Monday, May 07, 2012

"Mentalist" star Simon Baker: The charm is no act

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Source : CBSNews
Date : May 6, 2012

Simon Baker played opposite Anne Hathaway in the 2006 fashion industry send-up "The Devil Wears Prada." These days, he's on TV each week, playing a role that seems to wear very well on him. Rita Braver has a Sunday Profile:


Watching Simon Baker hang out on the set of his hit TV show "The Mentalist," you'd never know that he plays a character who is haunted by his past: Patrick Jane, formerly a phony "psychic" who claimed to have supernatural abilities, even going on television to announce he had profiled a notorious serial killer.


The enraged killer murdered Jane's wife and daughter.


Chastened and ashamed, Jane becomes a consultant to California State crime investigators. While he doesn't have paranormal powers, he has honed some special skills: An uncanny knack for observing human behavior, an ability to smoke out lies, and a brash style of confronting possible suspects.


What makes Jane's character so popular with critics and fans is how cocky and quirky he is - both annoying and charming.


"I've always been a shy person," Baker said. "To play a character like this was an enormous sort of challenge to me. To play a character that's so verbose, and also so confident at times. It's such bravado!


"The charming thing, that's easy," he laughed.


Baker was born on the Australian island of Tasmania, and grew up on the coast of New South Wales. He is proud of his working class background, but says he had a difficult childhood.


He had a "strong dominant stepfather that I never saw eye to eye with. And in a lot of ways, a repressed mother because of that . . . it gave me something to sort of rebel against and to find myself."

His outlet was surfing - a passion he still pursues today.


But he harbored a secret dream of becoming an actor.


"It's the kind of thing that would have gotten laughed at, you know," he said, "in my family and also sort of where I'm from. Oh, you want to be an actor? Me, I want to fly to the moon! Go and move that pile of bricks over there! - you know, that was sort of the mentality."


After high school, he moved to Sydney, and literally worked his way into brief background appearances, like a music video.


"I met the guy that was sort of directing them and I ran around - if he needed props, I'd run and go get them. We need smoke? So okay, I'll build a little fire in the corner of the studio and fan it. I was just involved," Baker said.


"And they go, 'Okay, Simon, jump up and get in there, we need another person.' That's sort of how it worked."

All that led to a series of parts on Australian TV shows, like "E Street."


Baker was doing well in Australia, but the Americans he ran into over the years fascinated him.


"I think it was because I was shy, and they weren't, and they weren't afraid to say what they felt," he said. "and if you did something good or felt good about something they're like, 'good for you, man! Good for you!' We wouldn't do that really. An Australian's like, 'Uh, okay, don't get too big for your boots.' It's just a different cultural thing."


So in 1995 he decided to try his luck in L.A.


"It must've felt like a different planet to you for a while," said Braver.


"Yeah, it is. But like any places you go, you can figure out what it is that makes the place tick."


He figured it out enough to land a small role in the acclaimed 1997 film, "L.A. Confidential."


"I thought, 'Well, this is fun. This is what being in a movie is like.' And then I did, like, three films that never saw the light of day straight afterwards," he laughed. "It was like you could come crashing down. That's what I like about it. It's always a bit of a crap shoot."


Perhaps his best known role was playing a smooth-talking writer in "The Devil Wears Prada."


But at age 42, he says it's the type of role he gets offered too frequently: "The guy that's a sort of good-looking guy, that's sort of maybe a little vacuous or whatever. This is why I kind of like getting older, do you know what I mean?"


"You think you're not going to be as good looking when you get older?" Braver laughed.


"Well, it just takes the pressure off," he said. "At least an older guy's going to be a little bit more complicated, because I am complicated - we all are."


Off-screen, Baker has been married to actress Rebecca Rigg since 1998.


"She's very cool," he said. "But I had never met anyone as brash as her ever in my life."


"Is that what attracted you to her?" Braver asked.


"It's what intrigued me. And then you know, like most people, you scratch through the surface and you see a lot more colors."


He is a devoted dad to their three children.


He said being a successful family man was "the first thing I wanted to be good at."


That, he says, matters more than his career. "All this stuff is great, but you know, at the end of the day, being a parent, that's head and shoulders above it all."

Baker is also part of a family of Australian entertainers who have made it here in the U.S.


Nicole Kidman is godmother to one of his sons, and she and husband Keith Urban serenaded Baker and his wife at a dinner honoring him in L.A. a while back.


"I was incredibly blown away with their gregariousness, the fact they got up and did that for me," Baker said.


But he acknowledges that before "The Mentalist," he was not in the same league as some of his fellow Australians. He's been in 20 films, including "Margin Call," where he played an unscrupulous executive.


He also starred in two other CBS TV shows, "Smith" and "The Guardianm," neither a big hit.


"So did you think at this point, 'Well, I'm going to be a good actor, I'm going to get parts, but I'm not going to really be a big star'?" asked Braver.


"Well, I just thought that I'd be a working actor and as long as I can pay the bills I'll be fine."


But one person who believed he COULD be a star was CBS President and CEO Les Moonves. He thought "The Mentalist" was just the right part for Baker.


"I remember having a great meeting with Les after 'The Mentalist' had started and it was very successful," Baker said. "I went and saw him in his office and he just said, 'Look, I just wanted to say congratulations and I told you so,'" Baker recalled. "'And I'm glad it happened on my network. Now get outta here!'"


But even with "The Mentalist" just renewed for a fifth season, and his star on the rise, that's not what matters most to Simon Baker. He says there's one role more important than any he'll play on screen.


"All this stuff is great but, you know, at the end of the day being a parent, that's head and shoulders above it all."

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