by Micah Haley
For more than a quarter century, William Baldwin has been a working actor. Along with his three brothers, Baldwin left New York and barnstormed Hollywood in the late 1980s, starring in blockbusters like Flatliners, Backdraft and Sliver. He appeared in Warren Beatty’s Bulworth, the thriller Virus, and in Noah Baumbach’s acclaimed film The Squid and the Whale.
As the entertainment industry entered the second Golden Age of Television, so did Baldwin, starring as Patrick Darling in Dirty Sexy Money and as Dr. William van der Woodsen in Gossip Girl. He also appeared in Parenthood, Hawaii Five-0, 30 Rock and Hot in Cleveland.
Recently, he trekked to New Orleans for a role in Cut Off, a new thriller from director Jowan Carbin. His co-stars include Oscar nominee Brad Dourif, John Robinson, Lew Temple, Laura Cayouette and Jean-Marc Barr. During a break from the independent film’s busy schedule, we met in New Orleans’ Central Business District to talk about his relationship with the city and his long list of upcoming projects.
You’ve been in town for what, two days?
Two days. I’ve been working in New York, here for a few days, and then I head back this weekend.
Have you enjoyed it? Good times?
Yeah, I’ve been here before. I’ve never made a film here before, but I’ve made a commercial here. Been down for the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras. I’ve been down for fun and culture and sight-seeing. This is such a different, unique place. There’s nothing like it on Earth. I don’t mean to insult New Orleans, but it’s kind of like Vegas. When you’re in Vegas, there’s nothing else really like it. And when you’re in New Orleans, I can’t think of anywhere else – and I’ve never been anywhere else – that’s anything like this.
It’s kind of this hodge-podge of Vegas, somewhere in Mexico and Europe, all in one weird city.
It’s just got really great energy, food, people, culture, history – and it all collides. It’s awesome. It can be intense, too. And I’m from New York. A lot of people go to New York and say, “It’s very intense.” But I think there’s something about the Cajun/Creole flavor and all that stuff down here, but also just being in the South when you’re from the North. There are some towns in the South, like Austin or Nashville, that I’m a little bit more comfortable in. New Orleans is a place I love to visit, but it’s so culturally intense, I feel like I don’t fit in or something.
I think that’s the best way to experience New Orleans: to make a movie. Be here for two or three months and enjoy it. You can do so much in such a short period of time. It’s a small city with a lot going on.
Let’s talk about Cut Off.
My friend Bruno brought me the script not long ago. I read it and loved it. I think Jowan [Carbin] is very talented. He’s very bright, very literate and very sensitive. He isn’t a lifer down here, which is amazing because he captures the spirit and the ghosts and the cultural gravitas of New Orleans and the region as if it’s in his DNA. It feels like he’s lived it. There’s stuff going on in the script, but there’s also stuff that’s going on specifically with my character. Some of the dialogue is beyond the dialogue. There’s almost a melodic, rhythmic quality to the dialogue. But very specific to this New Orleans/Mississippi Delta, jazzy/bluesy sort of energy to some of the things I say, and the way I say them.
That’s interesting. Do you have musical training in your background?
Not really, but I’m married to a musician and songwriter. My wife’s in a band and I’m around music a lot.
Tell me more about who your character in Cut Off is.
He’s a character named Haskell, who’s sort of a Southern transplant. He settled down here and has been here for a while. He’s kind of a sheep in wolf’s clothing, rather than the opposite. He looks kind of more menacing and intimidating than he is. On the outside, he’s judged and misunderstood. On the inside, he’s more of a gentle soul.
What other characters inspired you as you molded the character of Haskell?
The only character I thought of was Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, who was not a gentle soul! There were some loose parallels there. And also De Niro’s character in Cape Fear. There’s a lot of tattoos on my character, so visually referenced the thought of those two characters. But I was more interested in the rhythm and the language and the objective of my character. What it is I’m trying to impart on the lead character, Clive, and also the audience. That was more emotionally important to me.
Tell me about the tattoos. Did you have any input on them?
A little bit. We talked about it, but we didn’t have a lot of time. It’s a low-budget film, and we were under the gun. We talked about it a little in advance. If we were shooting this for three months and I was working twice a week or something, playing the third or fourth lead, it would have been great to go all the way, wall-to-wall with the tattoos. Like De Niro in Cape Fear. Hand-select each one based on the backstory of the character. We didn’t have that, unfortunately. But I had tattoos up my neck and behind my ears, a sleeve down my arms, and across the front of my body.
