Tova: Hi and welcome to the backlot. I’m Tova Laiter, moderator and director of the New York Film Academy guest lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about his experience in the entertainment industry. And now, Eric Conner, will take you through the highlights of this Q&A.
Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you the first Jack Ryan, the man who defended his home from Beetlejuice, who told Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross to put his coffee down. He’s played Liz Lemon’s boss on 30 Rock. Ethan Hunt’s boss in Mission Impossible. And a Boss Baby. Yes, I’m talking about The Alec Baldwin. Like many Emmy winning Oscar-nominated actors, Alec Baldwin got his start in college as a poly sci major.
Alec Baldwin: I had gone and taken an acting class in college when I was at George Washington University and I was taking political science and I wanted to go to law school. And the idea of spending my academic years studying acting sounded ridiculous. You know, so I was gonna go get a real degree and get a real job. And I took an acting class at GW, which was like a gut class take just to complete my semester. And we did a scene study class. And then I went to visit a friend of mine. Then I didn’t do that badly. I mean, you can tell right away, you know, you’re there. And the teacher will say, try this, try that. There’s a little directorial exchange there that if you can take direction and change and see and be open to how you can improve then I think you have a potential aptitude for that. So I went to visit a friend of mine who was at NYU. She had transferred from GW to NYU and her roommate was in the drama program and she said, oh, you should audition and you should audition and you should audition. And you you’d be so wonderful on the program. I think you’d be great. And I thought that was just the dumbest idea. Cause I thought I don’t want to spend all that money to go to NYU, especially to get a degree in acting. And I went in there and I auditioned and I got a scholarship they gave me a full scholarship to come to school. And I went there. And so it actually cost me less money, even though NYU’s more expensive, this is critical because my family had no money. My dad and my mom were apoplectic that I was going to leave GW to go study acting, but my dad got it. My dad especially said to me, you’ll never be young enough to do this again. So I went to NYU. I went to Strausberg, threw them for a year. Jeffrey Horn was my teacher. And Marcia Haufrect was my teacher and Elaine Aikin was my teacher. And I had one more semester to go because they wanted me to do three semesters to transfer my credits. And then I just got a job. I just kept getting jobs. I got on a soap opera. I moved to L.A. I did nighttime TV and slowly over the course of like six or seven years. Did a lot of TV and pilots and some theater in New York. And then I got into the movie business and made movies that, you know, back then a few of them were successful and made some money. And once you star in a film, make some money, things become a bit easier in the business, at least for that lease for a period of time.
Eric: Before things got easier, before the blockbusters, the Emmys, the Tony and Oscar nominations. Alec Baldwin was a working actor who didn’t look down on any role he was fortunate enough to land.
Alec Baldwin: I think for me, it would just do what’s in front of me. Just do it’s put in front of me. I did a soap and I was on that show for almost two and a half years. And of course, the material on daytime TV and there were so many more soaps back than there are now. There were quite a few and a half hour and one hour. And, you know, that’s its own animal. You’re there and you have to try to make this material, you have to fight the urge. You have to resist the urge to comment on it and to send it up and to make fun of it. And because, you know, writing a fresh script every day for five days a week is a terrible task for those people. I grew to be very sympathetic toward the writers, and the task is to try your best to make it work. And eventually I learned that I watched the other people around me who they tried to find something to play and they could make it work. And then when I got in to nighttime TV, I think that you reach a point where everyone on the set has made more movies than you have. Everyone on the set knows more than you do. Everybody has more experience than you do. And slowly that changes. And in the beginning, you have a kind of a boyish gratitude. You’re like, oh, I’m so I’m so happy to be here. I’m so thankful that you hired me. Can I get you some fresh coffee? You know, you’re very much of a guest in someone else’s house, so to speak. And then slowly that changes where the next thing you know, you’re on the set of a film and someone says something to you and you go. No, I think it’s this. And they go, Huh? Okay, let’s try that. You know, we eventually you built up a bundle of experiences, practical experiences, where you’re beginning to understand what’s going to make the scene work. And I think I got to that point. You know, at some point I got there where I really kind of knew what I wanted to do when I didn’t want to do, you know, but it’s a process. And for me, it was drama. You know, I did I did the movie Miami Blues. That was funny, but very violent. I did the movie Beetlejuice, which was funny, but kind of weird. And I’m certainly not the thing that’s funny in that movie. And all his little films, I did them. I did the movie Hunt for Red October, which was really kind of a, you know, a military drama, if you will, an action film, if you will. But slowly, you know, right after that, like you get toward the early 90s and see, I was making movies for about five years. Then I began to be much more clear on what I thought was necessary. You know, I developed develop some experience.
