Robert Baker Goes Virtual at Sundance After Dark

Photo Source: James Mann

You probably know Robert Baker by face more than by name, but 2013 may just change that. Right now Baker can be seen on FX’s “Justified,” and in a few months he’ll be on the big screen in both “The Lone Ranger” and “The Devil’s Knot.” He also stars in the Sundance After Dark selection “Virtually Heroes” (executive produced by Roger Corman) as a video game character going through an existential crisis. Baker sat down with us at the Filmmakers Lodge during Sundance to talk about acting while staring at little pink x’s.

This must have been a fun movie to film, right?
It’s really fun, it’s really silly. The comedy’s way over the top and everything we’re reacting against for all of the action shots is stock footage that Roger Corman shot in the Philippines in the ’80s. And he’s used this for dozens of movies. There’s one shot of a helicopter blowing up he used so many times. He said that even if the name of the movie was “Nurses in Trouble,” he’d put it in the trailer just to spice it up. And so he wanted a movie that incorporated all of that and so G.J. [Echternkamp, the director] and the writer, Matt Yamashita, said the only way we could use this stock footage and make it current is to make it a video game, where you just kill the same people and over again. And not having any idea what the stock footage would be, I just had to trust G.J. that he would cut it together well. And he did!

How did this project come your way?
G.J. and I did a play together in L.A. years ago, a little 99-seat show that nobody came to. And we just became friends. He always wanted me to do this, but they wanted him to get someone with a little more recognition than me. And he said, “OK,” then told them that the guy passed. He never even offered it to him! So do the 99-seat plays is the moral of this story!

Did you shoot a lot of green screen stuff?
Not really. We filmed about an hour north of L.A. An hour in any radius in L.A., no telling what the landscape will look like. So we just found these different ranches in the valleys and canyon country that matched jungle footage. And a couple days in the studio and a couple days with a green screen.

What is it like acting against so much stock footage?
I have a lot of one-line of action shots and I didn’t know what the stock footage was, so it was just focus on what you think it’s going to be and fix your eyes. I had to find something really specific to look at to do all of these one-liners. A lot of pink x’s stood in for the soldiers I was killing!

Was it important that you kind of mimic a video game character, performance-wise?
There was some stuff that was game specific that you had to translate to a physicality. There’s parts where I get shot and have to recover the health, and I put in a cheat code at one point so I can move super fast. And then we’re doing things where my partner and I fight one another and we had to run a certain way so you can see over us and make it look like those games where two guys are going against each other. But G.J. knew what he wanted and I trusted him. I had to for this! We shot it in three six-day weeks so there were a lot of 11-page days. A lot of running and staring at pink x’s and shooting. And the few days where I actually got to talk to someone else, that was just cake!

But you have a lot of stuff coming up a little more talky, right?
It’s been a good year! I’m on “Justified” right now as a hell-raising Southern guy. And I did the voice for Cobra Commander for “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” which was like reliving my childhood. And “The Lone Ranger” coming up in July. And “The Devil’s Knot,”about the West Memphis 3. And my mother teaches at West Memphis High. When I went in for that, I went into the room and was basically like, “You have to hire me. Nobody is gonna know this better than I do!” And it was a great experience. It was brutal, and the character I play literally pulled the little boys’ bodies out of the creek. But good work and great people. Really good actors and crew and director. So you can’t say that I’ve been pigeonholed!

And then last question: Any bad audition stories you’d care to share?
Oh yeah! I went in for a recurring role on “Prison Break.” And I read it and I just decided it wasn’t right for me, so I decided to just do this weird physical thing. So I sort of gave myself a “Richard III” arm and hunched over and really went for it. And they looked so dumbfounded. So I left and called my agent and he sent me the email the casting director sent him, which said, “Wow, he’s a really good actor. But what he did was just completely not what we want. It’s just way wrong.” And he asked if they wanted me to do it again and there was just a one-word response: “No.”