“Speaking Freely” show recorded Jan. 25, 2002, in New York.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely.” I’m Ken Paulson. William Baldwin is an actor, an advocate and a passionate voice on behalf of freedom of speech. Great to have you join us today.
William Baldwin: Thank you. Great to be here.
Paulson: We know that acting runs in the family. Does activism?
Baldwin: It certainly does. My father was — you know, went to Boys High in Brooklyn then Syracuse University, was a teacher — was in the Marine Corps for a while and was a teacher on Long Island for over 30 years, a teacher and coach. Taught government and history, and he was always very socially and politically active. It was — you know, it was — if there was any value that was instilled in me more than any other, I would say that my father weighed in heavily with academics, athletics, and, and activism, for sure.
Paulson: Early in your career — in fact, your first film, “Born on the Fourth of July” — that is one of the more political movies. And yet you were just beginning. I’m sure you weren’t able to pick and choose films. How did you end up on, on one of the more political and socially conscious films of the era?
Baldwin: Well, it was not a bad start, actually. The film was nominated for Best Picture. It was the first film that I was in. It was simple. If I could put a complete sentence together and had a pulse in this audition, there was a, a good chance I was gonna get the part for two reasons: a.) the part was so small. There was a hundred small, little, you know, bit parts. And also, I’m from the hometown of Ron Kovic, who Tom Cruise portrays in the film. He’s from my hometown, Massapequa, Long Island, and my father was his high school teacher and coach. They were very, very close friends as — after Ron went to Vietnam and was injured — my father used to go visit him in the V.A. hospital up in the Bronx, and they, they kept a fairly close relationship in the years following his paralysis.
Paulson: And how does that get you on the set of the movie and into a picture?
Baldwin: Well, I made sure that in the audition and the callback for Oliver Stone that I, that, because the part was so small, I said to Oliver, “You know, I grew up with Ron. He’s much older than me, but I know his family. He’s good friends with my dad and, you know, even if I’m not in the film, you know, I’d love to take you out to Massapequa and introduce you to his neighbors and his teachers and family members, show you his home, his haunts, you know, where he used to spend a lot of time as, during his adolescence.” And, you know, that was it. As soon as I said that, I — Ron, Ron? — Oliver was gonna find something for me to do.
Paulson: The career starts off in a very positive way, and you, within a fairly short period of time, establish yourself, and there are films like “Flatliners” that — and “Backdraft” — that a lot of people respond to very positively. And yet this actor — there are signs of the activism coming to the fore. I understand there was an event that you didn’t want any part of because Jesse Helms was involved.
Baldwin: Yeah, there, there was — you know, interesting we’re here. I defend Jesse Helms’ right to be able to express his opinions, of course, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to agree with them or like them. I’m happy to see people like Jesse Helms, you know, put out to pasture, if you will. It looks like his career officially is coming to an end. And I think that, that he’s especially when he turns the creative arts and First Amendment issues into a political football. It really wasn’t about, you know, Mapplethorpe and Serrano with the NEA back in 1990. It wasn’t really about Jesse Helms personally being offended. It was about “What can we, how can we create a political football, how can we create a lightning rod that will feed the political fund-raising machine?” When you do these mailers: “and Jesse Helms says the Democrats support kiddie porno,” and you mail millions of them across the Midwest, there’s a lot of little old blue-haired ladies that are gonna write their $10 and $20 and $25 checks, and, and there’s gonna be millions of dollars that go into the coffers of the Republican National Committee as a result. And I just think that that’s dangerous when people don’t really, truly, you know, they don’t really, truly, and accurately and honestly stand up for what they, what they believe in.
Paulson: Now, you’ve channeled your convictions into an organization called The Creative Coalition. I want to ask you about that. But first of all, I want to ask: How smart is it for a young actor to sort of make political statements and jump into activism really before your career is fully established?
Baldwin: Well, it’s, it’s, it’s not something that I really have a choice, you know, over. Advocacy is genetically encoded. I really, I can’t help myself. I have a conscience. And I was an activist who happened to become a celebrity, not a celebrity who happened to become an activist. So, this is, I went to, I was an activist involved in social and political advocacy as a youth, and then I studied political science in college, and then I briefly was on the Hill for a while for a congressman from Long Island, Tom Downey. And I thought I was gonna go to law school and decided to change directions with my career. The beauty of what I do is that it creates a lot of freedom and flexibility in my lifestyle so that I can pursue my career as an actor with complete conviction, but I also have a lot of flexibility in my lifestyle and my schedule to pursue my advocacy career with as much verve.
