Alec Baldwin has been keeping busy lately. The star of the animated film The Boss Baby has a new memoir out and also keeps popping up on Saturday Night Live to play President Trump.
Baldwin tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that his impression of the president is purposefully exaggerated. "We're doing it live on a TV show at 11:30 at night in front of a live audience, so there's a kind of volume to it," he says. "It's kind of the Macy's Day Parade [version] of Trump — it's a very larger-than-life thing."
Baldwin grew up in a family of six kids on Long Island, N.Y. His father, a dedicated high school teacher, didn't make much money, but they bonded over late-night classic movies. Initially, Baldwin thought he would pursue a career in law and government, but he decided instead to go into acting — much to the chagrin of his mother. "She was apoplectic," Baldwin says. "She was screaming on the phone, 'What is wrong with you?' "
Baldwin details his entry into show business, as well as the highs and lows of his career and his life, in his memoir, Nevertheless.
On his Trump impression on SNL
I say, "Left eyebrow up, right eyebrow down, stick your mouth out as far as you can like you're trying to bite somebody's nose off, and just kind of growl with that irritability. ..."
The [thing] I try to lock into and kind of hold on to just for that brief five minutes of the cold opening is [Trump] not having any fun. ... He doesn't shut up about how rich he is. He doesn't stop talking about how much money he has, and how much privilege he has ... and he just seems miserable. If he's an advertisement for wealth and privilege, then, good God, I think it's terrible.
On how growing up in a household with five siblings affected him later in life
I walked out of that house with almost crippling OCD. Like I'd be standing in the hallway of my apartment in New York and the driver was downstairs and I needed to get into the car now, like right now, or I was going to miss my flight, and I'd be making sure that all the books were stacked neatly on the table in the entry hall of my apartment.
I'd be sitting there literally with my thumbs squeezing the books so all the seams were right and the books were stacked just so, and whoever was primary in my life would be looking at me like, "You're kidding, right? You realize we're going to miss the flight." I'd be like, "Excuse me?"
I didn't realize it was all coming out of this house of mine, which was just a hurricane and a mess all the time, because my mother just didn't have the energy to clean up after six kids all the time.
On taking high-paying roles instead of following his passion for creative work
Even unconsciously, my whole life became about I don't want to be like my dad. ... I don't want to get in trouble financially. A man's job is to make as much money as he can, that's it. That's it. ... That effed up my career in some ways; I didn't really do what I wanted to do careerwise. ...
There's a turning point, which I view clearly as a turning point, there's a spell of time there where I go and I don't do Prelude to a Kiss on Broadway and I go do The Marrying Man, because they're going to pay me a million dollars for the first time in my life, and I thought, "Well, that's who I am. I'm a guy that's going to star in films, and you're going to pay me a lot of money, and that's the career I want to have."
The movie was not a good movie, and I should've done Prelude. I should've followed the instincts I had up 'till then. My instincts, if I had followed them, I would've gone to Broadway, and I would not have chased the money, but I did the money instead, because people talked me into that.
On staying committed to his work as an actor
I think that people who are actors very often ... have kind of a phobia of being caught undercommitted to their work. ... When I did Mission Impossible a couple of years ago with Tom Cruise ... I said to Tom, "What motivates you?"
In some way Tom is mesmerizing to me, in terms of his career and his work ethic. I said, "What drives you now? You're so many years into this." ... He says, "I gotta give them their money's worth ... on both ends, the people who are writing me my check and the people who are buying tickets to the film. I've got to give on both ends." ...
And I've felt that same way. A lot of actors ... go to tremendous lengths to commit to their work as actors.
On aging in Hollywood
Ian Parker from The New Yorker ... wrote an article about me and he described me [as resembling] ... "an NFL football player in his broadcasting years," and I thought that was a very funny description, in the way where you kind of let yourself go and don't really tend to that grooming and that kind of self-examination.
I guess there was a part of me that it was maybe even a form of depression. ... There was some of that. I didn't care enough, and I started to care about other things. Plus, the really difficult thing was my divorce and my custody battle for my daughter, were right around 2002 and on through about 2007, 2008, it was a lot of more bad than good in my life, quite frankly.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Alec Baldwin, has become kind of a regular on "Saturday Night Live" doing his impression of Donald Trump, a portrayal that President Trump says stinks. Baldwin now holds the title for the number of times anyone has ever guest-hosted the show - 17 times. Baldwin has a new memoir called "Nevertheless," and its publication coincides with the release of his animated movie "The Boss Baby," which was number one at the box office last weekend.
His character is an infant who dresses in a business suit, carries a briefcase and behaves like a commanding boss. The character connects to a couple of roles Baldwin is famous for, a ruthless salesman in "Glengarry Glen Ross" and a network executive in "30 Rock." We're going to talk about his life and work. Let's start with a "Saturday Night Live" clip from March 11. Aliens from planet Zorblat-9 have attacked the Earth.
