Alec Baldwin on love, marriage, "30 Rock" and Woody Allen

The tabloid-friendly "30 Rock" star talks about marriage, regrets and his role in Woody Allen's "To Rome With Love"

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published June 21, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

Alec Baldwin    (AP/Evan Agostino)
Alec Baldwin (AP/Evan Agostino)

When I was introduced to Alec Baldwin in a New York hotel ballroom on Tuesday afternoon, I extended my hand and asked him how he was doing. He may have wondered for one-tenth of a second if I was messing with him -- the hotel was ringed with paparazzi at that moment, eager to follow up on an altercation between Baldwin and a New York Daily News photographer earlier in the day -- but it didn't show. He shook my hand briskly and said he was doing great, exuding (as usual) the gruff but businesslike demeanor of a banker who's going to hear you out for several minutes before he says no.

Indeed, one of the things that makes Baldwin interesting is the sense that he's spring-loaded with contradictions. He's a cultured and worldly guy, who was once one of the biggest stars in Hollywood but would just as soon do Joe Orton or Peter Shaffer plays off-Broadway, and who has no problem undercutting his own image, playing pompous and egotistical TV executive Jack Donaghy on "30 Rock," or a ponytailed, not-quite-out gay hippie club owner in "Rock of Ages." Yet this week's paparazzo incident -- Baldwin says that photographer Marcus Santos nearly hit him in the face with his camera, which Santos denies -- was hardly Baldwin's first appearance in the tabloids. He appears to have rather a thin skin to be such a public figure, although he's nowhere near the train-wreck category reserved for Mel Gibson and Charlie Sheen. Baldwin was ejected from an American Airlines flight in Los Angeles last year, reportedly for refusing to turn off his phone -- and then spoofed the incident in both a Capital One commercial and a "Saturday Night Live" skit. Earlier, he was involved in a years-long dispute over child custody with ex-wife Kim Basinger, which culminated in a leaked 2007 voice mail in which Baldwin addressed their daughter, then around 11 years old, in angry and unflattering language. (Most parents, I feel confident in saying, have said that much or worse in private -- but most of us don't get our phone calls transcribed on TMZ.)

I met with Baldwin to talk about his role in Woody Allen's "To Rome With Love," a fizzy and pleasantly intoxicating Italian concoction that follows up the biggest hit of Allen's career, the Oscar-nominated "Midnight in Paris." It isn't Baldwin's first appearance in an Allen film; he played a spectral chaperone to Allen's then-partner, Mia Farrow, in the 1990 picture "Alice," and has agreed to play a leading role in Allen's next movie, whose setting and title are not yet known. In "To Rome With Love," an ensemble comedy with three unconnected stories, he plays a middle-aged American architect who is drawn into a love triangle involving three younger people (played by Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page), for whom he serves as a kind of narrator, romantic advisor and Greek chorus.

Baldwin's acerbic personality is pitch-perfect for this rueful, embittered observer role, and I would say that the performance he delivered in our interview was outstanding as well. He discussed his movie career, the nature of acting and stardom, and the appeal of working with great directors. He alluded to his own personal life, bringing up both his failed marriage to Basinger and his impending marriage to Hilaria Thomas, a New York yoga instructor 26 years his junior. He made at least one ill-advised remark, describing the public's impression that movie actors are paid ludicrous sums as "this kind of 99-percenter view of the world." He conveyed the impression that we were having a frank and open conversation, even leaving me with a hint that after "30 Rock" wraps later this year, he's considering walking away from acting entirely. Then he gave me a curt nod, wished me a good day and moved on. The paparazzi were waiting.

Alec, I had totally forgotten that you made "Alice" with Woody Allen. That must seem like a lifetime ago.

Oh, it does. For Woody too, I expect. It was more than 20 years ago now.

What can you actually remember about making that movie?

I remember Mia was the lead. I was told at the time it was Woody's take on [the Fellini film] "Juliet of the Spirits." It was kind of a treatment of that. I remember that the script was nominated for an Oscar. It was a really beautiful script, a beautiful script. And it had Bill Hurt and Joe Mantegna and me. I had these wonderful scenes where we had to fly around New York -- I'd take Mia up, I'm a ghost. I'd take her by the hand and we'd fly around Manhattan, kind of Superman-style, banking around the Chrysler Building.