How much time did that require of you in the hair and makeup trailer?
We moved pretty quickly. The first day we did it in about three hours. I rolled the dice and risked sleeping in them so we wouldn’t have to take them off and do them all over again the next day, just to see what they would look like. And they held up. They just needed a minor touchup. They lasted. Some of the tattoos, just a few, had to be replaced. We re-did the scarring every day. Scars on my torso and my face. That won’t last overnight. Well, it could, but I wasn’t interested in having the glue stuck to my face every night! That’s a quick add-on…you can do that in ten minutes.
Where have you been shooting primarily?
The Irish Channel. We’ve been shooting in a very colorful neighborhood.
Home of some great parades! You just missed one.
I heard there was a great parade for David Bowie’s funeral. I wish I could have been here for that. I wish I could have marched in that parade to pay tribute to him.
What a loss.
Surprised I didn’t hear through the grapevine that that was coming.
Yeah, they kept it really quiet. Apparently it wasn’t something he wanted to go through publicly.
They did keep it quiet.
What else have you been busy with recently?
I just finished a film in Torino, Italy called The Broken Key with Michael Madsen. I just did a little film in South Carolina called Chronology. And I’m about to go up and produce and star in another cable movie up in Toronto. It’s my second or third cable movie up there. I’m a working actor, just scrambling around.
Tell me about the movie in Toronto.
I’ve done a couple of Hallmark movies and I’ve developed a really strong relationship with them. I like it because it’s very different than this. Much more family content. I starred in one for them called Be My Valentine, and then I pitched an idea to them, one that I would star in and produce, which we did last year. And now we have the third one in the pipeline now. The script has to come in. We don’t have a script yet.
I’ve worked on some MOWs (movies of the week) and they were always fun. And now, the quality is incredible. There’s little difference in the production values of MOWs vs. theatrical films in the same genre.
Television is really better than films now. The best material – the best scripts – are in cable television now. The best project, long-form miniseries, original movies… the studios, from a substantive standpoint, most of the time can’t touch what HBO and Showtime and those guys are doing. The problem with television is this: the best stuff in television is going on right now, and the worst stuff in television is going on right now. When you have six hundred channels, and you have to fill all of that with content, you’re going to get a lot of great stuff and a lot of crap.
I agree. Thanks for the talk.
Enjoyed speaking with you, Micah.
Let’s talk about Cut Off.
It’s an interesting, complicated story. It is being told in a very psychological, dramatic way. There’s a lot of opportunities for us to fall into the traps of the story. Our task is to avoid those pitfalls. Cut Off is a small community in Southern Louisiana in Lafourche Parish.
And it’s aptly named.
Yes. And it’s a community of heritage and culture that I wouldn’t say is fading, but it’s not a culture that’s rising. That’s an old culture from the past. That “Cajun,” that French that was spoken, has maybe dissipated over a generation or two. As it relates to our story, that’s a place where a group of us have built our own community. Without judgment, we’ll call this community the Morning River group. It’s a group of people who have experienced some sort of despair. That might be a bit disenfranchised and be available to be brought into the fray of a charismatic leader.
Tell me about your character.
I am (maybe) his sidekick. I play a gentleman named Bobby who hails from Texas, comes from an abusive childhood, has some secrets of his own, and is drinking the Kool-Aid. Without judgement, the important thing is that we have to realize why people do things. There’s a mission that our charismatic leader would like to have us go on, and he needs one more recruit. The story’s really built on this recruit being part of the plan. And this new recruit is doubting, and maybe not drinking all of his Kool-Aid. That’s problematic.
This is very paramount to what’s happening in the real world. We experienced this in Brussels, in France and we experience it in our movie theaters and our schools. And with ISIS. By doing a very harmful, violent attack, we call attention to how we think the world should change.
My character Bobby might be akin to that guy Tex in the Manson group. He might be that essence: can-do, will-do type of guy. Gets his hands dirty. Follows orders. When you get an ensemble of artists together, discovery is great. It becomes the titillation, the thrill of what we do. It’s called fishing, not catching. We call it “Hide and Go Seek” not “Hide and Go Find.” We go hunting, we doing go killing. We adore the discovery, and that’s what this is about: the discovery.
As an actor, how much discovery do you leave until you get to set? How much preparation do you do?