Kenan Thompson plays a military officer giving the troops a pep talk about how they have to save the human race. But first, he says, your commander in chief wants to say a few words. And he steps aside for President Trump, played by Alec Baldwin.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
ALEC BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) Now, here's the deal. We are going to beat these aliens because we have got the best military. But we don't win anymore.
BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) And the aliens are laughing at us. They're killing us, and they're laughing at us.
KENAN THOMPSON: (As Military Officer) We know the aliens are killing us, sir. They have the most advanced weaponized technology we've ever seen. What should we do?
BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) OK, here's what we do. Here's what we're going to do. We are going to bring coal back, OK?
BALDWIN: (Donald Trump) We're going to have so much coal, you're going to say, where did all this coal come from? I never knew there could be so much coal.
THOMPSON: (As Military Officer) But, Mr. President, what about the aliens? They just vaporized the entire state of California.
BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) So then I won the popular vote?
THOMPSON: (As Military Officer) Sir, please, everyone in California is dead.
BALDWIN: (As Donald Trump) Even Arnold?
THOMPSON: (As Military Officer) Sir, yes. We are dealing with a highly advanced species here. They're from Zorblat-9. Their ships are invisible. They're telepathic.
BALDWIN: (Donald Trump) OK, now, we don't know that they are from Zorblat-9. I've actually heard Zorblat-9 is very beautiful, very fantastic.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Oh, my God, does he have business ties on Zorblat-9?
GROSS: Alec Baldwin, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
BALDWIN: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Congratulations on "The Boss Baby." Congratulations on your memoir and on your Trump impersonation on "Saturday Night Live." So I'd like to start with that. How did you start doing Donald Trump? And what stood out for you watching him that you thought you could do to caricature him?
BALDWIN: Well, I think other people can certainly do Trump more deftly than I can. I don't think I really do the greatest impersonation of Trump, per se. But we're not doing it on film. We're doing it live on a TV show at 11:30 at night in front of a live audience. So there's a kind of - you kind of blow it up. You know, it's kind of the Macy's Day Parade...
BALDWIN: ...Of Trump. You know, it's a very larger-than-life thing. And I think in the back of my mind, maybe I could do him a little more precisely if we were in a different venue. But for this, you've got to pick a couple things, which is just his - I mean, I always say the same stupid thing to myself. I say, you know, left eyebrow up, right eyebrow down, stick your mouth out as far as you can like you're trying to bite somebody's nose off and kind of growl with that irritability.
You know, Trump is someone, to me, where the things I try to lock into and kind of hold onto just for that brief five minutes of the cold opening is that he's not having any fun. He doesn't shut up about how rich he. He doesn't stop talking about how much money he has and how much privilege he has. And he just seems miserable. I mean, if he's an advertisement for wealth and privilege, then, good God, I think it's terrible.
But anyway, so we did that. And he was always straining to find a stronger, better word in his language and never found it. So you'd have him pause. You know, Trump is always in there going, you know, (imitating Donald Trump) the people that I work with, they're just really, really the most fantastic people. They're fantastic.
BALDWIN: You know, he just always - you see him digging in some bin. He's, like, in a filing room looking for another word. And he'll say, (imitating Donald Trump) my son-in-law Jared is really just an amazing young guy. He's amazing. He's just amazing. I think he has, like, a glossary of about, like, 200 words.
GROSS: So Trump has negative tweeted about "Saturday Night Live" and about you in particular. I'll read a couple of tweets. This is October 16 at 7:14 a.m. (Reading) Watched "Saturday Night Live..."
GROSS: ...Hit job on me. Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election. December 4, 12:13 a.m. (Reading) Just tried watching "Saturday Night Live" - unwatchable, totally biased, not funny. And the Baldwin impersonation just can't get any worse. Sad. And you responded (reading) release your tax returns and I'll stop (laughter).
BALDWIN: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: He hasn't released them. You haven't stopped.
BALDWIN: No, I'm still waiting.
GROSS: What was your first reaction when you realized that Trump was tweeting about your impersonation?
BALDWIN: It is kind of absurd. Well, I mean, regardless of whether you're the subject of those tweets or one of them - 'cause all those tweets are kind of a multiple warhead, you know. He takes on the show, he takes on the press, he takes on me all in 140 characters. So he does have some skill there. But I think it's absurd that he would be doing that in the direction of anybody - any kind of comedy programming that's parodying him or commenting on him, whether it was Jon Stewart in his day and so forth or Colbert now.
I find it amazing that he's doing that. And then when you think about it's me that he's doing it with, I find that even more surreal.
GROSS: So let's talk a little bit about your memoir "Nevertheless." One of the things I really enjoyed learning about you is that growing up in Long Island, Massapequa, Long Island, you watched a lot of old movies on TV. I grew up in New York City in Brooklyn and watched a lot of the same movie shows that you did - "The Late Show," "The Late Late Show," "The Early Show." What was the Sunday afternoon thing you mentioned?
BALDWIN: "Picture For A Sunday Afternoon."
GROSS: Yeah, "Picture For A Sunday Afternoon." And then you explain in your book that you bonded with your father watching, like, the late-night old movies on TV and you bonded with your mother when you faked being sick and stayed home from school and watched daytime TV with her.
