But at the Republican Convention, Stephen Baldwin, who has been called everything from the loopy Baldwin to the bouncy Baldwin, is earning his stripes as the most fearless Baldwin, and perhaps the most fearless man in Hollywood, generally speaking. Baldwin, it seems, has violence on the brain, since career-wise, he looks to be committing double hara-kiri. In left-leaning Hollywood, it is considered a death-wish to show up at the GOP convention in the first place, where the VIP rooms of the cattle-feed parties are inhabited by such downwardly mobile entertainers as Joe Piscopo and Larry Gatlin. Even if your most visible recent roles were as a game show contestant on Celebrity Mole: Hawaii and Celebrity Mole: Yucatan, as Baldwin's have been, hanging out with Republican "celebrities" is akin to signaling casting directors that you're ready to start making Spanish soap opera cameos.
But well beyond this breach of etiquette, Baldwin hasn't come to fill the traditional celebrity role of popping off about issues he knows nothing about. In fact, he is a self-described "independent" who refuses to explicitly name the presidential candidate he is supporting. He says that he doesn't want anyone to think he has a political agenda. While a political convention is a lousy place to emphasize that point, Baldwin says his agenda is "faith-based" and that he doesn't want to discuss Republican politics at all. In fact, he wants to talk about something much more dangerous. He wants to talk about Jesus: "I'm here as a result of my faith. I'm here to promote and support the candidate that I think has the most faith. Does somebody come to mind? Shhhhhhh, don't say his name--that's the guy I'm voting for." (Not for nothing, Stephen is also regarded as the "Playful Baldwin").
Lining up an interview with Baldwin is much like lining up any celebrity interview. There are fits and starts, seductions and assurances. When I speak with Baldwin's publicist, Brad Taylor, there is the requisite amount of obsequious fawning. I sheepishly tell him that I think Stephen and me will have much to discuss, since I too am "kind of a believer."
"Kind of, or you are?" says Brad.
After assuring Brad that I love Jesus's work, that I'm a big admirer of His creative choices, we move on to The Conceit--the traditional kabuki dance between profiler and celebrity, where we agree to place ourselves in contrived surroundings--be it skydiving or cow-tipping--so that we can have contrived conversation in order to get at the real celebrity. Squeezed for time, I go for something simple. "Stephen seems like a fun guy," I say, "how about he comes to my magazine's party with the Distilled Spirits Council? They'll be pouring lots of good whiskey?"
"Stephen's in AA," Brad yawns.
The clichés are stacking up fast. But it is at this point that celebrity convention is left aside. We meet up one morning at the Brooklyn Diner in Manhattan, where Baldwin and company are sitting under a mural of Ebbets Field amid bagel wreckage and half-consumed coffee. Sitting next to him are publicist Brad, in his best white V-neck t-shirt. And there's Sly, Baldwin's menacing-looking black bodyguard, a cuddly guy once you get to know him, but one who at first glance looks as if he'd just as soon gnaw your hand off as shake it. Another mild-mannered youngish woman sits at our table. Baldwin introduces her as the daughter-in-law of evangelist Luis Palau, who sponsors Baldwin's "Livin' It" skateboard ministry--one in which Baldwin and a band of skaters for the Savior take the Good News on the road at youth events.
I tell Baldwin that I had just assumed she was his personal assistant, the unfortunate soul tasked with bringing him lots of mineral water so he has something with which to wash his hair. "You gotta love these Christians, they're humble people," he says, his Cheshire grin bunching his eyes into small slits, like ice-blue pinholes on a Lite-Brite. "Earlier today, she was carrying Sly's gun for him. She was a pistol-packing Palau."
UNLIKE HIS BROTHERS Alec and Billy, who are veterans of these sorts of scenes, Stephen is still acclimating himself to the rough-and-tumble indignities of the political milieu. The night before, on CNN's Crossfire, he'd been invited on only to have James Carville call time after 30 seconds, abruptly ending the show. But more bizarre was that Baldwin had refused to sit next to Carville, insisting instead that he be seated on the far side of Tucker Carlson.
