Somewhere around Los Angeles, Alec Baldwin was taking a hike and panting.
“I don’t want to go all over the map here, but where is the protest against this war when almost on a daily basis, someone is dying over there?” he said between labored breaths. “Right when you would want to question the motives of an administration, the country has gone and taken a nap. They’re hiding in their houses. They’re afraid of bin Laden. They’re afraid of Hussein. They’re afraid of not being able to make their mortgage payment. They’re just afraid in general. And while they’re afraid, they’re spectacularly inattentive,” he said.
“There’s less critical thinking going on in this country on a Main Street level-forget about the media-than ever before. We’ve never needed people to think more critically than now, and they’ve taken a big nap.”
If anyone had a legitimate excuse to take a big nap, it would be Mr. Baldwin. Page Six editor Richard Johnson was telling W magazine that he had finally retired his nickname for the outspoken liberal, “The Bloviator,” and after an extended career dry spell that took him from being one of the few box-office beauties who could play with Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey in the brilliant ensemble of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and left him playing Mr. Conductor in Thomas and the Magic Railroad , the actor from Massapequa, L.I., was back in the game with a fine searing performance as an old-school casino operator in Wayne Kramer’s The Cooler , which opens Nov. 26. Rolling Stone was mentioning Oscar, and other media outlets were shouting “comeback.” When that happens, most actors-if they talk at all-begin jabbering the kind of glittering generalities favored by professional sports stars.
But on-screen and off, the 45-year-old Mr. Baldwin has rarely shown that kind of self-consciousness or vanity and that ability to submerge his ego makes him adept at comedy as well as drama, and versatile enough to play both Pan Am Airlines founder Juan Trippe in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator or Old Man Dunphy in Outside Providence . “There aren’t that many actors who could bring the kind of cosmopolitan, real man’s man intelligence to a role,” said Edward R. Pressman, the executive producer of The Cooler , who is also planning to star Mr. Baldwin in a remake of The Swimmer and a movie about disgraced studio chief David Begelman. “Alec can play someone who runs a studio, who’s a businessman, who’s a ladies’ man, who can curse and tell jokes. It’s a kind of old-time movie-star quality, which, I think, there’s not a lot of nowadays.”
But Mr. Baldwin doesn’t think in those terms. “I’m being very sincere with you when I say that I don’t get up everyday and my first thoughts are about who I am in relation to the public and the media,” he said. “I don’t get up and say, ‘Well, let’s get dressed in such a way and comb my hair in such a way for maximum effect on my fans.”
Indeed, like the scene in The Cat in the Hat where his unctuously well-groomed character snaps off his girdle and removes his false teeth, Mr. Baldwin has no qualms about showing us the ugly realities-whether they involve his hairy paunch or the Bush administration-and that’s what makes him both one of the finest actors of his generation and one of the biggest targets when it comes to his own self-exposure. As Mike Myers told Mr. Baldwin during the opening bit of Saturday Night Live when the actor hosted on Nov. 15: “I admire ya, Baldwin. You got a big pair of hairy bollocks.”
Mr. Baldwin certainly sports a brass pair in The Cooler , in which he plays Shelly Kaplow, a tough, omniscient casino operator still operating by and clinging to the old-school rules of Las Vegas while, all around him, the place is turning into what he calls “a Disneyland Mookfest.” It’s a complex role that’s both noble and terrifying, and over a cheese plate at Ilo, the restaurant at the Bryant Park Hotel, Mr. Baldwin told The Observer that he was drawn to it because the screenplay, written by Mr. Kramer and Frank Hannah, was “very unequivocal and very tough” and because, he said, he saw something in the character that related to his life at that time.
“I try to look at the character and think, ‘Am I going through anything that that person’s going through?’ And what I tend to think of now is, I hate change. I got divorced recently, and that was just this mind-blowing thing,” Mr. Baldwin said. He was dressed in a tight-fitting magenta sweater and dark pants, beefier than his Jack Ryan days, but not as paunchy as his cameo as Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle in Pearl Harbor . “I thought, ‘I really relate with this guy wanting to hold on to things as they are and hold onto something that he believes in'”-and here Mr. Baldwin began to laugh-“even if he’s going to kill people in order to do it. And I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really incredible to me.’ So I started from there.”
