Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we ask actors for memories about roles that defined their careers. The catch: They don't know beforehand what roles we'll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Adam Baldwin, currently the stoic, wisecrackin' government agent on NBC's Chuck, which returns from its mid-season break with a 3D episode on Monday, February 2. Baldwin is perhaps best known for playing Jayne Cobb in Joss Whedon's Firefly and Serenity (another largely wisecrackin' stoic role), and he got his start in 1980's My Bodyguard when he was still in high school.
Chuck (2007-2009)—"John Casey"
Adam Baldwin: The role came up in the normal process of television pilot season. Before that, I'd been on a few series which had gone half a season. So I just went in after Day Break went down, and back into normal casting sessions. Chuck bit—apparently [co-creator] Josh Schwartz and everyone liked my work. They were rooting for me. It was nice to see Zack Levi at the testing session. He's tall, about 6'3", I'm 6'4", so when you're cast opposite people of the same height, it's helpful. Especially for the cinematographer. I don't want them to carry around an apple box, and I don't want to have to carry around a shovel.
The A.V. Club: You corrected another interviewer once for calling it a "geek show." You said, "We prefer 'nerd show.'" What's the difference?
AB: There's the geek squad and we're the nerd herd… Nerd's a nicer word.
Day Break (2006-2007)—"Chad Shelten"
AB: Long hours, night shoots; when we came out and our ratings were low, we thought we were under the gun. I think what hurt the show was that it didn't have enough of a sense of fun. No sense of humor. Too dark and brooding to hold an audience. There's not a lot of real estate out there when it's up against baseball and Dancing With The Stars and American Idol. It's also a complicated storyline. You come in two episodes late and you'll go "Huh?" But I think it holds up well as a box set.
AVC: Is that the type of role you prefer to play? Dramatic but with a sense of humor, kinda multi-dimensional?
AB: Absolutely. It's great to be able to pretend you're tough but funny at the same time. Dry humor. The straight man is already kind of in my wheelhouse. It's a pleasure to play that. I'm not one to start rambling on a Neil Simon soliloquy. I'm no Jack Lemmon. The guys I grew up with, my cinematic heroes, have always been men of few words, but of action. Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach.
My Bodyguard (1980)—"Linderman"
AB: I like to think about that as the role that saved my sanity. I was having a tough time in high school, as most people do. Acting had always been the social scene I'd fallen into. It was sort of a merry band of band geeks and theater nerds. They were a rambunctious band of misfits, and they were very forgiving of your screw-ups. That show came along, and I auditioned for it just as a stupid high-school kid, and went through some screen tests. There were yesses and nos and we're-not-sure's. And then they gave it to me.
AVC: Was anything about the process upsetting?
AB: I never thought I'd get the part, so I didn't really care. It was May 1979, and they'd sent out some guys from local agencies to find high-school kids, and the guy that came to our school auditioned about 30 of us. I tried on a lark, he called five or 10 of us back to talk to the casting director at the Ambassador East, and they just sort of weeded it down. They tried a lot of different cities, though. Dallas, L.A., Toronto, New York. But they wanted to shoot in Chicago. But maybe it came down to the fact that they could pay me scale. They saved a lot of money on me, I'm sure, because I could live at home and commute by train.
AVC: How long was shooting?
AB: Fifty-two days of shooting in the summer of '79, which was the summer of Breakfast In America by Supertramp. In Through The Out Door by Led Zeppelin. I had tickets, but Bonham died. That's how I remember it music-wise. The visceral remembrances were very heartfelt. We shot a lot in the Lincoln Park Zoo, and I understand that whole lakefront area is completely transformed. There's an ape house there or something. I haven't been back, but I hear you couldn't reshoot that scene if you wanted to now.
AVC: What were your normal summer plans before the movie?
AB: I worked at a hardware store. I had a paper route. We played Frisbee. There was a Frisbee-golf course out in Wilmette [Illinois]. It was the mid-to-late '70s. There was some stupidity going on… Youthful exuberance, you know? We had a ball.
AVC: Were you in school when the movie came out?