And they were still together, Woody and Mia. I just had a few days, my scenes were all just a couple of days, sprinkled over a couple of weeks. And Carlo Di Palma was the D.P. It was great to work with Carlo, who I admire so much. In terms of working with Woody, it was like all the other people I've worked with who are this great iconic people. Whether it was De Niro asking me to do "The Good Shepherd," or Pacino asking me to do "Looking for Richard," or Scorsese asking me to do "The Aviator" and then "The Departed" -- you know, it was just a great thrill. I've made films with less well-known and less iconic people over the years, with some good results and some mixed results. But with these guys, the great ones, I don't think they make a bad movie. You start to work with them and you know you are on to something. When I worked with Marty, you know, I had a small part. I was very conscious of it and I knew I wasn't playing a big role, but it's a thrill to be with people where you know the likelihood is greater that you will deliver something that is unique, or commercially successful. You always have an extra spring in your step when you work with them, to be honest.

All the people you just mentioned are noted for their respect for acting, their understanding of the acting craft. They clearly pride themselves on working with famous and talented actors. What does that mean in practice, on the set?

That's an interesting question. I think that for most people, and I know this is true for me when I am self-directing, that a lot of it is two things: the visual and the auditory. They know what they want to see in the sound bites. And they'll talk about the pace and velocity of the scene, and what the breaks in the scene are, and what is the point that they really want you to emphasize in the scene.

That's also true when you work with someone like Nichols who has a great tradition and pedigree and has worked on famous material. And every time you do a great play, a classic play, you say, "Well, we know the material works, so if it bombs the problem has to be us!" People like Mike, with whom I did a small part quite a while ago, they come in and have so much experience with the visual and the dramaturgical. They know what they want the scene to look like in terms of cinema, and how they want the framing to look, and how they want the actors to move or not move.

But I think for most of the ones who are very successful, the real secret is casting. They just cast the people. They have the luxury and the great advantage that everyone wants to work with them, so very rarely do they cast a role and not get exactly who they want before they close. So everybody shows up and they're predisposed to deliver, I think. Great directors are people who benefit from advantageous casting policies. Everyone wants to be with them.

Look at Woody. In a world in which you can do a handful of different projects -- and it's so interesting how the public doesn't always pick up on this, because they think everybody gets paid $25 million a movie. They have this twisted sense of -- this kind of 99-percenter view of the world. There's projects I've done where they pay you no money, but you have a very real or very amorphous back end with them. With Woody there's none of that. You get paid a modicum and there's no hope of a back end, no discussion of any back end. He's one of the last people on Earth where you come for the privilege of working with them, exclusively. He really lives in an island all by himself in terms of his relationship to actors.

You got to work with three terrific younger actors in "To Rome With Love" -- Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page and Greta Gerwig. I'm not aware that you've worked with any of them before. Did you know their work?

No, not all that much. I was aware of Jesse because, I mean ... I don't get to go to the movies as much as I'd like to, and a lot of times I see films when Academy Awards DVDs come my way. I watch a lot of the movies on my computer on a plane, you know, when I'm flying to L.A. on business. And I do this program with the Hamptons Film Festival in the summer and I immerse myself in documentary film right around now, in the spring, so that I can wrap up the program in the summer. But I remember Jesse from years ago when he did the movie "Roger Dodger" with Campbell Scott. I really loved that film. It was a delightful film, and I really admire Campbell. I just remember Jesse from that. And then my brother Billy did "The Squid and the Whale" with him.

And of course I know Ellen from "Juno." My daughter is of that generation; she might as well have had Ellen's head shot tattooed on her arm. [Laughter.] I deal with her practically sobbing, you know, "I am Juno." My daughter had this overwhelming identification with Ellen's character, and the movie was a huge success, so I obviously knew who she was.

As for Greta, no. I had never seen Greta before. But, you know, again with Woody, when you get to the point of actually shooting the film, it's not like other films where you wonder. With Woody you know you are going to get pretty close, if not hit the bull's-eye.

You know, thinking about your role in "Alice" and your role in "To Rome With Love," it's striking that Woody has cast you twice as a character who is ephemeral, or perhaps not really there. Because the question of what is real -- what is actually happening -- between you and Jesse and Ellen and Greta is pretty ambiguous.