Though it was announced in 2001, the breakup of Mr. Baldwin’s seven-year marriage to Oscar-winning actress Kim Basinger still occupies a great deal of his time. Though he declined to talk specifics, he acknowledged that parts of the case were still being litigated in the California court system. Clearly, Mr. Baldwin blames his ex-wife’s lawyer, Neal Hersh, whom he called a “gigantic scumbag,” for the delays. (Mr. Hersh declined to comment.)
Previous press reports have alleged that Mr. Baldwin’s and Ms. Basinger’s marriage broke up in large part over his temper. (A judge involved in the divorce reportedly ordered Mr. Baldwin to attend anger management counseling.) Asked about this, Mr. Baldwin said: “I find that my ex-wife’s divorce lawyers have taken a depiction of me on my worst day and said that that’s who I am. And I don’t think that anybody on the face of the earth wants to be characterized for posterity on the way they behave on their worst day.”
Mr. Baldwin’s voice turned steelier. “As most of my friends will tell you, whatever tension and whatever dissatisfaction and whatever frustration-that is the word-whatever frustration that I felt that led to the dissolution of my marriage, they’ve all recognized that that seems to have lifted now that I’m not married. That perhaps the answer for everybody was to get divorced, which I didn’t want. I was so devoted to being married, I didn’t want to give up. I didn’t want to be a quitter,” Mr. Baldwin continued. “I didn’t want that failure hanging around my neck. It was a scarlet letter to me, and I didn’t want that. I thought … I look back now and my perspective is that that was probably wrong and that everybody wound up exactly the way that they were supposed to end up. And the only thing I’m concerned about now is my daughter,” Ireland, who was born in 1995.
In the wake of this personal upheaval, Mr. Baldwin sounded like a man who had put his career and image in perspective. “Yes, things for me career-wise have been less than wonderful for several years,” he said. “But I’ve learned, as part and parcel of everything that I’ve gone through lately, to enjoy what I have. There are a lot of people who are a lot worse off than I am.”
Mr. Baldwin acknowledged that he had the opportunity to have things “a lot easier than they are currently”-but, he added, “I wasn’t willing to swallow that hook.” He was referring to his decision to pass on starring in Patriot Games , the sequel to The Hunt for Red October . The part went to Harrison Ford, and everyone knows the trajectory of those two actors since then.
What was on the other end of that hook? I asked.
“I just think doing a lot of movies where they could have gotten anybody to do the movie,” Mr. Baldwin responded. “I think that actors today who are very successful-not all of them, but many of them-wind up becoming marketing symbols. Their name is something that you hold up, and it has the same impact on a ticket buyer that the Coca Cola symbol has on people. You know what it is; you know you want it. You reach for it, and if you open the can, it’s always the same. It never lets you down. It’s very simple in its content.
“That’s what people go for in movies. Movies become like soda and potato chips. It’s snack food,” Mr. Baldwin continued. “To the extent that I was willing make my life’s work the manufacture of potato chips, I had to think about that. And you want to know something? There are days when I think it over and I think, ‘I wish I had done it differently.’ And there are other days when I say to myself, ‘Well, they demanded an answer from me on that particular day.’ On one given day, they said to me: ‘What are you going to do? We want an answer now. Right now.’
“Yes. And I just said to them, ‘Well, if you have to have an answer today, the answer is no.’ And they were happy for me to give that answer, because they had somebody else they wanted to move on with, and everybody moved on from there.”
But as Mr. Baldwin pointed out, he’s far from a special case. “When you talk about people suffering as a result of career reversals, I think with anybody that does this for a long, long time, that’s going to happen,” he said. “Anybody that’s overly sensitive about that, they’re in the wrong business. I mean, Tom Cruise gets divorced and there’s a lot of attendant pain with that. The risks don’t necessarily have to be associated with your work itself. Or Mel Gibson makes the movie he’s making right now and a lot of people are scrutinizing him, if not outright attacking him. I’m nowhere near as famous as those two people, but when you’re in this business, you’re going to get it on a personal level and on a professional level sooner or later.
