So, I know it has been a while, but at one time there was this little show on AMC called Breaking Bad that a bunch of people, including myself, tended to go absolutely insane over. Does anyone remember that? Well, I sure do! It was such an amazing show for so many reasons. There were the conflicting idealogies leading to damn near mental break downs, back stabbing, resentment, and, of course, the greatest meth ever known to man. There was so much about this show that was absolutely perfect. But most of all, it was the cast! Every character whether they were in all episodes or just a few, were fantastic. And today we are lucky enough to speak with a man who portrayed one of my two favorite characters on the show, the one and only Skinny Pete (the other being his sidekick Badger).
But here is a “spoiler alert” for you….Skinny Pete is a real man. His name is Charles Baker, and he is an absolutely fantastic actor who has really broken out on his own in such an incredible fashion. He portrays a meth head with a weird sense of humor and wicked piano skills on the show, which is what made him one of the most fascinating actors to work on Breaking Bad. I simply could not help but feel for this guy. Here he is doing an amazing job whilst working on one of the biggest television shows of all time. But, it all has to end. And that is when Hollywood and bullshit tactics of the film business were sure to come to play. And I was wondering what was going to come of this guy who seemed so brilliant. When was his next junkie role going to be? Would he squander his talents. Well, then I saw grey. Actually, I saw Grey. Grey being his latest role on the amazing new television drama The Blacklist that has absolutely blown me away. Then I learned of some of his other works coming soon or recently released, and guess what….no meth!! I was so excited about this concept that I knew I just had to talk to him, and fortunately enough for us the stars seemed to align and here we are. So without further gushing, I am so happy to have gotten to steal a few words from the truly talented and amazing actor Charles Baker!
First of all, I have to note, that you and I come from similar backgrounds, as far as traveling the world as a military brat, that is. Tell us if you would, do you believe your childhood spent always on the move had any sort of impact on your current profession as an actor and musician? Do you think world travels make you more versatile?
I have a soft spot for people who lived that life. In a lot of ways the spouses and children of Military personnel sacrifice as much of their lives as the soldiers themselves. I have no doubt that the constant moving had a major impact on my career choices. Someone once described my childhood as a form of “adaptive survival”. Every new town and school to which we moved was different. The people had different dialects, regional tastes, styles of dressing, etc., so, in order to fit in and avoid the inevitable teasing that came from being different, I would adapt to the new environment as fast as possible. It became second-nature for me to change my dialect, my colloquialisms, my hair-style, and fashion in no time at all so I could spend the year or two that I was going to be there in relative normalcy. Versatility became my standard. In fact, it wasn’t until I started working regularly as an actor that I was finally able to start discovering who I really am.
After traveling the world, you seemed to end up staying Texas, where I am told you still reside. What is it about Texas that makes you want to continue residing there when all stereotypes will suggest you must flock to Hollywood?
That was true up until about 8 months ago, when I finally gave in and moved my family to LA. For the longest time, I was rather stubborn about staying in Texas simply because I was rebelling against those very stereotypes. But, I eventually realized that some stereotypes exist for a reason. One of my favorite acting teachers in jr. College, Jakie Cabe, once said “if you can’t “make it” in your home town, why in the world would you think that you can make it in NY or Hollywood?” He was speaking not of acquiring international fame, but, simply local recognition. That made a lot of sense to me, so I decided that I would try make a name for myself at home and then play it from there. Then Breaking Bad happened. I had managed to secure a pretty decent reputation for myself in Dallas/Fort Worth Texas, and now I had lucked into a job on one of the best shows on Television! I got a taste of 1) being paid more than your average local theatre stipend, and 2) international recognition. I’m not ashamed to say that, being acknowledged internationally as a legitimate actor was pretty gratifying and a lot addictive! It would be disingenuous of me to say that I don’t LOVE feeling validated. And, getting paid enough to support my family well, for the first time in my adult life is such a great thing! So, as Breaking Bad started winding down to its final conclusion, I was faced with a choice; stay in Texas where I felt I had very little chance of stumbling into another opportunity like BrBA, or take a gamble on Hollywood while I still have some momentum. I took the gamble and it paid off. Big time. Keep in mind, I have no doubt that if I had fed into that “Hollywood” stereotype earlier, that things would be way different. I’ve been told by my new manager that I picked the perfect time to move here. I was still “hot” from my role as Skinny Pete, but that wasn’t going to last. I had to hit while the iron was hot. I got here, and instead of having to spend several years establishing myself with a whole new set of entertainment professionals, I hit the ground running and have barely had time to slow down since. While it’s true that a lot of productions are moving out of Hollywood, they almost always still hire the main supporting roles out of Hollywood, so, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!
