in the morning and get in the fucking van and I gotta drive out to New Jersey.” All he did was complain. He hated every minute. And I said, “But Jimmy, you’re the most respected actor,” and he said, “Yeah, but I gotta get up at 4:30 in the morning and go out to New Jersey. It’s a pain in the fucking ass.” All he did was kick and moan. I was the same way.
And I think for me, [30 Rock] wasn’t my thing. I was a guest in somebody else’s house. It was her [Tina Fey’s] show, and you could never go to her and say, “What about if we do this?” Your suggestions were not encouraged. And I want to be very clear that that was a winning formula. Why did she need anybody else’s input when it was going quite well? It was going as well as could be with her being the decider, so to speak.
It was known that you were in Alcoholics Anonymous, but the scene in the book of your near-death experience on cocaine at that hotel... was that difficult to write?
Well, it was difficult to write because it was difficult to remember that. I think a sign of my age is that I tend to steer around the potholes of my past that are ugly parts. There’s an AA expression, “Look, don’t stare.” And when you think about your past, you can hold it in your hand, you can assess that, but you don’t want to dwell on it that much. Any time you go into the past to examine something, it’s really painful. It’s tough because you’re wondering, How much is emotion coloring what I’m doing? How much am I not telling the truth? And I think in all those situations, what I tried to do is say: What really happened? What is the truth?
After the alleged “faggot” incident with the photographer, did that have a chilling effect with how you were treated in the theater community, in the gay community, within the politically correct community—and what did that feel like?
When I went to the Roundabout Gala right on the heels of it, I was ostracized. Nobody would talk to me. I was someone who was a member of the family, so to speak. And everybody was in circles and none of them opened up the circle to invite me or greet me or welcome me. And I was just numb. I felt horrible.
Did that change after you began doing Trump on SNL?
It’s interesting to me… that that very same group four years later walked up to me, slapping me on my back, squeezing me on the shoulder, thanking me, and congratulating me on Trump: the same group, the Republic of New York, the Republic of Liberalism. All of them. When they thought I was a homophobe, they were more disappointed than they were angry. “You with your unresolved homophobia...” I mean, can you have a lot of gay friends and be homophobic?
To me there’s this disconnect within you: You’re this huge star, but you don’t seem to believe that you’re beloved. You’re on the cover of Vanity Fair. People say, “Oh, I love Alec Baldwin.”
Bringing down Trump is beloved, I’m not beloved.
You really feel that way?
Totally, totally. I never confuse the two.
Well, why are you on the cover of Vanity Fair?
Because [Graydon] Carter is obsessed with (Trump). Carter coined the phrase “Short-fingered vulgarian” in Spy. Carter has been an antagonist of Trump’s for years, for decades. Graydon is a very bright guy. He’s a very successful guy. He doesn’t put people on the cover of the magazine who he doesn’t think people will have some interest in. People have an exaggerated interest in me now because of Trump. Three years ago I was a pariah. Three years ago, I was a homophobe.
Somebody said that the challenge of getting older is how not to become a parody of yourself. As I get older I have to fight the impulse to dismiss what’s new. Do you find that?
I find that there are people out there who are the latest version of somebody I’ve already seen. I love Ryan Gosling. He’s wonderful. I think there’s real depth there: something different the way he plays it.
You were in the recent Warren Beatty film The Rules Don’t Apply. Why do you think it did so badly at the box office?
I think that Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich are two emerging stars. And those two people needed to be paired for that reason with someone other than Beatty. Beatty is adored and beloved by people who are no longer going to the movies. So the triptych that needed to be was Alden and Lilly and another person who’s very… you know, Jeff Bridges… somebody who still has some tread on the tire in terms of the public. Beatty is certainly somebody whose audience isn’t going to go to the movies, they’re going to stay at home and stream a movie. I’m going to be interested in seeing how the movie does online. But I thought the movie was a very good movie. Warren is a great director. He’s a joy to work with. I love him. But I was disappointed it did as badly as it did, really, really disappointed.
Do you find it shocking when people say Warren Beatty isn’t a big star anymore?
No, I don’t find it shocking because I experience it myself. I only survive in this business by coming up with something new. I mean, when Lorne Michaels said that he wanted me to do Trump, I said, “Under no circumstances am I going to do that.” I was scheduled to be on a plane to do Rob Reiner’s movie Shock and Awe with Woody Harrelson. I was all set to go. And finally they didn’t have the money. I literally turned around and I picked up the phone and I said, “I’m Trump. What do we do now?”
What I love about the Trump impression is that unlike your Tony Bennett impression, which is a love letter, there’s nothing redeeming about the depiction of Trump. It shows the ugliness.
I didn’t want to imitate Trump. What I saw with Trump was the cruelty, that kind of anger that he has. I needed that psychological thing. I needed this little… I needed to put a chip in me. And the chip is—which I’ve said, many times—is that he’s constantly straining in conversation to think of a stronger word and he never comes up with it.
Final note: The day after we met, Baldwin called to add to our conversation. This is what he said:
Whenever I examine certain aspects of my life, I see that if things hadn’t worked out as they did, if I’d done another Hunt for Red October, I wouldn’t have met my wife and have the family I now have. No one is more aware of all of the kooky things I’m doing than me. I’m doing Match Game here, I’m singing with Barbra Streisand. And when I go to work, the work is important to me. But if you told me that I’m going to have a huge, franchise movie, that it would be a part of film history and make me like Tom Cruise, or you said, you’re going to do Godfather IV and you’re going to play the lead, Tom Hagen’s son, but it was going to take me out of New York and away from my family, I’d say, “I can’t do that, I have to do Match Game and be with my family.” I’m not wistful about my life at all, not at all. I feel great about where I am.