North of 60 Interview: Simon Baker

We've followed Simon Baker through more than half of his young life, from
the time Charlie Muskrat first showed up on the series as a frightened child,
through Charlie's struggles to find a new home with Michelle Kenidi and
Andrew One Sky, to his emergence as a more confident young man who
helped assist the fugitive Teevee Tenia in "Another Country." Simon Baker
is now getting major roles in movies in both Canada and the U.S. Here's a
discussion about his background, his latest movies, and his future plans.

Childhood modeling

PW: Thank goodness I'm finally getting a chance to speak with you! We've tried a couple of times in previous years, but always got interrupted before we got past saying "hello." Why don't you start by telling me a little bit about your background and how you got into acting.

SB: All right. I'm from Vancouver.

PW: Vancouver proper, or...?

SB: North Van. Capilano. It's beautiful up there.

PW: Isn't that the tribe that owns the Park Royal shopping center?

SB: Yeah, that's right, the Squamish Nation. That's where I'm from.

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PW: Gorgeous area. North Van is my favorite part of the Vancouver area because it has all those mountains and trees. I'm not a city person.

SB: Me neither!

PW: May I ask how old you are now?

SB: I'm 17.

PW: So how did you get into doing acting?

SB: When I was about six, I started modeling.

PW: I take it that was your parents' idea?

SB: Yeah, it was sort of, "He's got a nice face for the camera." And I was going, "Okay, I'll do it, I guess." Taking pictures, walking down the runway...

PW: You probably weren't entirely sure what was going on.

SB: Yeah. Then they told me I couldn't model because I started missing my two front teeth, but they said, "If you keep paying us the fees, we'll call you back in two years." And we were like, "Right...we don't have the money to pay you now anyway." So we just got an agent and I did a couple of episode shows like "Hawkeye," and I did "White Fang 2" as an extra.

PW: How old were you when you started acting?

SB: About eight. And then I got an audition for this part.

"North of 60"

PW: I'm trying to remember when you entered the series. I don't think we saw Charlie the first time Suzie Muskrat appeared.

SB: I think I was about ten when I got the role. I saw all these kids at the audition, and I wasn't having too big hopes for myself for the part. They weren't sure if it was going to be a girl or a guy, so I was auditioning against my sister even. A couple weeks later, they called me and said, "Simon, we picked you out of thousands of kids."

PW: Do you recall what your first episode was?

SB: My first episode was coming in with Betty Moses.

PW: Ah, right, "A Safe House," where Betty brings Charlie to stay for a while when his mom's in rehab?

SB: Yeah. At Michelle's.

PW: Then Suzie comes back to Lynx River and wants to take Charlie home with her, but everyone realizes that she really isn't in any shape to do so.

SB: Yeah, she's not ready. It just gets thrown on Michelle for Charlie to stay at her place, and she just went through this big death of her daughter. A guy comes in with the same haircut and the same length, and she thinks it's her daughter. And I'm being blamed for everything.

PW: Charlie's presence does bring up painful memories for Michelle. Having a kid around reminds her of Hannah.

SB: Yeah, exactly.

PW: I don't think they ever actually say what happens to Suzie Muskrat.

SB: No, she kinda does disappear. She's still in rehab, I guess! A 28-years program...

PW: And I'm not sure whether Michelle and Andrew ever officially adopted Charlie.

SB: Yeah, he did get officially adopted at the very last episode in the first season I was in. Season four, I think, I started. At the end of that season, she brings the papers and says, "Here, you're officially my son."

PW: So I guess Suzie Muskrat signed away her parental rights.

SB: I think Betty Moses had those rights, actually, in the beginning, so it would be pretty easy.

"Distant Drumming"

PW: It sounds like in "Distant Drumming," you have a fairly sizable role. There's a conflict with Matthew Fowler coming into town and Michelle not being happy about Charlie hanging around with him. I guess Charlie thinks that Matthew is pretty cool.

SB: Well, Charlie, throughout the years, has been waiting for somebody to relate to. There was Nathanial Arcand playing William, and all those guys. But then they went off somewhere, no one knows where!

PW: Just as well. William wasn't exactly a good role model!

SB: Then he gets this character [Matthew] and doesn't know anything about him. Charlie still has that innocence about him, from years and years of broken hearts and everyone leaving him. And he finds this buddy, Matthew Fowler, who becomes friends with him. Well, he thinks they're friends.

PW: Was Matthew befriending him for some ulterior motive?

SB: It could have been, but I think Matthew was sort of looking at the relationship as a friendship, because one of Matthew's lines is, "We were friends. I guess we aren't now, eh, Charlie?"

