Alec Baldwin: The Hunk From 'Hunt'

The actor finds his star in 'The Hunt for Red October'

American actor Alec Baldwin. Circa 1990. Credit: Terry O'Neill/Getty

Alec Baldwin says he's uncomfortable talking about Alec Baldwin. His excuse is that an actor's work speaks for itself. So let's watch Alec Baldwin taking a shower, instead.

We're on the set of Baldwin's film The Hunt for Red October. Given the actor's cover-boy comeliness, it's not difficult to imagine that were tickets sold for this event, a squadron of cheap-thrill-seeking females would snap them up in minutes. Women who have seen him in such films as Beetlejuice, Working Girl, Great Balls of Fire, Talk Radio and Married to the Mob would peek from behind barrier ropes, eager for a glimpse of the actor's sudsy, firm thirty-two-year-old body.

But here on the cavernous Paramount sound stage, there are few palpitating hearts. Just a tired crew surrounding a shower stall that's supposed to be on an aircraft carrier bobbing on the wintry Atlantic. Their concentration on the task at hand mirrors Baldwin's. He's not thinking erotic; it's not in the part. Actually, in the final cut of the film — based on Tom Clancy's best-selling, pre-glasnost novel — the scene only lasts a few seconds. It shows Baldwin crouching in a scalding drizzle, mumbling, figuring out how to get the Soviet crew off the Red October should the submarine's brass truly want to defect.

Baldwin plays CIA analyst Dr. Jack Ryan, a canny, intense yet bookish sort of guy. After viewing top-secret photos of the Red October under construction, he takes some concerns to higher-ups in Washington, D.C. Just doing his job. He's worried that the Soviets may be ahead of us in submarine technology. But when the sub suddenly leaves her port, Ryan is reluctantly swept into a new assignment. His mission is to find out whether the Red October's Captain Ramius (Sean Connery) is a madman about to attack the U.S. or a disgruntled and disillusioned old sea hand trying to defect.

This role is atypical for Baldwin. He has to play it very close to the surface. When picking parts, he has always made the actor's choice: smaller, career-building work that demonstrates his ability and desire to be anyone onscreen but his real self. An accomplished mimic, Baldwin relishes hiding in a character. But there's no hiding here, except in the scenery. Though the stars of Hunt are plentiful (Connery, Sam Neill, Scott Glenn), the sub and the relentless action are the focal points. Nonetheless, Hunt is expected to propel Baldwin to stardom. It makes sense. If the box office is big, it won't be the submarine getting movie offers.

A perhaps more telling example of Baldwin's versatility is his performance in the upcoming film Miami Blues, which will likely benefit from Hunt's success. In Miami Blues, Baldwin plays a pathological thief and liar given to role-playing and mad conversations with himself. His character is relentlessly energetic and completely unpredictable. Dangerous. And true to his habit, Baldwin melts into the character as surely as Meryl Streep has disappeared into a smorgasbord of international accents.

Handsome or not, Baldwin has come this far because of his willingness to go the distance. Abandoning a long-desired career in politics and law, Baldwin did a daytime soap, The Doctors, in the mid-Eighties, moved to a spot on Knots Landing and then shifted to TV movies and the miniseries Dress Gray. (He also works onstage: Baldwin is currently starring off-Broadway in the comedy Prelude to a Kiss.)

In film, Baldwin made his move with a string of juicy supporting roles. He learned from a series of directors, most of whom he greatly admired. He did it for art's sake. Then he decided it was time to go commercial.

On the shower set, Baldwin towels, changes bathrobes and lounges in his high-backed chair in the shadow of the Red October control room, which is mounted overhead on a towering platform. Despite repeated wettings, his Elvis-like black hair remains astoundingly perfect, retaining moisture only at the edges. Up close, Baldwin's complexion is so palpably manly that a career in beer or shaving ads will never be out of the question. When he sticks a cigarette in his intelligent smirk of a mouth and watches a visitor with his piercing blue eyes, he seems like an Irish Catholic Belmondo with all-American good looks. He has the mystique, the impulsive energy, the laconic humor. "This was a good day to come," he tells a reporter before director John McTiernan calls him back for yet another dousing. "My only nude scene. We're sharing that."

One week after the shower sequence, Baldwin is back on the Hunt set for a final day of shooting. As in bullets. He and Connery chase a murderous Red October crewman through the Soviet sub's three-story-high missile-bay set. Then it's back to real life and other movie projects.