Well, I wonder -- I think that Woody obviously doesn't want to answer those questions. He won't comment on it, and I won't ask. I think of that almost in terms of the purest art form. Woody will put it out there, and if people get it, they get it, and if they don't, they don't. To some extent his sensibilities are commercial and funny, and Woody is someone who has an international audience who admire his films and quote all the lines of his films. He's had tremendous success and tremendous impact, but at the same time I think he's not coddling people.

So with this film I tended to think that my character was real and that I was going back in time and I met my younger self, in Jesse's character. I go back in time and all of them are figments of my imagination, or from my memories. I just kind of said to myself that was it, for my path, although I didn't ask him that, and he certainly didn't verify it.

That fits everything that happens in the movie. You have this sort of trajectory, moving through the city. And then you sit down on that bench and Jesse walks up. Maybe everything after that is like a dream or a memory.

Well, I'm with my wife in the beginning -- Carol Alt is my wife -- and I say, "No, I don't want to go see the ruins, I'm going to take a walk." And I go take a walk back in time. I'm on that bench and, sure enough, my younger self walks by and we end up going, "Yeah, I live in that street. I live in that apartment. Let's grab a coffee." And, you know, my younger self invites me to go back and examine this time of my life. And I think that as I turn 50, and especially now that I'm 54 -- I'll be 55 next year -- I can't even imagine what it's like for someone who is even 20 years older. Woody is 75 or whatever, and that idea of looking back at the past trying to have some meaningful and somewhat healthier perspective about our past -- I don't think we can ever have a healthy one -- is really crushing. You know, I look back and wonder what would I have done differently, how could I have done it differently. I'm getting married in a couple of weeks, and I'm starting that journey again.

Yes, I've heard about that. Congratulations!

Thank you. I think my prescription for how to deal with the past is to just keep moving forward into the future. [Laughter]. I think this movie -- it is a comedy, but there were moments I kind of wished it wasn't a comedy. I would love to do a dramatic version of this where you go back and you have a dialogue with the past. I almost wish I could make a version of this film where I would only speak to the Jesse character, just having a dialogue with him. You would go back in time and you would meet him and he takes you to observe, and you observe what they're doing, but then none of them see you or speak. You go off to a coffee shop with Jesse and you try to talk with your younger self: "Don't do this, and don't do this!" Trying to spare not just yourself but other people some horrible pain. I think about people in my life who I wished had been able to take a different path, not excluding myself, to spare themselves that pain.

I think this piece of the film has a nice tone; it isn't purely directed toward getting laughs. Woody is someone who could have ratcheted up the comedy in a blink of an eye. Woody is funny and he knows it, and he can just shovel it down into the trough if he wants to. But I think he wanted us to see something different. The other sections of the film are a little fizzier and sillier, you know: one of them has [Roberto] Benigni and the other is sex farce. This one was a little more thoughtful, which I like. It has a different timbre.

Well, there's something essentially almost tragic in the way your character can see everything that is going to happen with these younger people before it happens. I'm not all that much younger than you, and I think that's one of the biggest things about getting older: that sense that you've played the game before and you know what the likely outcomes are.

Well, you live with the consequences of what you've done or not done and you just think, "A lot of it guided me in what I'm about to do." I was married and I got divorced. I was separated by the end of 2000. I went 11 years where I dated people, some longer than others, and I remember saying to myself that marriage was just out of the question because I wasn't ready. I couldn't even conceive of it, of what it would be like. And then I met someone who is much younger than I am -- she's 26 years younger than I am; I am 54, she's 28, which is not at all what I had in mind. I remember meeting her and getting to that point where the benefit of my age was being able to see that perspective, you know, forward and backward, in the rear-view mirror and through the windshield, and saying, "I'm really going to regret this if I don't. I'm really going to be unhappy if I don't do this, because I met this person who is a really amazing person."

You're always hopeful that it works out. In the modern world, people tend to bail out of the plane much quicker than they used to, but I thought to myself that I wanted to take advantage of my age, where I have that perspective. I was, I am going to be sad or upset with myself if I don't do this.

