Thanks to their three-decade-and-counting careers as gainfully employed character actors, Dylan and Becky Ann Baker are accustomed to being recognized as the various personalities they’ve portrayed on the big and small screen over the years. To this day, though, they’re rarely recognized as husband and wife. “A lot of people think we’re brother and sister,” Becky says with a hearty laugh. “We’ve had that reaction before. I think it’s because I did the old-fashioned thing and took his name. It was based on the fact that my maiden name [Gelke] was so hard to say. So after we’d been married for two years, I thought, ‘What the heck?'”
It’s not as if the people approaching them necessarily know their real names anyway. They’re more likely to recognize Dylan Baker as Bill Maplewood, the quietly creepy pedophile he played in Todd Solondz’s 1997 drama Happiness, or as Colin Sweeney, The Good Wife‘s most notorious client (a role that earned him three Outstanding Guest Actor Emmy nominations). Or, if they’re fans of FX’s beloved spy drama The Americans, they know him as William Crandall, the KGB biochemist embedded in a U.S. laboratory developing biological weapons during the show’s fourth season. Meanwhile, Becky Ann Baker will forever be identified as a pair of generation-defining TV moms of perpetually troubled daughters: Jean Weir of Freaks and Geeks and Loreen Hovarth from HBO’s just-concluded Girls, a job she already deeply misses. “When that job ended, I was just devastated,” she says. “There has never been a moment where I haven’t been thrilled to be part of that production.”
That said, the busy life of a working character actor leaves little time to mourn past jobs. When Yahoo TV spoke with the Bakers on the phone from their New York City home one recent Sunday morning, Becky was a few hours away from her call time at the Park Avenue Armory production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, in which she stars opposite Bobby Cannavale and David Costabile. And Dylan was preparing to leave the following day for an extended overseas trip. He’s also preparing for the summer debut of the new Showtime series, I’m Dying Up Here, in which he’ll play legendary Tonight Show host Johnny Carson in his ’70s prime. “You look at him, and it’s like, ‘Well, he’s a god,'” Dylan says. “He’s reached that status. He was so private offscreen and so public on television; it’s been interesting learning more about him.”
We spoke with the couple about their career, their marriage, and whether they leave their characters at the door when they come home together.
Yahoo TV: You both started acting around the same time, and seemed to stumble onto the character actor path almost immediately. Did that happen by accident or was it intentional?
Becky Ann Baker: I always tell this story: I was 18 years old, and it was the summer after my freshman year of college. I went to audition for a summer theater company called the Kenley Players [run by theater producer John Kenley] in Ohio. I sang one song, and he told me, “You’ll always be a character woman.” And that was it! I was defined right there at the ripe age of 18. John Kenley sent me on my path.
Dylan Baker: When I was an undergraduate, I had a professor who told me, “You’ve got to do something about your voice. If you don’t, you’ll always play sick people.” So I basically took his advice, did nothing about my voice, and I’ve been lucky enough to play sick people all these years!
BAB: It’s definitely what other people tell you, and not what you think you’re going to do. They saw us coming a mile away. [Laughs]
It’s hard for any actor to get started in the business. What do you remember about landing your earliest TV roles?
BAB: [To Dylan] Oh, gosh, you were pretty quick to get cast right out of school.
DB: Yeah, I was very lucky. I’d gone to the Yale School of Drama [for graduate school], and when I came to New York, I’d already done a couple of plays back to back. And because I was in those plays, casting directors were happy to see me, and all of a sudden I started getting work in film and TV. I think the first time I got a real TV series was Murder One for Steven Bochco. I was convinced that they had picked somebody else and just had the name wrong, because I couldn’t see myself as a hard-bitten L.A. detective. I went out to Los Angeles worried that as soon as they saw my face they’d go, “Oh no, no, not him. We want the other guy.” Of course, once I did Murder One, all I played for a while was detectives and FBI guys! [Laughs]
BAB: I had a different path altogether. When I came to New York, I was a chorus girl for years. It was a very hard transition getting casting people to look at me for television or anything serious outside of singing and dancing. But I somehow fought my way into that transition by doing some theater that people actually saw, and made them think, “OK, maybe she can do something.” I also started doing commercials, and I booked some that were very story-driven. There was this one American Express ad about a woman having twin babies, and from there I started getting television work, and then from that to film work. So that commercial was the transition for me, because I wasn’t being seen as a serious actress whatsoever.
DB: And also, [after that commercial] we were asked all the time about our twin babies that we actually didn’t have!
BAB: Yes, everybody thought I actually had twins.
DB: Two years later, we had our daughter [Willa] and were happy to tell everyone, “Oh, she’s coming along fine.”
Watch Becky Ann Baker and John Turturro in a vintage 1986 Campbell’s Soup commercial
It’s only in recent years that actors have been able to move freely between movies and television, but you were both doing that early on. Is it strange for you to see how it’s become “acceptable” for bigger stars to do TV?
