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Alec Baldwin On Career Highs And Lows And Playing A 'Larger Than Life' Trump


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. We've devoted this week to revisiting interviews with some of this year's Emmy nominees. Today's guests are Alec Baldwin, nominated for his guest work playing President Donald Trump on NBC's "Saturday Night Live," and Brian Tyree Henry, nominated for two different Emmys, one for comedy, for his role as Paper Boi on the FX series "Atlanta" and one for drama for a guest appearance on NBC's "This Is Us."

We'll start with Alec Baldwin, who's memorable roles include a ruthless salesman in the film version of "Glengarry Glen Ross" and the network executive on NBC's "30 Rock." He won an Emmy for his portrayal on "Saturday Night Live" of Donald Trump last year and is nominated again for it this year.

Terry Gross spoke to him in April 2017 when he published his memoir called "Nevertheless." They began by playing a "Saturday Night Live" clip from 2017. Aliens have attacked the Earth. Kenan Thompson plays a military officer giving the troops a pep talk about how 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.


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?


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Alec Baldwin, welcome back to FRESH AIR. 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...

GROSS: (Laughter).

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 is. 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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

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..."

BALDWIN: (Laughter).

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. 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 'cause, 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, and 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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

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: And I thought, God, 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...

BALDWIN: "Chiller," yeah.

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. So...

BALDWIN: Lugosi, all those movies. Well, Lugosi...

GROSS: Yeah, what really scared 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...

GROSS: (Laughter).

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. 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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BIANCULLI: Alec Baldwin speaking to Terry Gross in 2017. He's nominated for an Emmy for his impersonation of President Donald Trump on "Saturday Night Live" for the second year in a row. He won last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with actor Alec Baldwin. He's nominated this year for a guest actor Emmy Award for his portrayal of President Donald Trump on "Saturday Night Live." Terry spoke to him in 2017 when his memoir called "Nevertheless" was published.


GROSS: 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 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 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 - 'cause 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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BALDWIN: I was just terrified. I mean, 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 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 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 'cause 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: How did you decide to pursue acting in the first place? 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 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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

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.


BALDWIN: And 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.

GROSS: Right.

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 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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BALDWIN: And I moved 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 to - 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: Just 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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

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: I'm so - thank you for doing it.

BIANCULLI: Alec Baldwin speaking to Terry Gross in 2017. He's nominated this year for a guest actor Emmy Award for his portrayal of President Donald Trump on "Saturday Night Live." After a break, we'll hear from another of this year's Emmy nominees, Brian Tyree Henry nominated for two Emmys. One is for his role as Paper Boi on the FX series "Atlanta," and the other is for his guest appearance on "This Is Us." We'll also remember choreographer Paul Taylor who died Wednesday at age 88. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DENNIS TAYLOR'S "SPECIAL K") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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