BALDWIN: Dinah Shore.
GROSS: Yeah, so I just thought that's so interesting that you became an actor and, like, TV, you know, like, movies and TV were ways of bonding with your parents. But - so with the movies that you saw on TV, what are the movies that you saw the most that made the biggest impression, ones that you were able to watch over and over?
BALDWIN: I guess, you know, when I was young, my dad - I'm perfectly willing to see now that what I loved and what I was doing and what I was opening up my mind to was to communicate with my dad. He would come home from work, he'd lay on this day bed in the den of our house. There was a TV. And I'd sit in a chair and, you know, this was his sacred time, his alone time. No one could get near him or really, really bother him in the evening because, you know, he'd get home sometimes, you know, 10, 11 o'clock.
And sometimes I think he stayed away. Maybe he pretended he had a job at night, but he was really just doing something else. But he was - it was tough. You know, he would come home and six kids and my mom - and I think everybody was just stressed out. And he'd be reading the capsule reviews in The Times' TV section. And my dad would say, wow, "How Green Was My Valley." That's a good one. At 11:30, I'd say, can we watch "How Green Was My Valley," Dad? I was 10 years old. He'd say, no, no, no.
It's too late. He goes, well, let's just watch 10 minutes - 10 minutes, 15 minutes of "How Green Was My Valley" and you have to go to bed. I'd be like, sure, Dad, sure. It would work like a charm. TV comes on, "How Green Was My Valley," my dad passes out on the couch, he falls asleep and I watch all of "How Green Was My Valley." I watched the whole thing. Some nights I actually got away with watching a piece of the next one that was on at, like, 1:15 in the morning.
GROSS: In your memoir, you write that you learned lines from a lot of different films. So I'm going to ask you to do a passage from a film that you still remember.
BALDWIN: (Laughter) Oh, God.
GROSS: Yes? Yeah.
BALDWIN: Well, I'll always remember, like, just lines that I used to think were funny. You know, like, those men - I loved men in movies who they always won. And they won in some funny way. Like, there's that time that Bogart has got - Elisha Cook Jr. has gotten him in the hotel. And he's walking him up to go meet Sydney Greenstreet in "Maltese Falcon." And he's got the gun on him. And Bogart disarms Elisha Cook Jr. And he gets the gun away from him, and he points the gun at him and says, come on. And he says, that will get you in real good with your boss.
BALDWIN: And I just love things like that, where the guy - the hero wins. And they really were great bad guys. I mean, they were - they made the bad guys really bad, you know, really bad. And, you know, "Treasure Of The Sierra Madre" - what's three times $35,000? - I bet you $105,000 you fall asleep before I do, he'd say to those guys. So all those movies - you know, Bogart was, like, the great one. He was such a great actor and so different and so unique. But Cagney, Bogart, Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson...
GROSS: Wait, wait, wait - I'm going to stop you. Everybody used to do impressions of Cagney. All the comics used to do impressions of Cagney when I was growing up.
BALDWIN: Yeah, yeah - when I was a kid, yeah.
GROSS: Did you have a Cagney impression?
BALDWIN: Cagney was - well, I mean, I always get the line wrong because I went back and saw the movie "Public Enemy." I think he's got the guy in the trunk of the car where the guy goes - (imitating character) open up, open up. I can't breathe in here. I can't breathe. I don't have any air.
BALDWIN: And Cagney stands outside - Cagney goes, (imitating James Cagney) Air? You want air? I'll give you air. Boom-boom-boom - and he shoots him through the trunk of the car.
BALDWIN: What a horrible thing to say. (Imitating James Cagney) You want air? I'll give you air.
And we used to do that. I'd lay in bed next to my mother. My mother was trying to sleep. She would take naps every day. This was when I was like 10, and my mother had six little kids. You realize - I look now at my children, my young children, and I realized my mother had little children. So they need to be constantly watched. When the kids - when my brothers and I got to be, all of us, got to be 16, 15, 14, my mother just opened the door and kicked us out of the house. She said, I don't care what you do. Just make sure you don't get hit by a car, but get out. And she banished us from the house in the driving snow. She evicted us from the house. She just didn't want us in the house so she wouldn't lose her marbles. And - but when I was a little boy and I lay in bed next to my mother, my mother would be sleeping. And in this very quiet voice, you'd hear me go, (imitating James Cagney) Air? You want air? I'll give you air. Boom, boom, boom. My mother would hit me and say...
GROSS: You all...
BALDWIN: ...Lie still.
GROSS: (Laughter) You also used to watch "Chiller Theater" when you were growing up, which was the Saturday night late-night monster movie...
GROSS: ...That Zacherley hosted. And my older brother would watch that, and I was allowed to stay up for a few minutes of it. And it terrified me. I fell in love with monster movies, you know, 'cause the things that really scare you...
GROSS: ...Then you fall in love with afterwards.
BALDWIN: Lugosi, all those movies.
GROSS: Yeah. What really scared...