Eric: Part of becoming a bigger star meant well, he got more interesting roles, but maybe just as importantly, it put him in the position to know what parts he didn’t want.
Alec Baldwin: I try to look at the whole piece. I trying to read the movie, and the first thing I try to decide is, is this a movie I think is a good movie, you know, because why would you want to be the tree falling in the woods and there’s nobody there? Why do you want to give a performance that no one’s going to see, even if there’s a great scenes for you and good writing for you the movie doesn’t work. So I try to ascertain, does the movie itself work? And then I asked myself, is it a movie that I want to make or a movie I want to see? So if you say that my character is a psychopathic killer who walks on to a kindergarden bus with a flamethrower in the opening scenes of the movie, I might not want to do that movie. I might not want to be that guy. I mean, I have been offered parts where I said, well, I don’t necessarily want to be that guy, somebody who’s, like, really just a complete monster or a complete jerk or whatever. I don’t mind doing those things if it’s in the service of a good movie. And then the thing I asked myself is the last thing I ask myself was my character. And I played parts in films where my character wasn’t the biggest role. It wasn’t the most well served in terms of the page count. It wasn’t the lead role, let’s say. But there was an opportunity for me in terms of that character. I thought that character could have an impact on the film and be if it was well-written. It made a difference. There’s movies I’ve been offered where you kind of think you can get anybody to play that part. There wasn’t anything special, too. There wasn’t anything I could bring that was really unique. So I look at the film in terms of the quality of the writing in the film and the story. I look at the film in terms of do I want to put myself through that? You know, there’s a you do put yourself through something in some films you do. And then the third thing is, this is my role in the film, just superfluous. Some people will always ask you to come do a film and do something that you did another film. You’ll come to their film and they’ll say, well, that thing you did in that film do that in my film, and you’ll think, well, maybe not. I don’t make a lot of movies anymore because of my kids. And I got remarried and my wife and I have a lot of children that we have a lot of little kids. And so going off and shooting films is always a difficult proposition. But I always say the same corny line. I say acting is like sex. When I was young, I would do it with anybody. I mean, and now I’m a lot more particular about what acting I do and why and with who.
Eric: One hallmark of Mr. Baldwin’s career that showed his. I’m afraid to call it experimentation was his ability to jump from one medium to another. Take 1990 in the same year he’s starring in The Hunt for Red October, produced by the founder of New York Film Academy, Jerry Sherlock. But you could also see him in the off Broadway premiere of Craig Lucas’s Prelude to a Kiss. He can go from playing Stanley Kowalski in streetcar to battling the Bear and the Edge. And on the small screen, he’s battling Steve Martin by hosting Saturday Night Live. For a record 17 times, he makes it all look rather easy. Even if the needs for performing for film, TV and stage are exceedingly different beasts.
