Alec Baldwin once borrowed the words of one of the acting colleagues he admires the most – “the incredibly intelligent and wise Warren Beatty” – to explain his ongoing image problems. “Your problem is a very basic one, and it’s very common to actors. And that’s when we step in front of a camera, we feel the need to make it into a moment. This instinct, even unconsciously, is to make the exchange in front of the camera a dramatic one,” Beatty said.
Last Thursday, on the set of the movie Rust, of which Baldwin is the star and a producer, that moment could not have been more dramatic. It was Baldwin who pulled the trigger on a prop firearm that killed the Ukrainian director of photography, 43-year-old Halyna Hutchins, and wounded the movie’s director, 48-year-old Joel Souza. The tragic incident left Baldwin speechless for several hours until he expressed his “shock and sadness,” offering his help and support to Hutchins’ family and stating that he was “fully cooperating” with the police investigation into the accident. A social media post from a few days earlier in which he was kitted out in his cowboy gear and covered in blood in character for Rust was removed from his accounts.
Scandal seems to follow Alec Baldwin around, whether or not he is looking for that drama to which Beatty alluded. The eldest of six siblings of a middle-class Catholic family of Irish descent, the four Baldwin brothers are all involved in show business, although they couldn’t be much different from one another. Daniel has had problems with drugs. Stephen is currently involved with an Evangelical church and his political views are inclined toward conservatism. The second-youngest, William described his brother as someone who always has something “to fucking whine about,” according to The New Yorker. Alec is the eldest and the most disciplined, but also the one who protected the other brothers from bullies as he was the most combative. He went to school with the notion of becoming the president of the United States, but on recognizing he had little chance of achieving that goal he enrolled at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York, graduating many years later.
His career could have panned out like Al Pacino’s or Jack Nicholson’s, actors who he looked up to, but Baldwin’s generation was not the same. Perhaps neither was his talent, and certainly, the world of movies had changed. In 1992, Baldwin ensured that he would be associated with his idols when he starred with Jessica Lange in a Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, which three years later would be turned into a television movie with Baldwin and Lange reprising their roles for the small screen. Not only did Baldwin receive a Tony nomination for his Broadway performance, he also drew favorable comparisons to legendary actor Marlon Brando, who starred in the stage production and the 1951 movie version. Around this time Baldwin was also landing meaty screen roles, including that of Jack Ryan opposite Sean Connery in The Hunt for Red October.
But as time progressed, Baldwin’s name was more frequently heard in connection to his social life and scandals than for his stage or screen performances. His marriage to actor Kim Basinger, who he met in 1991 while filming The Marrying Man, ended acrimoniously, and Baldwin’s relationship with the couple’s daughter, Ireland, has often been fractious. In 2007, a voicemail message the actor left for Ireland, who was 11 at the time, caused a sensation due to Baldwin’s use of not very fatherly language, during an ongoing spat with Basinger following their 2002 divorce.
Then there is the other Alec Baldwin, described by the actor himself as “bitter, defensive, and more misanthropic than I care to admit,” in an open letter to Vulture magazine in 2014 titled Good-bye, Public Life. At that time Baldwin had forged a reputation as a violent, homophobic egocentric following several incidents aired in the media. And, of course, from his own mouth. Even so, he managed to resurrect his career in the most surprising way imaginable: by making fun of himself.
Baldwin’s portrayal of the absurd and conceited television executive Jack Donaghy across seven seasons of 30 Rock (2006-13), a character inspired by Baldwin himself, earned back his public popularity and landed the actor back-to-back Primetime Emmy Awards in 2007 and 2008 and three Golden Globes. In 2011, he started a new chapter in his personal life with his current wife, Hilaria Baldwin, with whom he has six children. But as one of his closest friends, Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night Live where Baldwin has received plaudits for his impersonations of former US president Donald Trump, once said: “Everything would be better if you were able to enjoy what you have.”
Baldwin’s altercations – mostly verbal, occasionally physical – with the paparazzi or anyone who in the actor’s opinion has violated his privacy have been frequent, including on productions on which he has worked. In 2013, the actor Shia LaBeouf was fired from the Broadway theatre production of Orphans when Baldwin said: “Either he goes or I do.” Years earlier an actress left another play Baldwin was working on by leaving a written note stating that she feared for her “physical, mental and artistic” safety.
Every one of Baldwin’s reinventions seems inexorably to be followed by another fall from grace. On the one hand, there is the Baldwin who has stated on several occasions that he intends to withdraw from public life, and on the other the Baldwin who is obsessed with social media, writing a tweet for every occasion. Many of these posts have cost the actor, such as in 2017 when he commented on a video of a suspect being fatally shot by police: “I wonder how it must feel to wrongfully kill someone...”
There are still unanswered questions surrounding the death of Halyna Hutchins. The investigation has not disclosed whether the firearm was discharged accidentally or if Baldwin was aiming it at the time, although the transcript of a call to the emergency services appears to indicate it happened during a rehearsal. As of yet, no charges have been filed against Baldwin but it is unknown if this may yet occur at a later date. A statement taken from the assistant director states that Baldwin was told by crew members that the gun was not loaded. Many observers are wondering if Rust will be completed, if the project will be abandoned. And many more are asking the same about Baldwin: will he be able to find a way back from this latest dramatic moment?