In the five months between the wrapping and the release of Hunt, Baldwin has dropped out of playing writer Henry Miller (and costarring with Uma Thurman) in Phil Kaufman's Henry and June, worked on the latest Woody Allen film (still untitled), signed to costar with Kim Basinger in Neil Simon's Marrying Man and, in the face of increasing media coverage, prepared himself for the consequences of his Hunt performance. Baldwin frets that if the film stiffs, it might mean that audiences don't like him.

A less intimate but more immediate concern is how critics and filmgoers will respond to a movie that might be rendered dated by rapid changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. But Baldwin, now talking nonstop, has an answer.

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Just Because It's About a Submarine Doesn't Mean It's Deep

Anybody who looks for political significance in Hunt is a fucking moron. I can't wait for some asshole to say, "Well, what do you think about the depiction of the Soviet Union as a place to be defected from? This is dated." The movie is set in 1984. Afghanistan. Reagan's evil empire. We're not trying to make any statement at all; it's a story, a historical perspective. And the backdrop is something very plausible. There was a period when [that scenario] was likely. So to say we need certain political conditions to exist to make Hunt viable is kind of ridiculous. That's like people from Greenpeace protesting at a screening of Moby Dick.

I Hope They Like Me, Really Like Me!

[Stammers] Hunt was the first role I was ever afraid of, because I thought, "What can I do with this?" The character, Dr. Jack Ryan, is very straightforward. There's not a lot for me to grab on to and chew on and hide behind. Usually I like to dye my hair and do a dialect and go as far away as I can from who I am. Losing myself is easier. It's more challenging, and it's more technical. In Married to the Mob, if people didn't like me as Michelle Pfeiffer's Mafia husband, well that's not my problem, because that's not me. But the character in Hunt is as close to me as anything, and I believe that if people don't like me in the movie, that means they don't like me. With Hunt, people could say, "He's not good-looking enough. He's not mannish enough." Really, that could happen. Also, Hunt is not a tour de force role. It's about a submarine.

It's Not the Size That Counts

When I read scripts, I ask myself, "Do I want to be in this movie?" regardless of the size of the role. Originally, with Working Girl, I read for the lead role. This was before Harrison Ford was available. [Director] Mike Nichols was going to do the whole thing about burnout at thirty. When I was reading, I remember saying to him, "If this doesn't work out, will you let me be your assistant?" And Mike laughed, because he thought I was kidding. I looked at him and said, "I'm not kidding." He's somebody I could listen to forever.

Once and for Always: Are Actors Difficult, or Is It Just Difficult Acting?

They say Dustin Hoffman is difficult, and you wonder why good actors, especially, become such pricks. That's because for so long nobody wanted to hear what they had to say. Most directors don't know dick about acting. They just want to put their hand up your back and have you do what they want you to do. But that's not for me. I'm not your boy. If you react to this business in the wrong way, the sad thing is that it robs you of the thing you need most to succeed: your vulnerability. You can't get real cynical and real rock hard and last as an actor.

What Is Alec Baldwin Worth in Tom Cruise Dollars?

Movie stardom is like a currency exchange, and only a handful of people can be the yen of that day. Everybody else has to be valued against it. Some days I'm a peso, and some days I'm a dollar. Some days I'm a deutsche mark.

In this business you've always got to get on line. And if you eventually move to the head of that line, you are asked to get on another line, though the lines get shorter. The ultimate line is Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman and Eddie Murphy. A very short line. Some people think that with Hunt I'm about to change lines. But honestly, I have no idea. Lately all my friends and I have been laughing about this. Each day we try to come up with another name of someone who was on the brink of stardom who then vanished.

A Secret of Alec's Success

I think it's my willingness. I really want it bad. I will do anything to get what I need to do a scene.

When I did Beetlejuice, I would do push-ups sometimes to get myself into this heightened reality, this excitement of being chased by ghosts. Geena Davis would stare at me like she thought I was insane. I said, "Geena, what's the problem?" And she said, "What the fuck are you doing? Why are you doing that?" I explained, then suggested she try it. That's when I realized why some actors don't do this stuff: Geena did one push-up, and she collapsed right on her face. Literally could not do a second one. I will forever remember her as being the most physically unfit woman I've ever met. Astonishingly beautiful, but completely physically unfit.

