Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Alec Baldwin Gets Under Trump’s Skin

Alec Baldwin collapses onto his dressing-room couch at Saturday Night Live like a man participating too enthusiastically in a trust fall. He is 58 years old. He has three children under 4. He has been dividing what’s left of his time between filming a movie with Emilio Estevez in Cincinnati and answering the call from NBC whenever it comes, which, because of his now-signature portrayal of Donald Trump, has been many weeks this season. His appearances gather eyes like car accidents; some clips have been watched on YouTube more than 20 million times. Those legions of viewers have formed a kind of makeshift resistance, a community of the gaslit, together feeling a little less crazy for knowing that at least Alec Baldwin can see what they are seeing. Turning the president into a running joke might prove the most consequential work of his career. It’s at least been the most consuming.

Baldwin has bags under his eyes, his normally enviable hair appears as though it’s been beaten flat with a tire iron, and he has two blood-red spots on the bridge of his nose. His whole body looks like it aches. He is keeping it going by alternating between a bottle of Diet Coke and some grainy concoction from Starbucks served in a bucket. This week he is hosting SNL for a record 17th time, expectations are soaring, and the pressure, like the workload, is telling on him like a terrible secret. It’s only Tuesday.

There is a knock at the door. It’s time for Baldwin to go to makeup. Among his many chores today, February 7, he has to pose for this week’s “bumpers,” the photos of the host that bookend SNL’s commercial breaks. His wife, Hilaria, is coming in later with their kids for what will be a lovely family portrait, but the first shot is of Baldwin as Hamlet, holding the skull of the ill-fated court jester Yorick, with Baldwin’s Trump wig on it. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times.

Baldwin walks down the hall slowly, listing a little, as though he’s walking on a ship. When he reaches his destination—bright lights, mirrors, and a bunch of people who are really happy to see him—he straightens up and smiles, jolted to life by the affection. He climbs into a chair, and a woman surveys his hair for half a second before firing up her clippers. A makeup artist asks whether he can put cooling pads under Baldwin’s eyes, and Baldwin beckons him forward as if to say, “You think I’d rather look like this?”

On a shelf behind him, his custom-made Trump wig shines golden on a life-size model of Baldwin’s head. The shelf contains the disembodied heads of every cast member, each labeled with a name and a size. Vanessa Bayer has the smallest; Baldwin’s dome is tied with several others’ for the biggest. There have been rumors that he will wear the wig for the entire show—that on Saturday, February 11, he will play Trump in every sketch. The team here in makeup has heard as much.

“No,” Baldwin says. “No. That would be a horrible idea.” He slips into Jack Donaghy, the executive he played so well on 30 Rock, dry as straight gin (“What am I, a farmer?”). “There’s a lot of talented people here. When I show up, I’m really only one of several people who make the show worthwhile. Sometimes I’m the least of what makes the show worthwhile.” He returns to playing himself. “That’s the most idiotic idea I’ve heard in my life. Ninety minutes of me walking around, like—”

Then it happens.

Baldwin’s face spasms almost uncontrollably, seized by muscle memory. He opens his left eye wide, he nearly closes his right eye, and he pushes out his wet lips as far as his chin will allow, his mouth turned suddenly into a bottomless black pit. His hands fly up, his fingers doing ridiculous, discordant things. He turns his head as though he’s been startled by a loud noise, and the woman cutting his hair has to snatch away her clippers with a jerk, her face gone urgent with the realization of how close she came to disaster.

“These are my golf clubs,” Baldwin says, his trademark voice transformed into Trump’s strange muffle, his naturally seamless, rapid-fire cadence turned halting. “They were given to me as a gift from Qaddafi. We’re doing a lot of business together, Muammar and I.”

Baldwin stops there. “Muammar,” he repeats, his mouth pushed out to the point of rupture, now satisfied that he has it right.

Everyone but the very professional hairstylist is in stitches. “Careful,” she says. “You’ll have a bald spot.” Baldwin relaxes. She moves quickly to finish her work, exchanging the clippers for scissors. She can’t help but marvel at the magnificence taking shape before her. “It’s unbelievable,” she says to no one and everyone at once. “He has gorgeous hair.”Baldwin sometimes wishes Trump would appear next to him on SNL. “If he was smart, he’d show up this week. It would probably be over. He could end it. If he showed up.”

Baldwin looks at himself in the mirror. “I don’t have anything else left,” he says. “It’s so sad. Seriously: age. Now you see why Cary Grant retired. People will do that to me on the internet. ‘Oh, here’s a picture of you … WHEN YOU WERE HOT.’ ” He puts on his best polite voice. “Thank you! THANK YOU, SUZIE.” He’s quiet for a moment, and then he’s back to playing the imaginary Suzie. “Here’s a picture of you … WHEN YOU LOOKED GOOD.” (...)

Baldwin’s ear is so good, he can do three phases of Pacino: early, middle, and late. It is a breathless, almost vaudevillian routine, performed entirely while seated. It is also desperately funny. In 20 minutes, Baldwin has inhabited seven different characters. Of all the parts, Trump is his least favorite to play. “It’s not easy,” he says. “It’s not easy.”

Playing Trump is physically demanding—watching footage of his longer performances, Baldwin can sometimes see his mouth begin to droop, his Trump face requiring a combination of contractions that can be hard to sustain—but it’s a psychic challenge, too. Jokes are supposed to provide an escape, for the listener and the teller. Instead Baldwin lives in a state of constant reminder. His country is so far from his hopes for it, and now people won’t stop asking this liberal New Yorker to portray the primary vessel of his disappointments. Baldwin sometimes wishes that Trump would appear next to him on SNL, the way Tony Bennett did years ago, reclaiming his own voice and in the process maybe helping Baldwin do the same.

“If he was smart, he’d show up this week,” Baldwin says. “It would probably be over. He could end it. If he showed up.” (...)

For the next shot he pulls on an ill-fitting suit and too-long tie, and he watches as that same wig is placed on his enormous, groomed head, and he mangles his eyes and pushes out his lips, this tired man made beautiful made ugly. It’s an unsettling transformation to watch. It’s almost as though Alec Baldwin, before he can become Donald Trump, must first become the best version of Alec Baldwin, and then ruin him.

by Chris Jones, The Atlantic | Read more:
Image: Mary Ellen Matthews / NBC