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TV Note: 'Guardian's' Simon Baker refocuses anger of youth into busy career

Thursday, January 02, 2003

By Luaine Lee, Scripps Howard News Service

He was an angry young man who grew up in the countryside in the north of Australia. Now Simon Baker makes that unrest pay off as the truculent Nick Fallin on CBS's "The Guardian."

"My teenage years, I had a hard time," he says, shrugging, as he plops onto the grass beside his trailer. This day, "The Guardian" is being filmed on location, in a cemetery in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. Baker, 33, is on a break and is almost unrecognizable in a dingy white T-shirt and baggy shorts -- a far cry from the lawyerly suits and ties of the show.

"Stuff was going on at home and at school, and stuff was going on inside of me," he explains. "I was growing. I think that everyone has a hard time. Looking back now, I think that was probably the hardest part for me at that time."

Baker tries to corral his rambunctious puppy on his lap. The puppy is teething, and every now and then he tries to gnaw Baker's hand, for which he is summarily whacked across the nose.

A lifetime surfer who grew up at the beach, Baker says his childhood had its "ups and downs."

"I always had a sunny disposition, but that was kind of to protect me. I was religious when I was younger. I was Catholic, raised Catholic. I had certain issues about that. I consciously lapsed. I made a conscious decision to avoid it. I'm agnostic. I'm not saying I don't have faith; I absolutely have faith but don't necessarily have faith in God. I have faith in humanity."

That faith was validated when he met his wife, former Australian child actress Rebecca Rigg. "It was like a wake-up call," he recalls, handing the dog a rubber bone. "It reflected well on me; it made me realize I had to snap back [he snaps his fingers] and become present again.

"Certain things happen in people's life and they tend to become absent, they choose to be absent because they don't want to deal with certain things, and it's easiest. She was just someone who didn't allow me to do that and forced me to wake up."

The wake-up call persuaded Baker to pursue his dream of acting. "Before I even tried to be an actor, I did everything. I was a bricklayer, a brick laborer, not even a bricklayer -- someone who just mixed up the cement. I sold time-share. I worked at washing dishes. I mowed lawns, worked in pubs for years."

A variety of odd jobs "gives you a good, rounded look at life. Really, what are we trying to do? As actors we're trying to embody real people, create, fill out what is just words on a page, create a real character and a real person in all the different dimensions we have as people. We have so many dimensions as people we're not even aware of them. You're just trying to fill that out a bit," he says.

"I think it's good for anyone to experience different walks of life and different, varied and contrasting experiences. I love to go to a pub and have a few beers with people I've never met before and chat. I also like to get into a limousine and go to a flashy premiere. It's still fun."

When Baker decided to try his luck in Hollywood, he didn't have much going for him. "I hadn't even done a film in Australia. I'd done television and TV movies, short films, theater, but I wasn't a big hotshot movie star in Australia. I didn't have a feature film when I came here, so I didn't have this attitude of coming from being a big fish in a small sea. I just came in like anyone would come in off the bus, except I'd worked for five or six years as an actor professionally and made a living."

The move was not about striking it rich, but about exploring new frontiers, he adds.

His very first part was in Curtis Hanson's hit film "L.A. Confidential," which, coincidentally, starred two other actors from Down Under, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce.

Now the father of three -- a girl and two boys, ages 9, 3 and 14 months -- Baker has gone from Australian country boy to lead television actor. With roles in movies such as "Affair of the Necklace," "Red Planet" and "Ride with the Devil," and his memorable take on "The Guardian," he also has managed to remain grounded.

"It's work, but it's also life. It's rich, full. This kind of job can be so self-involved," he says, shaking his head.

"Keep yourself occupied, and I think it's important to keep in perspective what we're all about. What are we here for? Are we here to enjoy our lives or are we here to be successful? It's important to keep it in perspective."

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