On Thursday, the Santa Fe County, New Mexico’s district attorney’s office announced that it would charge actor Alec Baldwin with two counts of involuntary manslaughter in the 2021 accidental killing of Halyna Hutchins, cinematographer on the set of the film Rust. Baldwin, who was the one who discharged the gun that killed Hutchins during a rehearsal, believing it to be loaded with dummy bullets, is being charged along with head armorer and prop assistant Hannah Gutierrez-Reed. These charges may come as a surprise—the search warrant for the investigation attested that Baldwin, who was also a producer on the film, had been told that the gun was safe to shoot. Baldwin maintains his innocence, claiming that he feels grief, but not guilt.
We sat down with entertainment lawyer Tre Lovell to evaluate the meaning of these criminal charges. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Nadira Goffe: Do we know whether Alec Baldwin is being charged because of his role as a producer on Rust, versus because he was the person who actually discharged the weapon?
Tre Lovell: It’s my understanding that it’s both, from what the prosecutor said.
What reasons are prosecutors giving to support issuing this charge related to Baldwin’s role as a producer?
They’re saying that because he’s a producer, he’s in charge of the production, of set safety, of making sure that there’s enough personnel to be able to govern safety, [that] there’s no shortcuts in spending and corners cut, things like that. I’ll equate it to a premises liability type of situation, just that he was in charge of set safety.
There are other producers on the film. Why is he the only one being charged?
Listen, I think that’s a very problematic argument for the prosecution. First of all, “producer” is a credit. And you can get a producer credit or an executive producer credit for raising money, for making an introduction of a celebrity, for adding something to the film. And when it comes to producers, there are certain producers that have responsibility for the physical production of the film, [that are] in charge of the filming, the shooting, the locations, the editing, delivering and broadcast quality, print, etc. And there are other producers that have absolutely no responsibility whatsoever. They just got the credit. And a lot of times you will see Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, superstars like that, they always have a producer credit or an executive producer credit because they’re just an actor in the film. And as part of their deal they want to get a credit.
So it is really presumptuous to just assume that because he’s a producer that he has any responsibility. Being a producer doesn’t mean you’re a partner, and it doesn’t mean you have the title, or level of responsibility, of production—that’s governed through the production agreements, through the operating agreement with the LLC that’s set up for the company, other things like that. I don’t know the details, but there is a strong chance that he’s credited as a producer because he’s an actor and that’s it. You know, sometimes his production company, even if they’re not doing anything, may even get him a banner credit. You just don’t know. But yeah, you really have to see what his role was as a producer to be able to pursue that theory under the prosecution.
As for the actor part, how is it possible for him to be charged if he was told that the gun was a cold gun and wasn’t loaded with live ammo? How much is that his responsibility as an actor?
First of all, it’s not his responsibility as an actor to ensure prop safety. There’s somebody on set specifically to do that, who’s an expert. Actors, they’re not even allowed to do that. What people don’t understand is, the Screen Actors Guild, the union, does not allow any producer, anybody, to use an actor for anything on set other than acting. You can’t use an actor to help decorate, to do lights, to do locations. He or she just can act, and that’s it. And there’s a reason for that, because there are other delegable duties that people have on set and that they’re supposed to do. An actor is required to rely upon an armorer, or any other person on set, who’s an expert, when it comes to whether or not a piece of equipment that they’re using is safe.
I mean, imagine the world we’re in if they were requiring actors to now check equipment! What’s next? What if an actor is driving a car in a scene and the brakes go out and he kills somebody? Are we now going to charge him for criminal negligence? What if he’s using a sword or some other explosive on set that is defective and kills somebody, we’re now going to look at the actor? I mean, this is a slippery slope.
Should a guilty verdict be reached, this feels like a landmark case.
Absolutely. What people don’t understand is, the movie set is very different than the real world. If I’m on the street corner and somebody comes up to me, and gives me a gun and says, “Hey, check this out. Go ahead and shoot. Don’t worry, it’s not loaded,” and I start shooting and I kill somebody, I’m criminally liable. I should have checked it. But on a movie set, an actor takes orders. And what people don’t realize is, he’s doing what they tell him to do. You gotta follow the director, you’ve gotta move, you‘ve got timelines. People make those decisions. An actor does what he’s told.
And even if you are checking a gun for bullets, how does the average actor, who doesn’t know much about firearms, know the difference between a dummy bullet and a real bullet? Are you supposed to take every bullet out? What if it’s a clip, a 9mm clip? You’re supposed to take the clip out, undo every bullet, and check and see? It just doesn’t make sense. I really think if it weren’t Alec Baldwin, that this may not be in the criminal system.
Let’s get into that! Do you think that Alec Baldwin’s history of aggression can be used against him?
No, I don’t. It can’t be used legally, because you can’t use prior bad acts as evidence. It’s too inflammatory. Practically, no. This is going to be judged in and of itself, I would believe.
This is complete speculation, but [the prosecution has] been under a microscope on this and maybe they felt a lot of pressure to have to do something. If they just caved and didn’t do anything, maybe they felt that would make them look [bad]. I don’t know. There may be other than legal pressures that are a part of this, but, you know, this is just not the right fight to pick right now. It’s going to create a huge response, I think, that is not going to be positive.
What did you mean when you said that part of the reason why this case got this far might be because of Baldwin, specifically?
I just think it’s such a high-profile incident. And, you know, I would say Alec Baldwin didn’t help himself at all for his case [by] going in the press, in the media, doing those interviews. You just never do interviews when you’re under investigation.
