The Age, Good Weekend - July 2015
Beach boy Simon Baker's biggest role yet
Simon Baker's star status in Hollywood has taken a back seat to a new Australian-based project that seems as natural as sun-bleached hair and sand between the toes.
Simon Baker doesn't want to sound like an idiot. He's sitting in a brightly lit restaurant on a sunny afternoon, hands on his knees, worrying about it – which makes a nice change in a celebrity. And though it's hard to imagine from someone who looks like the literal embodiment of every laid-back, blue-eyed surfer dream we've ever had, it seems as if this might not be an unusual state for him. "I am a worrier," he admits. "Worry and self-doubt. It's sort of my due diligence."
Most of what he's worried about today is his first film as director – an adaptation of Tim Winton's lyrical, disturbing novel Breath. He will also star in the film and co-produce it. "God," he says, "how cheesy does that sound? I knew it would sound vain ... this is why I never wanted to even suggest it. I never felt brash enough to bring it up: 'Oh yeah, I'll star in it, and produce it, and direct it.' " Yet here he is, doing all those things. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, I try to point out. Lots of people do it. "But I'm not that big a star," he objects. "Most people just identify me with The Mentalist, that show that's on Channel Nine sometimes. It's not sexy, it's not fashionable. And it's a bit hard to go, 'Actually, I've done 20-something films, I'm brilliant.' " Well, that's true. So let it be said, for the record. Simon Baker is not an idiot.
Baker is 45. He's never starred in a huge box office hit; he's done no edgy HBO series; no major theatre. For most of the past decade and a half, he's played two quiet, conflicted men, in two American TV crime series – The Mentalist, and before that, The Guardian. So he's been big in the US, certainly, and even bigger in Europe, where The Mentalist is huge. But in Australia, as he himself says, he's always been a low-key, middle-of-the-firmament kind of star.
And yet, most people – certainly most women – know exactly who he is. This may have something to do with the way he looks. In person, despite shaggy hair (which he once claimed to cut himself, "by feel") and a scruffy ginger beard, he has one of those slow smiles, involving laugh lines and white teeth, that really does light up a room. He also possesses that trait rare among men – and women, for that matter – of great natural elegance. You can see exactly why luxury brands such as Givenchy and Longines – not to mention ANZ – have hitched their wagons to his star. Not that he seems to do much to cultivate such elegance; perhaps, indeed, the reverse. Today he's wearing jeans, a casual shirt and chunky boots. On any other person this outfit would look totally unremarkable; on him, he might be disappointed to hear, it looks like couture.
It must have been odd growing up looking like this as a working-class boy on the NSW north coast. Baker was born in Launceston, Tasmania; his mother was a high school English teacher, his father a mechanic. Along with his older sister (now a Melbourne GP) the family relocated to New Guinea when Baker was nine months old. His parents' marriage ended when he was still a toddler and much of his childhood and teenage years were spent in Lennox Head, near Byron Bay. A second marriage (from which the name Denny came: Baker began acting as Simon Denny, then Simon Denny Baker) also ended, and Baker was out of contact with his biological father until adulthood.
His escape from these family complexities was the beach, where he was part of a close-knit circle of surfing mates. (Baker himself still surfs regularly.) "It feels like such a cliché," he says apologetically. "But the beach gave me a place to go to figure out who I was."
The model of masculinity he learnt there sounds like the classic Australian archetype: strong, emotionally undemonstrative, and extremely, almost obsessively, self-deprecating. "Growing up in Australia, I saw so many of those guys," he once said. "You watch a football game and someone scores a try under the post and you don't see too much self-congratulatory behaviour. It's sort of, well, okay, put your head down, try not to smile."
As he points out now, grinning, "There's a lot more self-congratulation these days! But yeah, that was my model, I guess. I grew up kind of – not literally, but sort of – fatherless. My stepfather raised me, but we didn't get on that well, and I pulled away. I was pretty close to my mum, but my environment at the beach, which was a male environment, was really my community. That was a lot of what formed me. And I've maintained those relationships. I still go back there now – to that place, those people. It's incredibly important to me."
