Best known for his star turn as charismatic crime investigator Patrick Jane in The Mentalist, Simon Baker has spent the best part of two decades lighting up our screens. Fresh from filming his directorial debut, Breath, the star spoke to us about everything from his celebrity chums to his love for gardening.
As movie stars go, Simon Baker is most definitely one of the nice ones. He has appeared alongside the likes of Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Jeremy irons and Demi Moore to name a just few, and he counts Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts amongst his closest friends; yet when we meet him for the first time in his suite at Dubai’s One&Only Royal Mirage, he immediately jumps up from his seat and offers to make us a cup of coffee. “Chivalry isn’t dead, mate – it’s totally kicking,” he quips as he hands us a freshly brewed espresso and points in the direction of a rather impressive platter full of cakes and biscuits.
Baker is in Dubai to promote Givenchy’s new Gentlemen Only fragrance – quite fitting really, considering the first impression he gives us is that he’s nothing if not a perfect gent. “I think it’s a willingness to be aware and considerate of others,” he says when questioned on what he thinks it takes to be a gentleman nowadays. “It’s all about putting others in front of yourself, and that can be with the opposite sex or with the same sex; it’s just common courtesy.”
As we sit down and tuck into our refreshments, The Mentalist star begins to fire questions at us at an astounding frequency – how do we like Dubai? Where are our offices? Is his wife [fellow Australian actor, Rebecca Rigg) likely to get a good deal if she buys jewellery from the Gold Souq? It’s refreshing to speak to a celebrity on such a normal level, yet with time ticking away, we are conscious that at some point or another, we really should get down to business and discuss something that we can publish.
The first point on our agenda is the news that Baker has just finished filming his directorial debut – the upcoming film adaptation of Tim Winton’s 2008 novel, Breath. Here, we get the lowdown on his inspirations, the pros and cons of being a director as opposed to and actor and how the tough jobs he did in the past have taught him the value of a good day’s hard graft.
MM: What made you decide to take the leap into directing, and why did you pick this film in particular?
SB: It was a combination of things, really. The main reason I chose this film in particular was that I knew it; and by that I don’t mean that I knew the book itself, I mean I knew the environment the book is set in – the whole Aussie surfing subculture – I grew up in it.
When I was a kid, around 15 or 16, I distinctly remember having these weird little fantasies of making a film about that particular time of my life and a lot of the characters that populated that time of my life. This was even way before I knew I was going to be an actor. It was my lifestyle – that little subculture I lived in – that was intriguing to me. Through that time growing up you’re making these decisions, a lot of the time unconsciously, and that helps define and shape who you are and what your identity is.
So when did you first read the book?
It was around seven years ago. I remember I was on the set of The Mentalist at the time and a producer friend – a guy by the name of Mike Johnson – gave it to me. I read it and it really affected me in a lot of different ways; it really struck home, so I called Mike straight away and asked if he’d like to make the film.
It must have been a big leap for you to go into directing, especially considering how well The Mentalist was doing at the time…
Well funnily enough we didn’t initially take the thing on as something for me to direct – I was just going to play one of the roles. But we started meeting a bunch of different directors, all of them with different ideas and none of them really matching up with my vision, and one day Mike said to me, ‘has it occurred to you that you should direct this film, because you talk about this film and this story like you’re the director?’
So that’s what happened. We developed it slowly over the time that we had the rights and then when I knew that The Mentalist was in its last year I started to turn my attention to developing the script. As soon as we finished the show I went straight into filming for Breath, and we finished shooting it last week!
The most difficult thing as an actor for me was that you were always playing into someone else’s vision - there's a certain amount of trust involved.
Congratulations! It must feel good to be finished. The cast for Breath seems really interesting. You’ve got established stars like Elizabeth Debicki [The Night Manager, The Great Gatsby] but also a couple of newcomers, Samson Coulter and Ben Spence, who play the young surfers. How did you go about the casting process?
Yeah the two boys – the two main characters – had never acted before in their lives. In fact, there are four non-actor roles in the movie. I grew up surfing and I knew that it was impossible to try to get actors to learn how to surf; directors have tried to do it a million times and it’s never worked. So I figured that I would try the opposite – it’s got to be easier to teach surfers to act than actors to surf, right?
And was it easier? Do you reckon the lads are going to keep at the acting?
It depends how well the film turns out I suppose. They’re pretty great kids and when they get it right it’s because they are not actors. It’s really beautiful, it’s really real and they don’t feel like actors at all. They were just really willing. Physically they had to do some stuff where I was like, ‘Are you OK with this?’ and they were like, ‘Yeah, sure – let’s go!’
What kind of stuff?
Oh you know, jumping off cliffs into the water, stuff on dragster bikes and then the surfing stuff – there was some pretty heavy water out there some days but they always wanted to do it.
What are the main differences for you between being an actor and a director?