I do a lot of character preparation. I do a lot of research because it’s my favorite thing. The performance is actually my least favorite thing of what I do. I enjoy rehearsal. I enjoy conversation. I enjoy research. I enjoy the effort of building. I enjoy the build.
I do come in with preparation, but I’m also very available to someone else’s preparation. The magic that we hope to contain, to capture on film, happens with the unknown. I give a lot over to the wisdom of the unknown. So when William Baldwin or Jean-Marc Barr and I crash in the context of a scene, something’s gonna happen! Something fuzzy. Sparkly magic is going to happen. Didn’t see that coming but that’s cool. And that’s when our director Jowan will say, “Yeah! That’s what I was looking for!”
Do you have a background in theater?
I do! Just down the road in Houston, Texas. The Alley Theater. It’s a good space. There’s so much to be learned on stage because of all the preparation you do to get up on stage. The rehearsal, the blocking, the lighting, the tech. All of these things are natural progressions to performance. In the medium of film and television, we take for granted those natural progressions.
Also as an audience, I think there’s a natural progression to experience something. Sometimes I think as we’ve moved into this technological age, we lose a little bit of that natural progression. If the grid goes down, we’re going right back to the camp fire, once upon a time. Around the story. It all gets back to that. It’s never changed. I think that’s important to understand it. It’s why I do it. I like telling a story, I like listening to a story! I can just as easy listen to a story, as I can to tell you one. We hold that as the essence and we do ok.
It’s puzzling to me why even on studio films, they are just cutting out pre-production. They are cutting down days of prep.
William Baldwin and I were just talking about that. We go far enough back that we remember rehearsal. We used to rehearse these things weeks ahead of shooting. And then shoot for a couple or three months on an independent movie.
And it’s ridiculous, because prep saves you money. Movies are made in prep.
It does, I feel like the quality control of the product has been diluted so much for the product’s sake. Quantity control is probably more important. We’ve got to get product out there for our various platforms. Netflix, Hulu, cable, our networks. We’ve just got to get something and keep pumping it out there. I don’t think reality television did us any favors because it was a formula that took our quality meter and really dropped the bar. We swallowed a bunch of that and now we’re a little bit lost.
We started this conversation talking about generations in Lafourche Parish. As that dissipates, I think our quality of entertainment does as well. So, producers are less inclined to say, “Let’s get a really good product and call it The Revenant and win an Oscar.” They are more likely to say, “Let’s just get it in the can so we can get it out there. Somebody will watch it.”
They are making a commodity of an art form, but to the detriment of the art form.
I have always said that I’m not sure that commerce and art ever find a common ground. I think they crash and fall by the wayside. But we do get to supply a lot of commerce.
But then we take heart in the idea that the independent film world has found a place on digital platforms. That we are telling really cool stories on television. That our storytellers are being invited to go do long format. Many movies, in the form of episodic: True Detectives and Breaking Bads and Walking Deads. All these things that give us the capability to tell a story in a long format, as opposed to landing in the cutoff of ninety minutes.
In the best cases, the market makes a space and gives artists the opportunity to fill it. It gives them a certain number of parameters and then you get to do your thing, and hopefully you make something that’s great.
I feel like we are in a good time continually to tell your story. I do think that because we’re in a good time, you have to be really good to tell your story. Just because you’re Jamaican and you have a bobsled team, you’re still in the Olympics. You still have to compete. You don’t get a waiver because, “We don’t have any snow.” If you’re making independent movies, you do get an opportunity, but you still have to make them good, because everyone else is doing them good. They’re better than they ever have been. The shot lists are dynamic. The sound designs, the scores, the technical aspects of camera moves…all of these are better than the skateboard dollies that we started with.
And it’s so cheap now, you can experiment without letting any of your crap see the light of day. And as the equipment keeps becoming cheaper, I’m hoping that it continues to throw the spotlight on the good stuff. I hope it gives an opportunity for content not to complete just on production value, but on the quality of the story.
This is the perfect example. Cut Off is a great script that is well crafted and it’s entirely an interesting story. And with Jowan Carbin, it’s in good hands. As it was birthed from the written page to executing it in moving pictures. For a filmmaker like him, it’s a great time to do this. This is why we come in and do this, avail ourselves to come to his party. We believe in this story that we’re going to tell. I think you still do have got to have a story. Again, it gets back to the camp fire.
Follow the cast and crew of Cut Off on the film’s website at cutoff-movie.com.