Not that it encouraged his teenage dreams of thespian self-expression. "No," Baker agrees, smiling. "Wanting to be an actor, that was not something you could ever talk about as a bloke from that background. So I had this artistic sensitivity, but it was hidden."
His early acting work was more by accident than design – waiting for a friend to audition for a commercial and being asked to try out himself (he got the role); dancing in music videos (which still pop up on US talk shows "as a form of sheer humiliation"). But by 1992, he was playing Constable Sam Farrell in Australian soap opera E Street, and the following year he won the Logie for Most Popular New Talent.
He relocated to the US in the mid-'90s. Various well-received small parts – most notably in LA Confidential, as a doomed gay actor – followed, without leading to major film success. Then, in 2001, he won the lead role in a procedural crime series with CBS, as troubled lawyer Nick Fallin in The Guardian. The series ran for three seasons. And in 2008 he began what would turn into a seven-year run as Patrick Jane, the hyper-observant former conman turned police consultant on The Mentalist. The Mentalist made Baker a television megastar. At its height, the show (which released its final episode in the US in February this year) had a first-screening audience of 17 million in North America alone. "I spend 19 hours a day on set with him and another three hours talking about him," said his co-star Robin Tunney. "People stop me at the grocery store and I feel like I should have a list of answers: 'Yes, he looks like that in person; yes, he's happily married; yes, he's straight. Sorry!' " He was nominated for both an Emmy and a Golden Globe (he also received a Golden Globe nomination for The Guardian), and series creator Bruno Heller credited him with making The Mentalist a hit. "The show was a success for all sorts of ineffable reasons, but mainly because it was a chance for a great actor to do his stuff," he said in one interview. "And people wanted to watch that." In 2010, Baker signed a deal worth a reported $US30 million for the final seasons of The Mentalist, making him one of the highest-paid TV stars in Hollywood.
Not bad for a kid from the backblocks without a single acting lesson to his name. "I've always used whatever I had," he says, and this seems true. You could argue that Baker has played Jane (and even, earlier, Nick Fallin) based on exactly what he had: the codes of masculinity he learnt as a kid at the beach. Our national stereotype is right there on screen, in every loaded silence, every indirect glance, every tiny flicker of repressed, Aussie-male emotion. And now he's taken on, as his first feature film, a story that concerns Australian boys, Australian men, and the Australian beach. Baker rolls his eyes. "I know. I didn't really choose it. It chose me, and eventually I gave in."
As an actor, Baker may be the ultimate expression of the strong, mostly silent type. But as a person, he's not quite like this. He confesses, for instance, that as a teenager he actually preferred the company of girls to men. "I appreciated the chatting," he admits, straight-faced. "The micro-analysis of stuff. Only girls do that."
You like that? I ask, incredulous.
Baker grins. "Well, I did! And I still do at times! I still do enjoy it. The desire to connect: that's probably why I became an actor."
He does admit, however, that talking to girls was problematic. "There's always that other thing in play." But when he was 21, he met fellow actor Rebecca Rigg, who sounds like a superlative chatter. He laughs. "She's a very engaged person. I mean, really engaged." He shakes his head. "Full on."
Rigg was a child actor, who was better known than Baker when they met; they reportedly had their first date at the Royal pub in Paddington, Sydney, and their characters were romantically entangled in E Street. She hasn't worked much since their children were born (Stella in 1993, Claude in 1998, and Harry in 2001). She and Baker married in 1998, but she's never become a celebrity "celebrity's wife". She's close friends with Nicole Kidman (Kidman calls Baker "hippie boy") and Naomi Watts (who once remarked that Baker did a great Mick Jagger impression. This sounds wildly unlikely, but is in fact completely correct, and verifiable on YouTube). The two women are godmothers to Rigg and Baker's children, and are occasionally seen on red carpets with Rigg, who always looks amused and unfazed amid the madness.