PW: So something causes him to put something else a higher priority than Charlie? But you think he genuinely liked Charlie?

SB: Yes, it was a friendship throughout the whole thing.

PW: How have you enjoyed seeing Charlie grow up?

SB: It's been awesome to come back down to Lynx River, Calgary. I love coming back each year! To see the crew, and the cast, and the new cast. Like meeting Jennifer Podemski and George Leach. I'd never met him, but people were always saying, "Oh, I saw you on that magazine." And I'm like, "What magazine? I haven't been on a magazine for a while." And it was George on the cover and my buddies were thinking it was me!

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PW: When you come back, is it interesting for you to find out what Charlie has been doing?

SB: Yeah, what's he gonna be up to. Has he changed at all. He sorta has changed a little bit, and I think the next one will be a good show for Charlie, too, because they've left stories behind there.

PW: Storylines for Charlie that they could follow up on in the future?

SB: Yeah, yeah.

PW: Do you think they've handled his growth realistically?

SB: Pretty realistically, yeah, it was pretty good. I like the writing every time. Every script is a great one. We have good writers and producers on this show.

PW: Do they ever say exactly what Charlie is doing these days? Is he in high school, or what?

SB: No, it doesn't really say.

PW: Is there a high school?

SB: Yeah, is there a high school? [laughs]

PW: Maybe Charlie flies three hours a day to school!

SB: I hit the river in my paddleboat! [laughs] No, it doesn't really say anything about that much. You can tell it's summertime this time, so he could be out of school, I guess.

School and future plans

PW: Well, whether Charlie is in school or not, how about you?

SB: Next year's my last year. Grade 12.

PW: And then what?

SB: I'm gonna go to AFI in L.A.

PW: Oh, the American Film Institute?

SB: Yeah. I want to take directing and producing, it's a two-year course.

PW: Have you been accepted already?

SB: I have to apply this year, but I have a pretty good chance.

PW: That would be great! So you want to go more towards directing?

SB: Towards directing, yeah, and having control of the show after that, producing and directing. I'd still always want to act, but I'd like to be behind the camera and act at the same time.

PW: Does AFI have acting classes, too, or would you need to do that separately if you wanted to study that?

SB: I've taken acting classes, and I've noticed that the teachers give you so much information that when you go to an audition or you're on film, you're always thinking too much of what's going on, what you're doing, how should I look, how should I be doing this and that. But I've been watching a lot of Actor's Studios, and almost every great actor said the best thing is not to be acting, but to be as natural as you can.

PW: Do it intuitively.

SB: Yeah, yeah. Be natural and just let it flow, let it come out. Even if it's not the right line, it could even be changed. If you can portray somebody and do it very well, that's better than overthinking.

PW: So you're planning to focus on directing rather than acting.

SB: Yeah. In my school, I've been in Grade 12 drama class for three years, since I was in Grade 9.

PW: You're probably the only professional actor in the class!

SB: Yeah! There are some that want to get into it, and have done some things. I just tell them, keep on trying. You can't get discouraged after one shot. Even after you do how many movies, you still get shut down, rejected. That's what the business is like.

"On the Corner"

PW: Have you been able to keep about as busy with acting as you've wanted, given that you're still in school?

SB: Oh yeah. Like, this year has been a blessing for me, it's been great. I have a movie coming in to the Toronto Film Festival.

PW: Which one is that?

SB: It's called "On the Corner."

PW: Oh, right. Tina's in that, too, right?

SB: Tina's my mom in there, yeah.

PW: Where was that filmed?

SB: In Vancouver, East Hastings. There's a place called The Skids, Skid Row.

PW: Ah, that area will be familiar to fans of "Da Vinci's Inquest."

SB: It's more hardcore than "Da Vinci's Inquest." You actually see the real life, how lifestyles down there can get so addicted to something. Something so small that you can put it in your nose or you can smoke it can control your life. Just smokin' it once, it controls you. East Hastings is a dungeon, really. It's holding on to souls. The bodies are there, and they want to leave from there, but they can't because they're addicted.

We see my character come from Prince Rupert, and we see stages of how a young kid can just get stuck into it. And my sister, who's played by Alex Rice, is leaving it. The transitions throughout the show are pretty amazing.

PW: Was "On the Corner" actually filmed in the East Hastings area?

SB: Yeah, we were down there for six weeks.

PW: Why does your character come to Vancouver from Prince Rupert?

SB: He's looking for family. He's always been in foster homes, and he thinks his dad and his sister are down there. He finds his sister right away. Throughout the whole story, he keeps on asking about his dad, and no one tells him the truth. He's looking for the truth; that's all he wants.