Paulson: Now, you’ve served as president of The Creative Coalition.
Paulson: And, and although widely known, I think many Americans aren’t really familiar with the work. Is this sort of the NRA of arts advocacy? Are you Charlton Heston, in other words?
Baldwin:(Laughs.) Yeah, yeah. The Creative Coalition was founded in 1989. It was born of frustration by people in the arts and entertainment community who, whose resources were being utilized ineffectively during the 1998, I’m sorry, the 1988 presidential campaign. There were plenty of advocacy organizations based out of Los Angeles — the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee and the Show Coalition and so on — but there was nothing New York-based for the arts and entertainment community. There wasn’t a mechanism that would allow for them to, you know, to plug in and become active, so a group of, of writers, directors, producers, actors started the organization in 1989, and we’ve, we’re 13 years strong. And, you know, we are active, since our founding, in First Amendment rights and in arts advocacy. And the third issue — we’re limited to three — the third issue is sort of on a revolving door. Currently, it’s public education, and we do some media, we do media violence and media literacy work within the public education umbrella.
Paulson: You know, you’ve been very candid in the past about celebrities who’ve spoken out.
Paulson: And not only was there a need for Creative Coalition, but you’ve made the point that a lot of celebrities who were talking about issues didn’t know what they were talking about and actually weren’t advancing the cause.
Baldwin: Um, you know, it’s — I remember Charles Barkley one time in a Nike ad said, “I am not a role model.” And the problem with that is that Charles Barkley doesn’t choose whether or not he’s a role model. The media chooses and the public chooses. And I don’t have a problem with a celebrity who chooses to not participate, even though I wish that they would. We have a mantra at The Creative Coalition. It’s called “use the voice that, use the voice that you’re given.” And for us, the currency is celebrity. And that celebrity creates opportunities and creates access and opportunities for us to advance our agenda and to influence the public by, through the, through raising awareness. I don’t hold it against any celebrity for not utilizing that to his advantage, but when someone does, and they do it recklessly or irresponsibly, I have a problem. I am very proud to say that the members of The Creative Coalition are invited onto programs like this and asked to testify in, in congressional hearings, and when they do so, they do so very effectively because they take their work very seriously. And we’ve testified in Congress on arts, the NEA and on First Amendment issues and campaign-finance reform and so on and so forth.
Paulson: Do you have a, a mechanism for ensuring that your membership actually does go to school? I mean, you believe in free speech. You can’t simply — you know, a member of the Coalition who goes out and speaks on their own, you have, you have to — just whatever they want to say is what they will say.
Baldwin: That’s true. We haven’t gotten into trouble yet with that, because usually if someone’s speaking on their — for example, we’re 501(c)(3), so we can’t have someone officially go and — representing The Creative Coalition to speak on behalf of a candidate because of our tax-exempt status. So, when they’re there, they’re there as Alec Baldwin or Christopher Reeve or Blair Brown or, you know, whoever, Tony, Tony Goldwyn, Joey Pantoliano, celebrity members of our organization. When they speak on behalf of The Creative Coalition and they wear their Creative Coalition hat, you know, they’re usually very, very well-versed. If they’re a little sort of rusty and they need to be brought up to speed, either way, we usually provide them with briefing books that, that sometimes can be a little bit daunting — they can be about that thick — that will prepare them for the event.
Paulson: You know, you talk about using the voice, and yet you’re an organization full of free spirits, creative people with their own ideas about things. And, and then you also, in addition to that factor, you rotate issues they care about in terms of environmental issues and education and other things. How do you ever reach a consensus?
Baldwin: Well, you know, I think that the vast majority of our constituency is sort of politically like-minded. We have conservatives that are members of the organization. We have Republicans that are members of the organization. But, you know, when you’re dealing with First Amendment rights, the vast majority of my organization defends it. We officially, as an organization, by vote of the board, have adopted a position in that area that you either embrace or you don’t. If you don’t, you can leave the organization if you like. But there aren’t many members of my organization that are not pro-arts and that are not pro-NEA and that are not pro-First Amendment and that don’t believe in supporting the public education system in this country and so on.