“When you’re offered what Hollywood has to offer, that’s a great thing,” he said. “I never want to say that it’s meaningless or without value. It’s just that when you get it, you start to learn about who you are because of what you are willing to do to hold onto it. I think I was upset sometimes because, like everybody else, I wanted things to go my way,” he said. “And I wanted to control and manage the situation. But that is impossible, and you realize that you can’t have things your way and hold onto the object in question. You can get upset. And what’s happened for me now is, over the course of a few years, I’ve learned to live in such a way where none of my emotional well-being is dependent upon the business. When nice things happen in the business, great. When they don’t happen, I try to let it go.”
To hear Mr. Baldwin tell it, the easiest thing to let go are the media’s attacks on his liberal politics. “It’s meaningless,” he said, because in today’s climate it’s inevitable. “I don’t care if I came out tomorrow against abortion, wrote a check for $10 million for the Reagan library and married Georgette Mosbacher,” he said. “It still wouldn’t change people’s perception of me. If they want to hate you, they’re going to find a way.
“This is a very new thing, by the way,” Mr. Baldwin continued. “Ten years ago, you didn’t have people choosing certain figureheads-whether it be in politics or entertainment or the space in between-and riding them year in and year out: Hillary Clinton, Michael Moore. And they attack you from every angle-your language, your physical appearance-and they celebrate all of your reversals. And they sack-dance when you go down in the end zone and all that kind of stuff. It’s something that’s rather current.”
So, Mr. Baldwin said, “I resign myself to the fact that that’s what they do.” And that’s why, he added, he wasn’t placing any significance on Page Six’s decision to retire its Bloviator moniker for him. “I’m sure that when it suits his purposes, he’ll let me have it again.” As Mr. Baldwin put it, “The Post is a tentacle of the octopus of Murdoch’s ultra-right-wing media syndicate, and it all works in harmony. And the thing about it is, people always say-which is so interesting to me-they always say, ‘Are you suggesting that these people are operating in collusion? That there is a conspiracy there?’ And I say no.”
Then Mr. Baldwin gives them what he called his “favorite” analogy. “I say, ‘If I go up to bat in a baseball game and I hit the ball to third base, and the third baseman throws the ball to the second baseman and gets the lead runner out, and then the second baseman throws it to the first baseman, I don’t walk up to the third baseman and say, ‘How did you know to do that?'”
Meaning, Mr. Baldwin added, “when we come and we execute a defensive or offensive play on a team sport, no one needs to explain anything to everybody-they already know how to play the game. And that’s how the conservative right-wing media works.
“That’s how it worked in the Monica Lewinsky case, in Clinton’s impeachment case. When his wife talked about the vast right-wing conspiracy, I totally agree that she was right.” But Mr. Baldwin said it was more like “a vast right-wing sandlot game. No one really had to explain very much. All the players knew what to do; all the players had been down this road before. They know how to hose somebody …. They know how to attack someone that way-eviscerate them in the media-and how to entrap someone, in the case of Clinton.
“And a lot of this is the dividends paid to the Republicans from Clinton fatigue as well,” Mr. Baldwin said on his cell phone. “People are tired of watching the president. People are tired of scrutinizing the president. People are tired of prosecuting the president. Sometimes, you know, the president is a father-like figure in American society, to most Americans, even today, no matter how cynical we’ve become. And people don’t want to think that daddy’s a bum all the time. They don’t want to think that Daddy’s a liar, a cheat and a fraud. They just don’t want to believe that.
“And you had a bunch of people who, for their own political purposes, didn’t hesitate to raise those observations about Clinton. Then people get exhausted. And now Bush comes in. And right when you most want to question an administration, right when you most have a group of people who, more than any other group of people in American history, will use the power of the United States government. In cooperation with two other branches, it kind of is a magical moment.
“By the way, between now and a year from now, next November, is an eternity.”
Then just as abruptly, Mr. Baldwin changed the subject.
“I just hiked to my house,” he said. He sounded wide-awake, like a man who’d gotten his second wind.