Alec Baldwin: Movies, typically, and this is just my interpretation. Movies, typically, they exist inside that one framework and there’s a frame to the painting. The movie is 100 minutes long and the story starts and ends. And your task is all inside of that construct. And you have to really, really movie making us a lot of pressure. Movie making is very intense if it’s a drama because you want to make sure you’ve exposed every aspect and you’ve turned over every stone in terms of what the possibilities are and also narrowed it down to what’s worthwhile, what works. You can have all kinds of crazy ideas, but they don’t really work for the story. Like, how do you get down to what works? TV is different because it’s week after week after week. Even if you did a limited series of twelve episode, there’s more time you can spread your arc of your character and the things that they want to say. What the characters purposes in the storytelling can be spread out over more times. You have to look at it with more. I don’t want to say patience, but more complexity because there’s things you might you might have a very quiet episode. You might have an episode where you’re not featured unless you are the lead in the show. You are part of a cast of people. And your relevance and your significance in the story may go like this through episode after episode. So some episodes will be strong for you and some episodes will not be strong for you. And so you have to kind of parse that and really, really factor that in in a movie. You’ve got to give it everything you got. You know, you’ve got to really focus and lock down and get those takes really the best you can. Because, I mean, unless it’s some movie, which is a huge budget, you’re not going to go back and shoot it again. When you’re in front of that camera and they say the action. That’s the time for you to get in on. And you’ve got to be ready to do it. Then you turn to them and go, oh, I have a headache, I don’t feel good. Can we do this tomorrow? It’s unlikely. You know, movies are just so much more intense. The shooting of movies and TV is a little bit more of a stroll through the character.
Eric: Mr Baldwin claims that his most legendary role is serving Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock was more of a stroll than most, thanks to the brilliant mind of Tina Fey and her superb writing staff.
Clips: I can get you into a restaurant where you watch your child play with a bunny. Then you eat the bunny.
Clips: As I was taught at Six Sigma, analyze, strategize, succeed. A. S. S.
Clips: I wasn’t really going to fire you. I just wanted to remind you that I could.
Clips: Why are you wearing a tux?
Clips: It’s after six. What am I, a farmer?
Alec Baldwin: Well, I think 30 Rock is probably one of the ultimate examples of maybe the beneficiary of very good writing. You know, if it’s not funny on the page, it’s unlikely you can make it funny. The writing was the best I’ve ever seen in terms of comedy, was very fast paced. It was very weird and quirky and clever and topical or not. It had the right amount of heart into the story some times. And some of my favorite scenes were with Elaine Stritch, who played my mother.
Clips: If you were my kid, I’d mail you back to the stork.
Clips: She’s not kidding. When I was eight, she took me to the post office because I spilled juice on a couch reserved for the pope, which is still never been used.
Clips: But I am sorry. I tried to mail you.
Alec Baldwin: The whole idea is it’s a character that’s given to you where the character is, you know, one way on the outside, there’s a membrane in between how he is in public and private. In public. He tries to be very commanding and very together. And sometimes he is genuinely expert at something. I said it’s not going to work if he’s completely full of baloney and he doesn’t really know anything and he’s just a FOP. It’s not going to work. He needs to be somebody who is very good at business. And the thing is, is that he’s a, you know, kind of widget executive who’s come to the creative world. So it’s a it’s a horrible match. And as I try to widgetize the TV comedy business, there’s a lot of funny and horrible things that result from that. But I think that when I did the show, you just had to I hate to say this. You just had to just say the words couldn’t get out of the way. Don’t put a lot on it because it was so well-written that it was really pretty effortless. I think the only thing that was hard was to remember the words, because sometimes they gave me that really long speeches and I had to drink like ten cups of coffee in the morning to get myself ready to go. You know, it was a very, very it was a lot of words to memorize.
Eric: Even more so than caffeine. The right attitude and approach from a director can make all the difference for how Alec Baldwin tackles a role.
