ACTOR'S ACTOR: Dylan Baker - Pursuit of "Happiness"

Let's get one thing straight. Dylan Baker is not the same man you see on-screen in Todd Solondz's Happiness, an alternately comedic and highly disturbing film in which Baker portrays Bill Maplewood, a seemingly normal family man who does the unthinkable when he begins sexually molesting his 11-year-old son's friends. The film also features equally compelling performances by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jane Adams, Camryn Manheim, and Lara Flynn Boyle as New Jersey residents who are also tormented by their own personal demons.

Although a number well-known actors flatly turned down the part of Bill, Baker immediately embraced Solondz's script and the opportunity to play such a controversial character‹not because he could identify with being a child molester, but because the role presented such a colossal challenge.

"When I read the script, I couldn't put it down," recalled Baker, who lives with his wife, actress Becky Ann Baker, and their five-year-old daughter in New York. "It was just amazing; I hadn't seen writing like that. The thing that challenged and excited me about this role was the real pain and profound misery that this guy experiences in trying to avoid exactly what he does in the film, which is destroy his family, his marriage, and his life by letting these powerful emotions and this obsession overwhelm him."

By throwing himself into such a difficult role, Baker also found the experience extremely cathartic.

"The ability to go in and really find the depths of this character was a little releasing and actually invigorating," admitted the actor. "Yes, it's a very disturbing film, but at the same time I enjoyed myself immensely."

Prior to Happiness, Baker was unfamiliar with Solondz's work, which included the critically acclaimed feature Welcome to the Dollhouse. However, from the moment he auditioned for Solondz, Baker was confident of the filmmaker's ability to guide him and to make a tasteful film out of such provoking subject matter.

"I trusted Todd every step of the way and felt like he was the guy that would get me through whatever journey I was going to go through," said Baker. "You have to find directors you can trust wherever they're going to take you, and I like to completely give myself over to whoever the director is. If you can get something like the situation I had in Happiness, where you love the script, you're crazy about the director, and you happen to be around actors that are fantastic and perfectly cast, it's ideal."

Prior to shooting Happiness, Baker had television roles in Tom Hanks' HBO series From the Earth to the Moon, Stephen Bochco's courtroom drama Murder One, Feds, Law & Order, and the CBS miniseries Return to Lonesome Dove. His additional feature credits include Disclosure, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and Talk Radio.

Baker is also a respected stage actor. After earning his B.F.A. at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and his M.F.A. at the Yale School of Drama, he moved to New York in 1985. Soon after, he starred in the Off-Broadway production of Not About Heroes, which earned him an Obie award and launched his career. Baker went on to receive a Theatre World award for his work in the Broadway production of Eastern Standard and Tony and Drama Desk nominations for his role as "Prince" in La Bete on Broadway.

Little did Baker know at the time of his La Bete success that he was about to hit a major roadblock in his career.

Recalled Baker, "When I finished La Bete, I said to myself, OK, I've just done a huge play. I don't want to do another play right now; I want to do a film or television show. I got offers to do a couple plays and I turned them down. I sat on my butt for the next two years and didn't work."

Fortunately Baker recovered from his setback and has learned a valuable lesson in the process.

"You've got to look at everything that's offered to you," he said, "and if it fits a couple of criteria‹like it's somebody you want to work with, or it's a great script, or it's a theatre where you've always wanted to work‹then you've got to consider it. Work begets work, and you've got to do whatever you can to keep going, even if it doesn't pay money."

Although the stigma of playing a child molester in Happiness could have stalled his career yet again, Baker has found that to be far from the case. Woody Allen cast him in his current film Celebrity, in which Baker plays a priest offering guidance to Judy Davis. He can also be seen in a slew of upcoming films next year, including Vanilla Fog with Sarah Michelle Gellar; Oxygen; Committed with Heather Graham, and the Sydney Pollack-directed Random Hearts opposite Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas.

Said Baker, "I've been lucky enough to escape getting in too much of a rut when it comes to casting. I don't think I'll only be playing pedophiles from now on‹at least, I hope not."