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I have not been on a ton of film and television sets, but I have been on enough to know when something, or someone, is different. It didn’t take long after meeting Charles Baker (known to many as “Skinny Pete” on AMC’s Breaking Bad) to know he was different. Very different.
I met Charles in my role as background casting director for the independent feature film, August Falls. Directed by Sam Hancock (Being Us), the film is about a grief-stricken Mother, played by Fairuza Balk (The Craft, American History X, The Waterboy), who works to find the truth behind her son’s mysterious death. Along this journey she meets, and bonds with, the building superintendent of her dead son’s apartment building, Jonas (Baker), who joins her in her journey both physically and emotionally.
August Falls doesn’t have the number of extras one might find in a large-scale Hollywood film, nor does it have the budget. But the extras who worked on this film got more than money – they got to be a part of this amazing project and see what looks to be an amazing film, very up-close and personal. Hancock ran what I can only describe as an “intimate” set, where everyone was a part of the starting line-up, and Baker helped set the tone.
The male lead of the film, and the most recognizable male face, Baker didn’t show it in his attitude or his personality. He was happy to be there, happy to be on set, happy to be a working actor, and happy to talk with anyone who wanted to speak with him.
He was even gracious enough to share with me his personal contact information so we could keep in touch. As I started recounting some of the information he told me about his past – how he came up in acting – I realized I needed to take advantage of that contact information. I reached out to ask him if I could share his story. Staying true to the man I met, he was more than happy to oblige.
To look at Baker, one wouldn’t likely think “Music Major,” but that’s exactly what he was when he started college. It was his interest in music that led him to perform in musicals. From there, Baker was asked to be in a “straight-play” (spoken like a true theater pro); the role was that of an attorney representing a terminally-ill man, forced to be on life support, in Whose Life Is It Anyway. According to Baker, the feeling of performing a character on stage felt like his first real opportunity to act, and he was hooked.
Going to school and living in the Dallas area didn’t provide Baker as much opportunity as those in LA may find but not as much competition, either. He knew that it took more than just quality performances to earn him work – it would take professionalism too. It didn’t take long for word of not only his talent but also his consummate professionalism, to make its way around town. Soon Baker was working in theater so much he had to question continuing his education in the very subject he was already working in. He left school figuring he would receive a better education and be more financially stable if he worked a day job and also worked in theater.
Baker continued on this path, working in the restaurant industry, as so many in the entertainment world do but doing it differently. His professional side shone through, and he rose above the starting position of dishwasher all the way to general management. But he wasn’t happy, not really. He knew where he wanted to be and what he wanted to do. After an incident at his job, at a Dallas-area jazz club, in which he was disrespected in front of other employees by a senior manager, Baker decided he’d rather work harder at what he loved than spend another moment working in an environment he didn’t. “I used restrictive work – my day job – as an excuse to not do more in entertainment,” Baker states. So he quit and focused on the entertainment industry in a city where there wasn’t much of one.
Once deciding to really go for it, Baker worked in almost every capacity one could think of: from stagehand in theatrical shows, to grip and camera assistant work on local sets. Anything to pay the bills and keep his work on the stages of Dallas going. But there was only so much stage work he could do. To that effect, there was only so much screen work as well. His first opportunity to be on a film set was as an extra in the mini-series To Serve and Protect, starring Craig T. Nelson and John Corbett.
From there, the only recurring on-camera project in the Dallas area at the time was Walker: Texas Ranger, and that’s where Baker did his second run as an extra. Well, his second, third, fourth… he was on the show so many times as an extra, the producers in LA watching the show called and had him cut from working anymore. He was showing up too often. But that time proved extremely valuable. He already knew how to deliver a character as an actor but not how to work on a film set – “I learned how to act and work on a set (by being an extra).”
The irony would come years later, when Baker got his first on-camera speaking role in the Walker: Texas Ranger Reunion TV movie. His being cast had nothing to do with his previous time there; it just worked out that way. But, in markets outside of LA, this is how it can go.
