Alec Baldwin
Alec Baldwin
Miller Mobley

The Complicated Politics of Alec Baldwin

by Lacey Rose
October 10, 2018, 6:00am PDT

With a new ABC talk show and his return to 'Saturday Night Live,' the unfiltered star is mobilizing against the GOP ("Anything you equate with leadership, they don't have it"), courting controversy ("Ever since I played Trump, black people love me") and revealing mixed emotions on the #MeToo movement: "People write, 'You're next aren't you?'"

"I don't want to get this wrong …" 

Alec Baldwin begins many of his sentences this way, signaling that he's about to dive into trouble.

The first time comes as he's wolfing down a slice from Famous Original Ray's — a Ninth Avenue hole-in-the-wall that's neither famous nor original, "but at this point," he says, "Grandpa's hungry." The conversation has turned, at Baldwin's urging, to the #MeToo movement and the growing list of men whose careers have imploded amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

"I want to preface this by saying that all these guys who have done terrible things, who doesn't want them punished? This whole idea that I'm covering for [accused director] Jimmy Toback or whatever? The minute that people are found guilty of some crime or there's a glistening reservoir of information or evidence …"

He pauses there, takes a swig of cream soda and dives in.

"It's not a witch hunt because a witch hunt indicates that there is very little truth, if none at all, and there is a lot of truth here. But what worries me is that this is a fire that needs constant kindling." Late last fall, it all became personal. In the wake of Harvey Weinstein's unraveling, a publication reached out to one of Baldwin's former co-stars and began questioning her about his behavior on a particular 1980s film set. The actress, who'd been a minor at the time, contacted Baldwin to let him know. (In sharing the story for the first time, he asked that I omit the names.)

"She goes, 'Alec, they called me and they said that a wardrobe person said you sexually molested me and that you constantly had me sitting on your lap and they asked me for a comment.' I go, 'My God, what did you say?' And she said, 'I told them it was ridiculous, that you never groped me.'" I can feel Baldwin's blood pressure rising from across the table. "I just remember thinking in that moment, 'Wow, they're looking for people. This is a fire that needs fresh wood, and they're coming for me.'"

No story ever materialized, and though Baldwin has taken hits for defending pals like Toback and Woody Allen, his own career has not been damaged. In fact, at 60, he can't remember ever being this busy. In the past year or two, he's popped up in at least a dozen movies and TV shows, including the latest installment of Mission: Impossible, Hulu's The Looming Tower and awards contender A Star Is Born; emceed an acclaimed podcast (WNYC's Here's the Thing) and a popular game show (ABC's Match Game); won an Emmy for his Donald Trump impression on Saturday Night Live; authored two books (his own memoir and a mock presidential one); lent his voice to the New York Philharmonic; and raised a few million dollars for a collection of arts causes close to his heart. And now, he's about to take what could be his biggest gamble yet: The Alec Baldwin Show, airing at 10 p.m. Sundays on ABC starting Oct. 14.

For those keeping track, it'll be Baldwin's second shot at carrying his own talk show. In 2013, MSNBC created a late-night vehicle for him that's remembered mostly for how quickly it got canceled — five episodes in, after he allegedly hurled a homophobic slur at a photographer during a confrontation outside his apartment. (He's long denied the language but apologized nonetheless.) ABC is betting that over the past five years, the oldest and most successful of the four Baldwin brothers has wised up. "If there's a risk, it's a fairly mild one," ABC's alternative programming chief Rob Mills tells me, though it's hard to imagine a less forgiving media environment for an aging white guy with a penchant for running his mouth. His wife, Hilaria, has urged Baldwin not to Google himself, but he admits he can't always heed her advice.

"So, you read these things where people have you in the Ryan O'Neal school of, like, 'I'm gonna deck a few photographers' and 'Don't you touch my woman' — and if you're this two-fisted, Irish, pugilistic kind of person, they have you pegged that way," he says. "I get it a lot online. People will write, 'You seem like the kind of guy who would do that.' Or, 'You're next, aren't you?' And it's painful. I mean, what's worse in this life than being misunderstood?"

***

Outside, on the streets of Manhattan, it sure doesn't feel like everyone's out to get Alec Baldwin.

As we leave Ray's on an overcast mid-September afternoon, a young man hollers, "Duuuude, you do that Donald Trump thing real good. Real good." The man introduces himself as Tyrone, and though he's waving and pointing and causing something of a scene, the often-irritable Baldwin doesn't mind a bit. In fact, he calls Tyrone over and the two begin cracking each other up. It's hard to tell who's enjoying the other more.

