Imagining the run-up to the 2016 presidential election without Alec Baldwin’s hilarious impersonation of Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live is like picturing the former Apprentice host without his questionable (yet signature) hairstyle, but the Emmy-winning actor has revealed that the iconic impression almost didn’t happen at all.
Writing for Vanity Fair‘s April issue — which also features Baldwin on the cover — the 58-year-old indicates he needed a bit of a push from longtime collaborators Lorne Michaels and Tina Fey to accept the gig, which nearly fell through thanks to a movie role Baldwin almost took instead.
“When Lorne called me and asked, ‘Do you want to do this?,’ I said, ‘No, I don’t want to be Trump on TV!’ Because anytime you do any kind of mimicry, it’s of somebody that you appreciate,” Baldwin, who’s hosted the variety program a record 17 times throughout his career, writes. “I didn’t hate Trump. I just didn’t want to play him. But Tina and Lorne pushed me, so I finally said yes.”
In a video interview with the publication, during which he calls Trump “the head writer of [SNL], unintentionally,” Baldwin further explains: “I was supposed to do a film. And the people who were doing the film were supposed to escrow money to guarantee that I would get paid. And they didn’t put the money in escrow. And that’s when I hung up and said I’m not going to go do the movie and I’m going to go do the thing with Lorne. And I think to myself, ‘What if I hadn’t done that?’… It’s turned out to be this incredible opportunity.”
Though he notes his first day as Trump on the SNL set was a bit nerve-racking (“I had no idea what I was going to do,” he admits), Baldwin soon fell into a physical groove as he adapted the president’s mannerisms and choice vocabulary for television audiences.
“I mean, literally, the moment I walked out, I just said to myself, ‘Eyebrow up,’ and I tried to stick my face and my mouth out. For the actual show, when I was in the makeup room, I put my wig on, and it was like a scene from a mental hospital. I’m getting the wig on me, and I’m sitting there the whole time going ‘Gyna, Gyna, Gyna.’ I didn’t think about it — I just did it. Now I should probably tell people, ‘I worked on it for months,'” he explains. “People ask me, ‘What is your whole gag?’ And I tell them, ‘You can suggest the voice or the way a person looks, but to be successful you have to think of who that person is. To me, Trump is someone who is always searching for a stronger, better word, but he never finds it. Whenever I play him, I make a long pause to find that word, and then I just repeat the word I started with… ‘”
Baldwin wasn’t the only SNL fixture who amplified the show’s political commentary during the election cycle. Kate McKinnon, who joined the show’s cast in 2012, portrayed former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in several memorable sketches — including a post-election cold open that saw McKinnon belting a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” while dressed as Clinton.
“[She’s] one of the three most talented people I’ve ever worked with on the show in my entire life,” Baldwin tells Vanity Fair. “She’s funny — she has that whole comedy DNA thing that Tina and all those people I’ve worked with have. But she’s a great actress. You have to have an acting ability to play [Jeff] Sessions… and to play Elizabeth Warren and then she plays Hillary [Clinton] and then she plays Kellyanne Conway. Truly… there is no limit to what she can do and I really have fallen madly in love with Kate when I’ve worked with her.”
April’s issue of Vanity Fair hits newsstands in New York and Los Angeles (and on the iPhone, Kindle, and other devices) Thursday, March 30. It will appear on newsstands elsewhere in the country on Tuesday, April 4. For now, read the full piece here, and check out the magazine’s April cover below.