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THE PERFORMANCE: Scott Bakula

'Informant' star goes back to his roots

Bakula, a Midwesterner at heart, calls his month spent shooting in Illinois an 'idyllic work experience.'

September 17, 2009|Michael Ordona

Scott Bakula is a theater person first. Or a sports fan first. Or both first -- evident as he extols the virtues of spending a month in Decatur, Ill., with the cast and crew of "The Informant!" during filming.

"One of the good things they talk about in sports is that teams bond when they're on the road because you don't have the distractions of home. That's why they take shows on the road before they go to New York; 24/7 you're living that experience. There was nowhere to go, nothing else for us to do except focus on the movie," he says. "It was one of those events that falls into your lap and you still can't quite believe it."

For a Hollywood film with its A-list director and star in Steven Soderbergh and Matt Damon, it was a no-frills production.

"People came out from L.A. to visit the set; they would almost drive by it because there weren't five huge trailers by the side of the road in a cornfield," Bakula says, laughing. "There was one truck."

The 54-year-old actor is an affable guy's guy in his T-shirt, shorts and tousled hair; he played hockey and tennis in school, still does, and looks it. Although he has been in Los Angeles for 20-some years, he clings to the fading notion of being a New Yorker since his decade there prior to L.A. (and during which the accomplished singer received a Tony nomination for "Romance/Romance").

His Midwestern roots show through, however, especially during baseball season, when he reverts to a full-on St. Louisan ("LOO-iz-un," he helpfully pronounces, as he knowledgeably defends Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols against unfounded steroid suspicions). The real-life events depicted in "The Informant!" -- chiefly a global price-fixing conspiracy involving food giant Archer Daniels Midland -- happened close to his hometown.

"Decatur is about two hours from St. Louis -- everyone I mentioned the movie to there knew about ADM. It's a big deal in the Midwest," says Bakula, whose uncle put the cooling towers on top of ADM's offices 50 years ago (and wisely bought stock in the company). "There's a line in the movie that by the time everyone's eaten their breakfast, they've all been ripped off by ADM because of the price fixing. They're a big, big company."

The scheme was revealed to FBI agent Brian Shepard (Bakula) by the highest-ranking corporate whistle-blower in history, ADM Corporate Vice President Mark Whitacre (Damon) -- but the case became severely complicated by a flow of revelations about the enthusiastic Whitacre.

"It's this one-man FBI office in Decatur; he's it," Bakula says of the mild-mannered Shepard. "You've got a family, you've got kids; not too much out of the ordinary is going on. ADM runs the whole town, basically. This case is the opportunity of a lifetime, yet he doesn't perceive it that way because he's a grinder. You're not going to hit home runs often, but you're going to get some doubles and triples every once in a while.

"Then it totally blows up in his face. He's gone so far down the line with this guy [Whitacre] and he's trusted him; he's a real Midwestern guy. The tendency is to want to believe everybody until they kick you -- 'you're only as good as your word,' and all those great sayings from the Midwest."

Shepard's travails aren't all caught on screen but they helped the actor find many ways for his face to fall.

"In real life, the poor guy was being threatened in the community," Bakula says. " 'Why are you defending this guy? We're losing our jobs because of him.' "

Thrilled to work with Soderbergh and Damon (despite the inevitable Red Sox-Cardinals cracks from the Boston-born Damon), the actor is eager for the film's long-awaited release.

"We shot this movie so long ago, it feels like forever. I think Steven's had two movies come out since then, one of which he shot since then. So now we're getting close to it, I have to pinch myself again. Did we really have this kind of idyllic work experience in the middle of Illinois a year and a half ago? I think I remember that."

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Where you've seen him

Scott Bakula is a bona fide sci-fi icon, having starred in "Quantum Leap" ("We used to get letters: 'You can't do that! "Quantum Leap" is breaking the laws of time travel!' ") and the Sept. 11-influenced "Star Trek" series, "Enterprise": "It just didn't seem like we could go on a happy-go-lucky space trip without paying attention to what happened." He embodied regular-guy athletes getting by on guts and guile in "Necessary Roughness" and "Major League: Back to the Minors." Two of his favorite roles were in obscure, short-lived TV projects he believes were ahead of their time: the dark comedy "Eisenhower & Lutz" ("The big problem with the network at the time was that I had two girlfriends") and "Prowler," which explored the "fascinating, complicated, not-always-pleasant history" of the LAPD.

-- Michael Ordona

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