Ever since he unveiled his take on Trump ahead of the 2016 election, Baldwin gets this kind of response "incessantly," he says. It's more than just people's excitement at encountering a celebrity — like Tyrone, they want to express genuine gratitude. "And it's wild because it's just this dopey thing I do that took off," he says, as he momentarily morphs into character: left eye up, right eye down, lips puckered out as far forward as his neck will allow.

Then, just as fast, he's back to himself.

"I mean, it's cartoonish. All I wanted my Trump to be is mean-spirited and miserable, like Mr. Potter from It's a Wonderful Life. But then I'll say, 'Oh, I don't want to do it anymore,' and people will go, 'Don't you dare give that up, we need you.' Like I've gotten people through something in our nation's history."

When he told me earlier this year that the gag had become "agony" — less the exercise itself than his weekly commitment to it — Trump famously fired back. "Alec," the president tweeted, "it was agony for those who were forced to watch." Still, Baldwin plans to return "for some," he says, "not a lot" of season 44. Out-of-town commitments kept him from appearing on the first two episodes, but he's expected to be back for the Oct. 13 show. "I'm going to mosey in there and hopefully we'll have a fresh round of indictments to tear into," he says, smiling, as he adds: "From my mouth to Robert Mueller's ears."

For a time, Baldwin had been toying with taking his Trump to Broadway, too — turning You Can't Spell America Without Me, the best-selling parody he co-authored with Kurt Andersen, into a one-man show, the way Will Ferrell once had with his impersonation of George W. Bush. But the Trump news cycle moves too quickly. "I joke with Kurt that getting an available Broadway house is the problem," he says. "By the time Kinky Boots gets out of there, Trump will be gone." Instead, Baldwin's flirting with other ideas for one-man shows, including one centered on Richard Helms, the head of the CIA during the Vietnam War, for which he thinks he has an enthusiastic financial backer lined up.

As we load into the back seat of his SUV, Baldwin's still buzzing from his exchange with Tyrone. "I don't know how to say this and I don't want to get it wrong either, because everything is a minefield of bombs going off, but" — and here it comes — "ever since I played Trump, black people love me. They love me. Everywhere I go, black people go crazy. I think it's because they're most afraid of Trump. I'm not going to paint every African-American person with the same brush, but a significant number of them are sitting there going, 'This is going to be bad for black folks.'"

Baldwin, as his 1.1 million Twitter followers know, believes that Trump has been bad for everyone. And rather than just slap on a wig and send the guy up every Saturday night, he's felt compelled to do more. So, heading into the congressional midterms, he'll be backing a number of Democratic challengers, including Perry Gershon, who's running in the eastern Long Island district that covers the Hamptons, where the Baldwins keep a second home; and Liuba Grechen Shirley, who's gunning for GOP heavyweight Peter King's seat in the part of Long Island where Baldwin grew up. "Peter King's somebody I'm just dreaming of taking down because he exemplifies everything I detest about Congress," he says. "These people are completely devoid of any imagination — anything you equate with leadership, they don't have it." He'd love to campaign for Antonio Delgado, too, a Rhodes scholar and onetime rap artist who's running for office a little farther upstate.

"Did we ever hear back from the Delgado people?" he asks his wide-eyed assistant, Matt.

"We're waiting to hear back."

"Well, we need to call them," says Baldwin, perpetually at a low boil. "Today."

***

If there's one thing that people in the business will tell you about Alec Baldwin — other than sharing their obligatory respect for his acting chops and the intensity he brings to everything he does — it's that he can be almost impossible to pin down.

Just two days after news broke in late August that he'd be joining Joaquin Phoenix's Joker movie as Bruce Wayne's father, Baldwin abruptly pulled out, citing conflicts in his schedule. Not long before that, he'd bailed on a much-ballyhooed Kenya Barris comedy, too — one that had been written expressly for him and ordered straight-to-series at ABC. Baldwin says he had some notes on the script that nobody seemed interested in addressing. Barris is just relieved it went away. "Alec's tough," he says. "He's one of the greatest living actors working today, but he's a taskmaster and I don't think I could have done that show without him being completely on board and not blown my brains out." Even Lorne Michaels didn't know Baldwin would be returning to Saturday Night Live until a few weeks before the current season began.

And yet, he continues to get projects thrown at him. Come January, Baldwin tells me he'd like to try another TV comedy. He knows he'll never have it as good as he did on 30 Rock, which gave him a second career — to say nothing of two Emmys and a seemingly bottomless well of goodwill from a certain corner of Hollywood. "Though after seven years, I found myself behaving like the guy," he says of his character, the blustery, egomaniacal network executive Jack Donaghy. "I'd be at a restaurant and I'd say, 'Excuse me, in your opinion, is this glass really clean?'" Baldwin is cagey with details but says that he's waiting on three scripts — two multicamera comedies, and a third that would reunite him with Tina Fey — and then he'll decide which he'll do. If he does any of them at all.

