Emmy Nominee Dylan Baker
Thirteen Seasons at Williamstown Theatre Festival
By: Charles Giuliano - Jul 11, 2010
A lot has happened for the affable Dylan Baker since we spoke last year. He directed The Torch Bearers in 2009.
He took a break from rehearsing Our Town to meet with me in the lobby of the ’62 Center of the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
Just the day before he was nominated for an Emmy Award for his fascinating role as an accused killer in the hit TV show The Good Wife. He also appeared in several episodes of Ugly Betty during the Fall and on Broadway in God of Carnage for four months during the Spring. That show closed in time to participate in his 13th season in Williamstown.
Dylan is a warm and charming guy. There is an easy and engaging smile. It is a paradox that consistently he is cast as a villain.
I tried to jump start the interview by opening with a curve ball. Hurling a bit of chin music to brush him off the plate. It didn’t work as he effortlessly stepped out of the batter’s box.
Charles Giuliano, You’re such a bastard.
Dylan Baker (Smiles): The question is did I kill my wife? The Good Wife is a chance to see that even though this guy was skeevey and sort of oily.
DB A Levantine kind of guy who had his pleasures. Hey they were not in the main stream but he is devoid of guilt. He is able to find a balance in the relationship with his wife. They were both happy, and she left him free to pursue the course of what he did. I still don’t know if he killed his wife. In that second episode that’s when he confessed to it but it has more to do with getting her reaction (The lawyer Julianna Margulies as Mrs. Florrick) than an actual confession. What good would it do to confess? Would he do it for his own pleasure? He likes his lawyer. He likes to give her a rise. He is attracted to her.
DB Probably not. She’s not his type. Julianne Marguiles plays the lawyer Alicia Florrick. Peter Florrick is named after Dann Florek an actor and director in Law and Order. The character was named after him.
CG Did you meet Chris Noth, who plays Peter Florrick, on the set?
DB Chris and I were at grad school together for two years at Yale. Every day I was on the set, he was off, and every day he worked I was off. So we never saw each other.
CG On The Good Wife you play a complex and evil character with a lot of nuances. Perhaps that’s why you have been nominated for an Emmy Award.
DB The thing about that character that appeals to me is that I can find a positive side of these questionable ethics and moral convictions. That’s interesting to me. It’s a contradiction. It is such a negative that people see a bad guy and see just the bad. As an actor you can see a good side to the character even though an audience might not see it.
CG How do you develop such a character? Is it method? Is there a part of the character in you? Do you dig deep into your inner feelings to find the role?
DB Say there is a character that I am developing. I can’t study a murderer because he is already found guilty. All you would find is a guy whom society has already called bad. What I need to find is an innocent guy who still thinks himself incapable of being bad. I find all of that inside myself. Inside yourself you are capable of all kinds of the most despicable things. But once the job is over you just take a shower and all that despicable stuff just goes away.
CG You’re bullshitting me.
DB (With a sincere smile) No, I’m not. I have a friend at Yale, and her pre show exercise was a cigarette and a cup of coffee. Every actor has a different technique for getting ready.
CG What was the teaching technique at Yale? Did it entail Method Acting or was it a more classical approach?
DB I’m not method. I never quite understood that. Yale was more about experiencing lots of different kinds of plays with different directors and very little time. So you had to create on the run. That mirrors life. When you do get a job finally there is no time to make something happen.
CG Did you do classical theatre, the Greeks and Shakespeare?
DB Greek no. But much Shakespeare when I was younger. Around 1978. I went through about three seasons of summer Shakespeare. There were three Shakespeare shows per summer with the occasional Our Town thrown in. As a professional I directed and acted in NY Shakespeare a couple of times. What drove me to do that was the notion that if you can act in Shakespeare you can act in anything.
CG What about the craft? As an actor how do you keep improving? What keeps you sharp?
DB Once I was done with Yale I have avoided any more classroom training. I had done quite a few plays before grad school. Those three years and subsequent summers at Williamstown Theatre Festival really brought together all my thinking and technique about acting to go forward in a professional way.
CG There seems to be a generational phenomenon that students and young artists today are not interested in the basics. If you try to teach them the classics or critique them the response is that you are repressing their freedom. Their primary focus is on expressing themselves. Even though they don't have much to say, and limited skill in conveying richness of nuance and feelings.
DB One teacher we had in the second year of grad school taught Shakespeare. He started us on sonnets. It’s true that it would be hard to find young actors today with the patience to work on a sonnet as hard as we did. Because the gain is not immediate. It is not a fast learning experience.
CG How do you maintain and enhance your skills?
DB By going back to the stage. If I just did TV and film I would loose a lot of the tools I gained along the way. It is self sustaining. For me it is a process of learning and performing a part, working with other actors, and different directors.
CG This season I saw you in God of Carnage. How many times have you been on Broadway?
DB God of Carnage was my fifth play on Broadway .
CG You took over an established role. Have you initiated any?
