It’s wonderful when Alan Alda plays a villain. After years and years of playing television’s moral center, Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H, there’s something quite disturbing about watching Alda transform into someone, as he mentions more than once, who hangs James Spader up by a chain (as he did on a recent run of The Blacklist). It’s almost like Alda is toying around with this righteous public perception, turning it back on us – though, Alda, who loves playing the villain, doesn’t see it this way. There’s no deeper meaning. He just likes playing a complicated bad guy.
It would be a stretch to call Alda a villain in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. He plays Thomas Watters, a man who convinces Tom Hanks’ James Donovan to defend an accused Russian spy (a spy later used in a trade for a downed American pilot and a captured American student). Then later, he’s the same person telling Donovan that maybe this is a case that shouldn’t be won. With almost anyone else, we’d know that was bad advice. When it comes from Alda’s mouth, we tend to consider, “You know, maybe he has a point?” I mean, it is Alan Alda, after all.
When you meet Alda, well, what’s there to say? He’s everything you’d expect — gracious, interesting, incredibly polite, and filled with a million stories. He’s the kind of person someone like me could talk to all day – but, I persevered with the time I had and we talked about a lot of things you might expect: Spielberg, M*A*S*H, The West Wing (Alda was convinced his Arnold Vinick would win the election) – but things kept coming back to Alda hanging poor James Spader by a chain.
For a segment of the population, people around my age, you are a cultural authority figure.
[Laughs] Well, would you like a cup of tea?
No, thank you. But as an authority figure, if you had told me to have a cup of tea, I would have.
My parents took me with them when they saw The Four Seasons. It was one of my first movies in a theater meant for adults.
Oh, wow. That’s nice they took you to these adult movies. When I was a kid, all of the movies that were made were intended for the whole family. So, my father and mother and I would see pictures that were considered “adult.” There were no pictures that were considered childish.
Bridge of Spies is interesting because this isn’t one of the stories from the Cold War we hear a lot about.
I lived through the Gary Powers thing, but this would have been history to you. But I didn’t know the story behind the Russian spy – I vaguely knew there was some kind of trade. I had no awareness of that kid in East Berlin who was also traded.
So, Powers was a pretty big story and Abel wasn’t as nationally known.
Although, apparently, Donovan really suffered from defending him so well – he was a pariah apparently at one point.
When your character is on screen telling Donovan not to appeal the decision on Abel, I know what he’s saying is wrong, but since it’s you, my instinct is, “Maybe people should listen to him.”
[Laughing] That’s funny. And you’ve got to draw on that, too, a little bit. Even if the guy is wrong, you have to know why.
I wouldn’t call this character a villain, but I love it when you play villains.
I love it, too. It’s really fun. You walk into a room and you know you’re going to hang James Spader from a chain. You’ve got to know not only why you’re doing it, but why you deserve to do it. I’m entitled to this.
Not now, but, say, in the late ‘80s, by playing villains, were you playing with your public persona?
No, but I’ve read that. I don’t think of my public persona as a real thing to play with.
It’s a real thing. People have opinions about you.
But I mean, I have to work from the outside. I can’t say, “Oh, here’s my outside and my outside is something I’m going to refer to.” It’s hard to describe. It’s hard to see it that way.
But with Hawkeye Pierce, you played this morally conscious character for so long, so when you show up as a villain, for me, it has an even greater effect. Even in something like And the Band Played On, a character who is out for himself…
He has a different objective. And that’s what I’m trying to say about it. If you play somebody who is going against the protagonist — who you have to root for, or there’s no story; like in this picture when he says, “I just want you to defend him. I don’t want you to get him off,” you’ve got to know when you play that, that’s a perfectly legitimate position. Not only legitimate, it’s the preferred position. It’s better than the other guy’s position. You’ve got to know that. And that’s fun to do, because you have to give up any thoughts you have to the contrary.
What’s your favorite example that you’ve gotten to do?
I think stringing up James Spader.
I believe you because it’s the second time you’ve mentioned that.
But even playing Hawkeye was an early example of that. I didn’t have any idea of how I was going to play him. People think he’s me. He’s very different from me.
And, at that time, there was only Robert Altman’s movie, which is very different.
I didn’t pay any attention to what the movie did. I had to do it my own way.
But people had their own conceptions of Hawkeye already from the movie.
That’s true. But a womanizer, drank too much, was a smart aleck: Those things, I don’t notice in me. I don’t think that’s me. And yet I had to find parts of me that would serve that purpose. So, in a way, I was playing parts of me – but not the whole me.