BALDWIN: Well, Lugosi.
GROSS: ...You when you were young? Yeah.
BALDWIN: Oh, "Dracula." I'd watch "Dracula" 50 times. (Imitating Bela Lugosi) Listen to them, children of the night. What music they make, he'd say.
GROSS: I love that (laughter).
BALDWIN: And then - love that one, and I love - my favorite line - Matthew Broderick and I always regale each other with our Claude Rains line readings from "Invisible Man" because we're "Invisible Man" junkies. And whenever Matthew and I see each other, we look at each other and say, (imitating Claude Rains) sit down, you fool, and let's have a decent fire.
BALDWIN: Because he says that to his enemy in the film. And the very first movie that I watched with my dad that I was - that made me an addict - was we would watch "Million Dollar Movie." And "Sorry, Wrong Number" came on with Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster. And that movie scared the hell out of me. The idea that a man would pay people to kill his wife to collect the insurance - and I was probably 8 or 9 years old. And I was a complete idiot.
BALDWIN: I'd look at my dad and say, gee, Dad - I was like Dondi out of "Dondi" comics. I was like, gee, Dad, do people really do that, Dad? - pay people to kill their wives to get the insurance, Dad? My father would, like, glare over at my mother and go indeed they do, yes, indeed they do.
Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Alec Baldwin. He has a new memoir called "Nevertheless." We're going to take a short break and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TONY Z'S "IT'S ALL THE SAME")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Alec Baldwin. And he has a new memoir called "Nevertheless." And he's the voice of the Boss Baby in the new, No. 1 box office-rated film. And of course he's doing President Trump on "Saturday Night Live."
So you grew up in Massapequa, Long Island, and - you point out - not the affluent part. There were two high schools. Your father taught at the one where the more prosperous families sent their kids. And you went to the other one. Your father taught history and economics. He coached football and riflery. He chaperoned dances, supervised weekend recreation programs, directed one of the school district's summer camp programs. And you say he was strict with you because he'd seen what happens to kids who go off the track and who start drinking or using drugs. So in what way was he strict with you?
BALDWIN: Well, my dad grew up in Brooklyn. And I think my dad just, you know, he saw a tough part of Brooklyn. He played football at Boys High. He went to Syracuse and played football, and he was around some pretty tough people. And he just - you know, he - they moved to a tough - to Fort Greene when Fort Greene was not a good area like it is now. It's all been built up. And I think when he moved out to Long Island, like a lot of city dads, it was like - it was almost like we didn't move out here for you to get it wrong, you know.
And he didn't realize - well, I take that back. He did realize, but I think he was puzzled with how to deal with the fact that people that moved out from the city brought all of the problems of the city with them as well because kids that are unoccupied - they're going to do drugs and drink and party and things like that. So my dad was very, very - I'm not going to say menacing, but he was very, very forceful with us.
He would, like, look at me and say - where are you going to go? I'd say, I'm going to go to my friend Jeff's house. He goes, what are you guys going to do? Did you leave the phone number with your mother? And everything was very calm and very officious. And then at the end he'd say, what time are you going to come home? I'd say, I'm going to be home at 10:30. And I'm tense the whole time. I mean, like, I'm waiting for the bomb to drop. He'd lean in and press his finger into my shoulder. And he'd say, if you're not back at this house at 10:30, I'm going to break every bone in your body. Do you understand me? And I was like, yes, yes - oh, God, oh, God, yes. I was just terrified me.
And that's what - other people who we grew up with, those dads had other things to withhold from their kids to control them. You can't use the boat this weekend. I'm going to take your car away. I'm going to take your allowance away. We had none of that. My father had nothing to give to us, you know, in addition to what was normal - our clothes and food and housing and if we needed money for certain - specific expenses related to our school and trips. But he wasn't handing out allowances ever. That was just - it didn't happen. We had to go out and earn our own money. And so the only thing he had was the fear program.
GROSS: Did he ever use the threats? Did he ever...
BALDWIN: I mean, there were times my dad would, like, you know, grab you by the shirt and, like, slam you up against the wall when you were, like, 15. That was a different generation. I mean, my dad - he - my dad wasn't somebody who was beating us with a pool cue. But he was someone who would - and every time he'd lose his temper and he'd grab you - and he was a pretty tough guy. My father was a very physically powerful, very tough guy when he was, especially when he was younger. He deteriorated very quickly in his 50s and died when he was 55 years old of cancer. But he - yeah, he grabbed us. He grabbed us by the shirt and slammed us up against the wall if he heard you say the wrong thing.
GROSS: It sounds like your father had a very kind of frustrating life in a lot of ways. You know, he was - taught at the same high school for his whole career and never advanced up the ladder in the way that some others did. Your father had two brothers. One of them asked your father to co-sign for a loan and then defaulted on the loan, and your father...
GROSS: ...Had to pay it back. The other brother married your mother's sister.
GROSS: And then they separated, and your mother's sister arrived at your home with her three children.
BALDWIN: (Laughter) I'm so proud of you. You've got this straight. Good for you. You see it.