One can only imagine that you did not originally intend to get in to the world of acting just to play a drug addict, but we could be wrong. So, what was it that led you to becoming a man of the stage and screen?
You are correct. Junkies and idiots were not my goal, at least not completely. As I said earlier, I am a product of my childhood. I don’t remember ever having ambitions that didn’t involve the entertainment biz somehow. I wanted to be the old-school kind of film star, a “triple threat”- Singer/dancer/actor-but that was heavily discouraged in my family. Learning those skills was ok, but only as a hobby. I loved making people laugh or cheer and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life. When I told my father that I wanted to be an actor or singer when I grew up, the beating I got was more than severe, but, it pretty much solidified my resolve. That being said, I let fear and the constant discouragement from friends and family keep me from actually attempting to attain my goals for a really long time. It wasn’t until I discovered a sense of self worth that I was finally able to ignore the doubt and just go for it.
How was your experience during your times on the set of Breaking Bad? Was there a sense of companionship amongst you and your cast mates, especially Matt Jones, who you worked very closely with it seemed?
Ask any one of the cast that question, and I would bet they all have a similar answer: this was the best cast and crew I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. Every day on set was like a dream. We all got along great. Bryan was like a father figure to us all. Aaron is probably one of the sweetest people you’ll ever have the pleasure of meeting, and Matt Jones is a laugh a minute! We all became very good friends rather quickly. Here’s a good example of our relationship- When we started the show, I was the only one that was married. Aaron and Matt were both rather content with their bachelorhood, but, we (oddly enough) spent a great deal of time talking about love and relationships. I am blessed with an incredible marriage, so, I let them know how good it can be, if it’s done right. As the seasons passed, both of them met the loves of their lives and before the series was over, they were both married, happily. Matt went from “I have no idea how you could look at someone and decide you could spend the rest of your life with them” to “I met THE ONE! I’m going to marry her!” I’m so proud of that!
Did you ever have one of those “Holy Shit” moments upon realizing that you were a part of what will go down in history as one of the greatest television phenomenons?
Yeah, pretty much every day. I have to be wary of letting the reality of the whole thing set in when I’m in mixed company, even today. I spent much of my life believing that being a working actor on TV/Film was a pipe dream, so, when the fact that I’m on Breaking Bad, with all of its accolades, crosses my mind, I get somewhat emotional.
Tell us, in all honesty if you would…..how many offers to play addicted and/or street thugs have you been offered in the last few years? Has the pigeon holding been brutal or is that a wronged assumption?
I had a feeling that playing such a high profile character like that could be an issue. One of the sad truths about this business is that despite the enormous amount of creativity that is involved in making great Tv and Film, there isn’t much creative thinking in casting the roles. They see a guy play a drug addict, and suddenly he’s a “drug addict actor”. I often joke that if I had been brought onto the show as a DEA agent, I’d only get called to play those roles. So, I asked my agent to please be very selective about the roles that start coming in. I wasn’t against playing addicts, but I didn’t want to become a professional “day player” – actors who just do one scene on a show and then never return- so, if we could limit those kind of roles to the projects that are worth it, maybe we could change the paradigm from “he’s a drug actor” to “he’s a chameleon”. Now, she may be a little prone to hyperbole when giving me this info., as some agents are known to do, but, she tells me that she’s rejected quite a few offers for “skinny pete” type of roles. Luckily, she doesn’t always tell me when those offers come in, because my financial situation at the time was a little more desperate than I would have liked it to be and I may have been tempted to abandon my strategy for a quick payday, but, I think it was the right choice for the long game. It is a brutal business sometimes. I sacrificed a lot of money to overcome that stereotype, but not everyone has the kind of stubborn resolve that I do, or is in a position to turn down work. Some actors are content to be Stereotyped, as long as it keeps them working, and I don’t blame them a bit, but, I think it comes back to my Military brat upbringing; I’m not used to being the same person for an extended period of time, it doesn’t feel right to me, so, I took the risk that someone would give me a chance at something else and waited for the right moment to come.
I have yet to get a chance to see the film, but you have a role in new film Ain’t Them Body Saints. The film looks incredible. Can you tell us a bit about your role in the film and what you thought of working in the world of Westerns?
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is such a beautiful experience. I didn’t say film, because to me, it’s more than just a film, it’s an experience. I knew that David Lowery was an exceptional writer/director from the moment I watched his short film PIONEER. He has such a beautiful and powerful vision that I didn’t hesitate to call him directly when I saw the news of ATBS being announced (we had an existing relationship from a short film we did together in Tx). I play a character named “Bear”, which is obviously a bit ironic considering my size and complete lack of the ability to grow a beard. Bear and his posse had one purpose; kill Bob Muldoon. We are his past come back to haunt him and make him pay for his transgressions against us, whatever they may be.
