"I wonder if I'll ever get to play just a regular, good guy," Dylan Baker says with a laugh, "a milkman, maybe, or a guy who delivers the mail."
It seems unlikely. Baker -- who received critical acclaim for his portrayal of a tortured pedophile in the controversial Todd Solondz film Happiness -- seems to specialize in complex, difficult characters. Currently, he's playing the role of James Daley in a revival of Jason Miller's Pulitzer Prize winner, That Championship Season, at the Second Stage theatre.
One of four ex-high school basketball stars who reunite with their coach on the 20th anniversary of their state victory, James is a shadow of his former self -- a father-of-five so tense and frustrated that he's prematurely lost all his teeth. "He really does love his family, and he's doing his best to make ends meet," Baker explains. "But he's gotten to the point where he's so desperate, he'll do anything. If he has to give up his pride, he will. He'll give up whatever he has to."
Baker, who has a six-year-old daughter with his wife, actress Becky Ann Baker, leads a far more fulfilling life than James. But he can still empathize with the character. "Luckily, I haven't had as many anxiety attacks as him, and I've still got all my teeth," he says. "But all of us would be silly to think that there's very much separating us from other people that are in trouble. Trouble is always waiting around the corner."
All of Miller's characters are deeply troubled. And Baker says he would've been happy to play any of them: "When I was first given the script, I had no idea which part they wanted me to do. But after I read it, I didn't care. There are five great parts for actors. Everyone has their moments, and everyone is vital to the outcome of the play." Baker says he's grown very close to his castmates, Michael O'Keefe, Ray Baker, Dennis Boutsikaris and James Gammon: "We all care a whole lot for each other. Even though there's a lot of room in the Second Stage, we all insist on being in the same dressing room. That way, we can throw back and forth whatever's going on with us, and make sure that we're all on the same page."
As part of their preparation, director Scott Ellis had the actors work with a real high school basketball coach. "He took us down to the St. Francis Xavier High School gym," Baker recalls. "He gave us all these drills, showed us how to scrimmage another team. All of this took place in just about four or five hours, but in that time we learned to work together and we bonded. It was a real beginning for us."
That Championship Season is the type of project that Baker likes best: An ensemble piece in which "the stakes get higher and higher" for the characters. The same could be said about Happiness, of which the actor is proud. "From the moment I read the script, I knew it was going to be an amazing film to work on, and it proved to be," he says. "It was probably the most exciting and enjoyable job I've had in film."
Of course, there was one downside: "I've had a couple of [projects] thrown my way, where I've had to say, 'No. I really don't want to be seen that way.' There are only so many times you can play a pedophile, without it starting to grate on you."
His next role, however, was hardly a model father. "'Law and Order' called up and said, 'Hey, we've got this part.' I said, 'Oh, that looks like fun. The character's great,'" he remembers. "Well, as it turns out, he ends up wanting to leave his wife, and he's going to take off and leave the country. He can't stand leaving his son behind, so he thinks the charitable thing would be to inject his son with a fatal disease that would kill him off within a day.
"I've seen this episode three times," he laughs. "and I keep wondering about my career choices." He doesn't wonder too much, though. Unlike That Championship Season's James, who serves out his days as a belittled high school principal, Baker truly enjoys his work. The actor, who received Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations for his performance in La Bete, has discovered new opportunities behind the scenes. He recently directed five plays at the New Jersey Shakespeare festival, three of which starred his wife.
And, while Baker probably won't be playing a kindly milkman in the near future, he isn't complaining. "I think people are able to separate the work from the actor," he observes. "And my daughter is still able to get play dates -- every now and then."