GROSS: And then your family was expected to put them up and take care of them for a year. So your father had repaid the loan from one brother and temporarily raised the other brother's three kids. And it sounds like your mother had a very kind of overwhelming life because she had six kids. She was taking various kinds of pills - sleeping pills, anti-anxiety pills. What message did you take away about what it meant to be a parent and to have a family from watching your parents and watching what they struggled with and all of their frustrations?
BALDWIN: Well, I don't think I necessarily looked at them and thought about them in terms of what can I learn from them as parents. I mean, if I look at that, I can see that. But I walked out of that house with a kind of almost crippling OCD. You know, I remember - like, I'd be standing in the hallway of my apartment in New York. And the driver was downstairs, and I needed to get into the car now - like, right now - or else I was going to miss my flight. And I'd be making sure that all the books were stacked neatly...
BALDWIN: ...On the table in the entry hall of my apartment. I'd be sitting there literally with my thumbs squeezing the books so that all the seams were right and the books were stacked just so. And whoever was primary in my life would be looking at me going - you're kidding, right? You realize we have to - we're going to miss the flight. And I'd be like, excuse me. And I didn't realize that it was all, you know, coming out of this house of mine, which was just a hurricane and a mess all the time because my mother just didn't have the energy to clean up after six kids all the time.
But the - and the other thing, the more primary thing, is about making money. I mean, I looked at my dad who - other men who were my father's colleagues and his contemporaries who taught school recognized that that was not enough of an income - it was a calling. And the income made it a calling. I mean, it was never about money. But these other men who were my father's colleagues had other jobs. And in the summer or on weekends, they even had companies to make money to supplement. One guy that was a kid in my neighborhood - his father had a travel agency.
But my dad didn't do that. He wouldn't - all of his ancillary activity was at the school and paid minimal money. I mean, he didn't really get paid very much money. But this is what he wanted to do. And my mom was always a bit, you know, pissed off about that. And I remember when I walked out the door when I was a kid, even unconsciously, my whole life became about, I don't want to be like my dad. I just do not want to be like my dad. I don't want to get in trouble financially. A man's job is to make as much money as he can. That's it. That's it.
You know, my dad died, and I was - he never really got a chance to see me do what I do. I was doing this daytime TV show, which was fun. And it was important because it was the beginning for me. But I just think about what I would have done to - you know, to show my dad how much I loved him and cared about him too. You know, he - my dad was somebody who if - you know, I would have sent him around the world 10 times to enjoy himself to pay him back for what he did for me.
GROSS: My guest is Alec Baldwin. His new memoir is called "Nevertheless." After a break, we talk about how he became an actor; we look back on when he was the young, handsome, leading man; talk about how religion re-entered his life; how the paparazzi won't get out of his life; and I ask him to do his New York Philharmonic announcer voice. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "SO WHAT")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Alec Baldwin. He's been doing his impression of Donald Trump pretty regularly on "Saturday Night Live." His new animated movie "The Boss Baby" was No. 1 at the box office last weekend. And he has a new memoir called "Nevertheless" in which he writes about his life and career. Baldwin grew up in Massapequa, Long Island. His father was a dedicated high school teacher who didn't make much money and was supporting six kids. Baldwin vowed not to be in the kind of financially unstable position his father was, so there was a period where he accepted the acting roles that paid the most, which he now regrets.
BALDWIN: There was a spell of time there where I go and I don't do "Prelude To A Kiss" on Broadway. And I go do "The Marrying Man," because they're going to pay me a million dollars for the first time in my life. And I thought, well, that's who I am. I'm a guy that's going to star in films, and you're going to pay me a lot of money. And that's the career I want to have. And I don't go do - and the movie was not a good movie. And I should have done "Prelude."
I should have followed the instincts I had up till then. Now, my instincts, if I followed them, I would have gone to Broadway. And I would not have chased the money. But I did the money instead, 'cause people talked me into that. There's a bunch of guys that sat me down, and in such - when I was shooting "Red October" - and in so many words, they said to me, you're it.
We're going to put some serious films together and get you up there in the stratosphere and up there with, you know, Mel and Kevin and blah-bidi-blah (ph). And I just said to myself - you know, I sat and talked to them. And I thought, all of this sounds great, except the movies suck that you want me to do. And doing "Streetcar" was an attempt to kind of jerk the wheel back in that direction and try to say, well...
BALDWIN: ...This is who I am. And the creative is important to me. And I kind of was ashamed at how I had handled all of it. I felt badly.
GROSS: How did you decide to pursue - you were interested in politics. You ran for the president of George Washington University when you were a student there. You lost. And then it seems like a big switch from politics and history to acting.
BALDWIN: Well, I think that, you know, the year ahead of me was - was kind of a gut year, as they used to say. I don't know if they use that term now. But I had done all my hard classes in my sophomore and junior year and got involved in student politics 'cause it interested me to a degree. And I wanted to go into politics and run for office and get a law degree to help supplement that or help to facilitate that. So I - my girlfriend broke up with me.