Any woman capable of holding her own in this company – and this world, for that matter – must have something pretty special about her. "Well," says Baker, pausing, "I always get a bit worried if I meet someone, and I get a sense we're going to be friends, because I always feel like, 'Yeah, you think you like me now. But sooner or later you're going to meet my wife.' " And then what? I ask.
"And then it's all going to be about her." He grins, delighted despite himself. "Everyone just totally falls in love with her. And then they're like, 'Oh yeah, he's great, but she's the one.' " Really?
"Oh, yeah." He nods, still grinning. "She's superb."
Together, Rigg and Baker have created what's become known in Hollywood as an almost notoriously perfect family. But Baker has always objected to this designation. "I don't want the pressure of the perfect family," he says. "All the people in my family are really great people, and I love them all dearly, but perfect is a bizarre way to describe it."
But it is a real achievement, I say: a 17-year marriage, three kids – anyone would be proud of that. He thinks about it. "Well, I do feel in a lot of ways there are elements of my extended family that I f...ed up over the years. And some stuff was just messy, but sometimes I feel like I dropped the ball; I didn't pursue stuff or follow up, or I just gave up. So I guess that drives me with my own family to have something different. It's not without its ups and downs and challenges, but I'm very grateful for it."
Most of all, it seems, he's grateful for Rigg. When it came to Breath, for a long time Baker was uncertain how – and even if – he could make the film. "I went through waves of anxiety about it," he recalls. "I had a couple of periods where I went quiet on it. It just felt too big. And then one day Bec said to me, 'How come whenever we bring Breath up, you mumble something and go quiet?' And I said, 'I just don't think I can do it justice. It's going to be so hard, and it's my first film, and it's teenage boys, in the water, with heavy sexual stuff...' And she was like, 'What are you talking about? We watch movies together all the time! You know how many terrible movies there are out there? So what if you make one more? Just go and do it!' " Baker sits back from the table and smiles. "And I thought, 'Yeah. That's pretty much it.' "
He first read Tim Winton's slender, award-winning novel several years ago in LA. Veteran Hollywood producer Mark Johnson (Rain Man, Breaking Bad) sent it to him, with the suggestion that they option it and he, Baker, co-produce and, possibly, star in it. It's the story of two small-town surfing boys, pulled into the orbit of a charismatic older surfer and his wife. It's a beautiful, unsettling story about love and damage and the end of childhood.
"It was weird," recalls Baker. "Maybe my view was affected by the fact I was so far away, so there was this longing for that period in my own life, but it really shook me. There were a couple of moments when I put the book down and wept." He finished it and picked up the phone. "I just said, 'Yes. Let's do it.' " Baker hasn't always felt so positive about his next career move. When The Guardian ended in 2003, he swore off television for five years. "I found the whole [Guardian] thing totally grinding and exhausting and demoralising," he says. He did only films until 2008: everything from George A. Romero's Land of the Dead to Meryl Streep's The Devil Wears Prada. But despite covering the full gamut – zombie movies to chick flicks – none of it was wildly successful, and none of it really thrilled him. "I felt like, 'I'm not happy with the roles I'm getting, I'm not getting any creative buzz. What's the point?' " Then a friend called and suggested Baker might like to do a commercial with none other than Martin Scorsese.
What a bizarre suggestion, I say.
"Tell me about it!" Baker laughs. "So I came out of retirement! And Marty just reignited the whole process of filmmaking for me." He leans forward, still thrilled with the memory. "He's in his 70s and he's still like a kid about it – 'You'll come through here and we'll have the dolly here and it'll be great!' And I'd always been like that too, but I was just a bit smashed by the whole thing. Maybe because I've never been totally happy only doing the acting; I sort of had to quiet the part of my brain that wanted to do more. And there was Marty saying, 'What are you doing? You gotta make movies!' " He sits back, suddenly embarrassed. "It sounds so ridiculous, doesn't it? You read that in the paper and you're like, 'He didn't even make a movie with Marty!' No, I didn't! I did a f...ing commercial with the guy! But as a person he was just inspiring: he's still loving it, and I'd forgotten I loved it. And he said to me, 'Do what you know. That's all I've done.' " And so, when Breath came along, it seemed like the moment was right.