And Tomorrow Flavius Will Lead the Assault on the Fourth Estate

People ask me where I get all my energy. I don't do drugs or drink at all. I'm just always wired in the morning. It's gladiator-movie time. I get up stomping. I put on my breastplate, my helmet, my saber. I say, "Okay, let's go!" [He makes battle sounds, then pauses ruefully.] Another reason I have so much energy right now is that before you got here, I took a deep breath and I said to myself, "I don't like to do this. I'm not comfortable."

Then What Feels Good?

The physical sensation of being on camera is unbelievable. I'm more relaxed and happier acting than I am in my real life. When you do a scene with somebody and a camera, it's a triangular relationship. They're not pumping it at me, they're pumping it off that piece of glass onto me; and I'm gonna pump it off that piece of glass onto them. You have to have an amazing bank shot.

I want to make something different happen onscreen. It's hard. Where are the characters we haven't seen before? I haven't seen [an original] since On the Waterfront. I'd like to do scenes that have the impact that film had on me. But the opportunities are few. Ethics and doing the right thing are not part of the movies anymore.

Maybe He Should Have Been Batman?

[Laughs] Of course I never expected Tim Burton to ask me to be Batman, but oh, yeah, I'd have liked to play him. I would have done him differently. My first question after seeing Batman was, Where was Batman? I would have made Batman a total fetishist. Burton said he cast Michael Keaton because he was casting Bruce Wayne [based on] what kind of guy would put on that outfit and do that stuff. They should have gone 10 times further. This guy should have a hard-on the minute he put that outfit on. He should have been crazed with sexual energy.

No Wonder He Wanted to Play Henry Miller

When I finished Hunt, I was faced with the reality: I could not have read Miller, gone to Paris, done the dialect work, done the acting, done all the things I needed to do in four weeks between films. It was just fucking ridiculous. I said to [director] Phil Kaufman, "Do you want me to come over and do a shitty job?" He was dumbstruck, and then he moved on without me.

Think You'll Be Working With Kaufman Again?

Are you kidding? [Laughs] But I'll be honest. What interested me in the first place was Kaufman. At first I didn't want to do the material. I said, "I don't know if I want to portray this guy. A dirty-book writer with no governor on his libido at a time when that was something that shocked people." Not interested. But being with someone as astute as Kaufman ... that was gonna be an adventure, the acting equivalent of sailing the Atlantic with Columbus.

And Discovering Uma Thurman?

According to the last script draft, I wouldn't have had love scenes with Uma [smiles]. But I heard about her from other guys in a fraternity-chant kind of way: "U-ma, U-ma, U-ma!" I could respond to that on one level: I'm a heterosexual male, and Uma's absolutely stunning. But I've also spoken to her on the phone, and she's a very interesting woman. Bright. I find [sex with a costar] so unhealthy. I used to feel the need to fuck every woman I fucked onscreen. When the scene was over, I had to know, "Were you really acting? Or do you really want to fuck me?" I didn't always actively seek out the answer, but it was on my mind. I don't have that feeling now.

A few years ago, I realized that in this business you're always running into everybody again. You meet on the set of a movie, and you bond with somebody in two weeks, and you're fucking their socks off in Paris. Then the movie's over, and you're not that person anymore, and she's not that person anymore, and it's back to being Alec Baldwin, the kid from Massapequa, Long Island, who's trying to make a buck in New York City. I would much rather be friends with a woman and have a real relationship.

Something to Fall Back On

It seems like just a couple of years ago, I wanted to be where I am now — not that it's such an exalted thing. I just wanted to be seriously considered for leads. When I was twenty-six and doing a soap in New York, then moved to L.A. to do night-time TV, I wanted to be in films by the time I turned thirty, and I was. Then I wanted to be the lead in a film before I turned thirty-two. And I did Beetlejuice. Then I wanted to be the lead in a big film. Hunt. Each year I set myself another goal. My new goal is to do a movie that makes a lot of money [embarrassed laugh]. I want to get it out of the way. I hope Hunt makes hundreds of millions of dollars. I can think of actors who made a big movie four, five, six years ago, and they've ridden on it since. That's the power.

What Alec Knows About Life

Mike Medavoy [former production head at Orion Pictures] once said to me, "If you make this business your whole life, you're going to have a pretty shitty life." I understood what he said, but at the time I didn't appreciate it. Now I do. To be an actor, you have to reflect what life is about to people. In order to do that, you've got to go out and live life. If you're so busy making movies and you're not living any life, you're not going to have any juice to bring to your work. So pretty soon I'm probably gonna take a long, long time off and juice up — so I can come back and squirt it all over people in a dark room.