Speaking of M*A*S*H, I remember crying myself to sleep after watching the finale.
How old were you then?
I’m surprised by the amount of people younger than me who have never seen the finale, because it’s not shown with the syndicated reruns of the show.
They were afraid to show it because they were afraid people would think they’re not going to show any more M*A*S*H shows.
Is that really the reason?
It’s stupid. That’s the reason I had heard. Maybe they have new reasons now, but that’s the first reason I had heard.
You have to physically buy the finale to see it.
Netflix just bought the series, so maybe it’s there.
On The West Wing, you played a lot of people’s version of a dream Republican.
[Laughs] Not necessarily the Republican’s dream Republican.
You know, I actually do know a lot of moderate Republicans who do wish it were more like that. He was a reasonable guy. Then right after that, everything became more unreasonable in real life.
It’s interesting, I was really happy. Lawrence O’Donnell wrote most of those shows, and he’s an experienced guy in politics. And I was really glad they didn’t make him a straw man. When we did the live debate, I don’t know if you saw that?
It was one of the most exciting things that I’ve ever done. Because the arguments were so good, it was a pleasure to take that position whether I would have taken it in real life or not. And it was live! If anything went wrong, we would have trouble.
When Bartlet ran for re-election, his opponent, played by James Brolin, was a stereotypical “shoot from the hip” Republican. You brought nuance. And if it was really like this…
We wouldn’t be in such a mess. And for a while, they were going to have my character win.
I wanted him to win.
Well, they made you want him to win. CNN came and interviewed me and said, “We did a poll and you don’t win in this poll.” Right after that, for other reasons unrelated to that interview, they started writing shows where my character was so principled. He found a briefcase with all the secrets of the other party and didn’t use them, so that you say, “He’s a good guy.” But, I doubt if that could happen in real life. Somebody would have looked into that briefcase.
When did you find out you wouldn’t win?
Well, they told me, but I didn’t believe it. [Laughs] I was watching the show and I thought, right up until the end, maybe they’ll do a recount. I really wanted to win.
There’s one more villain role I want to bring up…
Crimes and Misdemeanors?
That might make more sense, but Tower Heist.
Oh, Tower Heist?
It’s a different villain than the one who strung James Spader up…
Sure, they are all different. That’s the thing, it’s very rarely a real villain. If you play one of the characters in a Batman movie, that’s a real, out and out, cartoonish villain. And I’ve never played anything like that, where you have to be villainous. The villains that I play are human, usually, who do bad things. But they’re also capable of loving their dog.
Which people will latch onto…
“How bad could he be?”
I’m glad you didn’t decide a few years ago that you’ve had enough of acting and wanted to sit on a beach or something instead.
I do things that excite me — and some that don’t have to do with acting, like teaching scientists and doctors.
I’ve read about that. How did that come about?
Well, I’ve always been interested in science, and that’s why I did that science program on PBS — I did it for 11 years. I must have interviewed 700 scientists. But what I found out was, when we did it, they were very much at ease because it was just a conversation. They couldn’t get into a lecture, so they were very alert and communicative. So, I left the show thinking why we can’t train them to be like that without somebody like me there pulling it out of them.
A lecture is filled with jargon.
Yeah, they talk jargon. They don’t really relate to the audience. They don’t wonder if they are getting it or not. We teach them it’s the reverse — you have to listen to them while you’re talking to them.
Neil deGrasse Tyson does a good job of this.
He is personal in his affect, which is very good.
He offers a counter to the politicized version of science and people listen to him.
I think that sense of familiarity goes very far. That’s why we teach them improvising. And not to make things up or be funny, but the kind of improvising we teach puts them in contact with the other people they’re playing these games with. They get so accustomed to that, when they turn to the audience, they have the same intimate contact with the audience — and the real them comes out.
How did it take so long for you and Spielberg to work together?
I know, he’s said he wanted to work with me for a while. And, of course, I wanted to work with him from the time I saw his first movie.
What was the first Spielberg movie you saw?
It wasn’t Jaws?
Oh, sure! So, maybe Jaws is what I saw first. Jaws came out first?
Then that’s what I saw first. You can’t watch Jaws without leaping out of your seat.
And I can’t imagine you watching Jaws thinking I want to experience this in real life and work with this guy. Maybe E.T. is more that type of movie.
[Laughs] “I don’t know, six months on a boat?” I made a movie like that, I don’t want to do it again. But for Spielberg, I would.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.