Alec Baldwin is a scary bastard. His dark gray suit, even at 6 p.m., is still immaculately pressed, he never smiles, his hair is perfect, his voice is as deep as James Earl Jones', and even though he's surprisingly smart and funny, he takes himself super seriously. He orders a virgin Bloody Mary, like some Tarantino villain. He says things like "I think I just answered that question." If at any moment he had made a sudden movement, I would have dashed out the door.
So it's not surprising that Baldwin is appearing onscreen as two bad guys, one in The Cooler, an independent drama about a Las Vegas casino, and the other in The Cat in the Hat, in which he plays the kids' girdle-wearing, sleazy neighbor. But this is a strange turn of events for an actor whose last name was, around the time of the movie Clueless, a synonym for a highly desirable male.
Unlike better-paid actors, who won't risk their belovedness by playing a villain, Baldwin isn't worried about being Hopperized. "I don't care if the character is good or bad or makes me look good. If I think it's well written, I want to be in that film." He apparently used a different set of criteria for choosing The Cat in the Hat. "It's a chance for you to get all the bad acting out of your system," he says. "No one's thinking they're going to win an Oscar for Cat in the Hat, except maybe the cinematographer. The cinematography is incredible."
It took producer Brian Grazer a lot of begging to get Baldwin to do Cat. "I met many other actors and stars for the role," says Grazer. "But no other actor could have pulled off the deceit and at the same time been funny and have kids scared of him."
He uses those skills quite differently in his praiseworthy turn in The Cooler (in which he plays the manager of an old-school casino who resolves every disagreement by beating the other person up). Baldwin doubts that he will vault back into leading-man roles in studio films. For a start, he argues, he was never that big a star. And playing in independent dramas has been more rewarding, if dicier financially. "It has taken me a long time to adjust to where I am now and to be comfortable. If it changes for me again, that's fine with me, but I really don't care," he says.
Baldwin is in a peculiar position: even though his celebrity hasn't waned, he hasn't had his name above the title of a studio film since he co-starred with Bruce Willis in 1998's Mercury Rising. His box office peaked 13 years ago with The Hunt for Red October. He didn't sign up for the sequel, Patriot Games, and the role was taken by Harrison Ford. "When they handed me the script for the sequel, I thought, 'You can get my doorman to do it.' Baldwin did A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway instead. "And the producers were happy," he notes, "because they had someone waiting in the wings, and they wanted him all along." Though he's made a lot of money since then (he's estimated to be worth about $20 million, most of it in real estate), he has not been on many studio short lists. "Hollywood is pretty serious," he says. "If they invite you to the party and you say no, they don't invite you again."