Simon Baker Plays Native

In the independent film On the Corner, Simon Baker, is an incredibly talented and young actor who plays Randy in this multi-character driven story.

Take the drugs, hustling and extreme poverty away and you have a tale of family: a brother, a sister, a father and a mother, and the individuals that surround them as they seek to find, know and love each other.

Randy (Baker) comes to Vancouver, leaving a foster home after his mother is put in rehab, looking for his sister and dad. He has no money. He pleads with his sister, Angel, to let him stay with her. She, in turn, pleads with Bernie, the hotel manager, to let him stay without paying “guest fees.” Randy is a handsome sixteen-year-old that does not appear to be even a casual drug user.

However, everyone in his sister’s company is shooting heroin or smoking crack – except Floyd, a recovered drug/alcohol addict, who unbeknownst to Randy, was once his father’s best friend. On the request of Angel, Floyd allows Randy to live with him and takes the boy on his daily dumpster diving rounds.

For Randy, binning and listening to country music is hardly a fulfilling life. He starts to hang around Angel’s friends, Stacey and Cliff, and before long, he’s got the same crack habit to support as they do. Angel’s drug dealer, Wade, generously steps in and sets him up as a salesman, with the caveat: “absolutely no fronting.” But, soon enough, Cliff is jonesing for a hit, has no money, and basically robs Randy of his supply.

Now, not only is Randy addicted and without a supply, he owes Wade for the drugs Cliff stole. We get an insight into Wade’s violent behaviour, when, after viciously smacking Angel across his hotel room, in a vain attempt to get her to pay her brother’s debt, he almost cries “they’ll break my legs if I don’t give them the $500!” (In the DVD audio commentary, Geary comments how a $500 debt in the Downtown Eastside can really get your legs broken – harsh!) What can Randy do, other than hustle and rob johns like his sister?

Although there is no resolution in On the Corner the audience has peeked into the lives and motivations of people who we often view as foreign and “different” to ourselves, only to find that their motivations are pretty much the same as ours. Therein lies the light and hope of this tragic and gloomy character study.

Labour of love for all
In talking with Simon Baker about his role in On the Corner, it is apparent that the movie was a labour of love for almost all involved. Even though the actors were paid “next to nothing,” they all really wanted their roles. Alex Rice, who plays Angel, Randy’s sister in the movie (and is Simon’s sister in real life as well!) flew in from L.A. to audition. Extras and production crew were largely made up of people Geary knew and worked with during his days at the Portland Hotel.

Of course the fact that this story is largely a Native story has a lot to do with the eagerness of the participants to take part. Simon had some experience of this when he played the young Thomas in the breakthrough Canadian aboriginal story, Smoke Signals, however, even though he has looks and talent to move beyond stereotypical roles, he still seems to get offered almost exclusively Native roles.

He tells me that he doesn’t mind, that it is like a social history project every time he has to play another Native, that he enjoys learning about different tribes and people when he prepares for his roles, and that he loves acting so much, he’s grateful to be doing it at all.

Simon will study directing and producing, at Capilano College next year, before continuing to the American Film Institute in the same program afterwards.

More Native roles
After finishing On the Corner, Simon went on to play Honesco, in Ron Howard’s The Missing, and one of the Farber posse in Alex Proyas’ (Dark City, The Crow) Will Smith vehicle, I, Robot. After these roles, he played leads in Buffalo Dreams, a Walt Disney movie, and in the first episode of Into the West, Steven Spielberg’s upcoming 12-hour mini-series.

Yes, except for the possible exception of I, Robot, these are, again, all Native roles. Yet, Simon is only eighteen, and he’s getting solid leads and the chance to work with big name directors and talent. And he’s grateful (in that he understands the layout of his land), talented and focused. Who’s to say he won’t do for Aboriginals what Sidney Poitier did for African Americans in the sixties?

Surprisingly Simon has no intention of jumping ship and moving to L.A. He plans on remaining in Langley, where he grew up and lives now, with his manager mom, and Haida-carver dad.

Another interesting thing about Simon is that while he doesn’t crow about his heritage, he is completely at home with it, as well. When I ask him about his background, he responds, “My mom’s Cree, from Cowessess, Saskatchewan; and my dad’s Haida and Squamish – a little bit of a mixture in my background.” So, with a disarming and innocuous reply, he presents that the Native race is diverse, dynamic and rich, rather than “red.”

At sixteen, the role of Randy was:

“A difficult part. Reading the script, and my age was sixteen, and never really being down on East Hastings before – it was sort of a subject that I had to face… we spent about a month down there, just doing rehearsals on the street corner, getting to know some of the people down there, watching (them) do what they do with their lives everyday, and it was very… eye-opening. I had never seen this before.

…Another part my mom and I had to sit down and talk about, (were) some of the “vulgar” scenes I had. [Simon’s character becomes a prostitute at one point in the movie] … I got over it…This is acting; it’s nothing realistic. (Laughs.)… And I’m totally capable of doing what I have to do on script.”

However, Simon feels that doing the part has “made” him as an actor, particularly since immediately after On the Corner came out, he was offered the part of Honesco, in The Missing, with one of his favourite actors, Tommy Lee Jones, and one of his favourite directors, Ron Howard.

On the Corner, though not without its problems (primarily production), deservedly, has won international awards including:

Best Feature from Western Canada, Vancouver International Film Festival, 2003 ($12,000 prize)

Best Feature, Whistler Film Festival, 2003

Best Feature, Cinema Jove Festival, Valencia, Spain, 2004 ($21,000 prize)

Special Award of the Jury, Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival, Mannheim, Germany, 2004

It was also named one of top 10 Canadian films of 2003 by the Toronto International Film Festival.

And recently, the great Gordon Tootoosis added to the winnings with a Best Supporting Actor prize, from the American Indian Film Festival (2004).