Today, he’s internationally famous, best known as the star of the long-running TV series “The Mentalist”. But in the early 1990s, when Simon Baker was in his 20s, he was a sturdy regular on Australian soap operas, notably “E Street” and “Home and Away”. Wanting more, he auditioned for a role in what was to become a major Australian film, “Muriel’s Wedding”. He did not get the part — and yet he was still in the movie.
In Australia at the time, a TV actor was hardly considered an actor at all. “Film actors would drive a taxi when they were not working,” Baker says. “But they would not deign to do TV.” In turn, those who did do TV were regarded with disdain by their big brothers and sisters in the film world. Perhaps because of that hardly sporting bias, Baker was not chosen for the film. But here’s where the complex social dynamic of the time comes into play. Written and directed by a young PJ Hogan, whose gimlet eye makes for a darkly comic yet refreshingly relatable tale, it’s the story of a young woman from a somewhat grimy background on the North Coast of New South Wales who travels to Sydney to realise her long-standing dream: to find herself a husband. She leaves behind a dreadful family, including a dishevelled, barely sentient sister, Joanie, who symbolises all that ensnares Muriel and, conveniently, serves as a metaphor for our story right here.
On the walls of Joanie’s room are photos of her own fantasies; among them, if you look closely, a pin-up of a handsome young Australian TV actor known for his work in popular soap operas — one Simon Baker. Muriel’s sister knew talent when she saw it.
The city and the suburbs. Australia and the world. Film and TV. Art and trash. A brilliant young filmmaker and an ambitious young actor. Mass appeal and the desires of the self-made artist. All of these dualities are at play in that one fleeting second of screen time, and they remain today, mutatis mutandis, in an industry that struggles to give local artists a voice, even as big- budget productions from around the world flock to our shores.
Nearly 30 years on, Baker has turned his dream into two decades of stardom and the sort of wealth one accrues from starring in two successful US TV series (in 2010, Baker extended his “The Mentalist” contract in a deal reported to be worth $US30 million [$AU38.8 million]). It helps, of course, that his is the sort of camera-ready face that invites endorsement deals from major brands, including Givenchy and ANZ. For almost a decade, he’s also been an Ambassador of Elegance for Longines, joining the likes of Kate Winslet and tennis stars Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf.
All the while, he has maintained his connection to Australia, returning to direct his first film, 2017’s “Breath”, a coming-of- age surf story adapted from the classic Tim Winton novel of the same name. Having moved back to Australia in 2015, Baker is a local among the many Hollywood stars who’ve descended on Australia in a wave of post-pandemic filmmaking, including Julia Roberts, Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell.
He’s working on an Australian project: “Blaze”, the first feature film by the Archibald-winning artist Del Kathryn Barton. “She approached me and we talked about the project and really got on really well. I liked her intentions with the film,” Baker says. “The intention is a curious way I approach work. I have to see the director’s intention. There’s entertainment — there’s Marvel movies, which are entertaining. I like to see an intention, whether that is to disregard certain aspects of society or to shine a light on certain aspects of society. That is the focus for me.”
A local production with a modest budget, “Blaze” is the sort of film that could not be made without government funding or the help of marquee names such as Baker’s. And while the flood of international movies currently filming in Australia is a phenomenon that’s good for almost everyone involved, it has made it even more difficult for local productions like “Blaze” to get off the ground.
Baker, who freely admits he’s a worrier, is concerned about the impact Hollywood will have on the local industry, as are others in the community. “We have a finite number of crew members in Australia,” he says. “There’s a lot of scaling up in opportunity in the film business right now, for local craftsmen and craftswomen and technicians, which is great. But is it at the expense of local content?”