Here's The Thing with Alec Baldwin
Summary: From WNYC Studios, award-winning actor Alec Baldwin takes listeners into the lives of artists, policy makers and performers. Alec sidesteps the predictable by going inside the dressing rooms, apartments, and offices of people we want to understand better: Ira Glass, Lena Dunham, David Brooks, Roz Chast, Chris Rock and others. Hear what happens when an inveterate guest becomes a host. WNYC Studios is a listener-supported producer of other leading podcasts including Radiolab, Snap Judgment, On the Media, Death, Sex & Money, Nancy and many others. © WNYC Studios
Few musicians can compete with the encyclopedic musical knowledge that Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson possesses—which is great news if you got to be a student of his at NYU. When not teaching music history, the 45-year-old drummer is directing the Grammy-Award winning group The Roots—a hip hop collective that rose from “everyone’s favorite underground secret” in the late 90s to Jimmy Fallon’s house band on The Tonight Show. Whether drumming, DJ’ing, or writing a book on food, Questlove is universally beloved. “The coolest man on late night,” according to the Rolling Stone. But there is one thing this genius of music can’t do: accept that he is one. He talks to Here’s the Thing host Alec Baldwin about a three year exile in London, Jimmy Fallon wooing the Roots, and how meditation saved his life.
Patti Smith defined punk rock in 1978 with her hit song Because the Night, but the New Jersey native was never looking for fame. A lover of poetry, art, and creative expression, it was the desire to “do something great” that motivated her to move to New York at age 20—that, and hunger. The oldest daughter of a waitress and factory worker, she knew how to survive on little money. Making a lot of it, she says, was never part of her journey. But an astounding journey it’s been—one that’s sent her touring around the world, writing award-winning books, and marrying a musician with whom she had two kids. She talks to Here’s the Thing host Alec Baldwin about singing poetry with The Beats, getting saved from a bad date by Robert Mapplethorpe, and her love for 7/11’s glazed doughnuts.
At age 15, Robbie Robertson packed up his guitar and took a train from Canada to the Mississippi Delta—or as he calls it, the “holy land of rock n’ roll.” Inspired by his Mohawk relatives' musical talents, Robertson was determined to make his own mark on the music scene—and did. After playing backup for Bob Dylan’s 1966 world tour, he joined forces with other talented musicians to form a group humbly crowned: “The Band.” Operating out of a big pink house in New York, the lyrical genius and his band mates penned classics like The Weight—still considered a masterpiece today. As his new autobiography Testimony hits the shelves, Robertson talks to Here’s the Thing host Alec Baldwin about the Indian reservation where he first learned music, the makeshift basement studio where he wrote it, and the final performance that nearly got Martin Scorsese fired.
Eric Fanning didn’t think there was a place for him in a "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" military, but today he’s Secretary of the US Army. He is the first openly gay leader of the armed forces. Fanning was raised in Michigan in a military family and had a life-long interest in government and politics. He earned an Ivy League education and worked in policy think tanks. But over the years, attitudes changed. And the military changed too. Fanning’s job as Secretary of the Army is like a real life game of Risk. When Russia or North Korea flexes its muscles, Fanning makes sure that US troops are ready to move to conflict borders. He ensures that those same soldiers have the tanks and body armor and weapons they need when they hit the ground in Afghanistan or Iraq. Fanning tells Alec there is a myth that the military is the first to want to go in and fight. In fact, says Fanning, it’s the opposite, because the military knows what this actually entails. Combat should be a last resort.
Born in Flint, Michigan, Sandra Bernhard was raised in a conservative Jewish family. She spent 8 months on a kibbutz out of high school, then moved to LA in 1974 at age 19 and enrolled in beauty school. She started performing in comedy clubs at night. And for many, Sandra Bernhard is a stand-up comedian – after all, she soon attracted the likes of Paul Mooney, who became a mentor. But she's also done film and TV. As she tells Alec in this episode of Here’s The Thing, Bernhard doesn’t prefer one form over the other, but says “everything feeds off the other." Bernhard talks with Alec about her 1983 breakout role in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy -- and what it was like to perform opposite Jerry Lewis. Bernhard says she never wanted to settle for “just telling jokes.” She always wanted more. A bigger stage. A wider audience. She has a home on stage, but Bernhard is the first to admit that she finds manual labor – like cleaning the kitchen or doing laundry – freeing. “It’s meditative,” she tells Alec, who concurs.