Alec Baldwin: What I’ve learned to do over time is to try to get more of a clearer sense of what the director wants. And if I don’t see eye to eye with them, I don’t do the film or if they’re incapable of articulating to me what they want. I don’t do the film. And before I wanted to work so I couldn’t get too picky about directors. I mean, there are some actors who at a very early age worked with phenomenal directors. You know, Sean Penn did Falcon and the Snow Man with what’s his name who did Midnight Cowboy? Schlesinger. You know, I mean, there’s some actors who are very early on. They work with great directors and they’re very, very fortunate. You know, Leo DiCaprio with Scorsese and so forth. For me, I think my experience is more ordinary where I want very much to be directed. I want very much for you to tell me what you want me to do in your movie, because it’s your movie, you know, you and you have to take ultimate responsibility for the fact that it’s your movie. I can’t make the movie. I’ll come in and I’ll fight sometimes or I’ll be very vivid about what I want for the character sometimes. But in the end, I want I don’t want to tip the whole canoe over just in terms of getting what I want. I want us to go on this journey together. And I want you to get what you want to go into the cutting room. So directors need to be in charge. They need to be very clear. If you can’t describe the film to an actor in under three minutes, then it’s a failure. Should be able to say this is a story about a guy who goes on a whaling ship and he meets this crazy captain Ahab. And Ahab had his leg bitten off by the white whale. Whatever go. This is a story about Atticus Finch. He he’s a lawyer in the south. And this black guy, Tom Robinson, boom. You just this is a story about Terry Malloy, and he’s a longshoreman during the corrupt days of the unions. Boom. You lay it out there. If you can’t do that, then I think most sensible actors don’t want to work with you. You have to be able to say, this is the movie I’m making. This is it. And everyone will join you in trying to because a filmmaker sometimes doesn’t accept the fact that they’re like a conductor in the symphony. You wanna make sure we’re all playing the same piece in the same time. Actors tend to kind of off road and go do this. And they want to do this. They want to draw attention to themselves. They want to draw attention to their performances. They’re not necessarily doing the film. The director has to make sure everybody we’re all doing the same movie. Let’s all do the same movie together. And the director has to be responsible for that. I’ve done movies where I literally walked to the director and I said, you’re going to let him do that like that. There will be somebody doing something just horrible, just abysmal. You know, I mean, thankfully, it wasn’t often, but there would be some that would do that. You could see there were directors who they didn’t want to confront the actors. They didn’t want to instruct the actors. And you have to you have to you have to know what your film is and stick to that mission and stick to that path. So is that helpful?
Eric: That is helpful. Thank you, Mr. Baldwin also stressed out students how important preparation can be before you even step foot on set in his case. There is one key element of a character. He needs to understand to do the part justice.
Alec Baldwin: I think the first thing I think about I’ve always said this many times, and some people find this helpful. Some people don’t necessarily find that helpful. And that is the disposition of the character. The nature of the character is very important to me. Is the person someone who is confident in the world? Do they lack confidence? Are they someone who is strong in the world or the weak in the world? Are they someone who is very verbally fascile? And the words come flowing off their tongue and they speak very eloquently. They’re good speakers or they’re not. They’re always reaching for a word. They’re fabricating what they say. There’s pauses in there. They’re not as articulate are they people who are very sensitive and in the now and very responsive to people with their in their own world. You know, I always use that example of Robert Duvall played Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. And he doesn’t have one line. He doesn’t have one line. And he plays this very tender, very damaged guy. He looks so damaged. But he becomes the hero of the film or one of the heroes of the film. And I think Duvall is on screen minimally, but he just rips your heart out, you know, because he’s so true to that character, that weak, damaged, kind of just terrified, like an animal, like a terrified animal, you know? And I think it’s just one of the most beautiful performances ever. And the movie is Duvall and To Kill a Mockingbird. But all those things like Pacino, when you watch The Godfather Part two and see how much Pacino lays back. Don’t act. Don’t act. Don’t push. Don’t push. Just say the words. Here’s my offer to you, Senator. Nothing. Here’s my offer to you, Senator, and don’t sit up and scream, you know, think about how other actors might have played those scenes and Pacino just stayed very dry, very dry just said the words. The words had the power. What made it even more chilling was the less emotional he was. He goes the other way. He’s not yelling. He’s not screaming. You have to ask yourself about that. About the sound of the character, the voice of the character. The movements of the character is a character, somebody that sits in a chair and is a very kind of sedentary person. Is he a guy on the the balls of his feet? You know, very animated. There’s a whole list of things you can do. But if it’s good writing, the writing will tell you what to do. The writing tells you what to do.
