In Hollywood, the actor is the last to know, Alec Baldwin says, recalling a period in his career when "rigor mortis" crept in. It was the late 1990s. "Ghosts of Mississippi," a 1996 drama in which Baldwin played a crusading district attorney, had stumbled at the box office. "The Edge," a 1997 thriller for which his portrayal of a fashion photographer fetched him $7.5 million, also had failed to take off. Six months went by without a job offer — and then a year. The guy who played CIA agent Jack Ryan in 1990's "The Hunt for Red October" (and, later, walked away from the Tom Clancy franchise) was barely on the radar.
But surrounded by people who were "eternally hopeful about my prospects" and wished him well, he didn't see the toe tag on his leading-man identity.
His agents cautioned him against joining his wife, Kim Basinger, in Africa for four months for one of her shoots, but "I went anyway and, when I came back, I was so dead they had to hit me with a defibrillator," says Baldwin, 45, his gravelly voice veering between angst and shtick. "I did independent films like David Mamet's 'State and Main,' was featured in 'Pearl Harbor,' played Mr. Conductor in 'Thomas and the Magic Railroad'. I took what I could get."
Then a deeper blow: His marriage crumbled.
"After Kim and I separated in December 2000, I did one project after another, trying to work through the sadness," he says softly. "That was a death, harder for me to deal with than when my father died. There was a finality about that. When you divorce, though, you keep trying to revive it. Eventually, you may decide that this is the way it was meant to be. I sometimes try that idea on for size."
That stretch is easier to recount, no doubt, from where he sits today, sipping an orange juice-and-club-soda mix at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. He'll soon slip into the Oscar nominees' luncheon, his place at the table secured by his work in Wayne Kramer's "The Cooler," a $3.5-million movie shot in 21 days.
His performance as Shelly, a vicious Vegas casino owner, brought him his first film-related honors ever: an Oscar nomination, as well as a nod from the Screen Actors Guild and a National Board of Review best supporting actor award. And that, along with his 2003 outings as Mike Myers' nemesis in "The Cat in the Hat" and Ben Stiller's sleazy, controlling boss in "Along Came Polly" — led Rolling Stone to dub him "the character actor of the moment."
If that isn't precisely the identity he'd imagined for himself at this point in his life, well, he's adjusting. It's a case of Back to the Future, he says, noting that supporting roles in 1988's "Married to the Mob" and "Working Girl" put him on the feature film map. Though it feels "weird" to be labeled a character actor now, he says, those roles can sometimes be more interesting than The Protagonist. And this year, at least, nomination in hand, he sees the value in both.
Back to Broadway
The "character" issue comes up often as colleagues describe Baldwin's work.
"2003 was an acknowledgment that Alec's got the goods," says longtime friend Danny DeVito, a producer of "Along Came Polly." "He's not going to be able to put his feet up for awhile. He's a big guy, with the brothers [three, who act] and the hair. But much better to be a great utility character actor who hits the ball out of the park than a pretty boy who titillates girls in the front row. The Fred MacMurrays and Robert Ryans weren't the Rock Hudsons or Cary Grants of their day, but their body of work is spectacular."
Walter Bobbie is directing the actor in his latest venture, a Roundabout Theatre Company production of "Twentieth Century," opening on Broadway on March 28. Playing an egotistical director who transforms a chorus girl (Anne Heche) into a leading lady, Baldwin will making his first Broadway appearance since his Tony-nominated turn in "A Streetcar Named Desire" in 1992. "I see him as a handsome leading man with extraordinary comic skills and the soul of a character actor," says the director.
The play, Bobbie suspects, is a retreat from the chaos — a dramatic "no cellphone zone," in effect.
"Alec is doing this because he wanted to get back onstage in a comedy, rocking the house, having a few laughs," he says. "People forget that he's hosted 'Saturday Night Live' several times. Great at comic sketches, accents and imitations of some of his famous colleagues, Alec can play that game as well as anyone."
On the small screen too, Baldwin has flexed those character muscles. He drew critical acclaim and awards nominations for playing the lead prosecutorial attorney in TNT's miniseries "Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial" (2000), and former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in HBO's "Path to War" (2002). Both roles fueled his comeback.
Unlike John Travolta and Bruce Willis, who targeted character roles as a way of igniting their careers, Baldwin fell into that niche. "If you star in enough movies that don't make money, you don't get to do that much anymore," he says. "Certainly not at the studio level. So all this is happenstance more than a game plan."
Independent films have been a consistent source of work. But ironically, he passed on "The Cooler," which he found too violent in parts. Hitting a purportedly pregnant woman in the stomach was neither "art" nor "entertainment," in his mind.
The director, in fact, wrote the role for Chazz Palminteri, who was otherwise engaged when the financing came through. Baldwin — the next name broached — was a good fit, Kramer was convinced. He excels at playing villains, he says, and "menacing, tortured characters with a bit of pathos."
Baldwin started molding the character almost immediately, Kramer recalls, blending a "Palm Springs desert Republican look" with an East Coast mob personality. And despite charges of abuse leveled at him in the National Enquirer's coverage of his divorce, he walked the line of "edge and danger," Kramer says. Even in the midst of a custody battle for the couple's 8-year-old daughter, he never asked that his scenes be toned down to bolster his public image.