When asked why, Baldwin says, "I think Carville said things about right-wing-Christian-this-or-that, and he said it two or three times in the show prior to when I sat down. To be honest with you, he's a scary guy. I'll put it to you this way. He was somebody that if I were sitting next to him and the conversation went to a place, and I felt concerned, like he might express himself in a way that I might react in a way that I might not be happy about it, you understand what I'm saying?"
I don't. I'm totally confused. "You mean you might want to hit him in the face?" I offer, trying to be helpful.
"No, no, no," says Baldwin. "But I couldn't promise you that if he joked around with me [making Carvillian mugging and monkeying gestures], and gave me a little shove or something, that I wouldn't just drop his dentures down his throat. I couldn't promise that I wouldn't do that. Because that wouldn't be very Christian." Baldwin looks askance at his people. Concern crosses his face. "Did I really just say drop his dentures down is throat?" he asks. Brad and Sly nod in assent.
As appealing as the Carville-thrashing talk is, I'm more intrigued by Baldwin's unabashed stand, and suggest to him that the incessant Jesus-talk is no way to goose along his career unless he wants to spend the rest of it suffering through star turns in Tim LaHaye adaptations. "Let me put it to you this way," Baldwin says. "I've never really been the type of person who worries much about what people think of me. You know, like when I did the [critically-acclaimed] Usual Suspects, and then I did [the universally-panned Pauly Shore vehicle] Bio-Dome. There were a lot of people who said that's not a good career choice. But you know what? F.U. I love Pauly Shore. I had fun. And I made $1.5 million to shoot the picture. That didn't suck.
"I've had a great time. I've had a great career and I've obviously had a very radical conversion in my life. It's very tangible. It's very real. It allowed me and enabled me to become the person that I couldn't on my own. Which is the most powerful part of this whole equation for me. And now I want to do whatever I'm supposed to do to continue to be obedient to that. By the way," Baldwin says as an afterthought, "F.U. now means 'faith to you,' That's what that means."
HAILING FROM the lapsed-Catholic Baldwins of Massapequa, Long Island, Baldwin says, "I was always a God guy," in that he believed in a higher power, but that was about the extent of it. Then, 10 years ago, his wife Kennya, who is from Brazil, hired a Brazilian woman to work for them after the birth of their first daughter. While working around the house, the woman would constantly sing about Christ. "My wife said, 'Why are you singing about Jesus all the time?'" Baldwin says. "The woman burst out laughing. She said, 'I don't mean to be disrespectful, I'm just very happy that you asked this question. And I'm charmed by the fact that you'd think I'd come all this way just to clean your house.'" The woman told Baldwin's wife that before she'd accepted the job, she'd gone to her church in Brazil, and prayed with the congregation and pastor. On that day, someone from her church prophesied that whoever she went to work for would come to Christ, and would, in turn, have their own ministry. "True story," Baldwin says, shaking his head as if he can't believe it himself.
Many years later, after his family moved back to New York from Tucson, where they'd been living, Baldwin's wife began attending a charismatic Brazilian church. "On fire, evangelical, gifts of the Spirit, the whole deal," he says by way of description. As for his own spiritual state, he says, "Ohhhh, I'm needin' Jesus at that point is where I'm at. I'm very focused on the world and my career and my Porsche turbo and making money and Stevie B. Inc. I'm just living according to the standards of the world." But at the same time, he'd seen a change in his wife, "observing this very powerful, subtle genuine, peaceful thing going on with my best friend. It was no joke. So I started reading, started praying, all of this kind of perfectly scheduled and orchestrated, wondering why all this is happening." And then there was 9/11.
While Baldwin was in the throes of his searcher phase, it happened. "If the day before, you'd said, 'Hey Steve, what do you think the odds are that two planes tomorrow could turn left in Boston, hit the Twin Towers, and they'd fall down?'--I'd have told you there's no way. Just me, you know. I make movies. That's movie stuff. There's no way that could ever happen in 2001 in America."
