Cannes: Simon Baker on Life After 'The Mentalist,' His Directorial Debut and French Celebrity

Fabrizio Maltese

The television star hit the Cannes Croisette to talk up his new film, 'Breath,' which he will direct and star in.

Simon Baker is looking tired. The Australian-born star of CBS' global hit The Mentalist is still recovering from jet lag and a lack of sleep since hopping a plane to Cannes. So he fits in with the crowd of sleep-deprived producers, stars, journalists and critics that stumble along the Croisette.

“Everyone looks horrible!” he jokes.

The Mentalist ended its successful seven-season run in February. Suddenly finding himself with time on his hands, Baker is in Cannes pitching his directorial debut, an adaptation of the 2008 novel Breath by Australian writer Tim Winton

Baker helped co-write the script and is producing the film, which is set in a small coastal town in West Australia in the 1970s. It looks at two daredevil teenage surfers who bond with a reclusive surfer — played by Baker — who challenges them to go to new levels of recklessness. It's a story that immediately spoke to Baker, who grew up in a costal Australian town much like the fictional Sawyer depicted in Winton's novel. After helming several episodes of The Mentalist, the actor, 45, thought it was time to make the leap to feature films. “I enjoy being the control freak, having that influence,” he tells THR. “Often when you are acting, you do your thing and then you hand it over to someone else. This is all mine.”

But though he's in Cannes as a producer and director, Baker is still enjoying the celebrity double-takes he gets, particularly here in France, where The Mentalist is the top-rated show on television. “I got into the elevator at my hotel a few hours ago and the bellboy looked up. When he saw it was me he turned bright red,” says Baker, “then he broke out laughing. He didn't even say a word.”

What's its been like doing the dirty work of financing and producing Breath?

All this time trying to figure out and organizing the financing has been a real eye opener and not the most pleasurable experience for me. It's been hard to disconnect creatively from the piece and talk about it like a product. That's obviously a necessary evil, but that's been challenging.

What's the appeal of Tim Winton for you?

The exported idea of Australians is more like me: blond, outdoorsy guy who drinks too much and is a bit brash. Tim Winton manages to combine that traditional, rugged Australian view of things with a more deep and sensitive side. ... I spent some time with him and we really identified on a certain level. He grew up in a coastal area too, he's into fishing, surfing and all that stuff. He's really a man's man, but he has been interested in literature and writing from a very young age. I grew up in this environment where there were six guys to one girl, very male-dominated, but I secretly wanted to become an actor. I understand where he is coming from, how difficult it is in that environment to become your own person.

How has directing episodes of The Mentalist prepared you for the leap to feature films?

I had been working towards wanting to direct when I signed on to The Mentalist. After I did The Guardian [the CBS series that ran from 2001-2004], I didn't want to ever do TV again. I didn't think that I could handle that kind of grind. But when I signed on to The Mentalist, I made a very conscious decision to use it as a film school. We made 151 hours of TV and it's sort of the speed dating of film production. You have to pull pieces together at high speed. You have to do the script development, you have to do casting, do location scouting. You are always working with different people. I directed as many of those as I could physically.

How difficult has it been to adapt Winton's work?

He is not an easy writer to adapt because his prose is so good. The developing of the script has been difficult — it's taken time to distill the book down. I worked with [Top of the Lake writer] Gerard Lee on the last couple of drafts. He did the drafts, I did the re-writes. He has a real understanding of the material and definitely a real understanding of the kind of film I wanted to make. He really understands how to create the voice of the teenage boys that are at the center of the story.

What will be your cinematic approach with Breath?

The story suggests a lot of the cinematic style of the piece — it is a big broad canvas. We're planning to shoot it in Western Australia on the coast — it is so vast and impressive, it is like Jurassic. Seeing 13-year-old boys against that landscape says a lot about the themes of the book, without the need for dialogue.

Australia has produced a number of prominent actors and directors. But Australian films, with a few exceptions such as George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road, are rarely successful with local audiences. Why do you think that is?

It's an eternal question in Australia. We are incredibly fortunate to have an organization like Screen Australia and they have been incredibly supportive [of Breath]. That is an ongoing question with them: Why don't more Australians go to Australian films? Australian films can be a bit slow because we aren't a very verbose culture — until we've had a couple of beers, at least. But that doesn't mean there isn't a lot going on under the surface. So the challenge is to find that and not to feel that we had to push in a certain way.

I think we are a nation of story-tellers but we also struggle with our identity. If you look at a lot of the [local] films that do really well in Australia, many of them parody Australian culture. Because maybe otherwise there is a slight cultural cringe with our own content.

The other side of it is sometimes we try to make films that fit into the American mold, which I don't understand because Americans make those films better. I feel that you have to run the course and try to make films that we can identify with without boring us senseless. I can say all this now but I'm going to have to get into the director's chair and try and do it.

What films have you been looking at for inspiration?

I have been looking a lot of films that use the environment as a character. I really enjoyed the [2014 Cannes Best Screenplay winner] Leviathan for that. I have also been looking a lot at films that deal with coming-of-age themes — the French film [and 2013 Palme d'Or winner] Blue is the Warmest Color was a really well-made film. It was a very simplistic story but it was very identifiable and you were drawn into it by the way it was shot and the fluidity of it. I probably could have done without the 15 minute sex scene in the middle of it — watching that in the cinema was pretty awkward.

The Mentalist is a hugely successful show here in France. Do you ever get special celebrity treatment when you're here?

When people travel with me they say they can't believe how nice the French service is, how polite the waiters are. And how different it is when I'm not with them.