Driving us mental
Simon Baker likes to play characters who have an essential wrongness— including former psychic Patrick Jane, writes Aaron Barnhart
IF YOU were a bloke with Simon Baker’s looks, or just his hair, you’d probably be the strong, silent type, too.
After all, there’s really no need to advertise yourself when the ladies instantly swoon at your close-up.
‘‘I spend 19 hours a day on the set with him and another three hours talking about him,’’ Baker’s co-star from The Mentalist, Robin Tunney, says.
‘‘People stop me at the grocery store. I feel like I should have a list of answers: ‘Yes, he looks like that in person. Yes, he’s happily married. Yes, he’s straight — sorry!’ ’’
Aussie camera magnet Baker has starred or co-starred in a string of CBS shows — The Guardian, Smith and top-rating The Mentalist — without having to open his mouth very much.
When Baker speaks, it’s in the seldom-raised voice of a man who knows a microphone is picking up his words.
For a while, it seemed as though having a low profile on a network top-heavy with male leads was working against him.
CBS cancelled The Guardian after three seasons. Then he played a nutty sharpshooter on Smith, who whistled while he worked — in his case, work involved killing people. CBS pulled the plug on that after three episodes.
But network executives knew they had a good thing in Baker and kept throwing ideas at him. Smart, considering The Mentalist is the third biggest show on CBS, behind CSI and NCIS.
‘‘Of the hundreds of scripts I looked at since The Guardian, I went with this one because Bruno gets it,’’ Baker says.
That would be Bruno Heller, best known as the creator of HBO’s $100 million toga party, Rome, who rose to an even greater challenge with The Mentalist: write a crime procedural that doesn’t bore viewers by looking like all the other crime procedurals.
So Heller created Patrick Jane — one-time TV psychic, now crime solver. A man who used to make big bucks communicating with ‘‘the other side’’ but who now uses his powers of observation to catch suspects off guard and exploit their weaknesses in order to force confessions.
There’s nothing terribly original about The Mentalist. Many viewers have noted Channel 10 drama Psych is also about pretend psychics, but it all works.
‘‘I’m always drawn to characters that have a sort of a wrongness about them,’’ Baker says.
‘‘And what I love about this character is, he’s trying to come back. He doesn’t wear his wrongness on his sleeve.’’
That’s true. Baker is essentially resurrecting the character he played in The Guardian.
Back then, he was a moody jerk of a lawyer serving as a public guardian for at-risk kids, not because he wanted to give back, but because at his last drug trial, the judge told him to.
On The Mentalist, he’s also trying to pay society back for being selfish, not because he’s become a nice guy, but because he’s suffered.
‘‘He’s a dark character whose heroism is not in muscles or action but in being positive in his life despite what he does and the tragedy he’s faced with,’’ Heller says.
The Mentalist was such an easy sell that some critics predicted it would be an out-of-the-gate hit. Still, it came as a surprise the first week when The Mentalist finished as the No.1-rated show in the US. That hadn’t happened to a first-year program since Desperate House
four years earlier. Heller swears that even psychics are fans — at least the fake ones.
‘‘The entertainers I’ve spoken to love the show,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s great advertising for their schtick.’’
The serious psychics — not so much.
‘‘My wife believes that stuff completely,’’ Heller adds. ‘‘I don’t. The interesting thing is that the people who are good at it are just using their natural gifts of intuition and empathy to a supernatural power. But they’re still pretending.’’
Heller says the challenge is to keep the show in ‘‘dynamic stasis,’’ not tinkering too much with the formula that’s bringing in so many viewers.
Still, you can’t help but notice that Heller has already resorted to one gimmick so soon in the show’s first season: Patrick, who hates rules for reasons never entirely made clear — the strong, silent type, remember — has already threatened to walk out on his by-the-book boss (Tunney).
How many times can Patrick play the ‘‘I quit’’ card before it gets tiresome? Baker pauses, then says: ‘‘I think seven. I’ve threatened to quit once this year. Seven, then. One a year.’’
The Mentalist a seven-year hit? There’s every chance of that.