Thomas hasn't gotten him off the cigars yet, and so he flags down a waiter, who hands him a cutter and then lights one up for him with a giant fancy silver lighter. Baldwin the late-period comic actor is a paunchier version of Baldwin the young leading man. That's part of what makes him funny. He says he's lost 30 pounds since Thomas put him on his new diet, and though he's not exactly slim, he retains an impeccable style. Today he's wearing a suit and tie, and his hair is perfectly shaped. (Lorne Michaels, in a speech, once described Baldwin as the "rarest of animals, a liberal who looks good in a suit.") Even the fleshier-faced Baldwin has something of the hawk about him, which makes for an appealing tension with the soothing quality of his voice. Whether he's acting or telling you about his daughter's wisdom teeth, pretty much everything that comes out of his mouth sounds like he's narrating an audiobook.
Five days earlier, 30 Rock performed an epic live episode (actually two – East and West Coast versions), in which Baldwin not only played Donaghy but, in a series of flashbacks, versions of Jackie Gleason, Dean Martin, Richard Nixon, and Paul Lynde. Today he's back to work, on a semisecret documentary he's been making with his friend James Toback, the famously volatile director of the excellent 1978 Harvey Keitel drama Fingers and, most recently, the documentary Tyson. Baldwin calls Toback one of the five smartest people he's ever met, though he adds a qualifying "probably" and only lists two of the other four, and one of them (the writer Christopher Hitchens) is dead. (The other is Robert Carlock, a head writer, along with Fey, on 30 Rock.) The Toback project had taken various forms but eventually became a documentary that Baldwin says will be their cri de coeur (Baldwin's phrase) about the present state of the film industry. (Spoiler alert: Shit's fucked up.) To that end, they've been interviewing various filmmakers, including, just now, right here in the Grand Havana Room, Martin Scorsese. Two of Baldwin's finest middle-career supporting turns came in Scorsese films, playing Pan Am founder Juan Trippe in The Aviator and a police captain (and foil to Mark Wahlberg's foulmouthed sergeant) in The Departed.
Baldwin, Toback, and Scorsese all found themselves lamenting how badly the film industry needs a new crop of executives. Many of the complaints are familiar ones – kids who watch movies on tiny screens while checking their email, how there are no ballsy producers anymore, that kind of thing – but as Baldwin recounts them, he starts to get worked up. He's an intense guy, hyperfocused, like many of his characters, and it's not easy to tell if this aspect of his personality is just a Method thing run amok, something he's been doing for so long as an actor that it became internalized, or if he's wired this way. The other thing about Baldwin is, though he's perfectly happy to talk about himself at length, he enjoys asking questions of his own – far more, at least, than most famous people. Control thing, I think, combined with a natural curiosity. But mostly a control thing.
"Are you a movie person?" Baldwin asks.
Yeah, I say. I am.
"What was the last movie you saw – and maybe this is not a good question. I'm not a reporter, so I don't know how to ask a good question. But what was the last movie you saw where you genuinely felt you could see it again and maybe get more out of it? What's the last movie you saw you could see twice?"
I think for a moment. "Well, I just watched Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for the second time."
"You saw it twice," Baldwin says. He leans forward. We're facing each other in giant club chairs. "And you feel it was worth viewing twice. You liked it that much?"
This sounds accusatory to me. Does he hate Gary Oldman? No, of course not, this is just the way Baldwin speaks – answer him! "I felt," I say, "like it was complicated enough that I'd missed a few things the first time around. Which is rare."
"Where did you watch it?"
"First time at the movies. Just recently, on DVD."
"On a computer?"
"No, on a TV."
He seems to consider this. Then: "So, you watched it again because you thought you might've missed something?"
I don't like the way he stresses the word missed. "I mean, I basically got it, but there was–"
"You thought it was smart enough that there might be more there?"
"So that's one example. How many more?"
I admit that if I rewatch a film, it's generally something on the older side.
Baldwin smiles and nods, seemingly pleased with himself, as if I'd spent the previous half-hour insisting that Hollywood had entered a golden age, post-Apatow, and he'd managed to best me in a debate.
"The movies now, it's a snack food," he says. "The last movie that I would see a second time . . . I can't even remember. It's hard to think of one where I would go out of my way."