Almost. It was clear from the start he would co-produce and though he won't be drawn on whether he's putting his own money into the project ("That's like asking me how old I am!"), Screen Australia has kicked in funding as part of a $13.4 million investment in 12 new film and television projects. He was also excited about playing the adult male lead, Bill "Sando" Sanderson, and he knew what he wanted in terms of adapting the story. He and Winton, who won't be directly involved in the film, have met and seem to have got on. As Baker puts it, "I hope we're in a situation where I feel like I can do what I want to, and he trusts that I'm not going to totally butcher it. Or I'm going to really try not to!" So far, so good. But then came the question of finding a director. And the terrible truth is that Baker himself has always been interested in directing, although he still struggles to admit it. "I didn't go to drama school, I'm not educated, I'm not that articulate," he says cautiously. But in fact, he directed several episodes of The Mentalist during its seven-season run, and one of The Guardian. "You know that Malcolm Gladwell 'You need 10,000 hours to become an expert' thing?" he says. "Well, I worked out I did 40,000 hours just on The Mentalist. Just on that one set. So I've learnt, just by that sheer mass of hours, how to get a moment across on the set; from a technical point; in the editing room. I know how to articulate moments of story."
Of course, a TV series is different from a feature film – a fact of which no one is more painfully aware than Baker. Which is why, when it came to Breath, he assumed they'd hire someone else. He and Johnson met with several high-profile directors. And then one day, "Mark said to me, 'Has it occurred to you that maybe you should direct this film?' And I said, 'Why do you ask?' And he said, 'Because it's obvious to me that you talk about it like a director, and think about it like a director, and it kind of seems that you are the director.' " Baker sits back with a self-deprecating, lighting-up-the-room smile. "And I was like, 'Oh shit. So I'm scaring the directors off?' " He begins to laugh. "And of course I was very proprietorial about it. And I was probably going to smash any director who did anything I thought was inauthentic, and so it probably was hard for them."
So that was that. Filming, which is slated to begin this September, will take place in WA's south-west, where the book was set. It will be a very tough shoot – "fraught with difficulties!" is how Baker puts it. "Shooting outside, you're totally at the mercy of the weather anyway, but with surfing you also have the swell, the wind direction, the light ... It's a nightmare." Plus non-actors in the lead roles, plus the "Jurassic" wildness of the setting, plus Baker's own triple-role responsibilities. "Oh god," says Baker, closing his eyes. "Can we just cut to pretending I've done this movie, and people have actually enjoyed it?"
Baker loves the way Breath pivots around particular instants in life: moments of decision around which our past coalesces and our future unfolds. "I think that's really true," he says. "I've felt it a lot, that sense that a decision I made, which seemed insignificant at the time, with hindsight, had great bearing on how I turned out as a person."
He feels it about choosing to be with Rigg – "the best decision I've ever made in my life. But did I know it at the time? No way" – and he feels it about choosing to be an actor. And perhaps, one day, he'll feel it about choosing to make this movie. "It's weird to promote something before it's happened," he says at the end of our conversation. "But it feels like a pilgrimage I've got to go on – that may end tragically."
Artistic pilgrimages are important, of course – most of all to the people making them. And Baker is the sort of guy you want to be successful. In the best of Australian traditions, he seems like the underdog, and you can't help rooting for him. But in the end, as his own wife says, it doesn't really matter. Baker has had a busy, challenging, extremely lucrative career, and three kids, and a marriage that seems truly happy. All things considered, a tragic end seems out of the question.