Simon Baker has returned to Australia after a successful two-decade career in the US. DMARGE had the chance to chat with him about his new film Limbo and the importance of working on Australian stories.
Releasing May 18 in Australian cinemas is Limbo, a crime drama from award-winning Indigenous Australian filmmaker Ivan Sen that tells the story of a jaded detective who arrives in the fictional remote outback town of Limbo to investigate a 20-year-old cold case murder of a local Indigenous girl.
A slow-burn mystery that explores how a corrupt justice system left a deep impact on the lives of an indigenous community, Limbo also stars an almost unrecognisable Simon Baker in the lead role of Travis Hurley, a world-weary police detective who must confront his own demons that he attempts to keep at bay through an insidious drug addiction.
Since its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival this past February, Limbo has received strong reviews as a hard-boiled outback noir that features starling black and white photography and soul-rich performances from its cast, especially from Baker who has received career-best notices for his performance.
Naturally, we were very excited to have the chance to sit down with Simon and chat about Limbo as well as get his perspective on the Australian film industry in 2023.
WATCH the trailer for Limbo below.
Simon’s return to Australia
Limbo marks Baker’s fourth Australian production since he returned to his home country in 2015 after a successful career in the US that began in 1997 when a fresh-faced Baker made his feature film debut in the Oscar-winning crime thriller L.A. Confidential, which also starred Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce in their breakthrough Hollywood roles.
Baker would go on to find fame on the small screen, with his leading roles in the CBS crime dramas The Guardian and The Mentalist (respectively) earning him Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. In 2013, Baker was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Upon returning to Australia, Baker made his directorial debut in the coming-of-age drama Breath, which is based on the Tim Winton novel of the same name. Baker also starred and co-wrote the film, for which he received multiple AACTA nominations and a win for Best Supporting Actor. Roles in the acclaimed films High Ground and Blaze would follow.
“I spent 20 odd years in America, and I established a career for myself there, and a large portion of my life I was a father and a husband and a provider,” Baker tells DMARGE.
“That didn’t mean that I didn’t have an artistic heart. There was always a reason why I got into this profession, and it was because I remember as a teenager going to the movies feeling a connection and not feeling alone or not feeling isolated, and having something to project and reflect on screen, and that connection is interesting.”Simon Baker
“I feel like there are benefits in this country in the fact that we don’t have a massive film business,” Baker postulates.
“We can make smaller, character-driven films that have the potential to connect with marginalised aspects of our society and our culture, and we can do that in a relatively small analogue way, and we can still make cinema and make movies that may start a conversation or potentially move the needle a bit, and that’s exciting to me on an artistic level and as a human being.”
“So being the ace that I am now, I think I’m more conscious of wanting to connect with the work that I do,” he quips.
Disappearing into Limbo
Limbo provided an opportunity for Baker to work with one of Australia’s most accomplished filmmakers in Ivan Sen, who is especially known for his crime-western movies Mystery Road and Goldstone.
“Ivan is an incredibly talented and skilled filmmaker… He also has a pretty unique perspective into a world that we don’t see very often on screens, and coming back to Australia I was overwhelmed with the potential for new and interesting ways to stories within this country,” said Baker.
“Every conversation I had with Ivan I always left the conversation feeling more secure in what he was doing, and when you feel that sense of security and that precision in which he produces his filmmaking, it gives me more room and more space and more confidence as an actor, and a greater level of trust to take risks and to push it as the character.”
A large factor in accepting the role in Limbo resided in the stunning black-and-white landscape shots that Sen presented to Baker. Sen, who also handles cinematography in his movies, is known for his unique eye for landscapes. Limbo provided the award-winning filmmaker with the opportunity to work in the South Australian town of Coober Pedy, a former opal mining town known for its underground dwellings and remarkable, almost lunar-like landscapes.
“I do remember very clearly when [Ivan] sent through those first images, I was like ‘Wow! This is great. This is incredibly cinematic’,” said Baker. “I’m a big fan of cinematography, not just for the beauty of it but for the purpose of how you present a story, and the impact every single frame has on the way that story is told and the tone of it.”
“It was just exciting for me to know that I was working with someone that had that same kind of feeling and passion about how the story is told.”Simon Baker
“Ivan’s choice of shooting it in black and white was really exciting to me because it does have an impact on how the performance sits within the landscape… Your brain is so stimulated by colour that when you see something in black and white you look deeper into it,” Simon suggests.
Limbo also provided Baker with the opportunity to transform his physical appearance. Gone are the wavy blonde locks that many associate with the actor in favour of a buzz cut, along with large spectacles, a proper beard and a heavily tattooed body.
The decision to change Baker’s look for the film was an intentional one from Sen, who wanted the audience to disregard any preconceptions they might have had of Baker from his TV roles. For Baker, the look of his character presents the attention to detail that Sen brought to a film where minimalism is an important aspect of storytelling.
“You know, it’s not Elvis. It’s not about the glitter and the 15 costumes and the musical numbers… I almost wear the same outfit, so you have to really get all of that detail right because in the subtlety of it, the details have to be spot on,” said Baker.
“When you’re working on that kind of focused and minimalised and detailed approach, you have to be really on it. It seems like there’s not a lot to it, but not one little thing can slide by without it. It can stick out like dog’s balls if it’s wrong because you are dealing with a sparse palate.”Simon Baker
In the end, Baker hopes that Australian stories told in either film or TV will continue to manage to cut through an ever-increasing volume of international content.
“It is interesting how there are these massive tentpole movies that are just all about entertainment, and they pour hundreds of millions of dollars into those, and they reach these massively broad audiences, but then the other side of it we have these tiny small films that are often actually about something and we are lucky enough to be able to make those kind of films,” said Baker.
“Limbo is good, and I hope that we can continue to make films that reach audiences and connect audiences, and make audiences understand more about their existence and their part in the conversation.”Simon Baker
Limbo releases in Australian cinemas on May 18.