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'The Mentalist'

It's Simon Baker's time to take the lead and relax

September 14, 2008|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

A LATE summer day's heat beat down on the cast and crew of CBS' "The Mentalist" as they toiled in the scenic wilds of Griffith Park. Perspiration dotted their faces as they maneuvered down an uneven brushy trail, filming a scene involving a murder.

But as others sweated and swatted away flies, Simon Baker, who plays the title role, looked cool -- even in a dress shirt and vest. Although makeup artists rushed in between takes to wipe his brow, Baker didn't look like he needed touching up. His relaxed air matched the demeanor of his character -- an investigator who solves crimes with his extraordinary observational skills.

His latest show marks Baker's third go-around in a CBS drama. "The Guardian," which ran for three seasons, featured Baker as a hard-edged corporate lawyer sentenced by a judge to perform community services at a legal services firm. The second series, "Smith," the highly touted drama in which he played a sociopathic gun expert working for a master henchman played by Ray Liotta, was a disappointment -- it was pulled after only a few episodes because of low ratings.

"The Mentalist" (which premieres Sept. 23) is a move back to leading-man status for Baker, who despite taking on a lesser role in "The Devil Wears Prada" still managed to impress audiences as the film's charming seducer. His "Mentalist" character, Patrick Jane, fits snugly within his gallery of men who hide deeper, sometimes devilish, intentions behind blue eyes and good looks.

Said Baker, a native Australian: "I've always liked roles like that. It keeps it interesting, playing guys where there's always something else going on."

The new series is lighter in tone than most of the police procedurals on CBS such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "Criminal Minds" and "Without a Trace." Tossed in the mix is a bit of romantic and sexual tension between Jane and his no-nonsense colleague, California Bureau of Investigation senior agent Teresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney).

"That's what drew me in," said Tunney, who previously had appeared in "Prison Break." "Yes, it's a procedural, but it's also a show that cares about the relationships between people as much as it does about the case. What we often lose in shows like this is the human element."

For show creator Bruno Heller, "The Mentalist" is a dynamic change from his previous work, HBO's epic historical series "Rome."

"I wanted to try the other pole of American entertainment," Heller said. " 'Rome' on HBO was all about being edgy and pushing boundaries. There are all kinds of crutches, the sex and violence. Doing a detective show on CBS is a completely new set of challenges. It's the difference between a cabaret show and an act for an arena."

For Baker, the Jane character was attractive because it reminded him of the detective shows of his youth -- "Quincy," "Perry Mason," "Hawaii Five-O" -- that centered on quirky investigators.

"There are conflicting and contrary elements to Patrick that are fun to play," Baker said. "He's also got a touch of the prankster."

The actor said he's grateful to portray a man who isn't shaded by an inner darkness.

"In 'The Guardian,' that guy was barely keeping his head above water," he said. "He was a depressed character, and the amount of hours I had to spend playing him rubbed off on me. This guy is a fun character, so it makes work a lot more enjoyable."

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greg.braxton@latimes.com

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