BAB: The thing that actors are all talking about today is craft services. You can tell that television has become more lucrative because the food on the set is so much better than when you do a film. Especially an indie film. We all laugh about it, but the craft service table is the sign of what the budget is on anything.
DB: The other thing that I’ve noticed is that back when I did Murder One, the big criticism of that show was that it covered one case for the entire season. The critics just went crazy about that! Now, of course, it’s the norm, but back then there was no streaming, so you had to watch it week by week. What was exciting was to watch really good writers realize the potential of a film that’s 20 hours long. We developed and told a story that was intricate, with characters coming in and out. I think they realized the potential of television, and the writing was really exciting in a way that it hadn’t been before.
BAB: [To Dylan] I think you’re right that the thing about television now is that it’s drawn exceptional writing. The writers for Girls were spectacular. I don’t imagine I will ever see that kind of writing again in my lifetime, for me.
The Sopranos and the rise of cable television feels like a turning point in terms of elevating the profile of characters actors on TV. James Gandolfini broke out in a big way, and seemed to make being a character actor cool.
BAB: There are great opportunities right now for character people. The Margo Martindales of the world, or the Dylan Bakers. I keep finding things like The Americans so amazing in terms of their characters.
DB: But it’s interesting that even The Americans is a show that doesn’t star typical leading men and women. Keri Russell showed a whole other side of herself that no one knew was there: this steely Russian mother who will kick your butt. So it’s like [cable TV] is looking beyond the mold to fill out these roles with actors that can do a wide range of things.
Obviously, The Americans and Girls are both recent high-profile roles for you. But are there earlier performances that you think marked a turning point in the way people saw you or that made you recognizable?
BAB: I did Freaks and Geeks, and it was a joy to do and a really terrific job. But I think Girls has definitely made a huge difference in how people look at me as an actor. It’s funny, though: You look back, and you don’t know what really started the ball rolling. It all kind of builds on itself.
DB: With me, I would say it was probably the film Happiness that really brought me to people. That movie had a bizarre and immediate impact. I remember I went in to [audition] for Chris Rock for his film Head of State. He and his producer, Ali LeRoi, were giggling like girls while I was chatting with them. No matter what I said, Chris just kept saying, “You’re that guy. You’re that guy from Happiness.” I said, “Can I go ahead and read now?” They put me on tape, and when I went to talk to them again, Chris was still giggling! I told my agent, “There’s no way I’m going to get that part. They were laughing at the thought of me being in the film.” She said, “Well, you never know.”
Later, after I got the job, I told Chris: “That audition was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever been through.” And he said, “We just thought it was a joke bringing you in, but then I was going back over the audition tapes. I wanted to look for another actor, but I came across yours, and I said, ‘Oh, yeah, there’s that guy. You know, I never really looked at this.'” So he looked at it and, all of a sudden, he hired me! He thought it was a total joke, but then he was able to see me in a different way.
You’ve largely maintained separate careers, but there have been occasions where you’ve acted in the same series. Kings is one example, although you didn’t share any scenes there.
DB: Yeah, we played husband and wife on that.
BAB: So every now and then somebody has the great idea to put us in something where we actually have screen time together.
When those opportunities come along, how much of your own lives do you bring to the screen?
BAB: It really depends on the situation and the writing, but what’s terrific is that there’s so much work we don’t have to do. We have so much reference to each other as husband and wife that a lot can go unsaid. In both Life as We Know It and Smash, though, they were totally different types of couples, so you still have to put yourself in the situation that you find in the writing.
DB: We had known [Smash creator] Theresa Rebeck, and might have even done some readings of plays for her. So she was the one who came to us and said, “Look, I need parents for Katharine McPhee’s character [Karen Cartwright], and we’ve kind of thrown this together. Would you like to do it?” So we talked with Theresa about the arc of the story, and then met with Katharine to discuss things like, “What does Karen think about the two of us?” Then we just started building on that. I don’t think we ever come in from the outside going, “Oh, this is a chance to use [our marriage].” With each story you’re telling, you’ve got to draw on the parts of you that will bring out the most in the writing.
In terms of the practical realities of being working character actors, how do you coordinate your schedules to balance your professional and personal lives?
BAB: In this business, there’s a lot of times where you do find yourselves on separate coasts, but I think we’ve just always prioritized [each other]. When I could, I would travel with Dylan, and when he could, he would travel with me. When I did Freaks and Geeks, he and our daughter came to L.A. and stayed with me that year instead of staying in New York. So we try to manage as best we can to stay together as a family, and we’ve done pretty darn well. We’re celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary this coming summer, and we’ve been together 32 years.
DB: I think it’s funny that sometimes you’ll find actors who are on a set and say, “Oh, my wife’s coming out today.” And Becky and I just look at each other in total confusion about that. Like, “Why would they want to come to the set?”
BAB: Yeah, it’s where you work! It’s like, “Let’s go hang out on set where everyone’s working.” [Laughs] It’s sometimes fun. My daughter loved to come visit Girls. But it’s a job. When it’s February, and you’re shooting outside, it’s not so much fun.
