Inside the Actor's Superego
How A. Michael Baldwin got here (hint: It involves a showbiz upbringing, Oreo cookies, and shrieking armadas of flying, brain-sucking spheres)
If, by chance, you happened to be a teenage girl living in Japan in 1976, then chances are your heart still quickens at the mention of the name Michael Baldwin, who, at the ripe young age of 11, found his calling in a little-remembered film called Kenny & Co., where he effortlessly essayed the role of smartass sidekick Doug to Dan McCann's titular adolescent everykid.
Stateside, the debut feature from 19-year-old Don Coscarelli opened and closed with barely a box-office ripple, but some 5,000 miles to the West, a pint-sized superstar flared nova-hot, unleashing a tsunami of girlish adulation that, to hear Baldwin recount it, rivaled the Fab Four's manic landing at JFK Airport a dozen years previous.
"We took a promotional trip to Japan when I was in the eighth grade, after the film came out, and when we stepped off the plane it was just like the Beatles. It was awesome. We were chased down the street by 200 screaming Japanese girls and had to dive into a limousine to escape. And then, of course, they swarmed the car. It was great.
"[I] was the 26th most popular actor there at that time, according to Japan's Screen Magazine," he says. "I used to have this hilarious cardboard fold-out from the magazine with my smiling face sandwiched right between Charlton Heston and Richard Dreyfuss. I think I was ahead of Dreyfuss but behind Chuck. In junior high school, I would receive giant bags of fan mail right at my house. Apparently, at that time, the movie magazines were just printing a celebrity's home address right there in the article. ... Sometimes rich Japanese girls would get dumped off by taxi and just show up at my door. What are you gonna do? You're 13. My mom would say, 'Well, invite 'em in. Make 'em some breakfast.' When you're in eighth grade, that's big. That would be big right now."
Big is relative, and, so, if you weren't one of the thousands of screaming Japanese teenagers that, for some arcane, Eastern reason found the young Baldwin the very height of kawaii, or ultra-cuteness, then chances are you remember the actor in a vastly different incarnation, one that he's been working on and steadily adding to since 1979.
Pursued by the Tall Man and his relentless army of evil, interdimensional dwarves and shrieking armadas of flying, brain-sucking spheres, Baldwin was and, seeing as how yet another chapter in the series has recently been scripted, is Mike Pearson, the young hero of Coscarelli's legendary Phantasm series of horror films.
To some, it may seem like a stretch to call Coscarelli's deeply surreal, often dreamlike Phantasm films (there have been four so far) icons of cinema, but there's no denying that the image of cadaverous Angus Scrimm as the otherworldly mortician who pursues a young Baldwin down endlessly oblique, funereal hallways while those whining chrome spheres lay gory waste to assorted extraneous characters, is a gloriously visceral hoot, part bizarre Buñuelian freakout, part Dali-esque dreamscape, and all righteously imaginative.
And, through it all, from Coscarelli's micro-budgeted original (an unexpected, left-field smash) to 1994's Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead, and 1998's Phantasm IV: Oblivion, Baldwin has added nuance and gray-scale shadings to his ever-evolving character. Only 1988's larger-budgeted, Universal Pictures-produced Phantasm II lacked Baldwin, who, despite the protests of Coscarelli and series regular Reggie Bannister (as the guitar-strumming former ice-cream vendor-cum savior of reality, Reggie), was momentarily-replaced by a young James LeGros at the behest of the film's financial backers. It was their loss: Phantasm II may boast more seamless stuntwork and a nicely lensed sense of overall dread, but LeGros is no Baldwin, and to fans of the series, the absence of the regular actor is jarring.
Wherever Mike Pearson goes, the Tall Man follows, but recently the character's alter-ego has made a permanent move to Austin with his wife, the writer Jennifer Baldwin, and two children, and is currently deep into the business of setting up his own acting studio in South Austin, a career that has for years garnered him acclaim in his native Los Angeles and resulted in his unique skills being passed on to an entire range of budding thespians. Add to that ambitious plan the fact that Baldwin has recently completed commentary tracks and on-camera interviews for upcoming bells-and-whistles DVD releases of Kenny & Co. and a Phantasm series box set (both from the superlative genre company Anchor Bay Entertainment) and a wealth of assorted other projects ranging from producing duties on local screenwriter/author Stephen Romano's upcoming Austin-based horror comedy to the writing of a sci-fi pilot and numerous screenplays and you've got one of the hardest-working men in showbiz landing, rather fortuitously, in the second-most film-mad town in the land. What're the odds?
