Emotional Center: Interview with Robert Baker of Devil's Knot

By , Contributor

Actor Robert Baker

On May 5, 1993, three eight-year-old male children living in West Memphis, Arkansas went missing from their homes and the following day were found dead in the nearby woods, their bodies brutally beaten. Not long after, three teenagers, who became known as “The West Memphis Three” were arrested, charged, tried, and subsequently convicted of the crime.

In 2002, the true crime book Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three by Mara Leveritt was published and chronicles the murders and subsequent trial as well as conviction of the three teenagers. Moviegoers will be able to watch these events unfold on the big screen in the upcoming Devil’s Knot feature film, which recently had its world premiere at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). It stars Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth, and Bruce Greenwood along with Robert Baker, who plays Police Detective Bryn Ridge. Baker was in the middle of working on another project when the audition for Devil’s Knot came along.

“I was actually in Los Angeles on a break from shooting The Lone Ranger,” recalls the actor, “So I was sporting this huge and ridiculous period mustache and these giant muttonchops when I went in to read for Deb Aquila, the casting director for Devil’s Knot. It went really well. Deb and I talked for a bit and I told her that I grew up near the area where the movie is set.

“A few days later I returned to New Mexico to finish work on The Lone Ranger. While I was away, Atom Egoyan, the director for Devil’s Knot, was going to be in L.A. for just one day and seeing more actors for the movie. Luckily for me, we wrapped early on The Lone Ranger, so I flew back to L.A. at five the next morning. I had just enough time to shave off the mustache before meeting with Atom at noon. Everything ended up working out and I got the job.”

Like his fellow Devil’s Knot cast mates, the actor was hired to play a real-life person, and therefore wanted to ensure his portrayal of Detective Ridge was as authentic as possible.

“These people are so well-documented in Paradise Lost, the very popular HBO documentary about the murders, and you get a real sense of who they are from that,” explains Baker. “It was a little bit tricky in Devil’s Knot to remain true to that [documentary] and who this guy is. He’s a real person, and people will look at the two of us and see our differences as well as similarities. So that required me to do a balancing act of sorts. Also, we had no clue what Ridge’s thought process was like, which meant Atom and I had to try our best to figure out what made him tick and do the things that he did throughout the investigation.

“I read the Devil’s Knot book as well as watched the documentary prior to the start of filming, but the funny thing is, many of the other actors were able to find the actual people who they play in the movie. A lot of them were/are attorneys, law enforcement officials or judges, so they’re public citizens, but we couldn’t find the detective that I’d be playing. I guess that makes sense, though. It doesn’t really behoove a police officer for everyone to know who and where he is. You’d want a certain amount of anonymity.

“There are four categories of people in this story: the police, the attorneys, the victims, and the accused. As far as the police go, Detective Ridge is sort of the emotional center. He’s the one who actually pulled the little boys’ bodies from the river, and the way that Atom saw it, and we discussed this, is that what happened to him from having gone through that trauma, affected the way everything kind of went from there.

“The detective lost a pretty major piece of evidence that could have, if not found the actual murderers, definitely could have exonerated the teenagers imprisoned. I didn’t know if it was something that he maybe did on purpose or that because of the trauma, he genuinely couldn’t get his head quite right. Atom found that a lot more interesting and we agreed to play that, so, again, my character acts as the emotional center for these police officers.”

Among the more challenging scenes for Baker from shooting Devil’s Knot is the one in which his character finds the murdered boy’s bodies. “It was wild because on the day we filmed that, it was heavily overcast and there were electrical storms all around us,” he says. “I was wading through this shallow stream and we really wanted to get the rain, but it just wouldn’t rain. However, as soon as we finished the scene, this huge storm hit and, in fact, we had to shut down production for a couple of hours.

“Some of the courtroom scenes were challenging for me, too. I’m still a relatively young actor and this is one of the meatier roles I’ve had so far in my career. So to be in a scene and holding court with people like Reese Witherspoon [Pam Hobbs], Colin Firth [Ron Lax], Bruce Greenwood [Judge David Burnett] and other such amazing actors was challenging on a different level. You really have to be on your toes when you’re acting in front of people who you truly admire.