I'm sure these two roles are separated for you in space and time and concept and every other way, but this was really funny: I saw you in "To Rome With Love" the day after I saw you in "Rock of Ages." The movies and the performances are not alike at all, but I kind of wanted your character in "Rock of Ages" to get some romantic advice from the guy in this movie. He needed it! [Laughter]

I think that "Rock of Ages" was more about friends and fun. Again, if you wrote this in the piece I would probably be ecstatic, because a lot of people don't understand the process by which people choose the films they do. If you're at the top, so to speak, if you're the most important male actor of your generation, if you're Leo [DiCaprio] or Ryan Gosling or people like that, or if you have all the directors and the screenwriters and the producers and the studios and the money, if the whole machinery is there to engage with you when you're the first choice, that's one sort of situation. And then everything else after that is all about personal stuff, like lifestyle and family. I want to be off for my daughter's graduation, and I want to work, and kind of play everything that's possible, and a lot has to do with friendship.

Adam [Shankman, director of "Rock of Ages"] is my friend and he insisted: "Come make an ass of yourself for a month in Florida." You never think about it, never. Perhaps I should have. You never think about it in terms of, "Well, this is good for me, or it's good for my career." I just think to myself, "It's a part to play." And I never care -- to my detriment, I think -- I never care about how it's going to advance my career or not advance my career.

I like the essence of the piece, which is kind of silly and frivolous. And you do it, and do the best you can, and then you realize that you might not end up in the film. The only caveat about ensemble film is that you end being cut out of the movie, possibly a lot more than you thought, 'cause they have to shoot all this stuff and they have to cut it down. If you're the lead in the film, you're safe. The movie is about you, they can't afford to cut you out. But when you're dealing with independent, unconnected story lines, some of them are going to go, some of them are going to stay, it's a roll of the dice how much you're going to be in the film. I'm not complaining about my screen time in the film. I'm just saying that that's always a risk you run with ensemble filmmaking.

There was a period of time when you were exactly that kind of leading man, back in the '90s, the kind of guy they built movies around. But it almost seems to me that you're having more fun now. You're funny on "30 Rock" -- hilarious, actually -- and you get to play weird character roles in movies. In "Rock of Ages" you're willing to appear silly and poke fun at your own image a little bit, and the audience always likes that from performers.

Right. Well, I think that for me the biggest change when doing the TV show -- and again, it was about a friendship. It was about Lorne Michaels, after my divorce, saying, "Come do this and I will make this palatable for your schedule," because I had an obligation to fly out to L.A. to see my daughter every other weekend. This was seven years ago. Back then my daughter was 9, so she's changed a lot over the running of the TV show. But during that time, "30 Rock" was primarily about Lorne saying, "I will protect your schedule and you will not lose any time with your daughter. Come do this show." And I really needed a harbor at that time. The idea of flying around and making my visitation with my daughter dependent on the whims of a film producer was always excruciating. Most film producers are people who believe they own you for the entire time; the average one, although there are exceptions, is highly unsympathetic about your personal obligations. So I must say, I had an almost inconceivably advantageous schedule at "30 Rock." I always shot Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and had a four-day weekend to see my daughter.

I went and did it, and I wasn't assured of what I was getting myself into. And then very quickly it emerged that the show was going to be successful creatively. We won a lot of awards and the show was incredibly well-written. That was a great experience. In the seams of that, I made a couple of films. I did "It's Complicated" and a few other things. Now for me the interesting thing is to decide whether I am going to reenter the film business on a more meaningful level, and I'm not quite sure. I know I would not do another TV series, certainly not a network one with those 22-week commitments. Maybe those kind of shorter HBO runs, that would be a possibility, I don't want to rule out anything.

I'm leaving my options open for a variety of things, but I'm not quite sure I can go back and do films. I'm seven years older, you know. I'm 54, and when I started "30 Rock" I had just turned 48. That's a big difference, in the film business. It clearly is.

That's clearly true. But you're only a couple of years older than Tom Cruise, whom you worked with in "Rock of Ages," and who seems to be getting a second bite of the apple as a top-level movie star. Which is remarkable, don't you think?

Yeah, yeah. I mean I just worked with Tom and I cannot find the words to describe him and how much I admire Tom. To hold on to that place and make films -- there's a lot of talent involved, and there's a peculiar talent for that. You have to have a talent for being a movie star, it's a very specific thing, which I really admire him for.

But, I mean, for me -- my life now is more about my private life, you know, getting married and going off. I always say to people, that I would rather live in real life than by acting on-screen now. I would rather have my joy there, and my sense of accomplishment there. And what I want to do in my work life might be something completely new and different -- and maybe completely, completely unrelated.

"To Rome With Love" opens this week in New York and Los Angeles, with wider national release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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