Lights, camera, weapons check? Actors worry after Baldwin charges.
In an image provided by the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, the set of “Rust” after a fatal shooting on set.
By GRAHAM BOWLEY, JULIA JACOBS and MARC TRACY
The news that Alec Baldwin is facing manslaughter charges for killing a cinematographer with a gun he had been told was safe had actor Steven Pasquale thinking back to the filming of “Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem” more than a decade ago, when he and other actors were handed military-style rifles and told to start shooting.
He felt safe, he said, because he relied on the professional props experts and the armorer who had checked and shown him the gun.
“We are artists — we are not actual cowboys, actual cops, actual superheroes,” Pasquale said. “We are not Jason Bourne. I can’t even begin to imagine an actor having the responsibility of now needing to be the safety person on the set regarding prop guns. That’s insane.”
The charges being brought against Baldwin for an on-set shooting had many actors recalling their own experiences with guns on sets, and discussing safety measures and who bears primary responsibility for them.
Actor Michael Chiklis, who has starred in television police dramas including “The Commish” and “The Shield,” called the shooting “a tragic accident” and said that “moving forward, there is absolutely no reason to use a real firearm on set ever again.”
The case, in which prosecutors in New Mexico maintain that Baldwin bore responsibility for ensuring that the gun he was handed on the set of “Rust” was safe, has prompted a debate within the film industry over gun safety and protocols. SAG-AFTRA, a union representing film workers, said the responsibility lay not with actors but with trained professionals. Actors and armorers described varying experiences with guns on sets, with some actors exercising a higher level of caution than others.
Baldwin faces two charges of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, who was killed Oct. 21, 2021, when the revolver he was rehearsing with — which he had been told was “cold,” meaning it should not have contained any live ammunition — suddenly fired.
The district attorney for Santa Fe County, Mary Carmack-Altwies, said in an interview Thursday that she planned to argue in court that Baldwin did not take “due caution or circumspection” when he drew an old-fashioned revolver from its holster, that he should have ensured the gun did not contain live rounds and that he should not have pointed the weapon at the cinematographer. She said forensic evidence showed that Baldwin had pulled the trigger; Baldwin has denied that, saying the gun discharged unexpectedly after he pulled the hammer back and let it go.
As the case moves forward, the norms and practices in the film and television industry will quite likely take center stage. Industry standards say that no one should be issued a firearm without being trained in safety, but that the responsibility for checking guns before each use lies with the prop master or designated weapons handler.
Kirk Acevedo, an actor who has worked extensively with weapons on shows such as “Band of Brothers” and in the film “The Thin Red Line,” said it was typical for a film’s armorer, who is responsible for guns and ammunition on set, to open a gun and demonstrate to the actor that it was empty. Acevedo said that while he owned guns and had experience with them, many actors lacked the expertise to check firearms on their own. In some cases, he noted, the actors are children.
“It’s not me,” he said, referring to who has the responsibility. “It can’t be me. If you have never fired a weapon before, how would you know how to do all of that? For some people, it’s hard to even pull back the slide.”
The armorer on “Rust,” Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, is also facing charges of involuntary manslaughter. One of her lawyers, Jason Bowles, said she would be exonerated.
Baldwin has asserted in interviews and court filings that expecting an actor to take the initiative to check a gun is not standard practice. His lawyer Luke Nikas said he also would be exonerated, calling the prosecution a “terrible miscarriage of justice.”
SAG-AFTRA said in a statement that industry guidelines “do not make it the performer’s responsibility to check any firearm.”
Approaches to firearm safety vary on sets.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who played a New York City police captain on the ABC drama “Castle” and now plays an officer on the CBS police drama “East New York,” said he had set strict rules for himself since appearing in a play where a blank was fired so close to another actor at a rehearsal that it nearly damaged the actor’s eardrum.
“It’s OK to annoy people by how much you check and recheck the gun,” Santiago-Hudson said.
He said he made sure to never point a gun directly at another person — a point of contention in the “Rust” case.
Baldwin told ABC News after the shooting that he had pointed the gun toward Hutchins only because he had been told it was “cold” and he was being directed to do so.
“I got countless people online saying, ‘You idiot, you never point a gun at someone,’” Baldwin said in the interview. “Well, unless you’re told it’s empty, and it’s the director of photography who’s instructing you on the angle for a shot we’re going to do.”
Days after the shooting, which also wounded the director of “Rust,” Joel Souza, investigators interviewed one of the movie’s actors, Jensen Ackles, who told them that he does inspect his guns on set himself.
“I just always do my own personal checks because it’s a smart thing to do,” Ackles told police, according to footage of the interview. But he noted that he did not expect his peers to do the same, telling the detectives that if actors were the final line of defense in the safety of a movie set then he “wouldn’t trust 99.9% of the people I work with.”