“I have to mention, too, that Atom is a fantastic director to work with. He doesn’t try to over-complicate things in his storytelling or directing. Atom is very actor-friendly, incredibly smart and knows exactly what he wants in a scene. Just because of the way my schedule was, I was one of the first people there and one of the last to leave, so I had the chance to watch him for quite a while and I enjoyed every minute of that.”

At the age of 15, Baker began performing onstage, and that later inspired him to become a professional actor. Prior to that, he considered a very different line of work.

“One of my grandfathers was a doctor, and I thought about following in his footsteps. However, when I think about it now, I realize that there is no way in hell I could do it,” says the actor with a chuckle. “I don’t even like going to the doctor, so I couldn’t imagine being one.

“A couple of weeks after I graduated college, I booked a part in the movie Out of Time starring Denzel Washington and directed by Carl Franklin. More than anything, getting to work with those types of guys at my age gave me the confidence to know that I could do this [acting]. To come right out of school and have a really positive experience with such a supportive director and talented and impressive group of people did a great deal for me. That role was extremely significant in my career as well as my development as an actor.”

Among the actor’s other film credits are The Ladykillers, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and the aforementioned The Lone Ranger. “That was just plain fun,” enthuses Baker. “The Lone Ranger was kind of like a young mans’ idea of what an actor gets to do; you put on a cowboy costume, grow a mustache, shoot guns and ride horses. It was a blast as well as an eye-opener to work on something of that scale. Gore Verbinski [director] is a great, smart, and fun guy who has wild, huge ideas for his films, so it was impressive to watch someone like that work with the type of talent that he had to work with on this movie.”

Did the actor have any difficulty riding a horse in the film? “When I was seven I got kicked in the head by a horse, so I didn’t ride for years,” he notes. “When I was 25 or 26 I was cast in a Western called Seraphim Falls, and they asked me if I could ride a horse. Of course I said, ‘Yes.’ I wasn’t about to not take this job. As soon as I got the role, I began taking riding lessons, but I didn’t have enough time to really get it down pat. We had a riding camp before filming began, and one of the cowboys helping us took me aside, worked with me and I eventually got it. Now I really enjoy it and I’m a half-decent rider.”

In addition to a variety of made-for-TV movies, Baker has guest-starred on such series as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, NCIS, Six Feet Under, Cold Case and CSI: NY. He also had recurring roles on Justified and, despite his physician phobia, Grey’s Anatomy.

“I’ve been a big fan of Justified for a long time,” says the actor. “I had a ball working with Tim Olyphant [Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens] and the crew on that series is terrific. My character [Randall Kusik] was this really big, broad, nasty, and wild type of guy, and it’s always fun to play the badass and know that your character can beat up anyone in the room and just sort of be the cock of the walk as it were. I got to do some things on that show that in real life would land you in jail,” jokes Baker.

“As for Grey’s Anatomy, well, there you go. That was me scared of being a doctor and then having to play one. That was a wonderful working environment and with some very friendly and supportive people. The cast and crew who have been there since day one have done all the hard work. Now the show has its audience, is popular and the writing is smart. All you have to do is come in and not screw it up. Shonda Rhimes [series creator/executive producer] is a really nice and busy lady and I still keep in semi-contact with her. My commute while working on this series was my best ever in LA. The studio is about five minutes from my house, so I walked to work a few times. You couldn’t beat it.”

The actor recently finished shooting the independent feature The Last Time You Had Fun and has also written a film script of his own called Mantivities that he hopes to begin production on next year. Like most in his profession, Baker never knows what his next role will be, but the most important thing for him is to always try to play a character as different as possible from the previous one.

“I know a lot of people tend to do the same thing over and over again, and not because they can’t do more, but because that’s sort of the way things have turned out for them, do you know what I mean,” he says. “So I feel extremely lucky to have played a pretty wide range of roles, even with just the ones I’ve talked about today—doctor, cowboy, a real-life detective. I feel like that’s been the most rewarding thing for me when it comes to being an actor, and the most encouraging thing, too, in that I’ve not been playing the same type of part over and over.”

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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