It is an unconventional interview dynamic, to say the least, finding oneself in a Manhattan diner with a Baldwin Brother launching into metaphysical Greek etymologies. But that is precisely what Baldwin does. "There are two words that indicate time, chronos and kairos," he says, oblivious to rubbernecking fans or his own ringing cell phone. "Kairos indicates shifts in time, when things do not happen as they were before. And 9/11 was kairos, 9/11 for me was something that from now on, it all doesn't mean what it did before. And if I was to weigh everything that led up to it--okay, my wife becomes a Jesus freak, I'm starting to become curious, I've been praying for God to give me a sign--and now, the impossible is possible. So for me, the lesson was well, if the impossible's now possible, then anything's possible. And if anything's possible, and I've been reading about Jesus, and my wife's a Jesus freak, the odds are possible that He could come back tomorrow. And where am I in this equation? And then I was done. Cut a deal with God. Negotiated it. Got all the perks I wanted. The only role I had to play was: the guy who was willing to do whatever He wanted. That was the deal I made with God."
Which is why he is here, fearlessly pouring it out into strangers' tape recorders, testifying about J.C. at the risk of humiliation and career suicide. I size up Baldwin, who is 38-years-old-going-on-18. He looks as though he just came off the half-pipe, in his "livinit.org" black t-shirt, jeans and old-school Adidases. His fly-away bangs flop over his forehead. And he is marked with so many tattoos from his prior life--everything from Oriental characters to something he calls "the flaming scroll of rebellion"--that he looks as if a street gang attempted to graffiti his house in the night, and missed.
I ask him if the demands of the deal he cut with God don't scare him a bit. And here, he squares up with a clipped intensity that older brother Alec usually reserves for scenery-chewing 'I-am-God' moments, except Stephen does it more believably, delivering the lines like some skate-punk John the Baptist: "No. I'm not scared at all. Because you know what scared me? 9/11 scared me. And you know what's scarier to me than that? How frickin' blind the world is. How absolutely blind. You know what? Freakier stuff is yet to come. Look at the landscape, bro. North Korea. Iran. Nukes. It's goin' down, dude. It's GOINGGGGGDOWWWNNNN!"
Baldwin goes a little quasi-political. "I think it's really terrifying that a country based on the foundations and ideals of God, is now systematically removing God from everything. Everything! There's the potential now that 'In God We Trust' is going to be removed. Dude, READ YOUR BIBLE. This is what it says is going to happen. The Bible, you know, B-asic I-nstruction B-efore L-eaving E-earth."
And speaking of the bible, he decides to hit me with some: "I think you could use a little scripture, son." Rifling through his bag, casting his other pleasure reading aside (he holds up The Faith of George W. Bush by Stephen Mansfield with a troublemaking grin that suggests he is moving contraband over state lines), the Rev. Baldwin cracks open a well-worn pocket bible. Though he supported the war in Iraq, it is a different war he is concerned with. The one spoken of in Ephesians 6--with the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit.
He treats me to a reading of a rather lengthy passage, with special emphasis on verse 12: For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. It's good stuff. I remember it well from my Sunday School days. I think we are done, so I'm ready to explore new avenues. But we are not. "Listen to this, listen to this. This is the good stuff, brother," Baldwin says, having now turned into a scripture-quoting Gatling gun as he flips to 2 Corinthians 10: "For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ."
And that, at bottom, is what Stephen Baldwin wishes us to know. He is no longer a B-list actor, the third-ranking Baldwin brother. He is a soldier. Except, he says, "I'm not going to fight in the physical with physical weapons, because it's not a physical fight. I'm going to fight with spiritual weapons, cause it's a spiritual fight. . . . The real soldiers in the spiritual realm, that's their job. Not to fight anybody, but to say, 'Hey man, Jesus came to love you, bro. So that you would come to know Him. So that you would be set free. So that you wouldn't have to conform to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of your mind.' And you know what the best part is?" he asks in a whisper, leaning into the table before exploding in a cackling epiphany. "THIS STUFF WORKS! It really works. It's real."
TO BE SURE, not everyone's as enthusiastic about the new Stephen Baldwin as he himself is. Brother Alec, whose been doing issue advocacy for 16 years, as opposed to Stephen, who Alec says has been doing it "for like 16 minutes," told Access Hollywood that he warned his little brother about getting used as a Republican pawn. "Of course," said Alec, "he's going to ignore my advice as he's done throughout his life."