Having started in the theater, and musical theater at that, Baker wasn’t in it for the fame and glory. Good thing, since there wasn’t much of that available in Dallas. Baker was in it for the work. That’s not to say he didn’t recognize a great opportunity over others. When he first was called in for a new show called Breaking Bad for a day player role of “Skinny Stoner,” it was just another audition. When he read the script, he knew it was anything but. “I had an intuition about the show. I knew I wanted to be a part of it.” His chances were stronger, having attended a casting director’s workshop by the late Sharri Rhodes, who was casting the show.
Breaking Bad was filming in Albuquerque, New Mexico so principal day player casting was being done out of the Dallas area to increase the options. Baker made the first round of auditions, and the call-back, and was cast as “Tattooed/Skinny Stoner”. About the audition mentality, Baker states: “Local actors think those in the hall (at the audition) are who you’re up against. You’re up against the guys in LA too.”
For anyone who’s a fan of the show, we know how it turned out. Baker appeared in an episode and was given an identity – not just by the writers and Vince Gilligan, but by Baker himself, bringing life and personality to what may have otherwise remained “Tattooed/Skinny Stoner.” As the show continued, Baker’s role did as well, though not officially. “I was hired as a day player. I was kept as a day player until the final episodes of the last season,” Baker recounts. But he’s not complaining.
Baker wasn’t a union actor for his first appearance; so when he got asked to do a second episode, one that would begin to further establish a character and longer-term opportunity, he had to quickly join the Screen Actors Guild. “I borrowed my mother-in-law’s credit card and was calling the union office from my hotel room. I paid more to join the union than I got paid to do that episode.” But it paid off. Baker appeared in fifteen episodes of Breaking Bad, including two as a topline cast member.
His memorable work on Breaking Bad provided a career- launching platform from which to show the rest of the world who he was and what he could bring. For an actor cast as “simply” a stoner, he brought depth and meaning and helped create a character. Baker worked hard to get the opportunity and made that opportunity work hard for him. This is how you make it.
Since Breaking Bad, Baker has appeared as a recurring guest-star in two of the hottest new prime-time dramas, The Blacklist and Murder in the First. Expanding beyond that, he has filmed several feature-film roles which sound memorable on paper, but with Baker in the role, are sure to be so on screen as well. This would include the aforementioned August Falls. But Baker not only knows how he got to where he is, he appreciates and respects those making the climb. Like a mountain climber who’s made the big scale, he doesn’t look away from those scaling it now but instead provides a word of encouragement.
There are film and television sets with large-name stars working them that ask the extras to not engage in conversation with these stars. A very “do not speak unless spoken to” environment. And there’s good reason for it. Acting is serious business, and some actors prepare in different ways. Having an extra try to talk to the principal actor before a big scene is paramount to a co-worker trying to chit-chat with you as you prepare a presentation for a big meeting. It’s not that they don’t want to meet you or say “hi”, it’s that they have to focus elsewhere. I get it.
That said, there are times when this is not the case. Principal actors who are done for the day, or at lunch with no upcoming scenes, or whatever the “no reason not to be pleasant” case may be, often still stay away from meeting the “paid fans.” Not Baker. On one of his days off from filming August Falls, he came down to set, just to say “hi” and chat with everyone, especially the extras. Different.
Maybe it’s because he’s been there, he understands what it’s like. Maybe it’s because he loves acting and being on set as much as the next actor. Maybe it’s because he’s just a class act. Maybe all three. I’m proud to say August Falls had a great group of extras. Professional, courteous and understanding of the “hurry-up-and-wait” world of a professional film set. They also understood not to engage with the principal actors unless they engaged with them. With Baker, that meant everyone got to meet him, as he would do the introductions himself, more often than not. And if he didn’t, he was more than happy if I did. Baker was more than happy to shake hands, stand, chat and take pictures. Different. Not to say others weren’t this way too. Tamara Taylor, most notably from the Fox TV show Bones would be another example of a very kind, gracious actress. But that’s another story.
With Baker, no one had to worry about ego, about being asked to leave for looking in his direction, or being otherwise fearful of the man. He also didn’t seem to mind being called “Skinny Pete” by fans and onlookers. He was “just grateful for the work.” That’s church, yo.