In the 1980s, Athens, Georgia, rock band R.E.M. was the epitome of the artful "alternative" band— producing a string of beautiful, if occasionally inscrutable albums, and slowly evolving over time. But then came Out of Time, the band's true arrival as global rock stars, riding largely on the strength of “Losing My Religion,” which was in constant rotation on TV and radio throughout 1991. It was the moment the band snapped into crisp pop focus—and lead singer Michael Stipe stepped with somewhat more gusto into his role as frontman. Stipe led the band through twenty more years of bold experimentation, massive success, and the occasional misstep—but never insincerity. R.E.M. disbanded in 2011, and, for the last five years, Stipe has channeled his new time and energy into photography, teaching, and politics. And while his songs will almost certainly last in the cultural memory for a very long time, Stipe himself has even broader ambitions. Like living until he’s a hundred and twenty, for starters. He talks to host Alec Baldwin about his long-term plans, as well as more immediate concerns, like voting.
Over the course of a career that has lasted more than half a century, Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot has achieved global stardom and exceptional influence. Bob Dylan’s a fan—he's said, “I can’t think of any [Lightfoot songs] I don’t like.” These songs—“Beautiful,” “Sundown,” “If You Could Read My Mind,” and many others—have been treasured by generations of popular musicians and listeners around the world. But Gordon Lightfoot was just one of many aspirants who moved to Toronto in the early 1960s to try their hand in the burgeoning folk music scene there. Lightfoot tells host Alec Baldwin about fitting a feeling to a melody, why he owes his first hit record to an exec's girlfriend, and how he wrote "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" by pulling lines straight from the newspaper.
Each week, more than 400 radio stations across the country air "On The Media," a program that takes a hard look at the boldfaced names in the headlines—and the smaller names in the bylines. The program has won many awards for its role as a watchdog for journalistic accountability—including a Peabody, the highest honor in broadcast journalism. Recent episodes have investigated why it's difficult to report on prison strikes, shamed the editorializing of infamous “sting operation” videographer James O’Keefe, and pondered ExxonMobil's climate change research. The show's co-host, Bob Garfield, brings a skeptic's ear for opinion and an insider's knowledge of how the spin factory works: for 25 years, he keenly dissected commercials for Ad Age magazine. He tells host Alec Baldwin that, despite his mellifluous voice, he wasn't a shoe-in for radio, and explains why his outrage at telemarketers mirrors his indignation at being fed political bull.
Howard Schultz wasn't born into business. A Brooklyn boy whose father worked menial jobs to support the family, Schultz thought his way out would be through sport. That is, however, until he broke his jaw on the football field at 18 (an injury from which Schultz is still recovering). For the next three years, he made cold calls, a job he hated but which ultimately taught him about how to sell himself. He soon connected those selling chops with a small Seattle coffee roastery called Starbucks. He hoped to expand the chain to 100 stores; Starbucks now has 25,000 locations across the globe. Howard Schultz—who has been at the helm as CEO for most of the company's history—tells host Alec Baldwin that at the core of that success is a desire to build the kind of socially enlightened, employee-focused business that his father was never able to work for.
Elliott Gould has lived a life in show business. He was just 12 when he started singing and dancing in a vaudeville routine in 1951. Dancing has been a fixture: Gould says he tangoed with his mother to "I Get Ideas" at his own bar mitzvah, perhaps hinting at the career-long mix of serious artistry and arch comedy (with a bit of outré sexual antics thrown in) that was to come. His breakout role came in the 1969 romp "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," but Gould says it was his dancer's mind—a fixation on repetition to perfection—that ultimately caught the awareness of director Robert Altman. The two achieved mutual career standouts with films like "M*A*S*H," "The Long Goodbye," and "California Split." The latter is a film about the dark side of gambling—Gould's own struggle with gambling addiction would later add a subtle depth to his role in the "Ocean's Eleven" franchise. Gould told host Alec Baldwin about all this and more at the TCM Classic Film Festival this past April, and opened up about his relationships with Donald Sutherland, his first girlfriend (and, for a time, wife) Barbra Streisand, Ginger Rogers, Jack Nicholson, Ben Affleck, and many others.