Paulson: Of course, critics of your work or critics of Hollywood performers, as they would say, often describe you as liberal elites, you know, and suggest, as you’ve hinted here, that perhaps most of the people in the performing arts tend to be more left than right. Why is that?
Baldwin: Because I think that the liberal, you know, ideology is more consistent with their core beliefs. You don’t have members of the Liberal Party trying to zero out funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.
Paulson: You know, I’ve always found it puzzling that people characterize the First Amendment as sort of a liberal cause.
Paulson: What could be more conservative than honoring 45 words written by the Founding Fathers in 1791?
Baldwin: That’s a major misconception, you’re right. There is many people that are defen-— look at all the flags and all the patriotism that we’ve seen. There are many, many conservatives that, that defend freedom. And certainly, this is one of the most important core aspects of our freedom.
Paulson: What do you think people misunderstand about the First Amendment?
Baldwin: You know, I don’t think they understand how it affects them. I think they take it for granted, and I don’t think they understand how it impacts their lives on a daily basis, particularly when it comes to civil liberties but also even with the whole — it’s, you know, people may perceive it as being dated, but even with the whole NEA debate. And people were saying, “I don’t want my taxpayer’s dollars to go to controversial art or obscenity.” And they don’t, they really don’t understand how the First Amendment cuts both ways. There’s some ways in which you don’t like it because it’s controversial or offensive. But for the most part, you know, it works to your, to your benefit and to your favor. And if we don’t protect dissent, and if we don’t protect the minority opinion, then anything’s fair game.
Paulson: Now there are a lot of people watching this who agree with you and will say, “I’ll protect dissent, but why do we have to have so much violence in our entertainment?” And, “Should the First Amendment protect ‘Pulp Fiction’?”
Baldwin: Without question, without question. I mean, first of all, that’s a viable form of entertainment. You may not like it, I may not like it, we may not watch it, but there’s plenty of people out there who do like it and do want to watch it and have the right to have access to that material — and material far worse, I might add. I mean, we’re, you know, if we’re gonna defend the rights of the KKK to, to demonstrate, then I’m gonna defend Quentin Tarantino. I’m almost offended putting those two in the same sentence. You know, the problem with, with violence in media is that, you know, how does Oliver Stone accurately portray a Vietnam veteran’s, a Vietnam soldier’s experience in “Born on the Fourth of July” or in “Platoon” without making the graphic violence part of his story? It’s an inherent part of their experience. How do you do that? How do you take the violence out of “Schindler’s List” with — you’re not honestly telling the story. How do you take the violence out of “Saving Private Ryan”? I know these are the examples, but there are many examples. Now, I know — how do you, how do you differentiate between that and a Steven Seagal film that has a lot of gratuitous violence? Do I think it should be a goal and aspiration of the entertainment industry to limit the gratuitous sex and obscenity and violence? Without question. Do I think that it’s, it’s a viable form of entertainment and people — adults — when this material is rated in a way that parents can understand, do I think that those adults have a right to see it? Hey, I like to go grab a bucket of popcorn and go watch, you know, an Arnold Schwarzenegger film. I’ve seen Arnold Schwarzenegger films where, there was a “Terminator” where he had a firefight with several hundred police, uniformed police officers. And, you know, do I wish that that was toned down and it was different than it was, especially with, in light of the information we now have coming forward? Yeah, but I don’t think that you should, you can tell Arnold Schwarzenegger or the director of the studio that that film can’t be made and can’t be made that way.
Paulson: And, of course, the dilemma is, how do you somehow address the issue of violence in media without encouraging the government to be part of that process, without limiting what is clearly constitutionally protected speech, and since the early ’50s, the Supreme Court has said that film, for example, is protected by the First Amendment. One of the approaches taken most recently is an effort not to regulate the content but to regulate the marketing of content. And The Creative Coalition has been an active voice in this. The basic premise is you should not be allowed to market a product that has a mature rating of some sort to an audience that’s not mature. And that would seem to be something, to most Americans, that would make all kinds of sense.