I was in love with this woman when I was very young, and she said, I can't be with you 'cause you're not Jewish. Her grandparents told her to break up with me, and she did. Her grandparents said, lose the shegetz boyfriend.
BALDWIN: And she did. And I go to visit a friend of mine. She says, why don't you audition for the acting program? I auditioned for the program. And I think, because I was...
GROSS: Why did they say audition for the acting - like, what evidence was there that you had any...
BALDWIN: I would hang out with them, and they'd say, oh, you're so funny. And, you're so cheery...
GROSS: Oh, OK.
BALDWIN: You're such an animated person...
GROSS: Were you doing impressions for them too of your favorite movie lines?
BALDWIN: I would do - yeah. Air? You want air?
GROSS: (Laughter) Right.
BALDWIN: I'll give you air.
BALDWIN: Whatever you were doing, your shtick. And then the next thing you know, a friend of mine, who was at NYU, her roommate was in the acting program. I went to visit my friend, and her roommate said, my God, you should audition for the program just for the hell of it. And I did. And I got in, and they gave me a need-based scholarship for the whole year there. And the joke in my family is that I called my parents, and my mother was apoplectic.
I mean, she was screaming on the phone. What is wrong with you? And I said, I'm going to leave GW to go to NYU to study acting. And my - and I said, now, Mom and Dad - I said, when I go back to New York as a returning New Yorker, I'm eligible for all of this financial aid that I lost when I left town. So when I went to D.C. - so actually, NYU was more expensive than GW, but it's going to cost you less money. And my father literally went, well, let's hear him out.
Let's hear him out.
BALDWIN: And I move there, and I said to myself, I'll do this for a year - one year only. I'll study. And if I get any kind of encouragement that I might have a career in this, I'll do it. And if I don't, I'm out. I'll go back - I'll finish my poly-sci program and go to law school and that's that. And I did the program for a year and got out. And I got a job right away, and I never stopped working since then.
GROSS: Well, your first big break was getting a daytime soap opera called "The Doctors."
GROSS: And you said that you fell in love with show business and alcohol. And the alcohol relaxed you for the first time in 22 years. So in 1984, you went on a multi-day cocaine binge. And then you started going to Cocaine Anonymous, but you kept drinking. And the following year, you started going to AA. You stopped drinking and haven't had a drink since. And you write you also developed a renewed relationship with God.
Now, this may be too personal, but could you explain what you mean by that and how that renewed relationship compared with the kind of Catholicism you were raised with?
BALDWIN: I was raised with a very, very - I don't want to say fire and brimstone, but a very, very traditional kind of suburban Irish Catholic, Italian Catholic, New York-area diocesan Catholicism. You know, and I was - we do our first confession when I was a kid. And it's like a joke. It's like something out of a - out of a Chris Guest movie, you know, or a Coen brothers movie. It's just so farcical. And you sit in your - you go into the confessional.
And the guy with his bald - you know, this enormous head, this guy with his head like a cabbage - you know, Father Reedy (ph). And you walk in, you go, bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession. And he literally goes, and what are your sins? He, like, thunders at me, like he's some villain in a Coen brothers movie. And I go - like, Jon Polito would play that role. And...
BALDWIN: ...The - yeah, and I go - I was terrified. And then when I went to college, I became, you know, pretty much, you know, a lapsed Catholic forever and ever. And then I come back that whole time, I went to church a few times, because I felt compelled to do that - to St. Matthews there, in D.C. But I come back to Washington, and I'm there - to New York, rather, and I'm doing the soap. And my dad gets sick in the summer of '82. And - and I'm in church.
I'm like - I'm walking across the street to St. Patrick's every day. And I'm on my knees in front of that Pieta they have there in that 50th Street side of the building. And I just, you know, I - ever since then, I've been very - I'll take the good information where I can. And I've gone to Baptist church and Methodist churches and synagogues on occasion. And I've gone to any church 'cause in my mind, I give these people a chance and say, I'll take the good information wherever I can get it from about how to live in this world and keep your sanity, which is also what AA provided me.
GROSS: Is it a problem when you go to church and you're recognized, which could be a distraction for you and for the larger reason why people go to church in the first place?
BALDWIN: Well, there was one church I was a regular attendee of. And I went there to - and I was a lecturer in there. I read the gospel there. And there were three women whose husbands were on the staff of the church for the Mass. They - they were ushers that seated people and they collected money during the collection. There were three men that did that function, and their wives were with them. They were - and they were older people in their 60s.
They were grown people. And they were huge Fox News Republicans. And I got up to read, and they stood up and turned their back to me in protest of my reading in the middle of the Mass in front of all these people. And I was aghast 'cause I didn't even notice it at first. And they stood up at the back of the church - they sat toward the back of the church - in protest and turned their back. And I thought, oh my - I thought, my goodness.
I can't believe anybody's bringing that into a Mass.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Alec Baldwin. He's the author of a new memoir called "Nevertheless." We're going to take a short break and then be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF VAMPIRE WEEKEND SONG, "M79")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Alec Baldwin. He has a new memoir called "Nevertheless." He's also in the number one grossing movie, which is an animated film called "The Boss Baby." And, of course, currently, he's on "Saturday Night Live" a lot doing President Trump.
