Simon Baker – 20 years ago when he was the next big thing

  June 2003 By Philip Berk

Someone up there likes him.

Out of the blue, one of America’s best known gossip columnists (she prefers the job description, confidante to the rich and famous) has anointed Simon Baker the next big thing.

In her widely syndicated column, she writes, “Baker is a dreamboat. I can’t wait to see him in some big romantic comedy where he can play himself — or at least show off his more charismatic qualities. He’ll be a big star!” 

Baker, who’s had a tough time competing with the likes of Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe, has finally found his niche playing a not always likable character in The Guardian.

At his press conference for the both the series and his movie Affair of the Necklace, he agreed 2001 was a productive year for him.

It gave him his first co-starring role in a major studio film,  a hit TV series, and a new baby.

Two out of three ain’t bad is, I thought.

Even though in person he exudes the self-confidence of a budding superstar, I didn’t care for his performance in Affair of the Necklace. 

For me it was an uncomfortable display of anachronistic self indulgence. 

But I thought his work in The Guardian was sensational, establishing him as the most charismatic new face on American television.

Up close and personal, Baker is all that and more.

Easily amused — always a big smile — and eager to please.

Surprisingly, unlike other Australian actors who’ve taken over Hollywood, he never started acting until he was twenty.

How come? I ask him.

“In the environment I grew up it wasn’t considered manly.” 

So he worked as a real estate salesman, a brick layer, even a cellar man in a pub.

What made him change his mind? 

“It happened quite by accident. A surfer friend was auditioning for a TV commercial, so I went along with him to keep him company. While sitting in the waiting room, the casting woman suggested I audition. At first I was reluctant but guess who got the part.”

After that he found an agent, did more commercials, and eventually was cast in an Aussie soap, E-Street, which earned him the Logie Award (equivalent of the Emmy) as l992’s most popular new talent.

Five years ago he and his family moved to L.A.

It was a last desperate measure for him, his girl friend actress Rebecca Rigg who he had met on E-Street, and their two year old daughter

When they left Sydney — destination Hollywood —  they had only $3500 in cash and a relationship that was tenuous, to say the least.

But fortune smiled on them, and almost immediately Rebecca was cast in two prime time series and he found work in forgettable movies.

(The two exceptions were L.A. Confidential, in which he bonded with Guy Pearce and another Aussie Russell Crowe, and Ride With the Devil in which he went almost unrecognizable under a heavy beard. Ironically in both these films he played homosexuals.)

Three years later he and Rebecca married.

Didn’t they leave Australia to get away from television.

So why the change of heart?

“I had been filming Affair of the Necklace in Prague, which meant six months away from your home, at times with and without your family. It was very difficult; so I asked my agent what was going on in TV, but not to start selling me to the TV networks yet. He sent me a bunch of scripts. I was sitting in bed with my wife when I went, ‘Geez, honey, this is pretty good.’ It was the script for The Guardian. And she went, ‘You don’t want to be a lead in a TV series? I’ll never see you.’  and I said, ‘Honey this one’s so good they won’t  make it.’ 

“Meanwhile they had set up a meeting with me and Les Moonves of CBS. I didn’t tell him I had read the script. We sat down and chatted. I told him how difficult it was for me to do movies, having to move my family around, but I am not sold on TV.  Anyway he did his pitch and gave me the script of The Guardian and said, ‘We’d love you to look at this.’ 

“So it was up to me in the end. It came down to the point where they needed an answer the next morning. I still had no idea what I should do, so my wife pulled out the book of I Ching, ‘Flick through this,’ she said. So we got the coins out,  and the I Ching said, ‘Don’t get in the way of yourself.’ And I said, ‘That’s it.’ So I did the pilot, and it tested better than any other show. They picked it up and now it’s on and I’m having a ball. I love it. It’s great fun.”

In the series he plays Nick Fallin, a brilliant young lawyer who is caught with illegal drugs and sentenced to 1500 hours of community service. He divides his time between working in his father’s prestigious law firm and offering legal aid to a child advocacy group.

What does he particularly like about his character?

“I  like the contrast he offers. In the corporate world he’s a predator taking whatever he needs to get things done. In the legal aid world he finds himself caught up in the emotion of these people. I see him as a very guarded character. The title is metaphorical. He is afraid of letting people come close to him because of his history with his father. When his mother died — he was ten at the time — his father sent him away to boarding school. As a result he has this distrust, this resentment of authority, which is what his father represents. But on the other hand he is able to open up to the children because he can identify with them.”

Were there episodes like that in his own life?

“Let me say I grew up in a house that wasn’t a very happy household. My parents were divorced when I was three, and when my mother remarried, I didn’t have a great relationship with my step father. There was a lot of tension.”

What did he do to overcome that?

“I became the show pony, the one who lightened up the household. I was always a show off, which was my way of compensating for the pretty bizarre relationship I had with my stepfather. I never saw eye to eye him. Among the things he changed was my name, which is why I’ve changed my name a million times.”

(The one he uses is the one he was born with.)

Does he draw from those experiences for the series?

“Within me there is a wealth of episodes of the Guardian.”

His wife’s initial concern — the long hours involved in doing an one hour weekly TV series — isn’t that going to take a heavy toll on his family?

Obliquely he replies, “If I didn’t have my family, I wouldn’t be here where I am today.”

But will he have the time to devote to them?

“I make the time. I made a very strict rule when I started the show. I wouldn’t bring it home. So I don’t do any of my preparation at home. When there’s a break, I’m in my trailer preparing.  And I hired an assistant to drive me to and from work so I can focus on the work. Once the car stops in front of my house, I don’t even take my bags out.”

But he wasn’t always a family man.

“No I wasn’t. There was a time, when I was young.”

With a big grin he adds, “I like women.”

No wonder I call him the Tasmanian Devil. (He was born there.)

How easy is it for him to resist temptation?

“I don’t really think about it. I do what I have to at work, and then I have my home and my relationships as husband and parent. I am not looking for anything else.That part of my life is complete, and it fuels my desire to want to provide for them.” 

So he stays home and makes babies?

Again with a big smile he answers, “Making them is fun. But there’s a little part of me — much like the character I play in the Guardian  —  that wants to patch up the sort of pain and stuff I experienced as a kid. It allows me to see the world again through my children’s eyes.”

So he’s a reformed man?

“I married an Australian woman. She doesn’t let me go anywhere. And she’s my toughest critic. She never blows any smoke in my direction. I always get an honest opinion out of her, which is really important in this town.”

Why is Hollywood so fascinated by Australian actors? 

“The only thing I can see, particularly with men, is Hollywood goes through phases of leading men. In the 70’s there were the regular guys. Then we went through the phase of the more sensitive boy-men types, who were sometimes more feminine than the leading lady. Right now, I feel, they’re coming around towards the regular guys again.”

And only Australia can provide them?

“I didn’t say that.”

Everything seems to be happening at one time  — a new series, a new baby, and a new house. How was he able to handle that?

“Everything did sort of happen at once. I remember they gave me only one day off to move. I had to pack the house one day, move the next, and appear in every scene the following day. But it’s better than nothing happening at all.”

How come all his children have unusual middle names. 

“My grandfather had eight names which didn’t change what you called him. He was known as Wally.”

He laughs.

“We were very young parents when my daughter  was born. We called her Stella Breeze. That name Breeze triggered something for me. Then when Claude, my four year old, was born we gave him the middle name Blue, as in Bluey, which is sort of Australian and patriotic The youngest was born on a Wednesday. We had no idea what to name him until we were leaving the hospital, which was on a Friday, so we named him Harry Friday.”

For the record, Nicole Kidman is his Godmother.