What's clear is that Baldwin either likes to change his mind a lot — or he simply can't stop himself from doing so. More than once, he has doled out his "last interview," most famously on a 2014 New York magazine cover that declared his "goodbye to public life." In the accompanying article, which carried Baldwin's byline, he announced he had to move out of Manhattan, his home of several decades. Four years later, he, Hilaria and their four young children live in a Greenwich Village penthouse and almost no part of his life, then or now, is private. Of course, after the ugly demise of his first marriage to actress Kim Basinger, which included an even uglier custody battle over their daughter, Ireland, he swore to friends that he was done looking for love, too. Then he met Hilaria, a yoga instructor almost half his age, and, "voila," he says. He was married a year and a half later.

"Alec's a dreamer," says his wife, who used to panic every time Baldwin would announce a new plan. "He'd always say to me, 'I found this really great house in whatever random place,' and then he'd say, 'We should move there.' And I used to actually think we were going to move there, and I'd be like, 'No, no, no, I can't live there! I don't want to move!' Then I'd realize it was just Alec, daydreaming."

His memoir, which Hilaria has yet to read ("I live it," she teases), opens with Baldwin daydreaming about the other lives he wants to lead. He'd love to be the proprietor of a stationery store, he writes, because he's "obsessed with fine writing paper." Or to teach, like his late father, or own a gallery or maybe an antique clock shop. In magazine profiles, he used to muse about running for public office one day — mayor, governor, it was hard to keep track. In June, he told Howard Stern that if he ran against Trump in 2020, he'd surely win. By July, he'd ponied up $16,000 in support of another celebrity candidate, Cynthia Nixon, who lost New York's Democratic gubernatorial primary to incumbent Andrew Cuomo. "I did it to float her name out there for the next thing," he tells me. "I want her to run for mayor after [Bill] de Blasio terms out." But in all this time, Baldwin has never once mounted a formal campaign for himself, and when I press him, he acknowledges that his political ambitions are probably — probably — behind him. Why? "Because," he says, "my wife would divorce me."

Baldwin seizes every opportunity to declare Hilaria "the most amazing woman I've ever known"; same for the four children that they've spawned in almost as many years. "I know," he jokes, "why don't [we] use birth control?" Still, he's desperate to be the kind of hands-on dad to this brood that he didn't get to be for Ireland, who is now 22 and working as a model. His relations with his own siblings — three brothers, two sisters — ebb and flow. Right now, he's welcomed his brother Daniel, no longer a "raging drug addict," he says, back into his life; but he's barely on speaking terms with Trump-supporting Stephen. "To me, he's like Rolfe in The Sound of Music," says Baldwin. "He's just hanging out with the wrong crowd. I don't know if we want to invite him to the Christmas caroling party."

As we weave our way downtown, I ask if there's anything about his career that he wishes had turned out differently — if he looks at those of his heroes, serious, dramatic actors like Al Pacino or Robert De Niro, and wonders how his, decorated and impressive as it is, took a different turn.

He shares a story that he put into his memoir, alongside tales of drug use (he's been sober since 1985) and marital strife (yes, including the very unfatherly voicemail he once left Ireland, with whom he's close now). It was the late '80s, and a young Baldwin, still a few years shy of his breakout role in Glengarry Glen Ross, was sitting across from two Paramount executives in the studio's commissary. They were trying to cajole him into doing Flight of the Intruder; but he'd been busy making The Hunt for Red October, which, as far as he was concerned, was the more compelling war film. So, he asked instead about the third Godfather movie, which had yet to cast its star. "I'll never forget it. One of these guys looks to the other and goes, 'I know what he wants. He wants the good stuff,'" says Baldwin. "I didn't know what to say. I remember sitting there, going, 'Yeah, that's exactly what I want.' And in that moment, I realized that these people have an agenda and if you get lucky enough where you're Leo [DiCaprio] or you're Jack Nicholson, and your agenda intersects with their agenda, great; otherwise …"

He leaves the sentence incomplete.

"Most people don't go to the moon," he continues, staring wistfully out the window as the city whizzes by. "Most people fly planes around the Earth and maybe up into space, but not all the astronauts went to the moon, and it's the same with movie stars. Not everybody gets to go as far as you can go. And I accept that. I do."

***

When I meet him a few weeks later at the midtown studio where he's been taping The Alec Baldwin Show, he seems different. Softer, maybe; definitely happier. It's not hard to see he's in his element, bounding through the halls with a camera crew in tow.

