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Ambiguity key to loner lawyer's character

Tuesday, October 30, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

When "Guardian" star Simon Baker watches his new hit CBS series, he adjusts the color on his TV set to make the program look as if it were filmed in black and white.

"It sort of suits this show," Baker said in a phone interview. "It's got a bit of a noirish quality to it. And it separates me a little bit from it. When you see a black-and-white photo, it separates you from the reality of the fact it's you in the photograph. It makes it easier to look at."

Baker said he doesn't mind watching himself on screen, but when watching "The Guardian" in color he finds himself critiquing his performance. By watching in black and white, he's better able to concentrate on the story.

"I don't watch a lot of television, but I would watch ["The Guardian"] if I didn't work on it," Baker said. "It doesn't compare to any of the stuff I was doing in Australia. This may sound a little arrogant, but I think this is a really good, quality television program."

Viewers seem to agree, making "The Guardian" the most-watched new drama of the 2001-02 season. Baker said he's gotten little feedback in the form of fan mail ("Maybe it's going to CBS. They haven't taken it to me"), but he did receive a nice compliment while walking through the Sony lot recently.

"I ran into a janitor the other day," Baker said. "He was this old guy, and he says, 'I love your show,' and that was a huge compliment."

Despite roles in "L.A. Confidential" (as ill-fated actor Matt Reynolds), "Red Planet" (as an astronaut) and the upcoming "Affair of the Necklace" (as a jewel thief opposite Hilary Swank), Australian-born Baker was pretty much an unknown to most American entertainment buffs before "The Guardian."

"I'm working every day, and the juices are really pumping," said Baker, 32. "I'm getting more confident, more relaxed with my craft."

When Baker met the press to discuss "The Guardian" this summer, he was surprised by questions about the likability of his character, Pittsburgh attorney Nick Fallin.

"I felt like saying, give the guy a chance, get to know him and understand this guy's problems," Baker said. "I never thought he was a bad person. I always thought he was a very good person, he just has a lot of problems. He's complicated, like most people are. ... I don't think he's softening up, I think you're getting to know him more and more."

Even as viewers get to know Nick Fallin, they're still left with questions about him. That's by design, Baker said.

"My intention, with a lot of the choices I make, is to try to be somewhat ambiguous," Baker said. "Wherever you're coming from as an audience member, you can interpret it as you want to interpret it."

Most importantly, Baker tries to separate Nick from the other characters because he sees the character as a loner.

"There's an unpredictability about the character, and I think people enjoy that," he said. "I certainly enjoy playing it. When you bring that sort of unpredictability to the scene, other actors assume you'll play something a certain way, and then you play it another way. It makes it interesting and exciting, and it forces everyone to be in the moment."

Baker found last week's episode particularly challenging. Nick had a case that involved a gay teen whose parents didn't want him, and the boy kept running away.

"I wanted to sprinkle it with a kind of reluctance and possibly a tinge of homophobia, not blatant, just an ignorance of the difficult circumstance and understanding of the troubles within our society that a gay couple might have [taking in a gay kid]," Baker said.

When Nick went into a gay bar looking for the boy, Baker said, he wanted to make Nick all-business.

"I tried to make that he really wanted to walk in knowing it's a gay bar and not thinking anything of it, until he's in there and realizing that it was a completely different environment and that he was ignorant to the fact it was a pickup joint. He didn't consider that when he walked in there, and he had to deal with it."

Baker likes the way Nick's work with Children's Legal Services brings him into new circumstances that surprise and challenge him. The chilly relationship between Nick and his father, Burton (Dabney Coleman), offers another challenge.

"I think Dabney and I have gotten to the point you could put the two of us in a room with no dialogue and there'd be something going on," Baker said. "I love working with Dabney. I love that relationship. I think it's one most people can identify with, too."

There's more to come. As "The Guardian" moves into its first sweeps period, Baker is pleased with the show's evolution.

"We've got a few beauties coming up that I'm really proud of," Baker said. "We're really just starting to get it together. It takes a little time to get an understanding of the show and how it works. The next few episodes might reflect that. They're going to have to because we're going up against 'NYPD Blue' and '24.' "

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