Eric: When asked about the importance of stretching and taking risks, Mr. Baldwin was exceedingly candid about one of his performances that he felt didn’t quite reached the level of the writing.
Alec Baldwin: I certainly have had periods in my life where I wanted to try different things, and I did Macbeth at the Public Theater in 1998 and I did a Shakespeare play in New York. When I look back on that, I think to myself. I got half of it right. The other half I didn’t get right. There’s some scenes I didn’t quite get what I imagined in my head. I always find this work is more easy to gauge in the theater business because, you know, you. I’ve done new plays, but I’ve done a lot of revivals. And you sit there and say, well, the material works. We know the material works. If you do a streetcar or I did 20th century or other plays, all my sons, Equus, things I’ve done like that where the play is worthy. The question is, can we come up to the right level? I have tried. You know, when they ask did you Trump? I thought, oh God, I do. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do that. But I gave it a whirl.
Clips: Thank you very much, everybody. I’m here to declare a very urgent, important national emergency. It’s the big ones who I don’t wanna waste any time. That’s my first. I’d like to blow my own horn a little bit. OK. I just had a great health exam. I’m still standing.
Alec Baldwin: But I think there are people who they find something that works for them. That tends to be more the universe of movie stars. You like big movie stars who they’re being paid to do the same thing over and over again. There’s a kind of a tone they have in their acting and they’re asked to replicate that again and again. I think you should try everything.
Eric: If ever an actor has managed to try everything. Alec Baldwin, be his name. He was even the narrator for Thomas the Tank Engine. An important piece of advice he gave our students was that studying acting provides a strong set of skills. But it’s only one piece of the puzzle.
Alec Baldwin: I think it’s great for people to take a year and join a rep company because it’s one thing to be in a classroom. Classrooms are important, but eventually you move beyond the classroom. You don’t want to become a classroom actor. And there is such a thing I think as a classroom. You want to study and give it everything you can. And the point is, make your mistakes outside of the white hot spotlight of the business, grow out of that spotlight. It’s very difficult to grow. Once you find somebody that works in the business, people want you to stick with that and your growth may end. And I think that you should do like a, you know, a season of rap. You know, go to Louis, though, La Hoya. Seattle. I mean, obviously, this is a post-COVID notion, but the Guthrie find a place, Williamstown go somewhere where it’s just about you and a bunch of people immersing yourself in this work cause it’s sad for me sometimes, although it’s understandable that I talked to a bunch of young people sometimes and they say, how do I get an agent? How do I make it in the business? There’s a part of me that thinks, you know, that is written. You’re going to make it or you’re not. It helps to be talented, but you don’t have to be. But I think it’s great when you’re really young. 22, 23, 24. Before you’re 25 years old. Just really, really do as many shows as you can. Do as many plays as you can. Play roles. You do as many roles. And I know that there’s a limitation on the roles for young people that are worthwhile. Good roles are tough in every age group, except, you know, when you’re usually in your 30s and 40s, but do as much theater rep theater and kind of off the beaten path. Theater work as you can.
Eric: In other words, if you want to act, go act, which is also good advice for writers, directors and all artists. We want to thank Alec Baldwin for his decades of amazing performances and for not only talking with our students, but really teaching them as well. And thanks to all of you for listening. This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated and curated by Tova Laiter. To watch the full interview or to check out our other Q&As go to our YouTube channel at YouTube dot com slash New York Film Academy. This episode was written by me. Eric Conner edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Our creative director is David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and myself, executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. Special thanks to our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.