How Alec Baldwin told it to New York

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Alec Baldwin. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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The cover of New York magazine's first biweekly edition made its debut via Twitter on Sunday afternoon, and quickly did what magazine covers are designed to do. It generated buzz via a cover story on Alec Baldwin written under his byline and the coverline, "I Give Up."

Baldwin hit a disastrous patch with the New York media late last year, after a confrontation with a paparazzo in which he allegedly used an anti-gay slur and definitely used homophobic language. It all culminated in December when MSNBC canceled his nascent talk show. Now here he was two months later, in his own words, explaining why he planned to leave public life and maybe New York altogether, and taking all sorts of shots at one-time colleagues ranging from Shia Labeouf to MSNBC president Phil Griffin.

But those 5,200 words and byline came with caveat: This was Baldwin's story "as told to" New York writer Joe Hagan. Capital asked Hagan, both a chronicler and a practitioner of the media Baldwin spent so much venom on, to explain what the proviso meant in this case. 

CAPITAL: So this wasn't exactly the usual celebrity profile. Had you ever worked in the "as told to" mold before? How did the assignment come about? Did it present any particular challenges?

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HAGAN: My main goal was capturing Baldwin's voice and getting out of the way of his story. This form seemed ideal. I wanted it to feel like you were sitting next to him, in the tradition of great Hollywood tell-alls of the past, the kind you once read in Esquire in the '70s. I had recently read Clive Davis's first memoir, from 1974, called Clive: Inside the Record Business, and it's a great, dishy, score-settling book that gets way into the weeds of corporate intrigue at Columbia Records, but has a satisfying richness to it.

The challenge was organizing what amounted to expansive monologues into a cohesive narrative essay, without the cuts and edits showing. It was a process and, in part, a collaborative effort, because I asked him to refine his stories and ideas over several interviews so they were clear. He looked at a version of the essay before publication and added many wonderful bits and, to his credit, retracted very, very little. But I had the final edit anyway, which is something he agreed to from the start.

I'd experimented with this oral history style before, most recently on a project inspired by Studs Terkel that focuses on the American dream (working title, "All I Want to Do Is Dream"). Last fall, I interviewed a few dozen people about their lives and condensed their responses into short-form oral histories (coupled with amazing portraits by artist Tim Davis). So when I arrived at Alec Baldwin, I was practiced at it.

CAPITAL: How did you set up the interview structure? Was this just Baldwin unloading to you in a straight shot, or was it a more spread out affair? Did you work with Baldwin on story structure at all after the fact?

HAGAN: We started off with a couple of phone calls, just feeling out the conversation off the record. After we got comfortable, he agreed to a no-holds-barred, on the record interview over lunch. He didn't have to be convinced or cajoled. He wanted to do this. He actually said to me, "Everything I say from here on out is on the record." At his request, we met at the Century Club, where he is a member, and talked for two hours over lunch. He had fish soup and a salmon omelet.

After that, we exchanged a flurry of emails and had two long phone conversations in which I asked him to expand on some things. He was filming on location in Spain, but he made ample time for me. He was very serious about refining certain ideas he had about the media, his personal life, and his career going forward.

CAPITAL: Baldwin used much of his airtime to critique the current state of the media, and was self-aware that he was doing so within a magazine. What was your relationship with him? Did it change at all over the course of the interview?

HAGAN: I met Alec Baldwin 10 years ago at a party when I was a reporter for The New York Observer, but of course he had no idea who I was when he called me. A mutual colleague, who is a veteran reporter, called me out of the blue and asked if I'd be interested in collaborating with someone on a book or story about the media. I was ambivalent, but it turned out to be Alec Baldwin. I took a call from him the next day and I suggested we do a magazine story, either a profile or an as-told-to.

We didn't become friends. Our relationship remained strictly professional. He asked about my life one time, over lunch, and listened respectfully, but that was it. I felt like my job was akin to a therapist, in that I was helping him explore what he thought and how best to say it. I never ended up articulating anything for him; I only prompted him to express himself about particular ideas, like the tabloid media and its impact on the media overall.

CAPITAL: The warts-and-all approach gave way to a few cringeworthy moments, but in a very specific New York-centric way also made him relatable. What was your sense of Baldwin going in and did this change that at all?

HAGAN: I enjoyed his company, but I never related to him. I think he's had a career in drama for a reason. He obviously enjoys drama and thrives on it. He's had success with it on stage and screen, less so off screen. His dealings with the media, especially the paparazzi, have been like a dysfunctional romantic relationship. I liken this story to a break-up letter. Of course, like any break-up letter, it has a conflicted subtext of "I still have feelings for you and maybe we'll get back together." I was really interested in Warren Beatty's analysis and advice to him. Alec has an impulse to play to a camera, to make drama out of any moment involving a camera, even if it's being wielded by a paparazzo. TMZ obviously discovered this a long time ago and exploited Alec as an easy mark because he reacted so consistently to being harassed. So in the end, I saw him as a guy who wasn't fully in control of his own reactions, but was trying to get control of them. It's a little like his relationship to food. Over lunch, he told me, "I don't eat sweets anymore."

CAPITAL: Do you buy that this was really the swan song of his public life?

HAGAN: If he can actually break the dysfunctional cycle he has with the press, he might actually be able to build a private life and keep his acting strictly on film and TV. He said he admired actors like Kevin Kline, who did great performances on screen, but were rarely heard from in the press. But he has to overcome the addiction to attention, the need to act out in the press and see his name in bold print. And that will be tough. As he pointed out, it's ironic that he was doing this story in New York magazine. The cynical view is that all of this is only image rehab and he'll come back in eight months as a new and improved Alec Baldwin and host "SNL" (which he promised never to do again). That's quite possible. He did tell me, "If I wanted to straighten out some public-relations reversal in the press, I used to go do 'The View.'" Is this different? I don't know. I hope he actually focuses on his acting, because when he does he's brilliant.