He's still a young, innocent kid, coming to Vancouver, seeing what this lifestyle is like. Not just coming to a city to see how a big city is, but coming down to East Hastings, never having seen a lifestyle like this. And in each scene, we see character development that keeps on taking him down and down.

PW: And you said the young man's sister is also on the streets of East Hastings?

SB: Yeah, she is. She's been down there for ten odd-some years. He gets there and she's a skinny wreck. He doesn't even barely recognize his own sister.

PW: So his main goal is to find the truth about his father?

SB: Yeah, his main thing is to find the family connection that any kid would want if he grew up in a foster home.

PW: What about his mother?

SB: His mother is played by Tina Keeper. She left her son and her daughter because she was an alcoholic. In the movie, she comes back from rehab and she only sees the sister. She says to her, "I'm healthy, I can take Randy [Simon's character]. Let me have him." And my sister says, "No, you were just an alcoholic. You're a drunk. You left us. You'll leave us again." If Randy, my character, was there to see that, he would have left right away with his mother. Just to see his mother that healthy and come back saying that she wants him, because in the beginning no one wants him.

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PW: Do you think the sister is right in her assessment of their mother, or has the mother really turned around?

SB: She really has turned around, but [the sister] is so stoned that she comes walking in and sees her mom there, and it's like, "Is that her? Could it really be her? What's she doing down here?" She's not thinking.

PW: Who directed the film?

SB: Nathaniel Geary. He wrote it and directed it. I auditioned once for it and I got the part. He just came up to me and said I had the part. Then I auditioned every single character through the whole movie. I gave him my opinion and we all worked it together.

PW: What was it like working with Tina again in a different role?

SB: "Hey, mom! How are you doing?" [both laugh] Her son Eli said to her the other day, "You know, me and Simon are brothers. We could be brothers." She's like, "Yeah, I've played his mother so many times!"

PW: So that was a fun experience for you to work with her again?

SB: Oh yeah.

PW: Anybody else that "North of 60" fans will know in the movie?

SB: Gordon Tootoosis.

PW: Oh, that's great. Who does he play?

SB: He plays old Floyd, who takes me in. He doesn't do drugs. He's a can picker. Picks up cans, that's his living. And I start doing that for a bit. I spend my money on other things and I get kicked out of his place.

PW: So you're in scenes with him.

SB: Yeah, a lot of scenes. It was great to see him. He was there for a week.

PW: You had a few interactions with him during the series. You tried to kill him once or twice! Is he still holding that against you?

SB: [laughs] No. He plays my dad sometimes. "Big Bear," "Now and Forever," a couple other things.

PW: Any idea when "On the Corner" will be out?

SB: It's going to the Toronto Film Festival next month, and hopefully it takes off from there, 'cuz everybody needs to see this movie. Not just because I'm in it! But because it has a powerful insight of what life is down there.

Everyone goes down to the slums and they have no respect for these people, but they're actual people. You've got to treat 'em with respect, and you've got to treat 'em the same way you treat anybody else. People go down there and think they're so high and all that, but you just don't know their problems in life, why they brought them down to that level. Once you see that, you see what's hurting inside them, almost everybody has the same problems. Once you get to know a person down there and have a conversation with them, they seem like normal people.

PW: And you did that?

SB: I did that. I was down there for a month before shooting, interacting with a lot of the people. Down there at midnight, just walkin' around seeing these people. I saw a regular person sitting there just having a normal conversation, and then he had to go out and get a fix while we were doing this sort of interview. And he comes back and he's a totally different person. He couldn't stop moving. He had to get up and start a smoke. He had to do this, he had to do that. You couldn't have really a straight conversation with him.

"The Missing"

PW: Tell me about the new film you're in, "The Missing."

SB: I can't say too much about it. It's a western piece, back in the 1800s. I play an Apache in it. It was filmed in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was out there for four months.

PW: What time of the year?

SB: I just got back. I was back for July in Vancouver, then I came out here.

PW: Okay, so you missed the hottest part of the year in New Mexico.

SB: Yeah. But it was still hot enough for me! I'm from Vancouver.

PW: Whose movie is it?

SB: Directed by Ron Howard. Amazing guy. Talented in every aspect of the industry. Produced by Imagine Productions and Sony.

PW: Wow, Ron Howard. So we're talking a big-budget film. No problem getting this one released!

SB: Yeah, no problems going on there! Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett, and cameos by Val Kilmer and Eric Schweig. It has a different story that no one's seen before, like from a Native point of view. No one's seen this kind of bad villain before in a show like this. Eric Schweig plays the villain, and I can't tell you what kind of villain he is because that's the whole story right there.

PW: What can you tell us about your part?

