Actor and director Simon Baker.
Actor and director Simon Baker. Nic Duncan

It's a new wave film

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?”

Of course, I concur. I have been stood up by far lesser than Mr Baker. When we talk, he admits he had to run 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.

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, 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 still so familiar about him - that Aussie boy next door.

Born in northern New South Wales, he attended Ballina High and owns a property in nearby Nashua. Between Ballina and Hollywood, he did a solid stint in Surfers Paradise.

"A bunch of mates and I moved into this old fibro shack on Garfield Terrace. It had a huge pine tree in the back and then just beach.

"We all worked in hospitality and just surfed.”

Baker was back on the Coast last week to launch a project that's not just dear to his heart but his surfer's soul. Breath is his feature film directing debut, adapted from the novel by Australian Tim Winton, and it had its Queensland premiere at the Gold Coast Film Festival on Thursday.

The 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 sons Harry, 16, and Claude, 19, plus daughter Stella, 24, Baker felt instantly connected to the characters and themes in the novel before adapting it 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 film-maker. 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 last 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 in 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.

"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 a break and a relief to be somewhere that no one can contact you... 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.

"Bec (wife actor Rebecca Rigg) 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,” he says.

"There is something to say for being here and having a different perspective - or just having perspective - on what's happening in the world.”


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