Dylan Baker is a guy many people would recognize, even if they might not recall his name. Now, the actor who has performed in many TV series like “Damages,” “The Good Wife” and “Law & Order,” plus dozens of films, including a couple of movies in the “Spider-Man” franchise, has finally jumped behind the camera to direct. His debut is “23 Blast,” based on the true story of Travis Freeman, a high school football star who goes blind due to a sinus infection that permanently took away his sight. The film opens Friday.
Baker, 55, called the other day from his New York City home to discuss the film and his career so far.
Q: What took you so long to decide to direct?
A: Well, I guess it’s because nobody asked me that magic question: Do you want to direct this?
Also, I guess I had thought about doing it as a younger man. Then I got married and had a child and thought, ‘Man! It would take so much time. And then you’ve got to raise the money and everything.’ So those are some of the reasons I didn’t do it earlier.
Finally, when Bram Hoover [the co-screenwriter of ’23 Blast,’ who also stars in the film set in his Corbin, Kentucky hometown] asked me to direct this three years ago, it came at the right time. I had just said goodbye to my daughter as I sent her off to school in Maine for college.
Q: You’ve clearly worked with a huge number of directors over the years. What did you take away from that experience and apply to this first directing job of your own?
A: I think I tried to take the good qualities of the folks I liked a lot, and left behind some of those that I wasn’t so crazy about! One of the things I never like is when someone tries to get in there and take away from what you’re trying to do. They try to start leading you down another path you just know won’t work.
So for this, I just tried to cast really good actors, and get the heck out of the way. Let them show me what they could do.
People like Stephen Lang [who plays the high school football coach] would surprise me every day. He would take what I considered a normal little scene and turn it into this nugget. I can’t say enough about his performance.
Q: Who are some of the good directors you tried to emulate?
A: I’ve been very lucky. I’ve worked with Barry Levinson twice, and he’s fantastic. I’ll share a story with you about working with John Boorman [in “The Tailor of Panama”]. We had just finished a take, and John could see in my eyes that I wasn’t satsified. He was all ready to move on to the next scene, but when I asked if we could go again, he immediately said yes. I tried something totally different, and as soon as he called cut, I could tell he liked what I did.
He then built a whole other setup for that scene and incorporated it into the film. I made me feel part of the process and that my input was appreciated. I never forgot that.
That was something I tried to carry on with this film whenever an actor would do something like that.
Q: Timothy Busfield is an actor, but also a director, and you have him in your film as the not-very-likable school athletic director. Did he give you any directing tips?
A: He did indeed. He had directed me in “Damages,” and I loved his direction on that set, plus his enthusiasm. When I asked him to take a role in “23 Blast” he immediately said he’d do it. I laughed and said, “Tim, you’ve got to read the script first!”
He did and then he called me. “I hate this guy! I’ll do it!”
He was great.
Q: Along with directing, you play the father of Travis Freeman. Obviously portraying real people who are still around is an added pressure, yes?
A: That’s for sure. Getting to know Travis and his parents, Mary and Larry Freeman, changed the nature of the job for me. I had to speak to their lives. I wanted to hold up this film and have it stand the test of them saying I got it right. Luckily they have.
As we got started, I told Larry, ‘I couldn’t find an actor as good-looking as you, so I cast myself. I’m also going to let Larry be the brunt of a couple of jokes along the way. He’s the dad, and the mom is sort of running things in that household.’
The real Larry smiled and told me, “Well, that’s not too far from the way it is!”
He was terrific.
Q: You’ve recently worked on “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago PD” in Our Town. What are your thoughts about Chicago?
A: It’s very special to me, though I haven’t worked there all that much. But one of my very first jobs was the film “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” That was my first go at Chicago. I got to be there for three or four weeks and a friend said one night, “We’re going out tonight to hear some jazz.” I asked him where we were going. He said, “We’re goint to see a guy named Buddy Guy.”That was something else!
As you mentioned, I worked on the “Chicago Fire”/”Chicago PD” crossover show. For some reason I only seem to work in Chicago between January and March. I think I have to rethink that!
Q: What was it like playing J.Edgar Hoover in the upcoming, much-anticipated film “Selma”?
A: It was fascinating. I had literally just seen the play on Broadway with Brian Cranston playing LBJ, so all of those issues were still very fresh in my mind. It was a nice challenge to play Hoover as this lovely guy [Baker said sarcastically] giving Lyndon Johnson all those possibilites of destroying other human beings!
But that’s the fun about being an actor —the chance to be something totally different that who you really are.