Simon Baker is a tad drowsy when he sits down for a chat. It’s late morning and he’s nearing the end of a week of night shoots – up to 16 hours apiece – for his hit TV detective series, The Mentalist. It may be tiring, but as Baker, who was born in Tasmania but relocated to the California coast in the mid-Nineties, admits, the US has been good to him.

“I miss Australia, the sheer natural beauty of it and the lust for life that Australians have,” he says. “But, for me, America has been the land of opportunity.”

Indeed. Since being Stateside, Baker has racked up a diverse CV that includes his debut screen role in Curtis Hanson’s critically lauded L.A. Confidential; zombie-king George Romero’s horror movie Land Of The Dead (pictures below with the superstar filmmaker); a turn as Naomi Watts’ boss in The Ring Two; and chick flicks such as The Devil Wears Prada (“I had despicable eyebrows in that film so I always get comments about that!”).

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It is his self-confessed work ethic though that has steered the 42-year-old through such a varied career, and which allowed him to squeeze in, during a gap in his hectic TV schedule, a role as investment bank top dog Jared Cohen in the Oscar-tipped Margin Call (below), a finance drama about the 24 hours preceding the start of the 2008 global financial crisis.

Baker signed on a little more than a week before the film began shooting, with the rest of the cast already in place: Zachary Quinto, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey (“there’s a richness and complexity to what he does … one of my favourite actors to watch”), Paul Bettany (“a cracker of a guy”), and Brit Jeremy Irons, as the ruthless head of an investment bank whose decision to save himself and his company by selling a shitload of worthless assets kickstarts the recession we find ourselves in now.

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The film is stocked with suited, investment banking types who talk solely in terms of numbers. Whether it be salaries, the firm’s assets and trading, or just the digits on their screen, the very fabric of everyday life is seen, and lived, through figures.
“I’m not much of a numbers guy myself,” Baker confesses, though. “But what I liked about the script is that it pulled the curtain back on something I had no real understanding of. Moving debt from here to there, it’s fucking complicated but the script simplified it in a way that made it feel more accessible for average humans like me.

“Who are the people making these decisions? How did they get to there? In the end you realise it’s just gambling.” Baker may not have a mathematical mind, but one number, 17, made sure he was able to get into character – that’s how many days made up the film’s intense shooting. The location, too, played a part: offices on the 42nd floor of One Penn Plaza – former home to a trading firm that was a player in the collapse itself – with its Manhattan panorama and offices for dressing rooms, made it easy for the cast to imagine the scene as the scale of the situation unfolded back in September 2008.

Even though the story’s fallout is global in its reach, Margin Call is tightly focused on those at its heart. “It isn’t a spectacle of a film,” Baker reasons, somewhat understatedly. “There is an intensity but it doesn’t talk down to you nor inflate what it is either into high-camp drama. Nothing explodes, no one gets laid!”

Despite this modest assessment, with a cast full of previous Academy Award winners and nominees, Margin Call has been tipped for glory come the Oscars February bash. And at Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre will be a host of famous faces (Clooney, Pitt et al) who are among the high-profile supporters of Occupy, the grassroots movement that sprang up in opposition to the causes of the GFC. Baker is part of that group.

“What [Occupy] wants is for people to be accountable, there should be limitations and transparency, otherwise the rich get richer and the poor get the picture. Capitalism is going to have to have a governor,” he says.

“At the same time, I have been involved in a number of different rallies and there can sometimes be a romantic notion to it that can become pretentious and waffle away from the point, and people love to take pot shots at that.”

There’s nothing waffly or pretentious about Baker, though. He has no time for such indulgences: when he’s not starring with Hollywood’s heavyweights, he’s busy pumping out episodes of The Mentalist. Though detective shows are ten a penny in the States (Bones, CSI,) The Mentalist has proved a resounding success – it has made Baker a star and is now currently halfway through its fourth season, a fact attributed to its novel spin on the genre (Baker plays Patrick Jane, a man whose intuitive, verging-on-psychic skills make him a crack case-solving consultant for the California Bureau of Investigation) and its novel sensibilities.

“I did this show called The Guardian for three years and it was a middling success. I vowed after that never to do TV again because it is too gruelling,” Baker says. “Unless the show is a real hit you’re plugging away and hoping people are going to watch. Since then TV has exploded though with the networks producing their own content and it is much broader in scope now.

“Then The Mentalist came along. [Screenwriter] Bruno Heller was English, he had just done Rome, and he brought a different humour to all of the other US shows. Culturally Aussies and Brits share common ground with humour that a lot of Americans don’t get. So I thought ‘Fuck it, I’ll have a go’ and then the show took off.”

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Despite being based in LA now, and holding dual citizenship, Baker is not going to forget his roots quickly. It would be hard for he and wife Rebecca Rigg to do so – what with having fellow Aussies Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts as godparents to their two youngest children, Harry Friday, 10, and Claude Blue, 13. In fact, Baker relishes the often-opposing approaches to life, particularly the work-life balance, that his origins and current home throw up.

“I go back twice a year,” he says of his Pacific-traversing movements fuelled by a love for his homeland. “I keep a place there. Australia and the United States are not that far away from each other, but differences do manifest.

“It’s like, ‘Yeah, I can do that but I am going fishing tomorrow, maybe I can get to it next week, depending on what the surf is like…’. That can be difficult if you are used to the service-orientated ways of the US – but I like the contrast and I like pitting one against the other.” ❚

Margin Call is out now. Read our review here.

The Mentalist screens on Thursday nights at 9pm on Channel 5