Though the Baldwins are a tight family, there does seem to be some healthy sibling sniping going on. When I ask Stephen if it has cost him at all, there being three other Baldwins for directors to choose from, he turns it into a not-so-subtle critique of outspoken Alec. "You know what, based on some people's political views, sometimes, probably yes." He adds that "I get five anti-Bush emails from my brother Billy everyday. And then I get three voicemails a week saying how's [his wife], how's the kids, can I borrow your car next week? After the man with the most faith wins the election, I'll be going over to his house to hang out for barbecues no problem." In the meantime, he says, ever the deferential kid-brother, "I don't give those guys crap about anything. They can still kick my ass. I'm only a little stupid."
His faith has caused plenty of other stand-offs as well. On the set of the reality-show Celebrity Mole, ABC banned the cast from wearing any logos on their clothing--network policy against giving away free advertising. Baldwin, however, had already had his Christian fish-symbol t-shirts made. "Gotta promote my guy," he says. When he showed up wearing his Jesus t-shirt, fellow cast mate Dennis Rodman pitched a fit. "He pulls the producers aside and says, 'If I can't wear a logo, Baldwin can't wear a logo. Tell him to change his shirt.'"
The suits complied with Rodman's request, explaining standards and practices to Baldwin. "Now mind you, all along I'm fully prepared for this moment. I brought another shirt, but I just want to see if I can get away with it. I turn to the producers and say, 'Guys, what are you talking about? What does it say?' And they say, 'We get it Stephen. Jesus, right? Your faith, we get it.' I go, 'Jesus isn't a logo, I'm not promoting some company, some brand. I'm just professing my faith.' You should have seen the look on these guys' faces. They turn around, huddle up for about 15 minutes, holding up production, come out of this huddle and say, 'Sorry Dennis, Baldwin's right. It's just a Jesus thing, no big deal. Baldwin, it's cool. You can wear the shirt.' Odds of that happening? Zip. Accident? I don't think so."
Since Stephen Baldwin became a soldier of the light, there have been sacrifices aplenty. It is obvious that even in his B-listed state, a man who gets casts as Barney Rubble in Flintstones In Viva Rock Vegas is still capable of getting his dance-card punched by major studios. But Baldwin says he has now passed up a slew of roles that he figures would diminish his testimony. The latest of which was Jennifer Garner's boyfriend on Alias.
At this, I visibly shudder. No matter how much I respect Baldwin for his stand, there is no excuse for passing up an opportunity to make out with Jennifer Garner. "See how you shook your head just then," says Baldwin. "That's what I did. Baldwin says he went to his wife, a wife he describes as a "Brazilian Dallas Cowboys cheerleader" who put up "with a loooooot of crap" in his heathen days, and pitched her thusly: "'Alias. Huge show. They'll pay me a lot of money. All I gotta do is play Jennifer Garner's boyfriend. Whaddya think?' Know what she said? 'Have you prayed about that?' She said, 'Let me ask you a question, you got to play her boyfriend right? She goes you gotta kiss her?' I go, 'Probably.' She said, 'Will you have to do love scenes?' Probably. She said, 'Would your character be married to her?' I said, 'Probably not.' And she said, 'Would you sign a contract in which they control the destiny of the character which you could not argue with?' I said, 'Yes.' She said, 'Does that coincide with what you believe?' I go, 'No.' She goes, 'What do you want to do, buddy? Do you want to live it? Do you want to walk your walk and be an example of what you say you believe? Or do you want to be just like everybody else?'"
"My wife's not stupid," he says. "She said 'Stay home, I'll be your alias, okay?' I love you baby," he says, as if she were sitting with us. "Rock'n'roll!"
If Baldwin pants with the hot breath of the new convert, admittedly discomfiting even to us less fervent Christians, he does, it appears, tend to walk his walk. A former alcohol and drug addict, who says "I almost died, secretly, behind closed doors," he's been sober 15 years. But he admits, "Don't get me wrong, there are sometimes if I go and see a really funny comedy, that I wished I had smoked a joint. I'll be honest with you. That's the truth." Still, he says, "All the toys are gone. Everything's gone, and I'm making 25 percent of my usual income. And my wife--couldn't be happier." The list of toys he has cashiered is impressive--four bikes, five cars, a fleet of hotrods. He used to ride a 2000 cc replica of the Captain America chopper. Now, he gets around on a 125 cc Italjet scooter. "There's a book title I'm considering," he says, framing a marquee that only he can envision, "From Hollywood and Harleys to Jesus and a Moped."
