Whedon wrote Firefly, a science-fiction Western, mostly, as a moody character study often punctuated with action and humor, and infused it with enough soul and humanity to devastate the small audience that had found the show before Fox strapped it into its little child-safety car seat and then backed the car into a lake. Its resurrection as the excellent film Serenity, in 2005, gave Whedon and his cast the opportunity to revisit their characters and finish the story.
Baldwin's acting career began in 1980, when he was selected to play Chris Makepeace's teen protector, Ricky Linderman, in My Bodyguard. His credits include Full Metal Jacket and an IMDB list of TV guest roles as long as, well, something really long and impressive - let's say The Silmarillion, in deference to elf enthusiasts attending this weekend's events downtown.
But Firefly was a turning point for Baldwin. A new fanbase discovered his work, and it was also the first time he'd been allowed to demonstrate his comedic chops. Baldwin, with his grim and hard-nosed demeanor, turned out to be cunningly adept at mocking himself. Interviewed by phone, Baldwin says, "It's a testament to Joss' writing. He'd seen a spark of my humor in my previous work, I guess. And the role - it was a chance to let loose through the furniture, to have fun. If you saw my life at home, or my life growing up, I have a lighter side. I've raised three kids, and we've had a lot of fun. I'm no Great Santini at home, that's for sure, although I guess I do get cranky and bark sometimes. If I had the opportunity to do a straight comedy, that would be terrific, but I am definitely constrained by my size: 6-foot-4, 240. I'm never going to be the short guy."
The show was a career changer, but he didn't know it at first. Of its demise, he says, "Firefly was a perfect storm of events. They didn't air the pilot. The producers and the network didn't see eye to eye on it. It launched at a time where the first season of American Idol was sucking up all the oxygen in the room. We lost out being launched on Wednesday because Fox had very little room for new pilots. And we had a two-hour pilot that would have taken up Wednesday at 8 and 9. The pilot episode isn't fast-paced until late in the episode - it's mostly a character study and kind of hard to set up, and that wasn't a risk the network was willing to take on a Wednesday night." Buried on Friday nights, the show found a dedicated following of the kinds of people who (like certain freelance alt-weekly writers) watch TV on Friday nights.
Firefly ultimately led to more TV work, mostly hard-ass roles befitting his big, mean stature. But casting agents and showrunners were now aware of his comic ability. As Col. John Casey on Chuck, Baldwin got an extended opportunity to riff on those themes. "That's what they say about typecasting," he says. "But it's a living. There's a great radio talk-show host, Mr. K., in L.A. - his name's Marc Germain. Mr. KABC. His tagline is 'Better than most, not as good as some.' You strive to be as good as you can, let the chips fall where they may."
Baldwin's character preparations are sometimes obvious but often unnoticeable to the audience, with weapons training falling into the "obvious" category. Finding realistic armature on which to build characters is weirdly more important for a science-fiction premise. "You have a show [Chuck] where there's a computer in a guy's head. The trick with a show like that is finding things to ground you with relationships or props or whatever you can get your hands on to make that seem believable - to stay within the constraints of the bible of the show. The audience recognizes immediately if you've not maintained the logic of the show."
On Firefly, Baldwin's focus was on relationships. "Joss never agreed with this, but my private inner monologue was that Jayne found Inara [Morena Baccarin] to be the perfect woman. Who is the hot person in the room? It's a question they ask in acting school. In other words, who are you playing the scene for? You could be talking to Nathan Fillion or standing up to him, but your character is showing off for Inara. It gives the scene a more complex nature because people just operate that way. The audience gets that subconsciously."
Of the proudly nerdcore fanbase that now follows his work, Baldwin says, "Joss warned us: 'This show's gonna change your life, guys.' He knew. If it had succeeded and stayed on the air, it would have been even more so. It's been a great pleasure to meet a lot of people who saw my work on the show. They really care about the shows, the characters, the writers. They love the graphic-novel artists and writers that go to the conventions. They care. They know.
"And I gotta tell you, making Serenity was the highlight of my life, workwise, because of the way Firefly went down and the way Joss was able to resurrect the show. We were vindicated. The shoot was fun. We felt lucky and blessed to have the opportunity. Every-body dedicated themselves, and when the shoot was over, we were sad. But then we had the premieres and got to meet the fans, and it was magical. What was so great was Joss' joy at being able to return for that."