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INT: Simon Baker

06.22.2005

In the new George Romero zombiefest LAND OF THE DEAD Simon Baker plays Riley, a man who’s trying to escape the madness in a world where the dead are returning to life. In this fourth entry in the DEAD series, Baker gets to play the classic archetype of the unwilling hero, who’s also responsible for designing Dead Reckoning, an armored zombie defense tank of sorts.

In his quest to stay alive, he’s joined by Slack (played by horror master Dario Argento’s daughter Asia) and goes up against the villainous Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) and the scheming Cholo (John Leguizamo), as well as hordes of “stenches” (that’s zombies to you and me).

Baker talked with JoBlo.com about the experience of making the film during a recent stop in L.A. to promote the film. Given Baker’s strength in the role and general screen presence, I wouldn’t doubt that we’ll be hearing more from him in the years to come.

SIMON BAKER

Can you talk about your first DEAD experience?

I worked at a restaurant; most actors are so used to being waiters. I hated waiting on tables, because I wasn’t an actor at the time. But I liked to wash dishes in restaurants, because that was behind the scenes. There was this guy that washed dishes next to me. After work we’d have a drink and funny cigarette, and go home. He was a really wealthy kid and he lived in a high-rise building. I think his father was really wealthy. And he said “come back to my place and we’ll watch this movie.” We go into this beautiful big apartment and its all dark and he’s living there like as sort of a student, his old man’s paying the bill. It was a really this dodgy kind of vibe. And then he puts the movie (on), it was DAWN OF THE DEAD. I was a little high, and I was just like “what the hell is this man?” It was like 2:00 in the morning. So that was my first experience.

Can you talk about getting in the mindset for the film? When you’re on set and you see everyone in the makeup it must seem kind of silly.

It took a little time. The first day that I shot I think it was a scene with the Dead Reckoning, and the zombies are getting sort of run over by the truck. I kept kind of walking around just laughing. Because there’s a lot of people on a film crew. And everyone was so obsessed with watching it back on the monitor, these sort of bodies getting crushed underneath the wheels and getting excited as to whether it was right or not, having to redo it. Peter Grunwald, who’s one of the producers, he was sort of sitting next to me, he’s a great guy, he’s sort of sitting right there in his suit, and he looks down and I just said “this is crazy, grown men concerned about getting this splatter right…”

And he goes “I know. I’m Ivy League educated.” And he sort of goes “ha ha ha” and shakes his hands. So you know it took a while. And walking into the catering area for lunch and seeing tables of people sitting there, with half there face sort of eaten away. Occasionally, some would say “Hi Simon.” “Who’s that” and it’d be someone from the crew, or something “Oh it’s Gino” “Oh Hi Gino, how are you today?” “Good, good.” So that was always really weird.

Could you talk about how George would balance working with the actors and working with the effects and makeup?

George was really generous with us as actors. He kind of sat down with us all individually, and made sure that we all understood what the story was, what the deal was. And he let us go a fair bit. He let Leguizamo and I, we worked together a bit in my hotel room and worked out stuff so that the characters were defined and different. Because often with a lot of pieces where there’s conflicting characters, the characters sort of end up becoming the same kind of character. And we wanted to make them very clearly defined and very different. And George just, he kind of, he welcomed that, he just let us go with that. But then on the set, you have a question, George would be right there, or he would sort of be like, he’d sort of drop the zombies and then do this. A lot of it was a very piece-y film to shoot, because a lot of it is cut back to different zombies, and then you know you know you had the whole makeup effects guys, Greg Nicoterro and that whole crew…they’d have their little meetings and run over, and then we’d be doing, the actors would be doing their “where’s the zombie? Oh he’s gonna be there? Right. He’s still in makeup?” So we’re shooting it before the zombies are even there. It’s like could someone stand there so I know where it’s gonna be?”

George is fine, he sort of seamlessly goes from one thing to the other. But watching him direct the zombie stuff is fantastic, because he knows exactly, it’s like “no, no that’s doesn’t work.” He knows exactly what’s gonna work, it’s like a mathematician. He can see the equation for every single shot, and you see him putting all the pieces together in his head. And he knows. And you go “Well, I thought that was gonna work.” Then he can see “Oh, that’s why it’s not gonna work.” And he gets the next piece.

To horror fans, the first three films are like the holy trilogy. Do you feel pressure having to live up to those films?

I felt the pressure for George. I didn’t feel that much pressure. I thought that it was kind of, very much due. It was really the right time to make another one. Almost overdue. Interesting working with the makeup effects guys, they’re so entrenched in the genre, the know every detail, and everything about it. So you’ve got 20 guys walking around the set at all times that are encyclopedias of the genre, so that you can find that information like well “that’s not right, that is right.”

