It’s hard to imagine, really, but in the earliest days of 30 Rock, Alec Baldwin was terrified. At 48, he felt like he was running out of options. “I knew that the movie thing was starting to wind down,” he says. “You get your shot in that business, and if the movies don’t make money, you get demoted into indie-land, where you earn 10 percent of what you do in the studio business.”
As he tells a tale of uncertain times, Baldwin radiates authority and ease, sitting in the Grand Havana Room, a cozy masters-of-the-universe enclave on the 39th floor of a midtown skyscraper. Jack Donaghy would be at home here, though he might accuse Baldwin of dressing like a hippie in his slightly wrinkled blazer and polo shirt. As if he’s not a star in a private club, he charmingly requests, rather than orders, an off-menu addition of crab to his salad, telling the waiter, “If he’s not in the mood, don’t worry about it.”
Baldwin had been extraordinarily funny on his multiple hosting stints on Saturday Night Live, but as he moved into his first real comedy gig, he was intimidated by his colleagues. “I wish you could know, when I look back, how terrified I was,” he says. “These people were all UCB, Groundlings, Second City, eighth-degree black-belt comic talent. It was like getting in the ring with Royce Gracie and the Gracie family in mixed martial arts: These people are going to kick my fucking ass.”
Plus, there was that last-chance feeling. “There’s the cliché of, ‘If this doesn’t work, I’m dead,’ ” he recalls. “For every Jimmy Spader who goes from movies to TV and scores, there’s ones who it doesn’t work out for, and then it’s tough to dig yourself out of that rut. So I put all my faith in Lorne.”
Baldwin is half-convinced that he was always destined for comedic acting, despite the leading-man roles to which his extreme handsomeness led him. He compares it to Liam Neeson’s late-career turn toward action films. “I’ve always known that Liam Neeson was a tough guy,” he says. “If you’ve known Liam, you know that that’s something he could have easily slipped into for decades. For him to go do action films, you’re like, ‘Yeah, what’s surprising about that?’ For everybody, there’s some variation of that.”
Though Baldwin had starred in the underrated black comedy Miami Blues, and played a full-blown doofus in Beetlejuice, it was Michaels who first recognized how amusing he could be. “Alec has real power,” says Michaels, “so the part that is always fascinating is seeing how light on his feet he is in his comedy.”
It was Baldwin’s faith in Michaels (as well as his admiration for Fey’s talents) that led him to 30 Rock – even though Baldwin had just successfully pitched a TV idea of his own, a drama, to FX. Michaels pointed out that the FX show could go nowhere, while 30 Rock had a guarantee of 13 episodes. Baldwin notes that Michaels “very cleverly” neglected to mention that NBC was also going to be airing Studio 60, a similarly themed Aaron Sorkin show that most everyone was certainrep would overshadow 30 Rock (instead, it flopped after one season). It didn’t hurt that Baldwin was dealing with a custody battle over his now-teenage daughter, and the producers agreed to let him work only three days a week so he could visit her in L.A.
There’s more than a little Lorne Michaels in Jack Donaghy, though Fey can be coy about admitting it. Doesn’t a line like “hugging is so ethnic” seem like something the famously un-mushy SNL creator might say? “He wouldn’t say that,” she says, then pauses. “He might think it.” Baldwin has cited the oft-quoted joke about why he’s wearing a tuxedo one evening – “It’s after six. What am I, a farmer?” – as particularly Lorne-ish, though when I talk to Michaels around eight one December evening, he’s actually in a V-neck sweater (“But don’t blow that,” he says).
Baldwin looked to other sources to form the way Jack walks and talks. “For me, it was Hackman in Royal Tenenbaums, this kind of Hemingway manqué masculinity,” he says. “It’s a blend where you’re alternately Teddy Roosevelt, and the next minute you’re Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate: You’re a neurotic mess, psychosexually, and then you’re just charging up the hill with a sword in your hand.”
The character has stuck to Baldwin more than anything he’s ever done – he was fascinated to see fans ask online, “Is Alec Baldwin always in a suit?” And even in his actual life, “I’ve become more like Lorne,” he says, then explodes with laughter. “I can’t believe I said that. I’m a bit more of a snob than I was before I started. If I see someone who thinks he’s something and I look at his clothes and say, ‘Why are you wearing that shirt with that tie? That looks stupid. Why are you wearing saddle-colored shoes with a gray suit? You’re not a musician.’ It exacerbated that part of me.”
Baldwin was ready to leave the show during what he saw as a weak fifth season. “It was the low point,” he says, “though even anemic 30 Rock writing is still better than everybody else’s writing. I go, ‘I’m going to get the fuck out of here, I’m done,’ because I’m an employee, I don’t have any say. So Season Five ends, and I’m saying, ‘Next year, I’m done,’ then I come back, and Season Six is really good, we all had fun again.” Then Baldwin met his second wife, and he suddenly was ready to stay in New York forever. “Fuck, I’ll stay here seasons Nine, 10 and 11.” He is actually signed for an eighth season. “I don’t think they wanted me, they just wanted to know they had the option to have me.”
On his way out, Baldwin carefully files his receipt among a bunch of others in an extraordinarily thick wallet. “I’m a very fastidious record-keeper of these kinds of things,” he says, “so I don’t end up like my brother.” (Stephen Baldwin was arrested in December for tax evasion.)
Baldwin stands in the building’s vestibule, just out of the reach of the December wind, and ponders his future. “I’m going to do a play, which is a ‘refresh’ button,” he says. “While you’re doing it, you have the day free, you really can meditate and think about ‘Who am I now?’ For seven years, I was this guy, whatever the cocktail that made this guy, and I had to be that guy 12 hours a fucking day, day after day of shooting. It was a very generous schedule, but that was my creative life.” Then he smiles, and says something that would never come out of Jack Donaghy’s mouth: “Now I have no fucking idea what I’m doing.”
This story is from the January 31st, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
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