Baldwin: Well, there’s a couple of problems. First of all, it smacks of censorship. The government — government regulation, I don’t — I support government regulation when it comes to the environment. When it comes to the First Amendment, I don’t support government regulation. Let’s start with that. I, I have worked with very closely and support Senator (Joseph) Lieberman in this area. I think that we agree there’s a problem. We don’t agree precisely on the definition of the problem, and we’re much further apart on the solution. I don’t think the answer lies in government regulation. The government telling the film industry how they can market their product is an indirect form of censorship. With that said, the industry has gone to great lengths to self-regulate. You see it already, when you hear films advertised on the radio, you hear all sorts of additional information. When you hear it on television, when you see it in print, when you hear it advertised on Moviefone, you hear all sorts of different information that provides — we want to provide tools for the parents so they can make an educated decision. I don’t think there should be these sweeping, general regulations by the government, because you fall into the, you fall into the slippery slope of — “Backdraft” was rated “R” for one reason. There was one word that was said more than three times. Does that mean that that film should not be marketed on a television program where — “Friends,” for example — a very high percentage of the audience is under 17, but a very high percentage of the audience is over 17. Should we protect those — the people that are over 17 have the right to have that marketed and advertised to them. Aside from the fact that, as a parent, if my children are watching “Friends,” and “Billy Elliot,” which is rated “R,” is not going be allowed to be marketed and advertised to them for one reason, for one word — I want “Billy Elliot,” I want “Schindler’s List,” I want “Saving Private Ryan” marketed to my children even if they’re under 17. So I think it has to be self-regulated. I think Paramount Pictures had the best response. Paramount said, “We can’t agree to Jack Valenti’s guidelines. We have to take it on a case-by-case basis, because if we want to release a film like ‘Billy Elliot,’ we can’t apply these — we can’t say that we’re never gonna advertise ‘Billy Elliot’ on ‘Friends.’ We, we want to have — we want to reserve the right to say in the future that on that rare occasion where we do have that special film that we want to target to — on family programming, where a mother and father and children are sitting there watching this film and they see that. They say, ‘You know, I want to take the kids to see that.’ That’s an important part of our history, and that’s a valuable lesson for them to learn.” And I — you know, Paramount wants to reserve that right.
Paulson: And, of course, in examples you’ve given, where there’s a word or a scene or a phrase that leads to an “R” rating, the temptation from the people who are making that film is gonna be to censor themselves in order to get their messages as broadly disseminated as possible.
Baldwin: It happens all the time. I was on the set of “Backdraft” when we were doing it, and they were trying to — I’m sure in the editing room, they cut out 50% of it or more. But they would always want us to do, to try a take without it or to try a take where we did a TV version. And, you know, you’re from Chicago. When you do a film about Chicago firefighters, how do you make a film — it’s like doing a film about, you know, Vietnam infantrymen. And there’s certain words that they say. And you get to the point where you could limit the use of it, but if you don’t say it at all, you’re not really being — you’re not really being honest — you know, artistically true.
Paulson: I buy that a majority of the movie industry is responsible. I buy that the majority of entertainment and media moguls are responsible or intend to be responsible. If that’s the case and if self-regulation is the key, then what’s the problem? In other words, if they really were responsible, there wouldn’t be any criticism. Are we talking about renegade entertainment companies that won’t obey the rules?
Baldwin: Well, there’s a couple of problems. First of all, the First Amendment is an issue where troops have to be deployed on the front lines, and we have to have the push and pull of this debate continuously. It’s not gonna go away. Lieberman has to threaten government regulation to force the hand — he has to use that political leverage to force the hand of the entertainment industry to get them to self-regulate. And if they become complacent six months from now or five years from now, we’re gonna have to do it all over again. But that’s, you know, the beauty of the First Amendment. We can’t have government officials determining for us what is art and what is not art. I also think the entertainment industry has done a terrific job. Jack Valenti has done a terrific job, and the entertainment industry has embraced — he’s proposed 12 new guidelines where “R” films can’t be advertised — trailers for “R” films can’t be advertised on “G” films in the theater or on television. And everyone except for Paramount embraced that. My personal take on it was, I would have agreed with Paramount, because I want to reserve that right for the “Billy Elliot” and the “Schindler’s List.” But I think that the entertainment industry has done a terrific job of self-regulating. There’s people that accuse the record industry of being a little bit behind the curve, but again, there’s different mediums. When you listen to something, it has one impact. If you listen to something and observe it visually, it has another impact. If you hear something, see something, and you interact with it in a video game, it has a different impact. So there’s slightly different rules that need to be set for all three. But I think we’re off to a terrific start. All of the studios have agreed not to market these — you know, to do the focus groups with anyone under the appropriate age. That was, you know, a little bit of a firestorm that created some embarrassment for the entertainment industry. And part of the problem is — and I’ll end it on this — it’s incredibly profitable. You know, you make these films — it’s supply and demand. The entertainment industry will cease to make these types of products when they are no longer profitable.