AB: I didn't go back and finish senior year. I was so far behind. I was the kind of guy who got either As or Fs. If I didn't like the teacher, I wouldn't go back. It was such a big school that you could fall through the cracks real easy. I remember my junior advisor saying, "You're not gonna go to summer school? You're never gonna graduate." So I said, "Screw you, I'm gonna do a movie! I'm gonna have a movie career!" Not a big fan of public high school here. It served its purpose.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)—"Animal Mother"
AB: The hours can get long, but I feel very blessed that I've been doing this kind of work this long, and been able to survive. I think a lot of it has to do with a conscious decision I made to stay below the radar publicity-wise. There were some chances to do that with Full Metal Jacket or even with My Bodyguard. I could've gone to Hollywood and hit it hard, but I was scared to death. I was 19. I think that's something that gave me some longevity. I've been doing it 30 years. That's a pretty good run. What I try to do is to appreciate every job I have while I'm working on it. [Stanley] Kubrick taught me that on Full Metal Jacket. He said I wasn't patient enough. We were a bunch of cocky young actors. "We're in a Kubrick film! We've made it!" Big arrogant fat-headed idiots in green fatigues. I'll always reflect back on that. He showed me you should appreciate what you have while you have it.
AVC: Can you give an example?
AB: He walked that walk. He was in it for the long haul, and he wanted to make a project the best he could. So there were moments as a 23-year-old asshole arrogant kid while on the set… as were we all. I think a lot of it came down to a communication breakdown. We didn't realize, as the cast, that his plan was to extend the shooting period. When I was contracted in August 1985, I was supposed to be done around Thanksgiving. Wound up being nine months. We got restless. We didn't realize, as stupid kids, that what he needed was the right light. We shot in England, so you'd have gray skies coming in. You'd have to wait until the sun cleared the cloud deck, and you'd have 45 minutes or an hour to shoot in a day. But he never really explained that to us. Then it was over and back to racing along and doing a movie in 18 days. Then you go, "Wish I could have that back again…"
We all felt unique and lucky working on a Kubrick movie… But everyone's human. It's not like we got there with these expectations that we'd be working with Kubrick, the master, the God. He's only human. Familiarity breeds contempt. We just wanted to know when it was gonna be done, and he would just say, "I don't know." We were young and unwise. We didn't know it would end at some point, but we should have realized. We should have enjoyed it while we were there. Sal Lopez really appreciated it. He was one of my roommates; they put about five of us in a giant mansion-y apartment building up in Chelsea.
AVC: What was that like?
AB: I took the maid's quarters on purpose so I could be hunkered down and away. The guys were bangin' parties and they had girlfriends. I participated, but I could always go down into my little maid's quarters and get away. When I was working up to My Bodyguard, my mom had a three-flat and I lived in the basement apartment. I'm kind of a hermit like that. Getting elbowed around bugs me. I need my comfort zone. I think I blew out my ears listening to Led Zeppelin in my headphones, living in my basement apartment, so I don't hear too well in crowds. I like having conversations where I don't need to go, "Huh? What?"
The X-Files (2001-2002)—"Knowle Rohrer"
Firefly, Serenity (2002-2003, 2005)—"Jayne Cobb"
Starquest II (1997)—"Lee"
AB: I'm under the impression that getting the job [on Firefly] was an outlet from having done some guest work on X-Files. I was in kind of a funky stage in my life. My kids were young, I was hanging out with them, playing a little golf. Being a slacker. My manager called up and said I had to meet the guys from X-Files. I'd auditioned for the Robert Patrick role, but I guess I was wrong for it. Wrong age, wrong type, or just too tall for Gillian Anderson. They liked the audition, though. They brought me back for something else, so Joss [Whedon] had seen my work on the network. So I was on their list, too. I read for him, it went by pretty quick. You read two scenes; if they like you, they test you within a week, and bang, you're off and running. I remember that Joss knew we were under the gun [with Firefly] from the get-go, because they weren't too thrilled with the pilot. So they gave us Fridays at 8 p.m., they didn't want to use the two-hour pilot, because it wasn't finished. That's a reminder that you don't want to give your boss an unfinished product. There was a battle sequence that was supposed to open the show that wasn't in the pilot, so I guess it felt kind of plodding. We were thrown into a perfect storm of baseball playoffs and American Idol's first season. The ad campaign was a little misleading. When you get below a 3 or a 2.5, you're on the block. It's just numbers.
AVC: Did the low numbers manifest on the set?