In Iris Smyles' new book "Dating Tips for the Unemployed," the main character 'Iris Smyles' embarks on a personal journey (modeled on Homer's "Odyssey") that involves plenty of emotional shipwrecks and failures to launch. The source material is closely drawn from the author's own off-center life. Smyles tells host Alec Baldwin about her preternaturally early interest in classic literature, details how and why she indulged her self-destructive streak, and explains why the five years she lived like a typing monk were the best of her life. "Who wants to be moderate at anything?" says Smyles, "That's so boring."
Kevin Kline is one of the most acclaimed entertainers working today. So how did the kid from St. Louis end up with an Oscar, two Tony awards, and a career that has intersected with those of Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury, John Cleese, and Kenneth Branagh, to name just a few? He says that, at Juilliard, the answer came in the form of a pair of tights and lots of dance practice, as well as a merciless culling of his midwestern elocution. Kline's career accelerated early: a cross-country tour with the soon-to-be renowned acting company founded by the great John Houseman led to Tony-decorated roles (three years apart) in "On the Twentieth Century" and "The Pirates of Penzance." His first film role soon followed, opposite Streep in "Sophie's Choice." Kline's stage and screen stock hasn't dipped since. He recently spoke with Alec Baldwin in front of a live audience at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, where he assessed some of his many marquee performances, and demonstrated the most important thing he learned at Juilliard: how to do a theatrical bow from every era since the Renaissance.
Gregory Jaczko didn't grow up aspiring to work on the country's central nuclear energy oversight body, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He had a freshly-minted Ph.D. in physics when he received a fellowship to learn about the political process in Washington, D.C. While there, he worked with Senators Ed Markey and Harry Reid, apprenticeships that prepared him for the contentious work of navigating nuclear industry interests—or pursuing countervailing aims. In fact, Jaczko says that when he was appointed to the NRC, he "arrived with a 'scarlet N'" (for "nuclear") because Markey and Reid have combative histories with the nuclear industry and lobby. Questions about Jaczko's leadership style dogged his tenure, including allegations of angry outbursts and abusive behavior. These resulted in a series of high-profile Congressional hearings; though a later investigation cleared him of wrongdoing, Jaczko resigned before the end of his term. But he tells host Alec Baldwin that after President Obama made him the youngest chairman in the history of the Commission, his primary aim was ensuring safety at the nation's aging and decaying nuclear energy sites—especially in the wake of the 2011 reactor disaster in Fukushima, Japan.
Viggo Mortensen became a global star as a valiant crusading king in Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. But then he deftly complicated this virtuous image with a series of dark, dense character studies for the director David Cronenberg. And his latest role is perhaps his most complex yet. In "Captain Fantastic," Mortensen plays a father who raises his six children in the wilderness—then reassesses his convictions as this bucolic fantasy collapses. The fame that came with his "Lord of the Rings" role also gave Mortensen the freedom to exercise his wider artistic imagination: he's a distinguished author, poet, painter, and publisher. Mortensen tells host Alec Baldwin how he got his acting start in school playing the ass-end of a dragon, and explains how his eleven-year-old son convinced him to say yes to the role that would make him famous.
Michael Eisner started out in show business the same way everybody else does: by taking tickets at the studio door. But most ticket takers don't end up as epochal media magnates. Eisner rose to prominence at ABC as a protege of Barry Diller, helping to take the television network to the top of the ratings with programs like Roots and Happy Days. He jumped (also with Diller) to Paramount Pictures, and during his eight year stint as president and CEO, the studio produced hit film after hit film, including Raiders of the Lost Ark, Saturday Night Fever, Beverly Hills Cop, and many more. Eisner then spent the next two decades leading The Walt Disney Company, reinvigorating the animation studio with experiments like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and dozens of musical successes, starting with The Little Mermaid. But it wasn't just cartoons: Eisner vastly expanded the company's signature amusement parks, and spearheaded numerous media acquisitions, with Disney eventually absorbing ABC, ESPN, and launching cruise lines and sports teams. Eisner continues to experiment with new ideas and formats; his production company makes, among other things, a Netflix cartoon for adults about an alcoholic horse. Eisner walks host Alec Baldwin through his expansive film career, and explains how he views risk and reward.