Here comes trouble
THESE days, if a part calls for someone to play brazen, caustic or swaggering -- in short, a real man’s man -- one actor seems to have a lock on the role.
At least that’s how it appears from Alec Baldwin’s near-ubiquitous presence lately portraying men like Jack Donaghy, the bombastic and preening network executive on the NBC sitcom “30 Rock.”
Baldwin calls them “man of authority” characters, “something you need to do sort of unflinchingly,” he said during a lunch break on the show’s Queens set, as he wolfed down a plate of rice and sauteed tofu.
Suddenly, he let out a delighted yelp. “30 Rock” creator Tina Fey had stopped in the lunch room with her 13-month-old daughter, Alice, in tow. Baldwin leaped out of his chair, gushing over the child and her colorful outfit. (It was Halloween, and Alice was decked out as a peacock, the NBC mascot.) “How are you?” Baldwin cooed, his gravelly voice an octave higher than usual. “I love your costume! Do you like your costume? Do you?”
This is Alec Baldwin, tough guy? “He’s more like a small-town theater professor in real life than a dirty cop,” Fey, who plays the frazzled head writer of the show’s fictional late-night comedy sketch program, said later. “He is this very literate guy who loves the arts and goes to plays and opera and stuff. He’s cultured.”
For his part, Baldwin dismisses the notion that he would resemble his on-screen persona in real life as the thinking of “uncomplicated people.”
“There is some degree of artistry involved in this, hopefully, where you sit there and say, ‘Well, what do I want to say? Who do I want to be?’ ” he said.
After a stint as a leading man in the 1990s (see: “Hunt for Red October, The”), Baldwin has most recently reemerged as a character actor who imbues the most hard-edged, loutish parts with subtlety and humor. His ability to avoid caricature while playing the likes of casino boss Shelly Kaplow in 2003’s “The Cooler,” a role for which he garnered an Oscar nomination, has made him more in demand than ever.
“Some people don’t want to step up and fill that void,” he said, explaining why these types of characters often come his way. “The role demands a certain amount of clarity, a certain amount of forcefulness, a certain amount of authority that other people can’t do, quite frankly. And many of them who can do it, don’t want to do it. And so people have asked me.”
He’s currently in theaters as a macho, profane police official in Martin Scorsese’s film “The Departed” and a remote, alcoholic father in Augusten Burroughs’ “Running With Scissors.” Up next month: Robert De Niro’s “The Good Shepherd,” featuring Baldwin as a CIA operative.
Lately, however, the 48-year-old actor has been itching to try his hand at a new kind of character.
“In truth, I’d rather do ‘Little House on the Prairie’ and play Michael Landon’s role,” he said without a trace of facetiousness. “I want to do something sweet.”
That doesn’t mean he’s looking to play Charles Ingalls, necessarily, but “something that stays with people.”
“I want to play what I haven’t played,” he added, his clear blue eyes fixed intently on his interviewer. “One thing about my career, I’ve done everything: TV, movies, theater. I really feel like I’ve done it all on one level. You become very conscious of being duplicative.”
That’s why Baldwin had some apprehension about signing on to “30 Rock,” his first gig as a television series regular since playing Joshua Rush on “Knots Landing” in the mid-1980s.
“That is the great concern about doing a television series, that you get trapped into playing the same thing 22 episodes times however many years the thing winds up going,” he said. “You can fall into these patterns where it’s all pretty treadmill, you know?”
But Baldwin, who is unsparing in his criticism of the film industry (“We are now in the fully realized age of the no-risk movie”), was willing to take a gamble on a series, in part because television’s more consistent schedule would allow him fly to Los Angeles every other weekend to visit his 11-year-old daughter. (He shares custody with ex-wife Kim Basinger.)
Fey actually had Baldwin in mind when she wrote the Donaghy character for “30 Rock,” a show loosely based on her experiences as a head writer for “Saturday Night Live,” but didn’t think she had a shot at casting him.
“At the time, I was trying to think of the most masculine actor,” said Fey, who had worked with Baldwin on the late-night program during his regular hosting gigs. “He’s extremely manly. I thought I would use him as writing template. I never thought we would actually get him.”
