Behind the Scenes with Prolific Actor ROBERT BAKER
By Jonathan Metzelaar
It almost goes without saying that a movie or television show with a deep roster of nuanced, interesting characters is eminently more watchable than one where only the protagonist deserves our attention. It’s the main reason why shows like Breaking Bad and films like The Shawshank Redemption have been so widely lauded; even the peripheral characters are fleshed out, possessing relatable drives and desires that add another dimension to both the characters themselves and the respective worlds in which they exist.
It’s also the reason that talented actors like Robert Baker are in such high demand. Baker’s résumé essentially reads as a litany of critically acclaimed movies and television shows: Grey’s Anatomy, Justified, Six Feet Under, Indiana Jones. And with a part in the upcoming Lone Ranger film, it’s safe to say Baker has become a much sought after talent in the entertainment industry for his uncanny ability to add layers to whatever production he appears in. Mr. Baker was kind enough to shed some light on his experiences with acting.
Jonathan Metzelaar: You’ve played a number of diverse characters in your career. What was your favorite role to prepare for? Were there any cool or interesting skills you had the chance to pick up while preparing for a role?
Robert Baker: Yeah, I’ve been lucky to have a wide range of characters to play. It’s nice not to be totally pigeonholed into one type. The prep for The Lone Ranger was pretty intense and interesting. It was a total immersion experience. For a few weeks prior to shooting, we did a “cowboy camp,” where every morning we saddled and bridled our horses, rode for several hours, and then at the end of the day met up with our armorer and drew, spun, and fired our guns for about an hour. Quite a day’s work. Spinning a gun into a holster is a pretty wild and—yes–badass feeling.
JM: You’ve worked with a lot of renowned directors, including Steven Spielberg and, in the upcoming film The Lone Ranger, Gore Verbinski. What is the relationship like on set between directors of this caliber and the actors? Is there a dialogue during filming, or do the actors generally just conform to the director’s vision for a character and/or a scene?
RB: Those two are both great directors and really nice, unbelievably enthusiastic men who I would love to work with again. That type of director definitely has a vision for the scene that they are looking to achieve, and they want that to come through, but they really do look for the actor to bring a distinct vision to the character. Especially in the more supporting roles, which is what I do primarily, they want and need you to solve the problems of that character for them. They have so much stuff going on in any given shot at any given time, there’s only so much attention that can be given to any one thing, so you really have to bring something to the table for them. But they will definitely tweak it as they see fit.
JM: When did you decide you wanted to pursue acting? What would you consider your first big break, and how did it occur?
RB: I guess I was about 15 when it happened. I started doing professional theater in Memphis, which is the nearest city to where I was raised. My parents were always very supportive. No one told me I couldn’t do it, so here we are.
I guess my first big break was a movie I did called Out of Time. Denzel Washington is the star, and Carl Franklin directed it. I got the job just a few weeks out of college, so it couldn’t have come at a better time, both financially and just for my overall confidence. I got that gig because Mali Finn, the late, very great casting director, decided I was right for it. She worked really hard for me and with me to get that role. I went in for her often, and was very fond of her. She is definitely missed.
JM: I noticed that you wrote a screenplay recently. What was that like? Did you have any prior experience with writing scripts? Can you tell me a bit about the project itself?
RB: Yeah, Mantivities. That’s my screenplay. I wrote it with a group of my college friends and it took us about, oh, four years to finish. It was a ton of fun, but it was probably the most inefficient way to work that one could choose. It is the first script I’ve ever written to completion, and I’m very proud of it. It’s a very funny, broad comedy about a former child star–think Chunk from The Goonies–who is forced to grow up in his early 30s, and the help–or lack thereof–he gets from his central group of friends in his metamorphosis. It has some great scenes and bits that I think are genuinely original, and a great villain who is the king of all hipsters. I’m really excited about getting it produced later this year.
JM: What kinds of goals have you set for yourself as an actor? What are you looking for when you’re fielding offers for roles?
RB: My goal as an actor has always been just that–to be an actor and nothing else. I’ve always said so long as I could act and make a living doing so, I would be happy. That’s held true, but it’s evolved a bit. I always want a character I can identify with in some way. I like to be able to understand where they’re coming from. But if I can’t, hey, it’s all make-believe anyway.
JM: Can you talk a little bit about your part in The Lone Ranger? It seems, like Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean series before it, to be pretty rich in CGI. Did you have to work with green screens at all? If so, what was that like for you?
RB: I play Navarro, a ranger who is close friends with Dan Reid and who rides into danger with him and John Reid. John, of course, becomes the Lone Ranger. I actually did no green screen work at all. We shot everything practical. I’m not saying there’s no CG in the movie–I just didn’t do any. We shot in locations like Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly, so honestly, no green screen is needed when you have a natural backdrop like that.
JM: Any other upcoming projects you’d like people to know about?
RB: Yes! Aside from the upcoming production of Mantivities, I have a wonderful role in Atom Egoyan’s The Devil’s Knot. The film is the story of the West Memphis Three murders, which was one of the great miscarriages of justice in the latter part of the 20th century. The cast is unbelievable: Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth, and Bruce Greenwood, just to name a few. And Atom is an amazing director. A total 180° from Gore. Small, simple stories told from a very humanistic point of view. No big spectacle. It was quite a learning experience in how different people work differently. Having the opportunity to work with those two very disparate directors in the same year was a dream come true and an eye-opening experience.
Robert Baker is an actor, best known for his roles in the televisions shows Grey’s Anatomy and Justified, among others. He can be seen in the upcoming films The Lone Ranger and The Devil’s Knot.
Written and Edited by Jonathan Metzelaar
Photography by Andreas Branch for Patrick McMullan.com
Design by Marie Havens
Robert Baker, PREMIERE SCREENING OF FX’s JUSTIFIED SEASON 4, Paramount Theatre, Los Angeles, CA, January 5, 2013, Photography by Andreas Branch for Patrick McMullan.com