DB The other four times I initiated the role. . First was Eastern Standard by Richard Greenberg (1988). It ran a few months. Then David Hirson’s La Bete (1991). It is being revived by Matthew Warchus who won a Tony for directing God of Carnage. Then l did Mauritius by Theresa Rebeck. In 2008 I was in David Mamet’s November with Nathan Lane and Laurie Metcalf.
CG Is there anything coming up?
DB Just blissful unemployment. How did Paul McCarntney put it? Nowhere to go.
CG This is just about where we ended when we talked last summer. You were about to head to Hollywood.
DB (Tries to recall) Last year ended up going to Hollywood? I got a phone call to do a few episodes of Ugly Betty. That got me through the fall and then two episodes of The Good Wife in winter. And God of Carnage in the Spring.
CG The role in The Good Wife got you nominated for an Emmy for Guest Actor in a Drama Series.
DB The Good Wife received eight nominations.
CG Once again you were a villain. In this case a very charming sociopath. You managed to get off the charges of murdering your wife. In the second episode Alicia Florrick, your attorney, is called to your home in the middle of the night. You manage to destroy evidence in her presence. There has been rough sex and the woman has been stabbed. You claim in self defense. Although yet again on trial for murder you seem to take pleasure in tantalizing Alicia. There appears to be reckless disregard that you are facing the death penalty. Nothing seems to ruffle your arrogant and self-absorbed persona. Just how did you develop such a richly nuanced character?
DB I felt like the writers for The Good Wife gave me a blue print in the first episode. As I did scenes and they saw daily’s the writing became richer in the direction we were taking the character. Later scenes had a bit of this or that added to it.
CG The Good Wife has wonderful acting and fascinating characters. When the series first aired in the fall I was undecided about whether to continue watching. Julianna Marguiles seemed like such a cold and unappealing character. But in subsequent episodes she became ever more complex. You watched her making tough decisions, defending her family, dealing with trying to succeed in jump starting her career. She is forced back to work because her politician husband is in jail. He has been unfaithful, and she is unclear on whether to continue supporting him. There are so many nuances as the series evolved. The more amazing as this is a network show. Not HBO. It seems we have come a long way from Law and Order or NY PD Blue.
DB On TV where you can write something with an arc over several years, it is now more interesting than a film that is finished in two years. But, to me, it doesn’t compare with the stage where classical playwrights or good modern playwrights give you amazing journeys that are yours for two hours that night.
CG One of those playwrights you have worked with has been David Mamet. Can you describe that experience?
DB The Mamet character was a setup man for Nathan Lane. I relished that opportunity. He is an old friend I knew along with the director Joe Mantello. I was able to get my share of laughs on the same stage with Nathan Lane. Which is not easy, because when Nathan took a part in November he hit a grand slam ever night.
CG This past season I saw you in God of Carnage on Broadway with Lucy Liu. Even though it was last year’s play, with a number of cast changes. It seems that there was a new cast every month. I wanted to see you. I knew of the play but not in detail before seeing it. The physical comedy and mayhem was amazing. But I was upset to see those beautiful tulips flying all over the set. What a waste of flowers. All fueled by that designer tequila.
DB Rum. The original cast of God of Carnage stayed until November and after the holidays took a break. James Gandolfini had a commitment to a film. The second cast performed for four months and our cast remained for four months. The play is closed now. People like Janet McTeer, Jeff Daniels, and Lucy Liu often can only commit to four months. Lucy Liu had never been on Broadway before Carnage.
CG Overall I was surprised and impressed by her performance. When the tulips were flying she held her own in the frantic physical comedy. You are back in Williamstown to appear in Our Town directed by Nicholas Martin. You mentioned doing the play in summer stock. How many times have you done Our Town?
DB This is my third production of Our Town. I did it in 1982 in Camden, Maine. I played Sam Craig a mourner in a funeral in the third act. I thought I would have nights off basically. Instead I watched the show every night and come to love it more and more. The final scene is written so beautifully. When Emily says goodbye. It makes you love life. It’s a celebration of life.
CG When did you become involved with this production?
DB It started last summer when Nicky talked with me about it. He wasn’t going to do it without Campbell Scott as the Stage Manager. That’s a damned good place to start.
CG There is an amazing cast for this show. It seems that all the WTF alumni have shown up to celebrate and honor Nicky. How many years have you been involved with WTF?
DB The program says 12 seasons, but I think actually it is 13. The first was 1983.
CG What has kept you coming back?
DB The Berkshires are incredible. There is the opportunity to do great plays with fun people and talented artists.
DB If Nicky Martin says come play we come play.
CG Next summer there will be a new artistic director?
DB The new artistic director Jenny Gersten is a great friend. It is a position she richly deserves, and Nicky would join me in anticipation and excitement for next year.
CG Will you come back next year?
DB I sure hope so. I want to continue with WTF.
CG Nicky is planning to direct a play next summer has he talked with you about it?
DB He is! That’s great news.
CG We all have to grow and change. At what point does it become routine to play yet another charming villain? How many times can you reach into the same bag of tricks? Do you see a time when you will be directing more?
DB Yes, I anticipate doing that much more than I am now. I need a lot more experience as a director. Eventually, I may take on the responsibilities of an artistic director of a company. Right now, I am much too busy as an actor.