His material things were paid for, he says, but "it was a distraction. I really comprehend the fact that some of what I have to say sounds a little weird. But the more and more I purge myself of the stuff that had my focus so turned away from God, the more I shred myself, the more I have a greater connection to God. And what I know now that I didn't know then is that's why I'm here."
IT IS WHY Baldwin now dedicates a full half of his time to his "Livin It" ministries, an organization which not only puts him and a crew of skateboard and BMX aces in front of youth audiences, but which has also seen him produce and direct the "livin' it" trick video, where the kids, according to plan, will get roped in by all the athletic artistry, before getting Jesus socked to them in the DVD-extra testimonials of the Christian daredevils they just watched.
While Baldwin himself isn't much of a skater--he likes to jump out of airplanes, plus, he adds, "I'm a little husky now"--he says he was inspired to make the DVD mainly out of desperation. "I looked around for the cool Christian stuff," he says, "and was quickly pissed off, cause there wasn't any. I remember looking up and saying, 'God, what's the deal with that?' expecting some kind of valid answer. You know what He said? 'What are you gonna do about it, Steve?' I was like oh, okay, is that how this goes down? Alright, I get it dude, fine, cool."
So with a renegade band of accomplished Christian bikers and skaters, Baldwin headed to Portland for two weeks, shooting over 200 hours of footage. The resulting DVD, after just seven months of distribution, sold 50,000 copies. "Check it out," he says. "It's a gold, born-again Christian skate DVD--no marketing, no advertising, no promotion. So I think God's doing something here."
I ask Baldwin if the very genre--born-again Christian skate DVD--doesn't elicit titters from some. Sure it does, he says. "But I tell them the Lord works in mysterious ways. You know what, man? I don't have time to worry about what people think. I'm focused on the youth of America. I'm focused on the kids who are dressing like whores. Because that's the message in the media. That's what's going to make them be important and get noticed and have a sense of self. My job is to tell them God created you for you to go to Him, for Him to give you that sense of self. But not in some wacky, hocus-pocus, cheesy, old-school Christian thing. No, in a new, tangible, livin' it kind of way. I'm excited about giving this subculture of Christian youth what it's screaming for, which is a means to express itself."
Still playing devil's advocate, I ask Baldwin if this isn't reminiscent of the sort of awkward constructs I suffered through during my own evangelical upbringing. My childhood church, for instance, had a "Karate for Christ" program, in which various friends attempted to break boards for the Lord. Or better still, Christian rock. Aren't the two impulses behind those words antithetical? Rock represents rebellion. Christianity is about obedience. Separately, they're both satisfying. Watching them get fused together, I say, citing the old yellow-and-black leotard-wearing hair-metal band Stryper, who used to chuck bibles at their secular audiences from a barroom stage, is a bit like buying tickets to a train wreck.
When I say this, Brad the Publicist's face falls. He represents the newly reunited Stryper, along with other clients like Jay Rodriguez from "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." I attempt to smooth over this bit of awkwardness, but Baldwin will have none of it. "Be honest!" he says, bringing a fist down on the table. "This is what the Christian marketplace needs to hear. Here's the problem today. Ever heard of Radial Angel?" I shake my head no. "Ever hear of 12 Stones?" I'm afraid I haven't. "Then we're going outside this restaurant. We're gonna sit in my Excursion. And I'm gonna play you a couple of tracks, doggy, that you are NOT GOING TO BELIEVE is Christian music. . . . Let's go listen to some tunes!"
IT IS A POPULAR PASTIME, among the newsgathering classes, to complain about having to cover the news-free artifice of political conventions. But I tend not to share my colleagues' sourness. Over the years, I have repeatedly been entertained by the deep and serious weirdness that results from so many people competing for the same pool of attention. In Philadelphia, I once interviewed porn-star Nina Hartley in a stroke-book shop, as she stood buck-naked while holding forth on presidential politics like she was at a Cato Institute symposium. In Chicago, I once crashed a government building with what was left of the Yippies, even though, in mid sit-in, they discovered that they'd actually stormed the wrong address.