Paulson: You’re not comfortable with gratuitous sex and violence. Have you turned down a movie role for that reason?
Baldwin: No, I wouldn’t say, I wouldn’t say — I’d be hypocritical to say that I — yeah, I guess I’m not “comfortable” is a good word. We all do our best. But I also don’t have a problem. You know, there’s many, many films that I’ve seen where you say to yourself, “Did they have to have that nudity? Did they have to have that love scene? Was it an integral part of driving the plot?” Of course not. They’re just trying to turn a guy’s film into a date movie. You know what I mean? They’re trying to turn an action movie into a date movie, and that’s one of the ways they go about doing it. And I think sometimes there’s gratuitous sex that is acceptable and, I wouldn’t say it’s appropriate, but it’s acceptable, and sometimes it’s not. But that’s the slippery slope. Do we want Jesse Helms or Senator Lieberman to define for us what’s appropriate and gratuitous and what’s not? It’s all, you know, in the eye of the beholder.
Paulson: We covered a lot of territory and — including issues about where government can begin to have a voice and how media are marketed. And one of the areas we really haven’t covered — and this is the final question: Where do parents fit in all of this, and, and what about the whole issue of media literacy? How do we help young people?
Baldwin: Well, you know, we live in a different culture now. When my mother — when my mother raised us and she had a job, you know, pre-Reagan — my mother was the exception to the rule. You know, if you had six children and you were a housewife, you were staying at home, you know, raising your children. And when my mother was working, that was the exception to the rule. Now if you’re staying home raising your children, you’re the exception to the rule. And that happened very quickly over the course of — over the span of, you know, not even an entire generation. So we have a lot of latchkey kids. And we have to do — we have to be vigilant in our self-regulation. We have to provide educators and parents with as much information so that they can make a responsible, educated decision on behalf of their children. We have to do our best job. And again, I just think that we are doing that. We are now — when we rate a film an “R,” we are giving much more information now about why it’s rated “R” so you can sit there and say — and, and some of the language is very graphic and very explicit in its definition. So it’s much more clear now. A lot of times, chil— I remember I took my nieces to go see a movie called “Kindergarten Cop” one time, and I thought it was this little cute movie about Arnold Schwarzenegger who was a kindergarten teacher who was a double agent for the CIA or something. And the next thing you know, I have my 6- or 7-year-old niece who’s sitting next to me crying because they’re so terrified because there’s this huge firefight where the bad guy, you know — they get into this — and you need to have the information so that you can make that decision. I didn’t have the information back then on that film, and I’m glad that we’re doing the best we can to provide that. When it comes to media literacy, The Creative Coalition is actually trying to put together a public-private partnership, and we’d like to launch a pilot program in the public education system here in New York City — in the five boroughs — to try and train educators to create a curriculum that will teach children to process this media with a more critical eye. And I’m not trying to protect them only from the violent film. I’m talking about CNN’s coverage on Afghanistan. I saw a commercial on television the other day, it was for a gym called Crunch. Static shot through the back window of a car. The car starts rocking. This gorgeous supermodel sits up in the backseat of the car. The mascot of Crunch, which is someone dressed in a bunny suit, sits up. They rub noses. He throws his arms around her and pulls her back down out of the shot, and the car starts rocking again. Well, clearly, this is a very strong message that is running in prime time. And I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be, but we have to — it’s not only for films and for video games. We want to teach 8- and 10- and 12- and 15-year-olds how to watch Dan Rather on the evening news and how to watch a car commercial and to better understand what it is that they’re seeing.
Paulson: William Baldwin, thanks so much for joining us on “Speaking Freely.”
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