Wig, make-up and a Trumpformation

Actress Kate McKinnon as Mr Donald Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway and Alec Baldwin playing Mr Trump with puckered lips on comedy show Saturday Night Live.
Actress Kate McKinnon as Mr Donald Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway and Alec Baldwin playing Mr Trump with puckered lips on comedy show Saturday Night Live. PHOTO: NBC
"I see a guy who seems to pause and dig for the more precise and better language he wants to use,and never finds it." - ACTOR ALEC BALDWINon United States President-elect Donald Trump
"I see a guy who seems to pause and dig for the more precise and better language he wants to use,and never finds it." - ACTOR ALEC BALDWINon United States President-elect Donald Trump

Actor Alec Baldwin stirs up controversy playing United States President-elect Donald Trump on television

NEW YORK • It takes seven minutes.

A dusting of Clinique Stay-Matte powder in honey. A hand-stitched wig. Eyebrows glued up into tiny peaks. The rest is left to Alec Baldwin: the puckered lips, a studied lumbering gait and a wariness of humanising a man he reviles.

The transformation of the veteran actor, an outspoken liberal, into President-elect Donald Trump for his running parody on NBC's Saturday Night Live, entails a tangerine hairpiece and a tricky tightrope walk. It means balancing his determination to merge his identity into a character, even as, in his offstage life, he is firm in his belief that the man about to take office is a dangerous figure.

The key to a convincing Mr Trump, the actor said, are "puffs" - his word for the pregnant pauses in the president-elect's speech.

"I see a guy who seems to pause and dig for the more precise and better language he wants to use, and never finds it," Baldwin said in an interview in his dressing room at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan, six hours before showtime, his eyebrows already peaked. "It's the same dish - it's a grilled-cheese sandwich rhetorically over and over again."

Much has been made of Mr Trump's hands. For the actor, they are a focus, but for their movements. Before his first appearance, he watched hours of rallies and campaign appearances to mimic Mr Trump's style.

His Trump is as much censure as impersonation. He does not write the sketches. He is paid US$1,400 (S$2,000) for each appearance on the show, he said.

"I'm not interested much by what's inside him," he said, but in how he moves and takes up space. Baldwin then amplifies the gestures, and distills them. An emphatic wave becomes a goofy "wax-on, wax-off" movement, he said, the simple hand motion reducing a candidate to an essence: pitchman.

Saturday Night Live happens at a lightning pace. Those minutes of preparation include dusting the sunset colour across Baldwin's face - but not around his eyes, where "raccoon" circles of white are drawn, he said.

The wig is custom made for Baldwin's head, via seven vectors measured forehead to nape, according to Ms Jodi Mancuso, the show's hair designer. "It helps him transform instantly," she said. "The minute it goes on with the make- up, it's like, 'Oh, I get it.'"

Playing Mr Trump as a buffoon landing headfirst in his own gaffes has at points rendered him almost sweetly silly on screen. After the election, Baldwin recalled, he was distressed to receive an e-mail from a friend sardonically thanking him for humanising Mr Trump and helping him win.

"I do recognise that that is a possibility," the actor said. "But I think that now that he is the president, we have an obligation - as we would if it was him or her - to dial it up as much as we can."

As a result of his widely viewed appearances, his daily life has become a ping-pong match between Trump supporters' revulsion and Trump haters' adulation. Fans accost him on the street, some in tears. One afternoon, while walking his dogs in Washington Square Park and talking on the phone with a reporter, he had a fan interrupt his call to bellow: "We will survive this thing!"

Baldwin said that he planned to continue playing Mr Trump on Saturday Night Live and perhaps elsewhere, but that his work schedule - he is about to film two movies - would mean his performances would be intermittent. Besides, he said, it might start to get old for audiences.

It has been suggested that the 58-year-old is uniquely able to portray Mr Trump - and to rankle him - because of their similarities.

In 2011, Baldwin mulled over running for mayor of New York City. They can both appear thin-skinned. Antagonised by paparazzi and feeling harassed by what he says are false accusations that he uttered slurs, Baldwin has at times publicly denounced the media. On Twitter, he can be pugilistic, notably with Mr Trump and with his brother Stephen Baldwin, over their divergent political views.

Such a comparison profoundly pains Baldwin, whose father was a public-school teacher from Long Island, New York. He says he has striven not to let his financial success mar his values and vehemently denies the racist and homophobic slurs that have been ascribed to him.

"The difference is, with Trump, it's incontrovertible that he has said the things he's said," he said. "And he ran on them."

As a candidate, Mr Trump protested about Saturday Night Live's portrayal of him, calling it part of a "rigged" media campaign to undermine him. Baldwin said that Lorne Michaels, its creator and executive producer, has countered that the sketch show has long been an equal-opportunity heckler.

Baldwin's first appearance as Mr Trump on the show was on Oct 1, a little over a month before the election. He riffed on Mr Trump's irascibility and his pronunciation of "China". He reprised the role four more times before the election, with each appearance building towards what many thought was the inevitable.

Mr Trump's win caught the show off guard, he said, countering expectations on the show's set of four years of actress Kate McKinnon playing her mildly maniacal Mrs Hillary Clinton as president.

He also did not imagine that Mr Trump would keep providing material. A skit on Dec 3, depicting Mr Trump as receiving a security briefing, hinged on the president-elect sharing a Twitter post by a 16-year-old from California. ("He really did do this," McKinnon, playing Mr Trump's adviser, Ms Kellyanne Conway, says to the camera.)

As president-elect, Mr Trump has continued to tweet his displeasure. "Just tried watching Saturday Night Live - unwatchable! Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can't get any worse. Sad," he posted on Dec 4.

Baldwin said that he considered the reprobation "funny", even as a fake news article has circulated since his first appearance as Mr Trump, mourning the actor's death.

As the call to dress for rehearsal sounded in the eighth-floor corridor at 30 Rock, he ducked into his dressing room with his wife, Hilaria, and three-year-old daughter Carmen, who had stopped by to kiss him good night, shutting the door.

Suddenly, he popped it back open.

"Whoever it is, wouldn't it be great to be the person who pulls the sword out of the stone? Who gets rid of this guy?" Baldwin said into the hallway. "Wouldn't that be thrilling?" He closed the door and put on his suit.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 22, 2016, with the headline 'Wig, make-up and a Trumpformation'. Print Edition | Subscribe