I LOVE working on westerns, although this one was actually set in the 70′s, it had a very timeless feel to it. But to be able to, in a sense, relive a time in history; to have a chance to almost taste the flavor of that time, be a part of a zeitgeist that no longer exists, is hard to describe. We live in a world of imagination, and when it’s in tune with a world from a time gone by, it’s almost transcendent, definitely magical.
If you were given the chance to have the lead in a biopic for any major figure in American history, alive or dead, who would it be?
This particular question is the reason it took me a few days to finish this Q&A. There are so many different ways to answer it that I needed time to reflect on not only what my answer would ultimately be, but, also, what my motivation for that particular answer is. Do I just say someone famous whom the audience might find impressive, or do I pick someone who I genuinely admire, and if so, does it have to be someone that I could viably portray? But then it hit me; a person who has had a tremendous influence on my career, who is the reason I was so determined to work so hard to be known as a “chameleon actor” as opposed to a “character actor” is Joel Grey. How he isn’t known as one of the world’s greatest by now is beyond me. Everything he does is captivating, precise, and phenomenal! The fact that he is such a true Chameleon may very well be the reason why he isn’t recognized for being as great as he it. I would love a chance to bring his story to the world and at the same time, have a chance to learn as much about his life and career as I can in the process.
The only other person I would want to portray would be my father, Col. Alfred W. Baker. He was one of the highest decorated soldiers in Viet Nam, held many high-ranking posts around the world, literally wrote the book on Middle Eastern terrorist tactics, and is rumored to be the one of the men that Col. Kurtz, Brando’s character in APOCALYPSE NOW, was based on. The only issue with me playing him would be that I’m about 1 foot and a half too short.
What sort of things does the future hold for you? Any new projects in the works?
The future is bright!! My manager has been pulling double shifts keeping the work flowing for me, and I’m in awe of the results! I’m currently working on a little show on NBC called THE BLACKLIST with James Spader. I play James’ right-hand man/confidant, GREY. I’m not necessarily a regular character on the show, yet, but I will be in and out as much as they need me. In between episodes of The Blacklist, I’ve got a small role in film that is currently shooting in Oregon with Reese Witherspoon called WILD. After that, I’m going to be in AZ in December of this year performing my first lead role in a feature film called ELEVEN ELEVEN. I can’t tell you how excited I am about that project! Not just because it’s my first lead, but because the script is REALLY good! And lastly, after ELEVEN ELEVEN, I’m going to be playing a character named Chris Walton in Stephen Bochco’s new crime drama MURDER IN THE FIRST, on TNT. The cast on that show is as impressive as a cast can get! I’m just so incredibly grateful for all of these opportunities!
Beyond your working career, what does a hard working guy like you do to simply relax and/or let off some steam so to say?
2 things: My family and Music. In Texas, I had a lot of free time. When I made the choice to make acting my only job, I found myself waiting for work, a lot. I spent a lot of time gardening, taking care of my daughter while my wife worked, and just sitting around the house waiting for my agent to call. Most of my friends will tell you that I absolutely HATED weekends, because not only didn’t I have anything to do, I most definitely wasn’t going to be getting any calls about possible jobs until Monday! Then I moved to LA, feeding on the momentum of Breaking Bad, and found myself with time off from jobs as opposed to being unemployed and hoping for work. That made time off feel a lot more relaxing than before, so, now I’m learning how to enjoy it more. Now that I’m not afraid to spend money because I didn’t know when my next job would be, me and my family have started doing cool family things like going to fairs and shows and, hopefully someday soon, Disney Land.
I play with my kids when they’re not in school or taking naps, and I periodically lock myself in my garage/office and play my guitar and wail out my favorite cover songs by The Beatles and John Prine (and the occasional Simon and Garfunkle), and when I’m alone at the house, with no one to disturb me, I break out the Wii and feed my Mario Kart addiction- there tends to be a lot of foul language involved, so it’s best to do when the kids aren’t home.
What was the last thing that made you smile?
I wake up smiling every day lately. I’ve been very happily married for 13 years now, I have 4 extremely healthy children-the youngest in diapers and the oldest in Law School (on an academic scholarship), and I have a pretty respectable acting career going. Not bad for a guy who was thrown out of high school, dropped out of college, and worked as a short-order cook for a good portion of his adult life!