Go ahead and stare at Simon Baker. Gawk at his curly golden locks and his winning smile. He doesn't mind, really.
"It doesn't bother me because I know time is ticking," the 41-year-old Baker tells TVGuide.com. "I've been doing this for almost 20 years, and I'm able to see myself age on film. Eventually I know what I'm going to become — I've seen my father."
When Bruno Heller was looking to cast a leading man to play the role of Patrick Jane in The Mentalist, he was won over by Baker's looks as well. But he quickly learned there was much more beneath the surface. "What Jane does is get in people's physical space and inside their heads, and in order to do that, you have to be someone that people want to be close to, whether they know it or not," Heller says. "It needed a very magnetic personality playing the part.
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"Simon has a physical and mental grace. He's always switched on — he's always alert, always alive," Heller continues. "If you watch him working on a stage, he's never just going through the lines. He's always looking for the extra grace notes. It's actually a much tougher job. Very few actors can do the hard physical work that must be done on a show like this."But back in the late 1980s, when Baker first began acting in commercials in his native Australia, he laughed at the idea of considering acting a form of labor. "I couldn't believe that it was called work," Baker says. "Everything I was doing was sort of the opposite of work. It was just like, as the old song goes, 'act naturally.' You sort of had to just be, and you were getting paid for it — a lot more than any of the other harder-work jobs that I did."Bartender. Pizza maker. Construction worker. Electrician. Time-share salesman. These are a few of the jobs Baker held before making appearances on such Australian TV series as E Street, Home and Away
and Heartbreak High
. Years later, Baker still credits those jobs as his foundation for the love of the art of filmmaking."I learned a lot on the job. On those shows, I got an understanding of how things come together — the craft of how it's all collected and filmed and put together," he says. "For an actor working in television or film, I think it's important to understand how the medium works — how the camera and lenses work and how the sound and the editing works. I probably paid more attention to that stuff than most other actors I know. ... I'm a sponge for that kind of stuff."When Baker made the move to America, he got to soak up knowledge from a much larger working community. He quickly earned a small role in the film L.A. Confidential
. After some independent films and a role in Ang Lee
's Ride with Devil
in 1999, Baker worked alongside Val Kilmer
, Carrie-Anne Moss
and Benjamin Bratt
in Red Planet
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"The reason that I came here in the first place was really out of a sense of adventure," Baker says. "Once I got here, the actual demand for actors and sheer amount of work available blew my mind. In Australia, we don't have the audience or the demand. It's more of a cottage industry."As the 2000s began, Baker, who has three children with wife Rebecca Rigg
, decided to settle into a regular gig for the sake of his oldest daughter, who was beginning school. In 2001, Baker was cast as Nick Fallin, the lead role in CBS' The Guardian,
a drama about a corporate lawyer who is sentenced to 1,500 hours of community service after a drug conviction. "I wanted to pursue a film career, but I just thought that as a parent and as a husband, the idea of doing television was a bit more responsible," Baker says. "I could tuck my kids into bed, or at least come in and see them at night."
Baker earned critical praise and a Golden Globe nomination for his performance. He says he was originally drawn to the "depth and rawness" of the character, which he thought recalled the antiheroes of serialized cable shows. But Baker says he soon began to feel trapped in the role, as the show's procedural elements began to make Fallin more of a one-note character.
"The character was so defined; he was a hobbled, limited character," Baker says. "As the show goes on over a number of years, that repetition can become boring creatively. You want the character to suddenly start to shift and change, and it kind of goes against it to do that."
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The show was canceled after three seasons, which gave Baker the chance to explore a variety of film roles. In 2005, he starred as the hero of George A. Romero
's zombie flick, Land of the Dead
. A year later he played writer Christian Thompson in The Devil Wears Prada
.But Baker soon realized there was something missing in his work. "There's more of a family connection when you're working on a TV show," he says. "That's not to say that you don't make great connections when you're working on films, but it's different unless you're there working every day. Prada
was a really great experience with great people, but I wasn't there a lot of the time. I always felt like I was visiting their set."When Baker went back to work on TV as a member of the ensemble on CBS' short-lived heist drama Smith
, not having to carry the show was appealing. But it also made him a bit stir crazy. "I have a work ethic that way that's very old-fashioned," he says. "I do like to muck in and get amongst it. Sometimes when I work a few days and then have a few days off, it starts to feel like I'm using someone else's set. It feels like, to do my share, I should also pick up a broom and sweep a path or something."So when Baker settled back into the leading role on The Mentalist
, playing a former fake psychic who uses his intuition to help the California Bureau of Investigation solve crimes, Baker says he instantly knew that the show had what he'd been missing. "All of the things that were difficult about The Guardian
, The Mentalist
didn't have those problems," he says. "The character is so mercurial and playful and can go in so many directions."
Check out photos of Baker throughout his career
One of those other directions is intensely serious. Jane's wife and daughter were brutally murdered by a serial killer known as Red John. Through his involvement with the CBI, Jane searches for vengeance. "There's an enormous amount of humor in the show, but the essence of the show is rooted in tragedy," Baker says. "It can be frightfully dramatic. When I have to play the same role every day, I have the flexibility to play the character in so many different ways. It's almost like playing five different roles."Baker also quickly formed a family-style bond with co-star Robin Tunney
. "Robin and I actually spend a lot of time with each other," he says. "More often than not, I look over and she's there with me in the wee hours of the morning. She's reliable, hard-working, and has a good heart. When it's tough at work, it's good to know you have someone like Robin there."And unlike those days in Australia, Baker seems to now view acting as work. "Sometimes the intensity and the grind of doing television can wear you down, but at the same time there's something about the repetition, the sheer mass of work that you do that's also liberating," Baker says. "Some artists just painted and painted and painted, and through that they found out what their strengths and their weaknesses were. Sometimes I feel that does pertain a bit to television: you do it and do it and do it. I never feel that we get it right completely, but somewhere in that mass of work, something starts to develop in you in other ways."
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The Mentalist's combination has worked. Now in its third year, the show anchors CBS' Thursday night. Baker earned an Emmy nomination in the show's first season. "That one's a mystery to me," Baker says with a laugh, noting that nominations, like success on network TV, are always uncertain. "The mass appeal of the show is that it's entertaining," Baker says. "If I knew the exact formula, I'd bottle it and sell more of it."
But Heller isn't shy in giving a good deal of credit to Baker. "I think the show could have been successful with another actor of equal qualities, but I think it would have been a much more ordinary show," Heller says. "The show depends on Simon being able to deliver what the package promises, which is wit and grace and humor and redemption and a certain kind of ability to rise above tragedy. There are very few people who can pull that off convincingly."
And those good looks don't hurt, right? "I hope that when I'm really, really old and wrinkly that I'm still able to work," Baker says. "Looks will always fade, my friend. I just hope that my other qualities can have a bit more longevity."