Long before A. Michael Baldwin (the "A" is a trade secret, although it's fun to think of it as a Kafkaesque article befitting the actor's sly sense of humor) visited Phantasm's Morningside Mortuary, he was an in-demand child actor, born into a show business family (his father, Gerard Baldwin, was "the last living director in the Jay Ward animation stables") that netted him gigs from the age of 7 on, beginning with voice acting on the likes of Rocky and Bullwinkle, until, one day, "I got sullen and told my parents, 'I want to be an actor.' They knew some people and so I got myself an agent and started booking jobs."
Commercials for the likes of Ritz crackers, American Airlines, Cheerios, McDonald's, and every kids' favorite Oreo cookies were staples of Baldwin's wonder years when, during a casting "cattle call" in Long Beach, he was tapped by Coscarelli for Kenny & Co. The role and the bond formed with Coscarelli would prove to be one of the most important in his career.
"We had an open casting situation and Mike actually had an agent at the time who sent him in he just turned out to be perfect for the part," Coscarelli recalls. "He was one of the better actors I'd ever worked with even though he was only 11 years old at the time just perfect. And then, after Kenny and Co., I was trying to figure out some sort of vehicle to use him in, and I ended up formulating Phantasm, writing it around a couple of actors, which were Michael, Reggie Bannister, and Angus Scrimm.
"The thing you need to understand about Michael was that even at ages 11 and 12, he had a real sense of naturalism, a natural response to everything. It wasn't measured or postured he always had an ability to convey a natural person, a natural kid, and that's something you don't often find as a director. And I think that while his style may be a little more structured now, in terms of his preparation, his style of acting remains very similar to what it was back then."
For better or worse, Phantasm will likely be the film that Michael Baldwin is remembered for you can almost see his epitaph reading along the lines of "Kicked the Tall Man's Ass" but it's by no means an albatross around his neck in the way that so many golden-age horror stars and character actors Bela Lugosi being the most obvious example viewed their own fame.
"Phantasm was a long time ago," says Baldwin, who in person is as laid-back and dryly humorous a person as you'd want to meet. "I continued being an actor until I was probably 22 or something like that. I did lots of commercials and television and the whole routine. Studied acting, became a musician, and then when all my friends went off to college, I went off and found an Indian guru and lived on an ashram and had a grand time there."
As everyone knows, that sort of thing leads directly to either nirvana or the discovery of true love, and for Baldwin, the lucky guy, it lead to both, eventually landing him in Montclair, N.J., working for Olympia Dukakis' regional theatre company. It was there he met and eventually married Jennifer, whisking her back to Los Angeles and ultimately landing in Austin, which he'd first discovered in 1999 as a guest of honor at the Alamo Drafthouse and Stephen Romano's all-star Phantasmania weekend.
Of his friend (and now producer), Romano notes, "Mike's got this really amazing, dry, fuck-everybody sense of humor. He's extremely funny, and he lets you in on the joke. He's very aware of how campy it all is, and he's not so sold on all of this stuff that he buys into his own press. He's not only got really good philosophies about film and acting, but he has this really unifying, laid-back, and cynical quality that's really rare. Especially for someone who's worn so many different hats acting, doing commercials, producing, writing, directing it's a very 'There ain't nothing to it but to do it,' live-in-the-moment philosophy. And that's just great, because it really works."
Romano, already pals and writing partner to Coscarelli, made fast friends with Baldwin, and so when the actor decided it was high time to exit the increasingly un-family-friendly realm of Hollywood for more suitably child-rearing pastures, Austin was at the top of the list. And opening his own acting studio was never less than the obvious plan of action.
Processing the Impulse
There are almost as many schools of thought and action on the craft of acting as there are actors, but talking to Michael Baldwin about his work as an acting coach is an awful lot like watching a kid discuss what's so cool about Christmas morning. At once deeply passionate about his chosen field while simultaneously evincing a knowledge of actors and their strengths and weaknesses, Baldwin comes off as something of an acting guru: sage, wise, but not without good humor and more than a touch of the old good-for-your-blood irony.