I think the most important thing for me with my character, I’m kind of the straight guy, that’s kinda tapped into what these zombies are, and where they fit in, and that’s sort of the moral compass thing. The most important thing was just to find the truth in that for George. Otherwise, I didn’t want to send that up at all. But no, I didn’t feel that kind of pressure. And once you see George on the set, he knows exactly what he’s doing.

What else did you feel you could bring to the role, other than being the straight man?

The circumstance and the situation, where it’s like “here you are, I guess you’re a mercenary…you shoot zombies and you get supplies and all that stuff.” I thought straight away you could create a conflict within this guy if you make him essentially at his core, a pacifist. Then there’s automatically a conflict with him in the time, in the place. So I just played around with that idea. Then he’s also a guy who is kind of a leader. But then if you make him somewhat antisocial, then he’s a leader that has people with him, but doesn’t want to be responsible for the people with him, there’s another conflict.

They’re not obvious conflicts. He doesn’t want money; he doesn’t want the more obvious things that Dennis’ character wants, that Cholo’s character wants. He’s trying to work himself out. It’s more of an internal conflict, personally. He has this sort of notion that maybe there’s no zombies in Canada , or maybe there’s no Kaufman in Canada . I think his whole thing is, it’s referenced a few times in the script, where he says “there’s no such thing as nice shooting.” The glass is half full, the glass is half empty. He’s the guy who sort of looks at it another way and says “Hang on a second. We’re the ones killing each other here.” And Cholo and Kaufman are sort of the example of that.

Was it possible to still be disturbed by the gore, or could you laugh it off?

I’ve seen it twice now, I saw it once without an audience. I’m not very vocal when I watch films generally; the most laugh you get out of me is like “mmm-hmm”. But I found myself at a few of the moments moaning and groaning very loudly, and afterwards laughing because I actually enjoyed the fact that it was able to make me do that. Then I watched it again last night, with an audience, and still those moments shocked me, I even know when they’re coming now, but they still shock me and scare me. There’s some very precious gore moments in there that just slipped in, I know that they only just slipped in because the ratings people were like “you’ve gotta shorten that shot, you can’t show any of that.” I know that George has…since he finished this cut, has been up in Canada working on an unrated cut, which is gonna be crazy.

When I rewatched his movies, when I watched DAY OF THE DEAD again, before I started this movie, my manager bought me the three DVDs after I met with George, so I could check them out again. It was hard to watch it, I’ve got three kids, I sort of put it on the telly in my bedroom and sort of sat there like “whoa”. I looked over and my wife is sort of looking up over a book going what is this?” I’ve come a long way from shooting on the movie when I get absolutely excited about the idea of shooting some sort of gag on the splatter unit, an insert shot of someone’s arm getting bitten or whatever. As soon as I wasn’t working on the main set I would come over to watch it. Because I like the craftiness of it. I like the way it’s all sort of put together. And then when you see it in the context of the film it’s really cool.

What do you think this movie is about?

I think if you ask all of us that question, we’d all have pretty different answers. You guys likewise. For me, a lot of the movie, with my character and the way I approached it and the stuff I thought about a lot was the idea of having and making decisions on your own and not being told or believing the propaganda. You’ve gotta understand the time we were shooting this, the U.S. presidential election was taking place. In fact I can tell you the night and the scene we were shooting when it was happening, the actual countdown. We were shooting all nights and I’d go back to the hotel, and turn the telly on just to sort of chill out. And it would just be CNN and then it would be all the propaganda.

It was just so hard for anyone to have their own idea or their own opinion without being influenced by the publicity machines of each of the parties, who spin someone’s opinion in the newspaper or CNN. And then who they were owned by or affiliated with. And it was like hang on a second, how can one person…the whole thing is not targeted for the individual to make up their own mind. Everyone’s being influenced by different things. So that was like a major theme for me because my character tends to want to go against the grain and say “no, no, this is what I think” or “I’m trying to work out what I think. I don’t buy into this, I don’t subscribe to that way of thinking. I want to sort of look at it more like this.” That was kind of what it was about for me.

Are you contracted for a sequel?

Yeah, there is an option for a second one. Who knows what’s going on inside George’s head. He’s probably already got things put together. He’s Mr. Mysterioso. He doesn’t really let too much on; he’s a pretty special guy. I think there’s obviously room for…I like the movie a lot, that’s why I saw it twice. I’m a pretty harsh critic. There’s not much stuff I’ve done where I’m like “I’m gonna go see that again” a week later. And I actually want to see it again. I like seeing it in an audience. It’s a different type of movie to see because people universally within the theatre have the similar reaction and they come down from that reaction at the same time. It’s kinda nice to be in a movie like …in a theatre like that and feel the presence of the rest of the audience.

LAND OF THE DEAD RISES FROM THE GRAVE JUNE 24

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Source: JoBlo.com

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