I have to prove to myself that Dylan Baker is a normal person. So far, people mostly recognize him as the child-molesting suburban dad from Todd Solondz’s relentlessly bleak film Happiness. In order to play a part that convincingly, it has to fit somewhere in the jigsaw puzzle of your identity. In fact, one of the teachers at his six-year-old daughter’s school freaked out when she saw him in person for the first time. Without recognizing him from the film, she somehow knew he shouldn’t be around kids.
Baker looks like an average, normal white guy. But his eyes are so blue they seem like they might zap you with little bolts of lightning. And when he speaks, it’s in an odd accent that some Virginians have, halfway between Mr. Rogers and . . . well, a child molestor. So after a few moments alone with him in a rehearsal room at the Public Theater, where he’s preparing to portray another concupiscent wretch, Tartuffe, in Central Park, I panic. I ask him to let me go through the contents of his wallet, hoping the everyday objects I find there will bring him from pederast to pedestrian— and if nothing else I’ll have seen some ID.
“It’s mostly just pictures of my daughter,” he says, “and different credit cards. But if you want to take a look in my wallet, you sure can.”
“Well, you can go through it and just show me the stuff.”
He does. “Driver’s license. I look like a convict. MetroCard. ID card for where my mother lives. Let’s see here. . . . ”
“I’ve got a weeklong pass, and then once it runs out I’ve got a stored-up one with a couple of dollars.
“That’s very clever.”
“Tartuffe phone numbers. They laminate a little card for you so you can call in and find out what your rehearsal is the next day. It’s got different numbers for the stage manager and stuff like that. And this card gets me into the building. My daughter put a little 101 Dalmatians sticker on the inside flap of the wallet there . . . MOMA card. I’m not necessarily a modern art fan. Triple-A card. Producer’s health plan, paid prescriptions. It’s like you get these things. . . . I never use them. That’s the AFTRA one, and there’s the Equity one. And these are all just for paying for prescriptions. That’s Willa, my daughter. She’s six. After Willa Cather.”
“Carrying on a tradition of literary given names . . . ”
“That’s Willa with Santy Claus. She asked me recently, ‘Is Santy Claus for real?’ ”
“What did you tell her?”
“I said, ‘You know a lot of people ask that question and . . . the spirit of Santy Claus, blah blah blah.”
It’s unnerving he keeps saying “Santy” instead of “Santa,” but so far, so good.
“How much money do you have in there?”
“It’s about 80 dollars. I’ve got passes to get into a movie and I keep paying for movies and then remembering that I have these.”
Once I’ve established Baker’s relative normalcy, I realize this process runs contrary to the task of image making. Considering we live in a cultural atmosphere where the best fiction simulates truth (á la Blair Witch Project) and the best truth mimics fiction (the Clinton-Lewinsky transcripts), wouldn’t it make better copy if he
actually was a slobbering perv and not just just a talented Yale Drama School graduate? Certainly it would reinforce Baker’s credibility as the conniving religious hypocrite Tartuffe if a hideous fiend truly lurked behind his ordinariness. Instead, I find he’s a disciple of drama instructor deity Nikos Tsakaropolous, that he got a bunch of good gigs out of school (including an appearance at the Delacorte in Two Gentlemen of Verona), and that his career has had its ups (an Obie award, a Tony nomination) and downs (a two-year stretch right after the Obie and the nomination where he didn’t work much because he’d decided to “do film”). Tartuffe, directed by his grad school chum Mark Brokaw, begins performances this week, and also features Mary Testa, Dana Ivey, and J. Smith Cameron.
“I’ve been lucky to experience a few highs,” Baker demurs. It’s a major understatement for a guy who claims he got into acting “because of the sleeping. I thought that if you worked at night, that meant you could sleep all day.”
But why is this son of two lawyers from Lynchburg, who says “Santy” Claus and is so good at channeling contemporary psychos (on Law and Order, he once played a guy who murdered his son), tackling Tartuffe? It must be child’s play for him.
“What are you doing with this role,” I ask, “that you’ve never been able to do before?”
Baker leans forward and widens those electric eyes. “This time I really get to go after the girl,” he drawls.
“As opposed to the little boy,” I add.
He grins, showing his teeth, and that aforementioned puzzle piece snaps into place. “I don’t often get a chance to explore my really lecherous side,” he confides. “Or at least I haven’t on stage.”