"We're making a good show here," he tells me, though Baldwin is savvy enough about the business to recognize it might not last. So he hedges: "I mean, who knows if we survive? ABC's not doing very well. We could get out there, show four or five episodes, and be dead."

Baldwin doesn't get a lot of time to watch TV these days — save Don Lemon, who his wife is "madly in love with," on CNN — which means he hasn't surveyed the competition. Instead, he says his promotional tour for his memoir in the spring of 2017 gave him his best sense yet for what he wanted his show to be — and, just as important, what he didn't want it to be.

Though he's a loyal friend of Jimmy Fallon, he allowed himself to be booked on Stephen Colbert's Late Show. At first, the conversation appeared to be going well. Baldwin, a famously good guest, shares a few made-for-late-night stories of his children and his Trump impression. A few minutes in, Colbert asks his permission to get a little more personal. Baldwin smiles, though on a second viewing (at his request), I see his trepidation. "You famously yelled at a paparazzo, more than one time," Colbert says. "Sometimes you seem like an angry guy. But you're handsome, you're extremely talented, you're wealthy … What made you angry?"

Baldwin plays along, regaling his host with a few doozies from his photographer run-ins over the years. Inside, he was seething. "I thought to myself, 'Oh no, oh no, let's not get into psychoanalyzing me, because I don't think you're qualified,'" he says now. "And you've just reminded me, in the briefest way, why I didn't do this show all these years."

Months later, he'd take to Twitter to chide Colbert, as well as John Oliver, for becoming public scolds of the #MeToo era — for turning late-night TV from "promotional pit stops" and "blithe chitchat" to a "grand jury." The stance earned him plenty of grief, but he stands by it. "If I want to talk about that stuff," he explains, "I don't necessarily want to talk about it with them."

And yet, when Colbert asked, I say, he answered.

"If I don't, I am the angry guy. You can't win either way because people have already made up their minds. It's either, 'Alec Baldwin, I think you're a philanthropic, wonderful citizen of the community, whatever talent you have' or 'Alec Baldwin, you're just an asshole.' And it's never going to change."

The Alec Baldwin Show was conceived more in the Tomorrow Show vein — intimate, inoffensive conversations, or what ABC's Mills describes as "the warm bath style of interviewing." To Jason Schrift, who was brought over to run the show after years on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Baldwin's perfectly suited for the job. "He's the kind of guy you want to have at your dinner party," says Schrift. "He'll keep the conversation going and he can talk to anyone, and that's exactly what you want."

What will make it to air is still being sorted in late September, as is the guest list, which will range from Kim Kardashian to the prime minister of Norway. Mills is still hoping the show will land Trump and Justin Bieber, now Baldwin's nephew after reportedly marrying his niece, Stephen's daughter Hailey. (When I mention the Bieber idea to Baldwin, he looks surprised and then shakes his head no.) But it's his interview with De Niro, a reliably underwhelming talk show guest, where I get to see Baldwin tested. After some friendly banter about their respective tennis games, he spends the hour doggedly plying stories from the iconic actor, managing to elicit a few special, if not exactly newsworthy, exchanges, including one that leaves both men teary. What the interview proves is that Baldwin — who pulls out his eerily good De Niro impression and tells a fabulous, profanity-laced story about the mob that ABC will surely cut — can carry an hour of television if he needs to.

When the show was first announced in March, Baldwin told me he'd be interested in having Rose McGowan on as a guest, too, despite "the long, steady piss" she'd taken on him in the past. But when I mention her name now, he's clearly changed his mind. "She's a tragic front person for [the #MeToo] cause," he tells me, "and I say that because you don't stand much of a chance of getting where you want to be if you're going to arbitrarily alienate and excoriate innocent men. … It's like all of a sudden, she's one of the Crips — the head of her own gang." He pauses, smiles, and adds: "You can print that, by the way."

Baldwin has no intention of shying away from the topic, however — in fact, he says he's begged Mira Sorvino to come on the show. When her history with Weinstein was revealed last fall, he thought to himself, "You know, I always wondered what happened to Mira Sorvino. She was so talented and so gorgeous, and then, my God, he torpedoed her career." Now, he says, "I'd love to ask her about that: What was it like? It's like The Sixth Sense, when they're like, 'I see dead people.' When did you realize you were dead? That you'd been poisoned and killed?"

He approaches the subject a little more gingerly with another guest, Kerry Washington, who comes by to tape her hour in late September. They're talking about reviving a Whoopi Goldberg production on Broadway, when Baldwin works his way there. He doesn't want to get this wrong, he says, sounding a familiar alarm. They both laugh, nervously, and then Baldwin dives in.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.