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Space to breathe: Simon Baker on his directorial debut

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Seven years of The Mentalist has made Simon Baker an identity obsessive. His forthcoming film, Breath, grapples with the subject too. So what we can expect from this latest project?

‘Identity. I think I’m probably a little bit obsessed with it.’

After a long stint playing the lead role in TV series The Mentalist, Simon Baker has been playing with his own professional identity, trying his hand as film writer and director. His film Breath is set to premier at the Toronto International Film Festival, which opens on September 7 for ten days.

‘I had a finger in lots of pies with that film,’ he says. ‘It was liberating in an artistic sense, after having worked on a show like The Mentalist for seven years. Though that programme was entertaining and far-reaching, there were limits to what I could do creatively.’

“I had a finger in a lot of pies with that film. It was liberating after seven years of The Mentalist”

Breath is an adaptation of the novel by the same name by Booker Prize-winning author Tim Winton. It tells the story of two teenage boys who form an unlikely friendship with a older surfer and push themselves to risky behaviour.

‘Working on The Mentalist was like running a marathon – you’ve got to pace yourself, in a way. Not that making Breath was a sprint. It was more like a decathlon. There were lots of different elements to it, I got to grow, develop and flex muscles I don’t normally get to use, but that I’ve always had a desire to use.’

It’s an experience he clearly relished. ‘Normally as an actor you’re in a position of service; more so, you’re servicing someone else’s vision. With this process, as director, you’re the one shaping a lot of the vision.’

The film is set in a remote, Western Australian coastal town in the Seventies. ‘We shot it in a little town called Denmark, down near Albany, right on the southern point of Western Australia. It’s a beautiful town in a stunning environment, and that’s a big aspect of the film. The environment is a big personality.’

Breath movie, Simon Baker, The Jackal magazine

But the film’s main theme is Baker’s self-proclaimed obsession, identity. ‘It’s a coming of age film, but the primary thing is identity. It’s about trying to define who you are and how you should be with others,’ he explains. ‘Everyone’s trying to work it out. It’s a natural human thing to try and understand who you are as a person in relation to your parents, your peers, your mentors and so on. And I think it’s a big thing in the world at the moment.’

Another of Baker’s ‘identities’ is as an ambassador with watch brand Longines for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, being held on the opposite side of Australia, on the Gold Coast.

“It’s a natural human thing to try and understand who you really are”

‘It’s an honour to be part of it, in any way,’ he says. ‘It’s a very positive event, which brings people together, inspires people, and celebrates the idea of sport and humanity at a time when we really need to celebrate humanity as much as we possibly can.’

Baker, of course, isn’t donning lycra to compete. Nevertheless, his wrist does boast a sporty Longines Conquest. ‘It has a 1/100 seconds counter which makes it more precise as a stopwatch,’ he points out. ‘I’m often that guy who goes on the way a watch looks, but the Conquest and Conquest Classic are what I like to wear.’

After this stop in London for the Commonwealth Games’ Queen’s Baton Relay, Baker’s heading off to Toronto for the premier of Breath, where he’ll wait to hear the verdict of his peers on his work.

‘I’m really privileged that the film’s now going to be played in front of an audience,’ he says, demurely. ‘I just feel really lucky to have had this experience.’

With The Mentalist finished and his film done and dusted, we watch to see what Baker does next. Whichever hat he’s wearing – actor, writer, director, ambassador –there’s sure to be more that’s interesting from him yet.