Jhe creators of the SBS family history show, Who Do You Think You Are?, do not reveal the show’s final cut to attendees, so Simon Boulanger take my word that his episode is an excellent and very moving piece of television.
The 52-year-old actor had been approached several times to do the show, but he always said no, “despite my mum, sister and kids saying ‘you should do it’.” Eventually, he capitulated, “I thought to myself, I’m just going to see what kind of adventure this is and where it all takes me.”
In his episode, the first of the hugely popular SBS For the show’s 13th season, historians unveil Baker’s Dutch-Australian heritage – with a focus on what happened in Australia. (Shooting while international borders were closed meant doing anything outside the country would have been difficult, anyway.)
The actor and director had recently returned to Australia after spending decades of his career in California, where he had starring roles in hit TV series The Mentalist and The Guardian. Since returning home, he has directed an adaptation of Tim Winton’s novel Breath and most recently appeared in artist Del Kathryn Barton’s feature debut, Blaze.
The latest invite to the show came at just the right time for Baker. “I’ve seen the show before, and people have a clear idea of what they want to get out of it,” he says. “I didn’t really have that, but it came at a certain point in my life recently where there was a lot of change and change, so it was a good time to take stock.”
Baker was born in Launceston in 1969. His father, Barry Baker, was a mechanic and school janitor, and his mother, Elizabeth, was a high school English teacher. She was only 19 when Baker was born, the second of the Bakers’ two children.
“And soon after, my parents moved to the highlands of New Guinea, with two children, to a remote area,” he says. On the show, he summarizes the family’s brief stay there: “They went on this incredible adventure – and they didn’t come back together.”
His mother then remarried. Baker had contact with his father, but as he reveals on the show, “I didn’t know he was my father. He was a family friend, Uncle Barry. I struggled with that.
A reunion would take place when Baker was 18, but in the meantime the family moved to the northern New South Wales seaside community of Lennox Head, where Baker became an avid surfer.
“It was a small community and at the time it was an idyllic place to live,” says Baker. “I felt a very strong sense of belonging there and still do. It was a phenomenal childhood in that regard – but personal family life was difficult.
Before continuing on Who Do You Think You Are?, Baker “considered my immediate family to be this kind of mess,” he says. “But the truth is that families come in many different forms and I think if you can look at your own past and the past of your ancestors with compassion, you can go on with yourselves with a little more wisdom.”
Revealing his parents’ story was “difficult”, he says. “I’m quite shy… But there’s some sort of psychological reason why I became an actor. The original desire when I was young was to connect with people, the idea of seeing someone in a story on a screen that you could relate to, and that might help you understand feelings within you that you didn’t necessarily know how to articulate. When I watched certain episodes of Who Do You Think You Are?, I felt a connection to this person — and with that, you don’t feel so alone.
Baker dives into both sides of her family tree, and each branch yields incredible stories. There’s the three-times great-grandfather, an orphan related to Oscar Wilde who eventually opened Melbourne’s first eye and hearing hospital (now the Royal Victoria). There are the ancestors who walked for weeks from the Adelaide Hills to the outskirts of Ballarat, panning for gold with their six children. And her paternal grandmother, a particularly resilient woman who overcame poverty and raised her children alone after the Second World War.
“Doing the show really highlights your own insignificance,” says Baker. “All of these ancestors have these stories, and some of them are so remarkable and powerful. I always think constantly of the ancestor who walked to Ballarat.
How would Baker have gotten out of it, in the situation of his ancestors? “I would have done well. All the harshness of the circumstances was relative to the times. The luxuries we now enjoy shape our perspective. What people did in the past, like walking to Ballarat, may now seem outrageous to us. But back then, if you go to the goldfields, the only way to get there is to walk.
Each side of his family tree has experienced both wealth and poverty, and their stories illustrate exactly how money can shape fate.
“I understood the paternal side of the family, because I grew up in a blue-collar environment,” he says. “But at the same time my life has provided me with enough money to be financially stable. Sometimes with a privilege you can get to a place where you assume everyone is in a place where they have a choice. Sometimes it’s hard for the privileged to understand that the vast majority of people are having a hard time.”
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