"I do a thing called Process Acting," he explains, "which, like life, is about the journey and not the result. It's about being able to take the rehearsal process, or in this case the coaching process it's really the same thing and gleaning the gems from that, so that when you book a job you're able to do that same thing, and you're not really thinking of it as 'I study acting and then I become a good actor.' That's not it: It's 'I study acting all the time. As an actor on the set I'm really studying acting and I'm going to do these processes and use these techniques that I've learned and it's no different, really, than being in class.'
"It's the process. It's not a result-oriented thing. As soon as actors get focused on the result just like human beings in real life you immediately think you have the answer. And as soon as you think you have the answer, the flow is cut off. When you think you have the answer to anything, things get cut off. But when you stay living in the question, things come and continue to flow, the energy flows and you can be more natural, and you can be the true greatness of yourself onstage, in front of the camera, or wherever."
Baldwin's classes, which will be accepting students within the next two months, utilize traditional theatre games ("some," he says) and then, in what would appear to be a turnabout from the usual Ibsen monologues, go directly to studying scenes from film scripts. Maintaining a collection of some 1,400 old and new, good and bad screenplays allows students to learn to the pros and cons of working with a film script. As Baldwin says, actors have to deal with bad scripts all the time, so why not run a few lines from The Terminator in between Tennessee Williams and Clifford Odets?
And when it comes to the dicey question of why be an actor in the first place, Baldwin is far from cagey, noting that, truth be told, every single actor wants first and foremost to be a movie star, and offering a sobering reality check in lieu of the standard "go for it" platitudes.
"Make no mistake about that," he says. "Little do they know the realities of what that means. It's absolutely and no one will believe this a case of be careful what you wish for, because you might get it. If anybody stood in the shoes of Brad Pitt, let's say, they'd be scared out of their mind. They would. Because once you have all the money that you can spend, or that you can't spend because there's just so much of it, and once you're hyperfamous, and once you're working all the time and people are calling you to do jobs, once all that happens, guess what? You're still the same person that you were. Whatever your shit was back then, it's exactly the same. However uncomfortable you were in your own skin back then, you are still the same person. Except now you don't have to worry about money, which is what everybody is all focused on.
"People believe that if they were just financially independent it would solve 99.9 percent of their problems. Actors and everyone else, too, believe that 100 percent. That was even my belief. It's not anymore. It's a lie, of course it's a lie. And it doesn't take too wise of a man, and you don't have to climb to the mountaintop and find the old guy with the beard, to learn that lesson.
"In my case, I was lucky. I have been friends with some pretty ultrafamous and hyperwealthy people and, you know, traveled around the world with them and hung with them and, man, it is a pretty scary deal. It is just a nonstop barrage of nonprivacy. You have none. And people try to hurt you. Physically and emotionally. There's a lot of perks, no doubt about it, but there's a whole side to fame and fortune that people really don't understand."
Not every student is eager to swallow the more bitter pills of the acting craft.
"You can't tell people what they're not ready to hear," Baldwin adds. "Ever. And if you do try to tell people what they're not ready to hear, it comes back to you with knives. So the teacher has a balancing act of knowing what the straight dope is and also knowing what the person can receive and what they're able to hear and then trying to dole it out to them."
Ultimately, whether an actor is battling a yellow-blooded killer from another dimension or essaying the archetypal Seventies-era teen male, it all comes down to a driving passion for the craft, and, more often than not, a little bit of luck.
"I never really had the gigantic success of a TV show. Who knows what might have happened if that had been the case, you know? I'm just the Phantasm guy. I was in a halfway-known horror movie from 1979. I had a little taste of that realm of fame, but, you know, I remain an actor and I still do act from time to time. Ultimately I find a lot of joy and satisfaction teaching. And I have a lot to share. Not just with the acting, but also with the business of filmmaking. I've produced a few features, I've directed some films, I've written eight screenplays and had one produced, and I've been doing it all for a long time."
For information on studying acting with Michael Baldwin, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.