Alec Baldwin is famous for two things: His ability to absolutely own any scene he's in, whether it's in theatre, film or television, and his penchant for epic media meltdowns. So it was with slight trepidation that I approached my interview with the 58-year-old actor this past Tuesday, a few hours before he was to participate in an on-stage discussion of his career in support of the Toronto International Film Festival.
Even if Baldwin didn't carry a reputation as, well, not exactly an enemy of the press, but certainly a worthy adversary, I would have good reason to be nervous. He is, after all, the man whose deep, scratchy baritone and cutting, highly enunciated delivery terrified a room of veteran salesmen (and veteran actors) in Glengarry Glen Ross. He is the imposing force of nature who laid waste to all those who crossed his path in Miami Blues, Malice and The Edge. He is the towering figure of authority (and microwave programming) who rules 30 Rock. He could have crushed me into his hand and enjoyed me as a light snack, should he have so desired.
Yet, when he breezes into a yellow-and-gold conference room at the Ritz-Carlton, Baldwin is the portrait of easygoing celebrity grace. His handshake is firm, yet not deployed with power-move-ready tenacity. His smile is wide and welcoming. His silver-flecked five-o'clock shadow is just long enough to suggest an easy life of comfort, but just short enough to also imply a confident air of manicured professionalism. He smells of sandalwood – or I assume he does, as the rich and thick odour of the Ritz overpowers everything else in the room.
With the clock ticking on our 15 minutes of tightly scheduled time together, Baldwin launches into his sales pitch, or at least TIFF's sales pitch. "I'm not a big festival rat, but, and I know this is an awkward position because I'm saying something so baldly flattering, but most people in the business consider Toronto the best festival in the world," the actor said, explaining why he decided to lend his time to the organization's inaugural Summer Soirée, an on-stage discussion and party that TIFF hopes will become a regular fundraising event – something to remind the city that there's more to the fest than 11 days of mania each September.
"Some festivals are very commercial and you're hard-pressed to see beyond the sponsorship logos. Is this a vodka market or a film festival?" Baldwin continues. "But Toronto keeps the market in its place and the appreciation of the films at the forefront."
But surely it must be exhausting, perhaps even embarrassing, to go over his entire filmography in front of a theatre full of people – especially a filmography filled with more than its fair share of Ghosts of Mississippi-sized mistakes?
"I don't really think about it. Paul McCartney has a great album called Memory Almost Full, and I feel that way myself. There's only so much room for what's in front of me right now – my kids, my family," he said, and it's at this point that any remnants of Tabloid Alec Baldwin peel away. The man who tussled with photographers and American Airlines flight attendants appears to be no more. A new marriage (to yoga instructor Hilaria Thomas) and a new set of children (Carmen, almost 3, Rafael, almost 1, and a third on the way) have altered the perpetually furious Baldwin everyone thinks they know.
"Some of the best acting I did was making you think that you were a priority to me, and then going off and doing other things that were actually a priority to me," Baldwin said, possibly alluding to his tumultuous marriage to Kim Basinger. "But the more I invest in my wife and in my marriage and family, the more dividends it pays … I've been pretty lucky in landing on my feet, in terms of work and supporting my family, so I'm not really worried about that any more. I only have one dream now and that is making sure my family is happy and healthy and we spend as much time together as we can."
A few more dips into topics both professional ("Movies like Malice, the $30-million thrillers, that budgetary middle-ground of films is gone now, which is why so many people have migrated to TV") and political ("What you see in the United States now, and I want to be careful what I say because I did an interview in London and sprayed them with a few magazine-y nouns, but the thing in America is there's nothing great there any more"), and Baldwin is being hustled along, the red carpet at the TIFF Lightbox awaiting.
During his hour-plus discussion on stage (conducted by Globe contributor Johanna Schneller), I remember something Maxine Bailey, vice-president of advancement at TIFF, told me the week before: "Alec is more of an entertainer than a dead-on actor." It's hard to disagree, watching Baldwin shuffle through career anecdotes and uncanny impersonations – everyone from Woody Allen to Martin Scorsese to even a Southern-fried Basinger. By the time he hits on a slightly fey Al Pacino, the sold-out audience is wrapped around Baldwin's finger.
A short walk from the Lightbox is the titular soirée held in Baldwin's honour – $300 secures entry to a white-and-purple-clad space inside the Artscape Sandbox, and free-flowing access to cocktail and oysters. The promise of Baldwin's appearance is key, and when he saunters in, the culturati crowd drop any well-meaning conversation about TIFF's year-round programming and charitable initiatives to bat eyes at and share quips with the star. He engages with the same loose smile and seemingly genuine curiosity he offered earlier in the day.
And not long afterward, grin still wide, he disappears into the night.