AB: It's easy to point fingers when you don't have numbers. But ultimately, you can't control the audience. When you're on the air and they're not coming to the party, it's time to shut down the party. Yeah, you can feel the pressure. You want to get an audience and get word of mouth going. But especially these days, if you don't launch well with a base audience, you're not gonna hold them. If you première at a 3, you probably won't make it to a 10. But I'm just speculating. That's above my pay grade.
AVC: You've speculated a lot on things "above your pay grade." You called Starquest II the worst movie ever made.
AB: Well, that criticism really hasn't gotten me into too much trouble. I have the highest regard for Roger Corman, irrespective of that movie. I don't blame him. What are you gonna do? I speak the truth. I've got about 92 films on IMDB. Some of them have to be crap. I'm sure Roger Corman would poke fun at that movie himself. He hasn't hired me since, so…
AVC: What was your inspiration for Jayne Cobb?
AB: I had just been trying to do Warren Oates from The Wild Bunch meets Eli Wallach from The Good The Bad And The Ugly. Guys like that. Those are guys I was trying to impersonate, mixed in with some Strother Martin. Those are great Western guys. I just always approached it as a Western, with that sensibility. You can shoot someone in the back and rationalize it, because you're out on the frontier, and survival of the fittest. No honor among thieves. It was up to Joss to infuse him with a little bit of a heart of gold and honor for [Nathan Fillion's character] Mal. The rest of them, he could take or leave them. And later I saw Alien again, and it turns out I was just doing Yaphet Kotto.
AVC: What was it like reprising the role for Serenity?
AB: It fit like a glove. I still had the boots from the series. I slipped right back into those, and a couple of the T-shirts. We upgraded them a little bit, and put on some cooler beltwork and weaponry. The gun sling that the prop guy made for the movie used a quick-release parachute capo. That was pretty cool. It was great to have that group back again, because at that point, we all appreciated what it was. It was probably the most fun job I've ever worked on. It was so sweet. Such redemption. I'm sorry the movie didn't make more money at the theaters. If we'd had three more million viewers for the show, we'd still be on the air, and if we'd had three million more butts in the seats, we'd probably have made a sequel or two.
AVC: People might not have been familiar with the series.
AB: Yeah. I think the movie title was also kind of misleading. I mean, Serenity is the right title, but also the wrong title. It sounds like a yoga class to the uninitiated. Also, the movie is much darker than the series. There wasn't as much camp and fun. That may have hurt it too.
AVC: Has your scar typecast you as a badass?
AB: I think it's more my height. I'm just tall, so that's what it gets me. My wife asks me, when I get home from auditions, if they asked how tall I am. And if I say "Yes," then she says, "Okay, you didn't get that job."
Angel (2004)—"Marcus Hamilton"
AB: [Joss Whedon] would come by and say hi, but he never directed episodes. That was a job where I called him up and said, "Dude, I need a job." That was early '04. Firefly was cancelled in '02, and '03 was a tough year for me. I needed a job. There just wasn't a lot of work to be found. I did videogame work and some Jackie Chan Adventures cartoon voiceover work. That's what saved my nut. Joss was kind enough to come along and give me a cool part. He has been very good to me. He's pretty loyal that way, if you don't piss him off too much.
AVC: Any memories about being on that set?
AB: I love [David] Boreanaz. I think he's a sweetheart. Real professional. One of those jobs where the crew has been together forever. There were some hot girls on there, too. J. Richards and Amy Acker and Andy Hallett were all really great.
Drillbit Taylor (2008)—"Disgruntled Bodyguard"
AB: There's a little clip out there on YouTube if you Google "Drillbit Taylor Bodyguard interview." Steve Brill, Michael J. Fox, Richard Dean Anderson, and I would all play hockey in a local actors' league together. Steve knew me from that, so he threw me in for a cameo. But I had to convince them it would be okay to let me wear the My Bodyguard jacket, which I still have. Their idea was to throw me in that cameo montage, but I figure if I'm gonna do it, I might as well do the character with the dirty white T-shirt and the jacket. It's a laugh for the parents taking their kids to see the movie who saw My Bodyguard in theaters. A friend of mine said, "Oh! I laughed when I saw it. My kids didn't get it, but I did."
AVC: Was it a retrospective moment, donning the jacket again?
AB: It still fits!