Wearing black, thick-rimmed glasses, Australia’s Simon Baker, best known to US audiences for his stint in TV’s The Guardian, says that he was attracted to the politically-charged zombie thriller, Land of the Dead, for a variety of reasons, especially the chance to work with its legendary director, George A. Romero, as well as because it means doing something he has never done before.
“You know, it’s a part of both of those reasons,” Baker explains, as we chat in a Beverly Hills hotel room. “I was never a fan of the genre or any genre specifically, but I like movies. If it’s a good movie I like it, so I met with George and I really liked him and that was it. Then I went, looked at all of his films again, started thinking about them and realised what he was doing with these films, which ultimately factored into it as well,” comments the 35-year old actor.
In the 4th instalment to George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” series, and his first zombie film in two decades, the zombies have taken over the earth. The surviving humans live on a small secluded strip of land, with two sides cut off by rivers. The humans strive to survive, while outside the zombies are steadily evolving. The wealthy live in sealed skyscrapers as the poor fend for themselves on the streets. Protecting them is an enormous tank called Dead Reckoning, controlled by a group of people led by Simon Baker’s Riley. But when Riley loses command of the tank to his second-in-command bent on destroying the city, he must save it from Dead Reckoning as those who walk beyond the walls of the city slowly develop new abilities and become a much greater threat to humankind.
While all Romero’s films are part thriller and part social and political commentary, Baker sees that as being the underlying link between this latest film and its cult-like predecessors. “I think, politically, the time is so right for a film that’s able to actually reflect certain odd areas of what our society is at the moment. He hasn’t made a zombie film since the 80s, so a lot’s happened. It’s just good timing and it’s hard to make movies that comment on things politically without them just becoming either a documentary or like a negative propaganda machine. This is an entertaining film in its own right, but it also has a little stab here and there which are very accurate. You can sort of scratch the surface and look a little deeper if you wish to, yet he doesn’t shove it down your throat.”
For Baker, who has always excelled in playing introspective characters, the challenge for him playing anti-hero Riley, is making him interesting. “Well he’s incredibly flawed, you know. But what really drew me to the character, was that he was a kind of a contradiction in a sense. When you look at the film he’s not exactly the most exciting character in it, because his dilemma is more of an internal one, where Leguizamo’ s is just the opposite, in that he wants wealth and to live this lifestyle that’s being sold. Ideally I sort of wanted to play the guy as a pacifist so automatically he was going to be separated from Leguizamo, and automatically there’s conflict within him because of the nature of all he’s forced to do for a living.
I also sort of tried to play around the ideas of kind of classic ‘nouveauish’ things in characters, of him wanting to find a better place. These are all very personal little things that I could play within the character, but whether they translated or not, I’m not so sure.” As to whether Baker can identify with his characters, the actor pauses slightly. “There are always elements that you can identify with in playing certain characters,” he begins. “I can certainly identify with the politics of the guy. He’s the guy that fits into the grey area, which, when you look at things these days, such as the media, etc, this character is almost disappearing off the face of the earth. When you look at the propaganda it’s like you’re either good or bad, and there’s no one that’s grey: you’re black or white.”
The Tasmanian-born actor began making a name for himself in local TV soaps E Street, Home and Away, Naked and 1994’s Heartbreak High. In 1992, he first met actress Aussie actor Rebecca Rigg in a Sydney pub. He ultimately became “quite fascinated by her” – a case of opposites attract, having once been quoted as remarking “I am a country bloke and she’s a city chick. I am a sort of surfie who’s pretty laid back and relaxed and Rebecca is the energiser.” On Christmas Eve, 1995, the young actor finally arrived in LA with Rebecca and first child Stella, with $3500 in his pocket.
Then he landed a small, but pivotal role, in L.A. Confidential, followed by roles in independent films, before 2001’s The Guardian landed in his lap, and Baker, who lives his Malibu with his wife and now three children, hasn’t looked back since. Though The Guardian was a god experience, Baker has no regrets about its demise. “It was a good experience for me on the basis of just being able to put in that many hours. It was interesting pulling scripts apart, putting them back together and shooting, and that was good, just like boot camp for three years.” The downside, however, was the hours that kept away from his family. “Man, it was a drain and that’s where the relief comes from, not actually being owned for a little bit. Like, now, I can have the day off, some time off, a week or a month off. The pressures of working those hours and dealing with my family were tough,” he admits.
Baker says he won’t necessarily rule out a return to television, but concedes he has never had any clear direction, as far as his career is concerned. “If you look at my career, I’m not exactly good at the business of: okay, now I should do this or now I shouldn’t do that. I think that’s because I’m a little too erratic, and, depending on certain moods and how I feel at certain times, certain things appeal to me in a different way.” It also seems that the actor has consciously gone out of his way to do big, Hollywood movies, merely admitting that “the reality is, those opportunities have never really presented themselves to me.” Yet, while Baker could have taken advantage of the success of L.A. Confidential, he chose not to be lured by the prospects of fame and celebrity. “I certainly don’t crave what you have to give up for that.” He says he is content to be where he is, in Hollywood’s scheme of things. “I kind of fly under the radar pretty well, and I appreciate that.” Asked if it is that sense of reality that keeps him grounded, Baker says, “I don’t know, mate, I don’t analyse that so much, I possibly think so.”
Next, Baker will be seen in another new Indie film, 42.4 Percent, revolving around a professional black woman, determined to get married, who finds romance with a white working-class man. “it’s an interracial love story and a very sweet movie.” Baker also hopes that the Indie film Book of Love, which premiered at Sundance 2 years ago, will get a release. The film co-stars fellow Aussie Frances O’Connor, and explores infidelity and communication in a marriage that is falling apart. The film involves some very intimate moments with co-star O’Connor and the actor recalls first seeing the film at Sundance, seated next to his wife and watching him and O’Connor in some very torrid, on-screen moments. “It’s really hard to watch anyone you know really well on screen and really get suspended. In Book of Love, I made my wife laugh and cry, and that moved me in itself, which means I did my job.”
While Book of Love deals with a marriage in crisis, no such crisis exists off screen for Baker. Now married to Rebecca for over 12 years, and father of three, the actor says that they have survived “because we love each other.” Yet he admits that it’s not easy to put everything in perspective: the strong marriage, the family and of course the career. “Book of Love says that any relationship is difficult and the ones that look the easiest from the outside, are often hardest from the inside,” Baker concedes. The actor adds that there was no question why he was keen to play the infallible husband in Book of Love.
“What’s not to like about a character like this from an actor’s perspective? It’s such a great character.” Nor did Baker have difficulty identifying with him. “I think every man can identify with him and that’s what got ME. Mate, I’m in heaven with a character like that, because it’s why I became an actor,” Baker says. “It’s a way to speak to people without sitting down and having a chat with everyone. It’s a way to be able to speak to them and have people speak to themselves, try to question themselves and try to understand stuff. Films can be really powerful and don’t HAVE to be massive extravaganzas. They can be incredibly personal. That character has a great arc and journey. It’s probably the first time I can ever say that the character on the screen is exactly the way I was trying to do it.”
Simon also hopes to do some more work back in Australia, and concedes that moving back is an option. “We go in and out of it all the time, where it’s like, okay, let’s go, let’s pack it up let’s go back and I’ll just travel.” And at this stage, Baker says, he is happy to take a break and spend time with his family. “Oh, man, after three years of doing a TV show and then going straight on to three movies back to back, I’m looking at scripts reluctantly,” he adds, laughingly.