Do you bring your work home with you or do you have a “leave it at the door” policy?
BAB: I find being married to an actor really helpful, because if there’s something that’s upsetting or if I’m nervous about something we have each other’s backs and each other’s ear. And there were so many ups and downs in this business, like the devastation of losing a job. It’s great to be married to an actor in those cases, because he really understands the emotional impact of those situations we go through.
DB: There are times where I think, “I really screwed up and it’s not going to work out,” and Becky has always had my back and been my most loyal supporter. Being able to talk over things like that, and knowing they know what you’re talking about is wonderful.
BAB: So I guess that we don’t really leave it at the door. It’s been a healthy situation for us to come home and discuss our work, because it’s what interests us. It’s what draws us out. We love storytelling, and we love the way writers, actors, and everyone involved [in a show] approaches how we’re going to focus and tell this particular story. Because that’s what it is all about. I always liken it to the beginning of man: Everybody’s out for the big hunt, and then when they’re sitting around the campfire at night, one guy tells the story of the hunt a little better than anybody. And that’s the actor.
DB: I would say we do have one major taboo: We won’t run lines. You gotta find somebody else to do that.
BAB: If you really need someone to run lines, you’re going to have to hire a teenager. We will not do that. That’s a total dealbreaker. We will help each other with an audition piece and run that with each other. That’s a totally different thing. But running lines for a play or something — that’s just so painful.
Did growing up with working actors for parents make your daughter interested in that career path? Or did you encourage her away from that?
BAB: She actually showed us her own way. When she was younger, we did a lot of theater up at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and we used to put her on a little horse farm out there. She’d be there all day riding, mucking, and looking after sheep, chickens, and other animals. So that informed her [career path] more than anything else. She graduated from college with a human ecology degree and went to work at the Bronx Zoo. She actually met Jane Goodall yesterday and was very excited! And she’s looking at various programs in other fields, especially those related to horses. So her field is animals, and nothing to do with [acting]. She’s very supportive and comes to our opening nights, but she truly has no desire to go into this kind of life.
Are there any shows of yours that she’s a big fan of?
BAB: I know she’s a big fan of Girls. She’s always been a big supporter of Lena [Dunham]. She just adores her.
DB: There are some scenes on Girls where Becky appears naked, and she goes running out of the room.
BAB: Yes, she told me she fled the room. [Laughs] I had warned her! I didn’t let it be a surprise. But she’s very supportive about everything.
You’ve both had the opportunity to appear on several long-running shows, but there have also been some that haven’t lasted beyond a season.
BAB: We’ve got a million of those, especially Dylan.
DB: I’d heard that George Clooney was in 10 pilots before he got ER. And I always thought, “Where’s my ER?”
BAB: Dylan did this pilot called Eligible Dentist with Gene Wilder, Carol Kane, and Wallace Shawn, all of these amazing people. They shot the pilot before a live studio audience, and the next day the costume designer said, “Do you want to come buy your clothes?” Because it had been shut down! If we counted how many pilots and series we thought we’d been involved in, it would be a staggering number.
Is there one that you’re particularly sad didn’t continue? I really enjoyed Kings during its short run.
BAB: We liked Kings a lot too. It really spoke to our marriage: Dylan was royalty and I was a farm woman! [Laughs] But yeah, I thought that show was so smart. I don’t know why it never caught fire. And I can never figure out why Freaks and Geeks didn’t get another season. There are just so many variables, and it’s hard to determine.
DB: I did a Dick Wolf series called Feds back in 1997. I think it was unfortunate that it didn’t quite catch on. There was another show with David Caruso about the same subject [Michael Hayes] that was purchased after us, so I think CBS just said, “You can’t have two shows about this, so we’ll go with David Caruso.” We ended up doing six episodes that aired from March to April; they never did midseason series back then. At the time, Dick said that if he had just named it Law & Order: Feds it would still be running.
Because you’ve both been able to sustain long, varied careers as character actors, young actors must approach you all the time asking for advice. What do you generally tell them?
BAB: We do mentor a few young actors that we really adore. I think it’s so much harder to get started these days, because there’s such a flooded market. The most important thing is don’t just come to audition and try to get jobs. You actually need to keep working as an artist, especially when you’re younger. Find different teachers and different classes. Find whatever it is that’s drawing you to this business, and keep studying.
DB: My first television job was in 1985, but I began acting in university in 1976, and every summer, I was doing theater of some kind or another. So that was nine years of really trying to figure it out, because I wasn’t ready to do anything from 1976 to 1980. By the time I got out of grad school, I was ready to show people something and prove I could do it on a consistent basis. Because it’s not just who you are or what you want to do; it’s doing the work so that you’re ready to go when you finally get there. As actors, we need a couple of years to do bad stuff and try things that don’t work, because that makes you a better actor when it does work.
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• TV’s Top 20 Character Actors Working Today
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