After over a decade notching up TV roles in the States – including True Detective, Ozark and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – it was a trip for recently returned Australian actor Christopher James Baker to ride out into the bush on horseback while shooting SBS show New Gold Mountain.
“It’s a good day at the office,” he says of assuming the role of Patrick. A grieving man when we meet him, he’s consumed with anger. An Irish Unionist, he and wife Annie walked away from the Troubles back home to seek their fortune in Victoria’s Gold Rush. Tragically, the better life they dreamed of didn’t work out, horrifically so. Now he’s stuck in a more tumultuous situation than the one he left behind.
Baker worked with a dialogue coach to get his Irish accent right. “I love accent work, and obviously everything I was doing recently in America involved accents, so it’s actually a big part of my process,” he says. While he hopes he won’t be judged too harshly by the real deal, there was an element of deliberate vagueness at play. “You have to ask how long has Patrick been here? He would have been hanging around with English and Scottish people. When did the Australian accent start? So it’s not quite perfectly from County Clare.”
There are much more exciting opportunities in Australian television now than there were when he left, Baker says. He shot Stan show Eden back-to-back with New Gold Mountain. Relishing both roles, the period trappings of the latter were particularly appealing. “You can easily get lost in it,” he says of the immersive nature of shooting in and around Gold Rush recreation tourism attraction Sovereign Hill, on the edge of Ballarat. “I loved getting filthy. There’s a real ceremonial taking off of things at the end of the day. Not that I’m a crazy method person. They didn’t have to call me Patrick.”
The show’s centred on the under-told experience of Chinese immigrants, refreshingly so. But it also mines rich seams in the oft-explosive interaction between competing colonisers and the First Nations peoples they dispossessed. The second episode features a brilliant interaction between Patrick and Hattie (Leonie Whyman), a young First Nations woman who survived the massacre of her family. She is determined to make her own way on her own terms, living on the outskirts of town and trusting no one, yet she and Patrick forge a grudging respect for one another. “It sort of comes from nowhere and doesn’t make sense, and it’s complicated, as many of these friendships are,” Baker says of their scenes together. “As [director] Corrie [Chen] spoke about it in rehearsals, here’s two people that will happily sit in silence together, and that is a rare thing. So when they do talk, it means something, particularly given where these two characters come from. And Leonie was a cracker. She’s a fantastic actor.”
He saw, in Patrick and Hattie, echoes of where we are some 170 years later. “I thought the writing of that was so beautiful, for the themes of where you belong and who you connect to, which fed into bigger things about the country and what’s happening today… And then there’s the mind-blowing aspect that I went to school in Melbourne, and we visited Ballarat to learn about the gold rush, but I didn’t know anything about the Chinese miners.”
Referring to violent scenes of anti-lockdown protests on Melbourne streets occurring when we speak, Baker says the show has gained even more layers of relevance. “We’re seeing angry young men being fired up to join a cause they don’t really believe in,” he says. Not entirely unlike Patrick and his fellow miners.
Restrictions were a significant feature of filming New Gold Mountain. It was one of the few productions worldwide that were able to proceed when it was shot late last year, Baker notes. Though that meant dealing with a baking hot Australian summer while wearing masks between takes. “I was fortunate in that I certainly wasn’t on [set] every day. But some of the cast were, and Corrie and all the crew were out there every day. It was getting towards December and you’re in the bush for 14-hour days in the heat on top of the usual gruelling nature of a shoot.”
While it was tough, he says the conditions helped forge an even greater sense of camaraderie. “But I’m sure there are lots of people I met and became good friends with that I probably wouldn’t recognise if I bumped into them, unless they covered half their face and smiled with their eyes,” he chuckles.
Chen was a guiding light, Baker adds. “She’s wicked smart. It was an epic shoot, like filming four feature-length movies, and she was on all day, every day. It’s also an epic story with so many plotlines happening. And, at any point, you could ask her a really specific question about the characters and their intentions and she was absolutely across it, giving really gentle notes that were really considered. And she’s funny, which is really important.”
Baker says Chen’s passion for the material was clear from rehearsals on. It only increased his enthusiasm for the gig – an enthusiasm borne out by the magic of his first day on set. “Walking up to the set nestled in the middle of beautiful bush was quite breathtaking. I just wandered around whenever we weren’t filming, going ‘Oh my goodness’. It was pretty special.”
New Gold Mountain premieres exclusively in Australia on SBS and SBS On Demand. Meet the cast and crew, and find out more about life on the goldfields, on the Progam Page. See the four-part series on Wednesday and Thursday nights at 9.30pm over two big weeks, screening 13 October, 14 October then 20 October and 21 October. Watch the trailer here or start watching episode one:
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