Kevin Reilly, president of NBC Entertainment, said that “everybody in town was chasing Alec Baldwin.”
“I think he was probably sent every script in town,” he added.
In fact, Baldwin was developing his own program for FX about a “Bill Clinton-like” mayor of New York when Lorne Michaels, executive producer of “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock,” approached him about the Donaghy part.
Michaels’ involvement in the show, coupled with Fey’s writing, persuaded him to take a chance on it.
“It’s been a blessing,” the actor said. “It’s a nice job, and I work with funny people.”
For Michaels, having Baldwin on board rounded out a “dream cast.”
“He’s just dazzling as a comedian,” said the producer, who invited Baldwin back to host “Saturday Night Live” this weekend, his 13th time since 1990. (Only Steve Martin, with 14 hosting appearances, has been on more.) “He has that thing writers love most, which is precision.”
“But he’s also got real strength,” Michaels added. “You get the sense that he’s a powerful guy, and I think he’s able to pour that into a character.”
In person, it’s easy to see why Baldwin is so often cast as the heavy. He has thickened since his early hero roles, but his body -- clad in an expensive pinstripe suit for a scene on a recent afternoon -- is solid and burly; his beefy hand offers a firm grip.
Still, he manages to bring a certain lightness to his physicality, largely through a wry comedic touch. In “The Departed,” his character’s joking bluster with fellow cops provides audiences with “welcome relief” from the movie’s dark plot, said producer Graham King.
“He helps pulls them through in a film that’s really intense,” King said. “He’s such a smart actor when it comes to tweaking a character or delivering it a certain way.”
On “30 Rock,” Baldwin brought with him some definitive ideas of how to flesh out Jack Donaghy.
“I didn’t want them to make the character the negative value in the piece, a la Ted Baxter, the guy that’s the least self-aware person in the room,” he said. “I didn’t want to be some male corporate pig.”
“I’ve struggled to get them to write more where I’m like Lorne,” the actor added with a chuckle, “the guy who is this extraordinarily polished, wealthy, urbane man who lives among these young men and women who just can’t seem to get their heads out of the dormitory.”
If you want input, he’ll give it
IN the past, Baldwin’s tendency to come on to a set and “rearrange the furniture,” as he has put it, earned him a reputation for being somewhat difficult. But Fey said she’s welcomed his input, which has even included story lines for other characters.
“It’s been a very good dialogue,” she said. “You want someone who comes in and thinks of this character as a real person. He absolutely makes the guy three-dimensional and always wants to bring out his kinder side, his more knowing side.”
So far this season, “30 Rock” has fallen short of the ratings NBC was hoping for, drawing an average of 6.2 million viewers. But the network still is bullish on the program. This week, it’s moving from its 8 p.m. Wednesday slot to Thursday night, where it will be part of a new comedy block with “My Name Is Earl,” “The Office” and “Scrubs.”
“It feels like a show that’s really on the right path,” said Reilly, noting that “30 Rock” is getting a larger audience than “The Office” did in its first season, before it broke out as a hit. “That’s why we’re kind of making the bet on it with this new move, which I think is going to be a long-term play.”
Baldwin has a more fatalistic attitude.
“If the audience is attracted to the show, great,” he said flatly. “If not, they’re not. If we fail, we fail like most other shows do. Most don’t make it. The only contribution I can make is to just come in and do this the best I can, shot by shot, line by line.”
On a recent afternoon, Baldwin taped a scene that called for Donaghy to be on the phone in his office, speaking affectionately with a “Condoleezza.”
Baldwin took it from there, ad-libbing his own lines as the producers -- watching on nearby monitors -- shook with silent laughter.
“Where is your hand now?” he murmured slyly. “You shouldn’t be doing that while you’re driving. Condoleezza? Are you there? I lost her.”
It may not be “Little House on the Prairie,” but for now, Baldwin said he’s content.
“To be perfectly honest with you, if I do this show and that’s all I do in the next few years, that would be enough for me,” he said. “I’m not someone who is doing this to kill time while I’m waiting to revive my fortunes in the movie business. I don’t think about it that way. This is where I’m at now, this is what I’m doing.”