The most difficult thing as an actor for me was that you were always playing into someone else’s vision and there’s a certain element of trust involved. That’s fine when you get the opportunity to work with some of the great directors and I had the opportunity to work with some pretty good ones, but there are also a lot of emerging directors that you work with who are often the least experienced people on the set.
Saying that, this particular movie probably had all the earmarks of a potential disaster for a first-time director because some of the set pieces were incredibly difficult – we had to rely on the ocean and the weather, which means we sometimes had very difficult circumstances to film in. Thankfully we got pretty lucky and managed to pull it off.
You must have been delighted to get Elizabeth Debicki…
Absolutely. She is such a fantastic, beautiful, complex, strong actress who is on the rise at the moment and she was willing to put her trust in me and I’ll be forever grateful for that.
You’ve appeared alongside some amazing actors in your time – Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Jeremy irons, Demi Moore – who has really stood out?
To be honest at the moment I’m kind of in love with these two kids I just worked with – they are pretty phenomenal. It was extraordinary to see how steep their learning curve was and how brave they were considering that they had never walked on to a set before and they had no idea what they were in for. They had no idea at all and they were up for it, man, really up for it.
I think the experience with those two kids put a lot of people who I have worked with – myself included – to shame. I was really genuinely impressed. There’s just nothing but willingness. No pretense, no idea self-awareness – it was just pure. And it’s freakishly exciting when you catch that on camera.
There must have been times when they messed up though, being so inexperienced?
Oh yeah, don’t get me wrong – that happened all the time! You know, they are teenage kids. When they were on the set together they were constantly messing around, pranking each other. It was like trying to wrangle cats at times, but when you get it right it’s so, so worth it.
Sounds like a tough job. Speaking of which, is it correct that you used to be a bricklayer?
I was never actually a bricklayer, but I did have a lot of different odd jobs and I there was a short stint I had as a brickie’s labourer. So not quite a bricklayer, but almost there!
That must have taught you the value of hard graft…
Yeah, and I don’t mind a bit of hard graft; it’s good, it keeps you honest. And I still don’t mind it actually. I enjoy building stuff.
Is that what you do in your spare time then?
Yep. I like a bit of gardening too – it’s very fulfilling. The great thing about gardening is that it’s a combination of physical labour, imagination and there’s a long-term nurturing process to it, and I get satisfaction out of that.
I’m definitely a cock-eyed optimist – a very optimistic person – maybe sometimes to my detriment.
Are we right in saying that two of your children’s godparents are Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts? That must be interesting at parties…
Yeah that’s right, but it’s not really as interesting for us as it probably is for you guys. My wife went to school with Nicole so that all predates us being actors, and Naomi has been one of my wife’s best friends since before she was old enough to get arrested, so it’s pretty normal to us. We spend time together when we can but we’re always in different countries and stuff so it’s hard.
Since you’re here to promote a fragrance, have you got any grooming tips for us?
I do like a bit of moisturiser. I spend a lot of time in the sun so moisturiser is definitely a friend. There’s not too much more than that for me though; it doesn’t take me too long to get ready in a morning.
The Mentalist was hugely successful, as have been many TV series’ in recent years. What do you think is behind this increase in popularity of the TV series?
Well, if you really look at it, it’s not actually that recent; it’s just that we have different ways of watching TV now so it reaches a much wider demographic much faster. Before, if you wanted to watch something you used to have to be at a certain place at a certain time, but now you can watch your favourite show on a laptop, tablet – whatever – so it reaches much further nowadays.
Game of Thrones is basically a soap opera. They create this world, we get to know all the characters and things develop slowly over the time. Downton Abbey was the same. It think right now we’re seeing a period where there are so many different types of shows available and I think what it shows is that there’s always an audience for that.
There’s not as much drama being made in cinema nowadays. Films are all Marvel and DC Comics superhero flicks, but people still crave that drama and TV is really filling that void. We as humans still want to get engaged in something and it’s also pretty fashionable to talk about it too, even though I’m guilty of never being up to date with these programmes.
Have you got any favourites?
I really liked the Danish version of The Bridge – it was bloody good. I like the French show, The Returned, too. But I’m not up to date; I’m not a House Of Cards guy, I never saw an episode of The Sopranos, I didn’t get into Breaking Bad. I loved the podcast Serial, and then the TV equivalent Making A Murderer, but then I spent all that time watching the whole thing and at the end I was left unsatisfied. It’s simple really: If a joke is too long for how good the punch line is, then it’s not worth telling.
Nice motto… Have you got a personal motto you try to live by?
Not really, mate. I’m definitely a cock-eyed optimist, though – a very optimistic person, maybe sometimes to my detriment. Sometimes I get a bit optimistic with time and I overcommit to doing too much stuff that’s just not realistically going to happen. That always gets me a telling off from the missus.