SB: I lose my wife and I have to rescue her. There's a lot of captive girls and I rescue her with Tommy Lee Jones, right side by side with him with my two six-shooters. It's every kid's dream to be in a movie where you have these big six-shooters on your side, shootin' these big pistols! And doing scenes with stuntmen and like that. It was awesome. A great experience.

PW: Have you ridden a lot?

SB: Yeah. We had a whole month of rehearsals shooting and riding. Just for the first month, that's all we did. I got to learn how to ride with all these professional wranglers. And I got to do some cool stuff on the horse. Like I get shot in the arm and I have to mount up with one hand, just gripping it and whoosh, grabbing my gun and shootin' and taking off into the sunset!

PW: [laughs] A little more action than on "North of 60"!

SB: [laughs] Yeah!

PW: How was Tommy Lee Jones to work with?

SB: Tommy Lee Jones is a great guy. He knows his stuff, just like Ron Howard. Putting those two guys together, they were the two collaborators of this movie. Like after a scene they'd talk about the scene.

Sometimes a scene would be done and then him and Ron Howard would sit back and look at the playback, and Tommy'd look back at me and say, "You think you could change something about that scene?" And I'm like, "I know I could. I can change something about the scene. But what would you want to be changed?" And he'd say, "Could you speed it up?" or something like that. I'm like, "Yeah, I never thought about that--just speeding it up, putting more into it."

And the scene's done, they'd checked the gates, but then Tommy and Ron would talk and he'd say, "Let's do it again. Set up the cameras again." Those two are perfectionists. If they don't get what they want, we'll keep on doing it.

PW: It seems to me that even though Ron Howard's films sometimes have quite a bit of action in them, they always have a really strong emotional component.

SB: Yeah. [In this movie], it's the Natives and the whites, and they both have discrimination against each other. And then at the end, it turns to be two people riding away. I'm side by side with Cate, riding away, and we both get to know each other. That's how it's coming out now--you can have a Native person having a starring role in any show. We have the ability to do it.

PW: How was it to work with Cate Blanchett?

SB: She's a wonderful lady. You would never tell that she was an actress. Like we would go walking out on the street with her kid and her husband, and just walking down the street of Santa Fe, some people looking at her, asking for her autograph, and she'd go, "Sure, yeah."

She's a totally approachable person that you can go up to and talk to. She doesn't have the actress prima donna sort of thing. You don't like have to have an appointment for an autograph or something like that! I'd just sit down with her and talk with her. She's just a totally gorgeous, beautiful woman.

And like I asked Tommy something, and he'd say, "Yeah, come after lunch and we'll talk" or something like that.

PW: Was she doing an American accent for this film?

SB: Yeah, she had her dialog coach with her.

PW: But she's Australian originally, right? And of course her best known role is British, in "Elizabeth." But I think she's done American before, too.

SB: She played a spy once where she had like four different accents she had to play in one show. To do that is amazing. Coming from a strong Australian accent to American is quite a change.

PW: So when she's just chatting, she has a thick Australian accent?

SB: Yeah, yeah.

PW: 'Cuz of course she sounded so high British in "Elizabeth"!

SB: Yes, so propah! [laughs]

PW: Who plays your wife in "The Missing"?

SB: Yolanda Nez. Her first time. Most of the parts were cast just on riding abilities. They flew down actors just to see if they could ride. I didn't do an audition. Ron Howard called my agent and said, "We'd like Simon to play this role." But the role was [originally] for a nine year old, and my agent was like, "He does not look anything close to a nine year old any more! Maybe two years ago, but not any more." And Ron Howard said, "No, we're working with Akiva [screenwriter Akiva Goldsman] right now writing a new thing." And he made it to my age, which was great.

PW: So now our little Charlie Muskrat is getting parts where you have a wife!

SB: Yeah! And in "On the Corner," I had my first make-out scene. I was sitting there in my chair eating chili, and the actress comes up to me, and she's like, "You're eating chili? I'm putting in mints." And I'm like, "Ooh, that's right, I do have that scene coming up." [laughs]

PW: Were there a lot of onions in the chili?

SB: Yeah. I had to pop a whole bunch of mints!

PW: You're going to have to do things a little differently if you're going to start doing that kind of scene!

SB: Yeah, exactly!

PW: Well, best of luck, Simon, and I'll sure let everyone know about "The Missing," because we'll be able to see that one in the States for sure. It sounds like it's going to be a great film for you--a good strong part in a film by a major director.

SB: Yeah, a good opportunity.

PW: And we'll hope that "On the Corner" makes it down there, too.

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Text and photos (c) 2003 Patricia F. Winter.

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