While it’s taken actor Dylan Baker (“Spider-Man 3,” “Road to Perdition”) more than 20 years to do something he’s always wanted to do and direct a movie, he says the wait has been worth it, especially because his first film is based on such an incredible story. In “23 Blast,” Baker tells the true story of Travis Freeman (Mark Hapka), a high school football player who loses his sight, but returns back to the field to play the sport he loves by trusting in his faith in God.
During my interview with Baker, 55, who also stars in the film as Travis’s father, we talked about how this directing job fell into his lap and how his own faith plays a part in his career. We also discussed his upcoming movie, the MLK drama “Selma,” and whether Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, who is a producer on “23 Blast,” should finally change his NFL football team’s official name amidst growing opposition against it.
I know you’ve done some directing on stage, but do you remember a specific point in your almost 30-year career where you took a step back and realized film directing was something you wanted to take a shot at?
I would say yeah, and it happened pretty early on. I started thinking about writing a script and raising money and trying to direct it. Then my wife and I had a child in 1993 and all of a sudden I said, “I don’t think you’re going to be able to do that anymore.” It sounded like so much work and so much time. It’s something I told myself I was going to have to say goodbye to. It was only until [“23 Blast” screenwriter] Toni Hoover, who was a family friend, asked my wife and I to act in the film that I started helping her out with the script and started doing all the things I had always been interested in like casting. About three years ago she says, “Dylan, why don’t you direct it?” All of a sudden, I heard a question I thought I’d never hear in my life. I jumped on it and, I have to say, I really did enjoy it.
You’ve worked with some iconic directors over your career like John Hughes, Woody Allen and Sam Mendes twice. Is there anyone in particular you borrowed any process from or did you go into a project like this hoping to start on a clean slate?
I have to say, there’s a director I worked for and I actually cast him as an actor in [“23 Blast”]. His name Timothy Busfield. He plays “Duncan,” the athletic director. Tim had directed me in a couple of episodes of the show “Damages.” I really liked him a lot and we had kept in touch. When this was happening, I just started peppering him with questions. He was very, very helpful. He came up with some very practical techniques I could use on the set. The biggest enemy to a director on a film set is time. You’re never going to have enough time no matter how much you allot. So, Tim came forward and said, “Here’s how you can get ahead and deal with time.”
The story of Travis Freeman is such an inspirational one that goes beyond what he is able to do on the football field. What resonated with you the most about his life and what did you hope to convey from his story to the screen?
When I started working on the film, I was really interested in making it entertaining and trying to make it as interesting and moving as I could. Once I met Travis and started to get a real feel for him, I saw he really was a guy – confronted with this awful diagnoses and told he was going to be blind for the rest of his life – who decided that God had given him this to deal with in his life and was interested to see how he would handle it. He wanted to see how he could take it and live the best life he could in his faith. Now, [Travis] is an adjunct professor at the University of the Cumberlands having earned his Ph.D. at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He’s hoping to have a ministry at some point and give that message of being able to get through the tough parts in life – the parts you can’t believe have happened to you. Travis didn’t blame anybody. He said, “This is my life. What can I do to make it better?” I have to say, once I really got to know him, it became much more of a responsibility for me to tell the story in the way I knew Travis wanted it to be told. Thankfully, the first time he saw the film, he hugged me and said, “You got it.” He wanted his faith and message to be a central part of it. He wanted people to know a disabled person can make amazing things happen in their life.
Do you consider this film a faith-based movie? How do you think religion plays a role in the story?
Well, I’ll leave that to other people to categorize. But I will tell you it is a film based on people of faith. Front and center for me was the thought that Travis had to have that moment or revelation where he realizes that he can use what’s happened to him to help other people and give them a positive message. He got back out on the football field and summoned the courage and faith to go back out there sightless and play football. I love that message. Travis’s faith is rewarded.
Now, I know you don’t necessarily have to be a religious person to make a film with religious themes. For example, Darren Aronofsky, who is a self-described atheist, directed “Noah” earlier this year. Are you a man of faith yourself? I read you went to Catholic school growing up and then to SMU, but does God factor into your life in any way?
Well, I’m a Christian. I went to Catholic school and then to Jesuit high school and then to SMU. I kind of leave it there because I don’t want to water down the message of the movie. I’m the director and I point the camera. I had the great fortune to point the camera at a story about faith, which I am fascinated by – people who are so deeply committed to their beliefs that they can do amazing things. I find that story compelling.
I’ve interviewed one of your actresses in this film before, Alexa Vega. She is a very devout Christian. We’ve talked about how sometimes she feels conflicted with some of the more risqué roles she is offered because of her belief system. Does that ever affect you as an actor? I mean, you’ve taken on some pretty edgy roles in your career, specifically in the 1998 film “Happiness.” Does your faith ever factor into what roles you choose?
That’s interesting. I think the problem for actors is that I think people think all actors have a stack of scripts and are reading them and saying, “Well, no, I don’t like that one, but yes, I do like this one.” For me, it’s always been whoever offers me a job I kinda gotta do it. I’m raising a kid and New York City is expensive. She is now a senior in college, so I’m breathing a little lighter about that now. I’ve always been excited about exploring the darker side of human beings. I have definitely played some awful people along the way. I always try to look at them from their point of view. That has, sort of, guided me.
We’re also going to be seeing you in another role this fall as J. Edgar Hoover in the film “Selma,” which is getting some early Oscar buzz. Is it surprising to you that a feature film of this magnitude hasn’t been made about MLK before?
It’s pretty interesting, I have to say. It is so powerful of a story and everything that has happened in Selma. I’m not surprised that Oprah Winfrey and all the other folks have come to [produce] it and make it happen. It was palpable on the set that this is a story people cared about telling. It’s not just another frat house comedy thing going on. It’s a story with real power to it. I was proud to be part of it.
Back when Leonardo DiCaprio played the role in 2011 in “J. Edgar,” producer Brian Grazer called Hoover “diabolical.” Did you find that to be true?
Unfortunately, yes. I’d have to say Hoover’s time at the helm of the FBI was nothing less than diabolical. The fact that he held sway over every part of our government through blackmail and underhanded means is a dark spot on our U.S. history. Every single president that tried to do something about it realized that you couldn’t touch J. Edgar Hoover. He made that clear with every president that came in. He just showed them a little glimpse of what he had and they realized, “Oh, gosh. I guess he’s staying there.” I would say diabolical is a pretty good word for him.
I have to ask you about Washington Redskins owner Daniel Synder, who is a producer on “23 Blast.” What is your take on how much support the campaign against the Redskins name has been building over the last few months? Do you think Mr. Synder should just bite the bullet and change the name finally?
I will say this: Daniel Synder came through for “23 Blast.” I came to him and told him about the story. He said, “I’ll help you out.” Without his help, the film wouldn’t have been made. Now, in terms of his dealings with his team and the trademark and the [Redskins] name, I think that’s an ongoing situation that will go on for quite a while. For me personally, I support Daniel Synder and I support the Washington Redskins. I’ve loved the Redskins since I was a child. I always looked on the name with honor.