But for sheer surrealism, it is hard to beat being ordered to a car by a Baldwin brother so that you can listen to the latest stylings in Christian rock. Baldwin and company escort me out of the diner and onto the street. Always on the lookout for signs and wonders, Baldwin gets one as we walk to his SUV, parked curbside. A homeless man with cheese-grater beard growth, cloaked in dirt-caked denim, holds a rusty gimme can in one hand, and a salvation tract in the other. He shoves the latter our way. Having no idea who Baldwin is, he introduces himself as "Larry--I'm a Jewish born-again Christian."
"You're a completed Jew?" Baldwin says, using language that could possibly see him blacklisted in Hollywood. "Me," he says, pumping the man's hand, "I got saved three years ago!" The man, not used to getting out-radicalized, quickly shuffles off to troll for other lost souls. Baldwin looks at him, then looks at me. "The word of God--what does it say about what his place is going to be in the Kingdom? Think about it." But before I can answer, he motions to his backseat, "Now get in."
I slide over the buttery leather seats of Baldwin's black Ford Excursion, sitting in between Brad the Publicist and Sly the Bodyguard. Baldwin takes the shotgun seat, next to his expressionless driver, and starts spinning the platters. "Tell me if this sounds like a bunch of cheesy, dorky, Christian music!" he yells, as he pops in a band called Radial Angel. It's passable, if by passable, I mean that you can't tell it's the eat-your-peas Christian rock I was forced to listen to as a youth. It all sounds like Creed to me. Call me old-fashioned, but I tend to like my rock secular, and my Christian music old-timey and gospelized. But before I can even offer a verdict, Baldwin is flipping to the next tune, intoning, "Listen to this one, doggy! Tell me if this one sounds all weak."
To deflect attention, I turn to Sly, a former New York City police detective, and an anvil of a man who decries the "poverty pimp programs" of the Democrats, and who's one of the only black Republicans I've ever met who joined the GOP because of Richard Nixon. Sly, who has worked security for the likes of Janet Jackson and Puff Daddy, is also a born-again Christian. "What do you think Sly?" I ask. Sly shrugs his shoulders. "It's Christian rock, man. I like it. It's pretty good. I'm listening to the words."
Sly, however, is getting antsy. We're illegally parked, and knowing the NYPD as he does, Sly worries that we'll get towed with us still us in the car. So Baldwin waves his driver out into traffic, DJ'ing all the while. "Hey Sly fox," Baldwin yells over the music, "Let me give you a little Kirk Franklin here, baby," as Baldwin himself croons the falsetto, "He has risen!"
As we tear through midtown, Baldwin lowers the volume, whipping around and fixing me with an earnest gaze. "You know what's cool for me?" he says. "These bands are relatively unknown, and they BANG! If I was a kid, and on the borderline of wanting to be proud of my faith, but I didn't have anything to back it up, I would only wish that I could know about that. So I'm letting the world know about the new thing God's gonna be doing. I think he's doing a new thing, like this." And here, he blasts a new tune, while raising his voice above the music. "How about a little Switchfoot, sonny? You like that?" His questions, I've learned by now, are mostly rhetorical. "You ever hear of them? You NEVER HEARD OF SWITCHFOOT?! They're with Sony. Hold on, let me play you another one of those CHEESY Christian songs."
He plays several more, and any New York pedestrians who look up from their crosswalks, are treated to the sight of Stephen Baldwin, the most fearless man in Hollywood, banging his head and playing air guitar for Jesus. As the Excursion rolls, he turns the music down again, and wheels around. "You know what else is cool for me?" he says, pointing my way. "You know about the game, and still don't know about this stuff. What is happening within Christianity is that it doesn't know it needs to promote itself."
"Maybe," I offer, "Jesus needs a publicist."
He turns back up the Switchfoot, snapping his fingers into a pistol, as if to suggest I nailed it. "And his name," he says, "is Stevie B."
Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.