Low-key in jeans, sneakers and his signature glasses, Simon Baker was in a reflective mood as he sat in a messy meeting room in a suburban Melbourne cinema on Monday with his son Harry.
“Can you not do that, mate? It’s clearly distracting,” the Australian actor gently chided his teenage son as he fiddled with something noisy.
Baker is now a dab hand at giving instructions to teenage boys thanks to his directorial debut Breath, an adaptation of Tim Winton’s 2008 novel.
In what he described as an “exhausting” experience, Baker spent months filming in Western Australia, coaxing performances from his debutant stars Samson Coulter, then 16, and Ben Spence, then 15 – two surfers with zero acting experience.
Born in Tasmania, Baker may have spent more than two decades in Hollywood, but in many ways he’s the antithesis of all it stands for.
He’s been married to the same woman, wife Rebecca Rigg, for 20 years, keeps his personal life completely out of the spotlight and was hesitant to name his celebrity friends when asked (for the record: Keith Urban, Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts).
Plus, he’s completely uninterested in his many plum Hollywood roles. When asked about The Devil Wears Prada, in which he starred alongside Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep, he responded: “I don’t know, I never saw it.”
Instead, perhaps in a very Australian, tall poppy manner, Baker was self-deprecating and almost a little negative in person – more concerned about dishing out harsh truths than getting caught up in glamorous gossip or gags.
Asked to identify one reason he’s proud to be Australian, Baker went downbeat: “Sometimes I feel ashamed about our politics … We seemingly have a crisis with the idea of leadership in this country at the moment.”
And as for the secret to maintaining a long marriage in an industry of divorce and romantic tumult, “there isn’t one”, he admitted, adding that he “forgets” how long he and his wife have been together.
“We don’t mean to be impressive. I don’t think either of us wants to be the poster children for impressive relationships,” Baker said.
On the subject of parenting, he is similarly self-reflective. “In my best moments I’m a student and in my worst moments I’m rigid and brittle,” he explained of his fathering tactics.
It’s perhaps all a sign that the long-time sex symbol, who captivated American TV audiences for seven years as ex-psychic Patrick Jane in hit series The Mentalist, is trying to get a little bit more serious in later life.
“Proud as I am of the work I’ve done as an actor, I would hope maybe The Mentalist is not my only legacy,” he admitted.
Back in Sydney with his wife and three children for almost four years now, he’s been enjoying life without a hectic TV filming schedule.
“My life in Australia is probably more social than it was in California,” he said.
“Hollywood is a work town. There’s the glossy side that gets attention but most of the time I was at work.”
But even without the Hollywood sign hovering over his head, Baker remains instantly recognisable thanks to the tousled mane of blonde curls and, of course, those glasses, which he insisted are optical and not a style statement.
“I had the one pair of glasses for years, they were tortoiseshell, like the British health-style. I started wearing those ones around 2002 and they weren’t so common,” he recalled.
“Then they became really common and then everyone had them … I felt like such a wanker.”
A recent replacement pair was stomped on by the cinematographer for Breath, prompting Baker to fly to New York and stock up at his glasses outlet of choice, US luxury brand Moscot.
“These are new but the dog chewed these on the side,” he said, gesturing to his latest trendy pair.
“Anyway, it’s a big thing,” he added, with mock gravity.
Despite his seriousness, Baker is capable of moments of levity, particularly when discussing his love of surfing with Harry – and his biggest guilty pleasure .. which is surprisingly, well, normal.
“Checking Instagram on the toilet,” he laughed.
Even Hollywood heartthrobs have bad habits.