You write about playing Stanley Kowalski on Broadway in "A Streetcar Named Desire," which is, of course, the role that Marlon Brando made famous. And, like, you're pulling out all the stops. Like, you're smashing your hand on the table, you break your knuckles. And then you start beating your chest instead on stage. And then you crush a nerve in your chest (laughter).
GROSS: I'm thinking, like, could you describe the feeling of having to go so all the way? Do you know that you would, like, break your knuckles? And then instead of being more gentle the next time, you substitute beating your chest, and then you crush a nerve in your chest? (Laughter) You know?
GROSS: Like, where does that come from? And where does it come from that you just keep going all out and not pulling back for reasons of self-protection?
BALDWIN: I think the people who are actors, very often they have a kind of a phobia of being caught under-committed to their work. I mean, good actors, I think, who are - or not even so much good, but they've got the right attitude about it. You know, when I did "Mission Impossible" a couple of years ago with Tom Cruise, and I said to Tom, what motivates you? I mean, in some way - I mean, Tom is mesmerizing to me in terms of his career and his ethic.
And I said - his work ethic - and I said, what's your - you know, what do you - what drives you now? We are so many years into this, and you're so - you're - this iconic career of yours. What motivates you now? He says, I have to give them their money's worth. He said, and on both ends - he said, the people that are writing me my check and the people that are buying tickets to the film. I've got to give - on both ends, I've got to give them their money's worth.
And then he does. I mean, no one's more hardworking than Tom, as most people who know him know that. And I felt that same way. A lot of actors go to tremendous lengths to commit to their work as actors - tremendous lengths.
GROSS: So early in your career, one of the things you were famous for was being, you know, like, the leading man, the really, like, handsome guy. And, you know, there was recently - when you hosted "Saturday Night Live," in the opening monologue, like, you're doing your monologue and Pete Davidson, who's not even 25 yet, comes on stage and starts talking about how, like, handsome you used to be and how different you look now.
And how do you feel about it? And it was, like, really very...
BALDWIN: I look like I was soaked in water for 20 years, he said. Yeah, I love that line.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yes, exactly, it was really funny. But when you were getting started and you were kind of typed as, you know, as, like, the handsome guy, was that something that was, when you got older, do you feel like it made a difference in your career?
BALDWIN: Oh, sure. Well, we all have to deal with, you know, if you want to preserve that, if I wanted to go to the gym and just do that - I guess there was a part of me that even unconsciously, I rebelled against that. I was like, you know, I'm going to make this effort for what? Like, to do another movie where I'm a spy with a gun, tumbling out of the baggage terminal and shooting the guy? You know, I mean, it was like - all of which is a great - there's a lot of great things about making studio films.
And when you are a star at the top of that heap - I mean, Hanks is the best example of someone who was called upon to do every kind of movie. He does heavy dramas. He does comedies. He does romantic comedies. He does adventure films. He's in "Cast Away." He - I mean, he can do everything. And he does it well. And he's very successful. There's only - there are not a lot of guys doing that, you know what I mean? There just aren't.
And so when I - when they said to me, do you want to do that, I wasn't offered - it didn't seem that complex to me. And then, you know, my favorite line was Ian Parker from The New Yorker who wrote an article about me. And he described me. He said, Mr. Baldwin, who resembles an NFL football player in his broadcasting years. And I thought that was a very funny description, you know, in the way where you kind of let yourself go and don't really tend to that grooming and that kind of self-examination. I guess there was a part of me that it was maybe even a form of depression, you know?
So there was some of that. I mean, I didn't care enough - and I started to care about other things. Plus, the really difficult thing was my divorce and my custody battle for my daughter were right around 2002 and on through about 2007, eight. It was just a lot of - more bad than good in my life, quite frankly. A lot more bad than good.
GROSS: I don't want to spend time on the personal controversies in your life.
BALDWIN: Yeah, yeah, of course. Well, that's very kind of you....
GROSS: The controversies in your personal life. Yeah, but I do want to ask you about the paparazzi 'cause my understanding is that there have been periods of your life - and I don't know if this is one of them - when they're kind of camped outside your door. Are you still in that kind of phase where there's paparazzi who follow you or surround your home?
BALDWIN: Well, there was - it's funny, there was some out there today. I think that they're more after my wife. I mean, my wife is - what gets clicks in magazines and sells magazines is less, I think, a 59-year-old - today is my birthday - and it's 59-year-old...
GROSS: Happy birthday.
BALDWIN: Thank you. I think photographs of me are less click bait magazine stuff than my wife.
BALDWIN: They shoot her picture far more than they do me. And - but I think that the people who you deal with, there's a way they do it. If they keep their distance and they don't seem to be trying to intimidate you - if they don't try to interview you in an uninvited way, meaning I'm not the mayor of New York. The mayor of New York, ex-officio, is obligated to speak to the press on a moment's notice because that's part of the job, in my opinion. I am not obligated to speak to anybody about anything. And you should keep your distance. That's a rule I make.
