ROOM TO BREATHE
PREPARING FOR ANOTHER GLITTERING PREMIERE, SIMON BAKER IS HOLLYWOOD HOT PROPERTY, BUT THE BALLINA BOY’S SOUL STILL SINGS TO HIS SALTWATER UPBRINGING
Stars, they’re just like us. Simon Baker, the guy they call Smiley, the Mentalist, calls my house on a Saturday morning from his mobile, no PR, no minders … but also no time.
“I’m so sorry,” he says. “Something’s just come up. If you’re not busy in a couple of hours, can I call you then for our interview?”
Of course, I concur. I have been stood up by far lesser than Mr Baker. When we talk again, he admits the reason he had to run was actually because he had to surf … with his son.
“I could see that look in his eye, the conditions were good and he wanted to get out.
“The alternative was he’d pick up a device and start playing games,” says the 48-year-old father of three. “I had to intervene and get him away from technology.” Stars’ kids … they’re just like mine. We’re used to seeing Simon on screen — from E
Street in the early 90s to his first American film, the acclaimed LA Confidential, to starring roles in The
Guardian and The Mentalist — all trademark golden curls and crinkly eyes.
But as much as he’s every bit the leading man, there’s something so familiar about him. Deep inside there’s still that Aussie boy next door.
In fact, there’s every chance that if you grew up on the Gold Coast, he was the boy next door.
Born and bred in Northern New South Wales, he attended Ballina High and still owns a property in nearby Nashua.
In fact, he and wife actor Rebecca Rigg donated to the Rise Above the Flood appeal just last year to help their neighbours hit by the natural disaster.
But in between Ballina and Hollywood, Simon did a solid stint in Surfers Paradise.
“When I left home I did a year in Sydney, but then I came up to the Goldie,” he says.
“A bunch of mates and I moved in to this old fibro shack on Garfield Terrace. It was just after the bend in the road. It had a huge pine tree in the back and then just beach.
“It was the last house left in that stretch. We were evicted because they sold the land to build another high-rise. I’ll have to drive past it one day. They were some fun times. We all worked in hospitality and just surfed. I worked at the Hyatt Sanctuary Cove at that big beach pool.”
Yep, for those of us of a certain age, Simon Baker was our pool boy. In fact, he may well take that trip down memory lane this weekend. He’s on the Coast not just to attend the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, but to launch a project that’s not just dear to his heart but his surfer’s soul.
Breath is Baker’s feature film directorial debut, adapted from the 2008 novel by celebrated Australian author Tim Winton, and will have its Queensland premiere at the Gold Coast Film Festival this Thursday.
The classic coming of age tale follows Pikelet and Loonie, two teenage boys growing up in a small coastal town in Western Australia in the 1970s.
Their love of surfing and adventure sees their paths cross with older, local surfer Bill “Sando” Sanderson, played by Baker, who describes the character as “a mentor, but pathetic in his own way”.
Having grown up surfing in Ballina, and with teenage sons of his own, Harry, 16, and Claude, 19, plus 24-year-old daughter Stella, Baker says he felt instantly connected to the characters and themes in Winton’s novel before adapting the storyline for screen.
“To me it’s all about identity. It’s about the boys, Pikelet and Loonie, trying to figure out who they are in this coming-of-age time of their lives,” he says.
“It’s about Sando and his sort of stunted identity. As much as he’s this mentor to them, he’s not a Yoda character. He’s more pathetic than wise. He’s stuck in the past and never learned to take responsibility. But it’s also about the identity of Australia.
“Our identity is tied to the sea, to the coastline, but our identity is also constantly shifting. We drift with the tide between our UK heritage, our ties with America and our indigenous history.”
Baker says the film helped shift his own definition of identity, from actor to director and filmmaker. Sando may be a father-figure of sorts to the boys, but the film was Baker’s own lovechild.
“We got the book option about eight years ago and the past three or four years have been really intense,” he says.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, getting a film made is a long, hard process. It’s a labour of love.
“I’d like to direct again though. I feel at home directing. I feel like I can contribute more when I’m in that role. It’s not easy but it’s immensely satisfying.”
The fact that the subject matter dealt with one of Baker’s other great loves, surfing, is obvious when watching the film. The poetry of motion writes a love letter to a time and place that, while changed, is not entirely gone. The boys who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, like Pikelet, Loonie and Baker himself, are the fathers of today, guiding their own children through ever-choppy conditions.
“That era of the 70s is still so familiar to us — I loved putting up the pictures from Copperart in the houses. Who didn’t have that in their home?” he says.
“I think I was a boy who was somewhere between those two adolescent characters, the sort of dreamy individual that is Pikelet and the wild, lost boy that is Loonie. But ultimately, I’m more Pikelet. Otherwise I never would have got this movie made.
“But the thing we all have in common is this love for surfing. I can’t really say what it is to me. It’s all different sorts of things and it changes every time I go to the water. These days it’s a great way to commune with nature and to catch up with old friends.
“It’s a break and a relief to be somewhere that no one can contact you, your phone doesn’t ring. Physically, it’s still exhilarating and meditative.”
For Baker, it’s an exercise that is still uniquely Australian. With his children having grown up both here and in the US, he says the surfing community in their Sydney suburb is an extended family of sorts.
“When we walked through the park on the way back from surfing today, I said to my son, ‘Do you see all the different groups hanging out? Do you see the different generations passing through?’ He thought it was so cool to see those little groms coming of age and hanging out with friends at the next level. It’s a rite of passage in some ways.
“Bec and I have always had such close ties to our country, to Australia, no matter where we have been living, and the kids feel that.
“There is something to say for being here and having a different perspective — or just having perspective — on what’s happening in the world.”
Baker’s not the only international star who still calls Australia home, with northern NSW neighbour Chris Hemsworth regularly spotted on our own shores — including at the Commonwealth Games. “Is he there?” Baker asks. “I really don’t keep up. “I’m not just saying that, I’m tragic in knowing who’s where and doing what. I am interested in the Games though. I’m really looking forward to seeing the closing ceremony. In fact, the kids are all quiet right now. I might just turn on the TV and watch a bit of the action. Maybe have a little nap.”
Dads … they’re all the same.
THE SHOW GOES ON
The Games may almost be over, but it’s time for the show to begin.
The Gold Coast Film Festival comes hot on the heels of our greatest sporting spectacle — and it’s not about to play a minor role.
The city’s flagship film event will screen 40 feature films including one world premiere, seven Australian premieres and seven Queensland premieres, plus a host of short films, events, filmmaker Q&As, and an incredible Virtual Reality film experience.
The 16th annual GCFF will run for 13 days from Tuesday to April 29.
A highlight of the program is the Queensland premiere of Simon Baker’s Breath this Thursday. Baker and fellow actors Samson Coulter (Pikelet) and Ben Spence (Loonie) will be attending the screening at Pacific Fair, followed by a Q&A.
“I’m thrilled to have our Queensland premiere at the Gold Coast Film Festival. The Gold Coast has long been a mecca for those that share a deep fascination and respect for the ocean, and the magnificent impact it can have in shaping who you are,” Baker says.
Gold Coast Film Festival director Lucy Fisher says the festival has also secured the Australian premiere of black comedy Brothers’ Nest to screen at the closing night on April 29, with brothers Shane Jacobson and Clayton Jacobson (Kenny), attending the event and Q&A.
“At its core, the Gold Coast Film Festival celebrates film and filmmaking,” Lucy says.
“The Film Festival will be the Gold Coast’s first major event following the Commonwealth Games and will continue to enrich the city through the dozens of special film events being held at 11 venues across the Gold Coast.”