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Talking With Alec Baldwin about 'Moby-Dick'

HOLLYWOOD - APRIL 22: Actor Alec Baldwin arrives

HOLLYWOOD - APRIL 22: Actor Alec Baldwin arrives at the TCM Classic Film Festival's gala opening night world premiere of the newly restored film "A Star Is Born" at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on April 22, 2010 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images) Photo Credit: GETTY / Alberto E. Rodriguez

Alec Baldwin, the Emmy-winning star of the NBC sitcom "30 Rock," was in school in Massapequa when he first read Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick." This week, he'll be leading a master class of his own when he gives a free public reading from the 1851 novel about a whaling ship, a demented sea captain and the obsessive quest for a white whale. We spoke to Baldwin, who lives part-time in East Hampton, about his love for this American classic.

 

Why "Moby-Dick"?

We decided to go with something light and breezy . I love Melville. I was always interested in his life when I was younger - how poor he was, how he struggled. Melville's first three books were huge successes, but by the time he died in 1891 he was almost completely forgotten.

A lot of people think of "Moby-Dick" and remember slogging through it in high school English.

It's very personal. I remember slogging through "My Ántonia" - that I slogged through. Any Dickens I loved. Any Steinbeck I loved. Any Melville I loved.

A common complaint is that all the long passages about whaling slow down the story.

I have no complaint with that kind of detail. If you're going to show me the world in which these men play out this drama of insanity and heroism and self-preservation, I want to see all of it. We're doing our version of it today when somebody writes a book and they pepper it with references to Manolo Blahnik, and this model of Maserati, and "she got out of the car and tossed her Loro Piana wrap." The 21st century version is all about merchandising.

What does "Moby-Dick" have to say to us today?

We still live in a world where men are led by other men. And those men, the followers, have trouble distinguishing the membrane between the leader's passion and his neurosis. You're onboard that ship and you know that Ahab's your man and you want to go get this whale, and then you find out the hard way that maybe it wasn't the best idea. Well, isn't that Enron's] Jeffrey Skilling? Wasn't it a white whale he was after?

As an actor, how do you approach reading a classic novel out loud?

The rule - and this is just for me - is to economize as much as you can. If the writing is good, just lay it out there. With something great like "Moby-Dick," half the people in the room have read the book. There's other people who would come in and want to do a lot of ornamentation on their acting. To make it work, to energize it, they put a little more whipped cream on there. Sometimes people just want a scoop of vanilla ice cream. That's what actors have to decide. What are we serving today? Vanilla ice cream or some insane sundae?

And "Moby-Dick" is vanilla?

It might be rum raisin.

 

Alec Baldwin will read from "Moby-Dick" at 8 p.m. July 22 at BookHampton, 41 Main St., East Hampton; 631-324-4939, bookhampton.com

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