Alec Baldwin’s ‘Rust’ interview called ‘a calculated public relations move’ — and one ‘that may backfire’
Alec Baldwin gave his first TV interview since the Rust shooting that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. In it, he claimed he didn't pull the trigger — detailing how the gun went off as he practiced drawing it and cocking the hammer while Hutchins directed him on where to point it. Legal experts are calling Baldwin's interview, amid a pending criminal investigation and multiple lawsuits, a "calculated public relations move" — and one "that may backfire."
During Thursday's ABC News sit-down, Baldwin said he didn't know that a live round — which shouldn't have been on the set — discharged from the antique gun until at least an hour after the Oct. 21 shooting. He thought Hutchins fainted or suffered a heart attack, then — as medics were called in to treat the bleeding Hutchins and director Joel Souza, who was also shot — Baldwin speculated that an errant projectile, like “wadding,” which is occasionally put in prop guns containing blanks, was to blame.
Baldwin said he would "go to any lengths to undo what happened," but he doesn't feel guilt, amid the myriad of emotions he's processing. “I feel that someone is responsible for what happened, and I can't say who that is, but I know it's not me.” He added, "If I felt that I was responsible, I might have killed myself. And I don't say that lightly.”
Baldwin also downplayed his producer role on the film, saying he was a "creative" role. He gave input on the script, not the budget or hiring. He assumed 24-year-old armorer Hannah Gutierrez Reed had been vetted by the other producers and experienced for the job, though it was only her second film.
Baldwin is already being sued, along with the production company and others, by two crew members — gaffer Serge Svetnoy and script supervisor Mamie Mitchell — over the shooting, and he expects Hutchins’s widower to file a lawsuit as well. With that ahead — not to mention the pending investigation by the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Department — many legal experts are puzzled as to why he did the interview.
Former assistant U.S. attorney Neama Rahmani calls Baldwin’s interview "a mistake" from a legal perspective.
"His statements can and will be used against him in the civil lawsuits and any potential criminal prosecution," says Rahmani, who is president of West Coast Trial Lawyers. "And Baldwin’s attorneys can’t use the interview to help him because his answers are hearsay. At best, the interview was a calculated public relations move" and one "that may backfire.”
Miguel Custodio, Jr., a personal injury attorney from the firm Custodio and Dubey LLP, agrees it's a "a super risky move." The actor took "an absolute position on how the gun was fired." While a lot of thought was likely put into "the legal strategy behind this high-profile broadcast" — including what "the potential ramifications could be," there is a risk in Baldwin "staking this position without knowing what the police investigation is going to say."
Custodio adds: "The timing of this interview leads me to believe we’re going to hear some results of the investigation soon," so Baldwin's team wants "to get ahead of it — but not too far ahead of it that empathy for Baldwin starts to dissolve.”
Matthew Barhoma, a criminal appeals attorney from Barhoma Law, says Baldwin agrees Baldwin is trying to control the narrative and "distance himself from blame." But it's not going to change who's ultimately liable — and Baldwin may pay the price.
"If it’s determined Baldwin is less liable than other defendants," as co-defendants in the lawsuits include Gutierrez Reed and Rust assistant director Dave Halls, "but he’s in a position to pay the judgment and the others aren't, Baldwin could be on the hook for just about the whole amount," Barhoma explains. "It will also depend on how much the production’s insurance policy will cover.”
Harry Kazakian, a licensed private investigator who specialized in accident scene investigations, says Baldwin can spin his side of what happened, but investigators "probably already know everything about the weapon and whether it could have fired on its own. One of the first things crime investigators did was to examine the gun to see if there was any kind of malfunction." It's now being tested — along with 500 rounds of ammunition found on set — at the FBI crime laboratory in Quantico, Va. "That would be easy to figure out based on how resistant the hammer was when cocked, and they would be able to duplicate a misfire. There would be a ton of evidence if it's a malfunctioning gun."
Meanwhile, Lara Yeretsian, a criminal defense attorney who has represented celebrities including Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson, thinks Baldwin's interview helped him.
The Academy Award nominee "came across as very genuine, honest and natural," says the Yeretsian Law founder. "He did not seem to hold back or to be hiding anything." She says he did "several things in this interview that I thought really helped him. He had solid answers and reasonable explanations on tough questions, he spoke extremely highly of the deceased, Hutchins, he was appropriately emotional without overdoing it, and he was earnest in his desire that law enforcement find out how the live bullet made it on the set.”
The investigation continues. Baldwin said on Thursday he's spoken to investigators multiple times, and is "willing to do anything I can to cooperate."