Accidents happen on set all the time. People die on set, stunt people die all the time. And there’s always injuries, always people getting hurt, through actions of the actor. Because it’s just dangerous work. Had this been one of those, [that] wasn’t publicized, I just don’t think he would’ve been charged.
One of the things that’s really baffling is that there’s still an ongoing investigation as to where the live rounds came from, and how they got on set. So, the idea that they could even go forward with these prosecutions without knowing the answer to that question is a little confusing, no?
It is. I mean certainly [it’s significant] with respect to the producer argument, because if you can hold [Baldwin] responsible as a producer in charge of set safety, you’ve got to know how the incident occurred. Did it occur because of your negligence? Or, did somebody just intentionally, deceptively bring [live ammo] on a set, and even if you were being as reasonable or as prudent as you could, you couldn’t have stopped it?
[Looking at his role as an actor], they’re probably going to say, irrespective of how it got on set, had he checked it, he would have averted the incident. That’s what I would assume they would say: the negligence for how it got on set [has no relationship to] to the actual negligence with the actor. But, I think there’s good arguments against that too. Listen, his legal team’s going to have a world of pain on this for the prosecution, I think.
In your opinion, who is ultimately responsible for the death of Halyna Hutchins, if anyone?
If anyone, it would most likely be with the armorer. With the one individual who is hired because they’re an expert in firearms, hired for the specific purpose of making sure firearms are safe on set. Before you hand an actor a firearm, to ensure that it’s not loaded, it’s not dangerous, they require you to give that specific description, either it’s “cold” or “safe,” whatever it is, to the whole set. You yell it out, you know, “cold weapon, cold weapon,” so everybody knows it’s been checked. There’s one person that’s in charge of that. That person would most likely be the front person to be responsible.
Then, anybody else that may fall under that umbrella. The assistant director [David Halls], possibly, if he took on that role, if he gave out the gun and said [it was] cold. He’s now assuming that duty of governing safety on the set with respect to the firearm, he may then have injected some responsibility into himself, by doing that [and] assuming that duty. [Halls took a plea bargain with the district attorney and was not charged.]
Then, from a physical production safety standard, there’s usually a line producer or showrunner or physical production person, or company that is in charge of the actual production, the locations, the scheduling, the payroll, the shooting, the editing, they may be responsible if they created a set that is dangerous, you know? I think it would go in that order. But even then it’s not an easy case, and definitely not criminal.
Do you think that this case will change what’s expected of actors in terms of handling guns and other dangerous props on set?
Not as much as you would think. I don’t think they’re going to now require actors to go through gun training before they’re going to film a role, because that would just be too much. I think there will be greater safety protocols put in place to check firearms, maybe once they’re delivered to the set you have to sign off on them, [establish] chain of possession. Maybe additional protocols [will be added] to make sure it’s not loaded, that may happen. But I don’t know if that’s going to be any more responsibility put on the actor. Because as I said, where do you stop?
If you say Every actor should check, well what if somebody doesn’t know about guns? And you’re going to force them to check? Maybe they make a mistake. Then, if you say an actor has to check, then now he is going to have a legal duty to check? They’re not going to want that. The Screen Actors Guild’s not gonna want that, and actors aren’t going to want any type of requirement to check.
I think there will be strong resistance. This is kind of counterintuitive, you would think Because of the accident they are going to make actors always check, no—I think it’s going to be: they’re going to make sure that there’s greater safety, but they’re going to further remove the actor from that responsibility.
At one point, Hutchins’ family seemed quite angry at Baldwin. But then, Baldwin settled with them. What do you think, does it seem like the family’s public anger could have had an effect on what these prosecutors are doing, despite the fact that there’s since been a settlement?
I think maybe initially but, you know, I think it was conscious to try to settle those civil cases before they made a decision criminally, because prosecutors often look at victims from a couple different angles. First, whether or not a crime has been involved, and also if there’s some sort of restitution, if there’s some sort of compensation or recompense to the victim. And when you get it through a civil case, a settlement that’s most likely pretty lucrative, you can kind of let the DA off. There’s not as much pressure to charge because there has been redemption. There has been compensation. And certainly when it’s not an intentional act.
I think that by doing that they certainly gave the DA every chance to reasonably not charge, and people probably wouldn’t have been too skeptical about it or been too scrutinizing. And, I think, the family’s pretty much come out and haven’t shown a whole lot of animosity to Alec Baldwin. From what I read, they [now] want to move on?
Hutchins’ husband, Matthew Hutchins, told Vulture, “I have no interest in engaging in recriminations or attribution of blame (to the producers or Mr. Baldwin)…All of us believe Halyna’s death was a terrible accident.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if the husband doesn’t want Baldwin prosecuted, because that happens too. They want to move on. Because now they may be a witness in the prosecution. They got to relive it. They’re going to be a part of it, they’re going to be essential to it.
So, in a way, it’s kind of an even bigger deal that the DA’s office has gone forth with this prosecution, given the fact that Baldwin and the victim’s family had already settled?
Yeah. You know, this incident, to me, is a civil matter, it’s just not a criminal matter. And you’ve got Baldwin who’s clearly just distraught and broken up through this thing. So much so, he can’t stop himself from talking because he just wants people to know. And he’s settled the other case, he’s involved in these other litigations, he’s going to be known through the rest of his life through this incident. I mean, he’s suffered. That’s why I just [think the criminal charge] is just a wrong move.