BALDWIN: And I don't want - anybody that gets too close, I have a problem with that.
GROSS: So I want to read a couple of things that you were quoted as saying. In 2008 in The New Yorker, you said, I'm tired of being somebody else. I spend the waking hours of my life saying things that other people think and say and do and behaving as someone else. I want to be me. I want to be myself. Twenty-fourteen in New York magazine, it's goodbye to public life in the way that you try to communicate with an audience playfully like we're friends beyond the work.
I probably have to move out of New York. I just can't live in New York anymore. Everything I hated about LA I'm beginning to crave, like living behind a gate, getting in a car, minimal public interaction. Are those things still true of how you feel? Are you still tired of being somebody else 'cause that sounded like you wanted to give up acting when you said that.
BALDWIN: Yeah - well, not tired, but I - I want to do a little bit less of it. Like, I do the podcast. Someone said, what do you love about the podcast? I said, it's my own thing. I'm not working for somebody else. Even when I did "30 Rock," that was Tina's thing. We all were kind of working for Tina. I mean, it was all - none of the writers ever came to me and said, what do you want to do? - which is a good thing.
They had the recipe. And thank God we did what they wanted to do because it won all these awards. But everybody does a thing that they're a part of. Then there's a thing they want to do. And I want to do what I want to do. I mean, I work with other people, and it's great. And I work in what is traditionally a collaborative medium, but I've done that for 35 years - 37 years.
And what I want to do now is other things, which are more - that I produce, that I do what I want to do. I want to do that.
GROSS: But this leads to something I really wanted to ask you. Since you interview a lot of people on your podcast, "Here's The Thing," are there questions that you hate to be asked, as an actor who's often an interviewed, that you won't ask your guests or that maybe you ask anyways because they're - maybe they're actually good questions? You know, what I mean? Like, how does being an actor who is interviewed a lot inform the kind of interviewer you are and where you'll go and where you won't go?
BALDWIN: Well, there are two quick things about that. And that is - and I'm often compared negatively to you, in fact, I will say.
GROSS: Oh, you're welcome (laughter).
BALDWIN: Right, right, right - exactly. But I'm often compared negatively to you - where they'll say, you know, why don't you shut up? And why can't you be more like Terry who's doing an interview which isn't about Terry? And I'm having a conversation with people and where my experiences overlap theirs. And I talk about how that affects my life. I really don't care.
And the new rule we've had - I shouldn't say new - but over the last two seasons, last season and this season again, we continue to ratchet it tighter and tighter, where you just cut me out. Emily Botein, who's my producer - all I do when I get a draft from her and I go Emily, cut all that out from 12 minutes and 30 seconds to 14 minutes where I go on and on about this. And I cut myself out and out and out.
But my show is about appreciation. I only ask people to come on the show - I'm completely self-determining about who's on the show. I pick people who I think they've got a breadth of a career. I think they're probably good talkers. So what happens is my show is about people who I'm fascinated with or I love. And I'm unapologetic about it.
I mean, I'm practically, you know, rubbing Peter Frampton's feet when I'm on the show with him. I'm so in love with him, you know. I give everybody a foot rub. That's the goal, is for everyone just to relax and have a good time. And if you don't pressure them, if you don't push them and prod them, they'll tell you what they want to tell you. I never push. I talk to them. And 20 minutes goes by and they're telling me all about who they are anyway without me having to try to snatch it from them. You know what I mean? That's what I do.
GROSS: OK. One more question. I haven't heard you as the announcer of the New York Philharmonic radio broadcasts. I know you fell in love with classical music being stuck in traffic jams in LA and listening to the radio. Do you do, like, an announcer voice, the kind of voice you grew up with?
BALDWIN: Yes. The guy that was the booth announcer, Robert Malley (ph), who was on the WOR booth announcer - they'd have the guy live in the booth in case there was a technical difficulty in the pre-digital age. And Malley would say, next on "Million Dollar Movie," Barbara Stanwyck tells Gary Cooper where he can go on "Ball Of Fire." And I used to sit there and go, my God.
And when I did the Philharmonic, they'd say to me, you've got to articulate because you're going to be saying names. It took me 40 minutes to learn how to say Christoph von Dohnanyi.
BALDWIN: I was reading it going what the - Christoph. I'd say the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique Christoph von Dohnanyi conducts the New York Philharmonic. And I always pop the word New York 'cause I'm marketing, I'm selling. So I always go, this is the "Mahler Ninth Symphony." Lorin Maazel conducts the New York Philharmonic 'cause I'm helping to sell the product.
BALDWIN: I'm a pitch man. I'm a pitch man. Anyway, thank you so much.
GROSS: Alec Baldwin, thank you so much.
BALDWIN: I love your show. Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Thank you for doing it.
Alec Baldwin's new memoir is called "Nevertheless." He stars in the new animated movie "The Boss Baby." This is FRESH AIR.
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