While promoting the release of Dirt 5, Baker spoke to Screen Rant about his work on the game and his career in video game acting. He talks about the role of an actor in conveying the vision of a video game developer, and how, when he is given as big a responsibility as he has on Dirt 5, his role doesn’t seem like a “gig,” but becomes a vital part of the development process, so he can be more than a day player reading lines, but part of the team that ships the finished product. He discusses how serious Codemasters were with making sure the character of AJ was more than just a tutorial voice telling the player what to do, and how the fact rally racing has been relatively untapped in the film and television space is of particular advantage to Dirt 5.
Dirt 5 releases November 6 on PC, PS4, and Xbox One, November 10 on Xbox Series X and S, and November 12 on PlayStation 5.
I think we’re in an era where a video game can be sold by the actors attached to the project. That’s been the case in the movie industry for a hundred years, but it’s a pretty recent development for video games. Do you feel that’s the case, that you have an A-List clout about you, or is a gig a gig?
I remember the specific moment, sitting out in my balcony on North Hollywood and having this paradigm shift where I no longer viewed what I do as a collection of jobs, or collection of gigs, but as a career. What I realized is, I’ve got a garden, man! I don’t know if you’ve ever grown anything in a garden, but as I get older, I understand why the old guy in the neighborhood is, like, “Get off my lawn!” He’s like, “Do you have any idea what it takes to keep grass growing, and to keep those flowers growing?” I feel the same way about my career. I’m meticulously crafting and caring for this garden. What this means is, I have to understand how the soil works, which means I have to understand how this industry works. Sometimes, I may not be able to grow what I want to grow. But if I do choose to grow something, there’s a specific kind of care that I need to give for it. I can’t think about how good of a gardener I am. I have to care for what I’m trying to grow, and pay more attention to how it’s growing than to how good I am.
That’s a fascinating way to look at one heck of a career.
But the reality is, look, I was in a game that was packed with A-List people. You don’t get a better cast of more recognized names. But if anyone bought Death Stranding, the only name that sold Death Stranding was Hideo Kojima. That’s the name that sold that game. I don’t care how good people think I am. I don’t think I’m $600 good, that someone’s going to go out and buy a console in order to play a game that they’ve never played before. And more importantly, the second I start thinking about that, I’m completely pushing the character to the side. I’ve fallen prey to that before, in past roles. I feel like I’ve grown enough, now, to where it’s like, I don’t know what the Metacritic is going to be, I don’t know what the sales numbers are going to be, I don’t know what the YouTube comments are going to be… But I do know that, right now, there is a person that needs to say something in this moment, and the beauty is that Codemasters came in and said, “We’re going to answer a lot of the questions that you’re going to have about this character upfront. They front-loaded me with so much information. Not just biographical stuff like how old he is and where he grew up and all that, but every biographical fact about him answered a question that I would have organically, naturally raised. Like, why racing? And not only “why racing,” but why this kind of racing? This is for crazy people. Like, Nascar, Formula 1, I get it. There’s the prestige, there’s the money. There’s not necessarily Formula 1 money in this type of racing. This is for the love of the sport. This is for the love of the science. You’re racing, almost against yourself. It told me a lot about who AJ was.
And this was all before you even started recording.
What they did was, they said, “This is a partnership. We’ve given you all the information we can. We’ve given you the course, the track by which you’re going to race. How will you race? How will you run this character? What will you teach us about this character that we don’t know? Those are the opportunities that I really latch onto. Like, how can I partner with this studio and become as much of a member of the team as I’m allowed to be so that when the game ships, we all shipped the game? It’s not just, “This is another gig that I got.” This was a different kind of experience. Because that’s the kind of game you want to play. You don’t want to play another game. You want to play a truly unique, refreshing, experience.
You co-star with Nolan in Dirt 5, you’re the two leads. You’ve developed a rapport over the years. A big selling point in Uncharted 4 was the two of you together, and I think that game was a big stepping stone for the cinematic and character-driven potential of games with full-contact acting. What kind of rapport have you and Nolan developed over the years? We’ve seen some of it on Retro Replay and other projects over the years, but how does that relationship come through in Dirt 5?
As much as you always want to say it, you have to play everything with a layer of authenticity. In the same way that everything Codemasters has done to make this game feel as realistic as possible… When you look at the cars, you’re like, that’s a real car. It’s like, you’re not looking at a model that was created in-engine. It’s an actual… I can touch it. It’s tangible. It’s tactile. When I’m moving around inside this world and I win a race, it’s not like you played the course. You did it. You can smell the brakes. You can feel the wind. It’s everything that we want a game to be. It’s hitting us on all sensory levels. That’s the bar we have to reach with the performance and these characters. Otherwise, it feels tacked-on. If it’s just a voice that’s speaking to you, you and I are both going to mute that voice, or we’re going to skip that cutscene, or we’re going to turn that feature off. Or we’re not even going to play that mode, we’ll just do a different part. That’s the level that we have to adhere to. That’s the standards by which we have to operate. You can always feel it when you’re not really angry at each other, when you don’t really feel it. To have that level of authenticity between two actors to be able to present a scene is a challenge. You don’t want it to feel as though they’re just reading lines. Nolan is such a solid performer in the sense that he can… Especially with where we were at when we recorded this at the time, being able to spend so much time with each other where we each knew where the other was going to bob and weave. So we can set each other up and anticipate each other’s moves. So it feels like a natural conversation. The challenge comes from when it’s like, “Okay guys, feel free to make this extemporaneous and improvise and see what you can discover when you’re in it. But ultimately, it’s gotta have an in and an out. Otherwise, we’ll just talk forever! Being able to go, we’re gonna inflate to here, but someone’s gonna pick it up and bring it back to where the script is leading, that’s a skill, and Nolan is really good at that.
When I was getting ready to talk to you, I was thinking about my favorite movies about racing, and how not a lot of them, if any of them, focus on rally, on dirt.
And the way you were describing it before, I’m like, why isn’t there a Days of Thunder for this? I wanna see those cars in slow-mo in the mud!
Because, by and large, those stories would end in a crash and fatality. (Laughs) But you’re absolutely right, and that’s why I love that we’ve focused on this specific part of that industry. This is crazy. This takes such a level of skill. And not just skill. But also, they’re kind of like the storm chasers. You have weathermen, and they’re meteorologists, and they get to spend all their time behind a computer in their comfy office. They’re not out chasing tornadoes! These are the people who are so passionate about this sport and what happens when man and machine come together. I have such a new appreciation for this. I think this is that movie. If there’s a vacancy at that level… We’ve talked about Formula 1. We’ve talked about… Paul Newman, obviously a huge fan of racing.
One of the greats!
He did the movie (Winning, 1969) and decided to form his own racing team, and a different kind of racing team, too. He could have done Formula 1 or something, but he didn’t. We’ve seen Days of Thunder. Even stuff like Talladega Nights! We’ve seen those movies before. But this is not like… I wouldn’t want to passively watch a movie about rally racing. I want to play it! I love that we’ve managed to save that space for gaming. Once I went down my rabbit hole of what this sport was about, I was like, “Hell yeah, I wanna get behind the wheel of that!”
We’ve seen some narrative-driven sports games in recent years. I think maybe Fight Night Champion was the first modern example, and then NBA 2K and Madden NFL tried their experimental story modes that got non-sports people like me to play those games, which is pretty far out. You’ve hinted at this, but what makes Dirt 5 go to the next level, how does it get people who don’t care about driving around in a circle for three hours, how does it get them to fall in love with this game? And also, that was super reductive about racing; even I know there’s a lot more to it than driving in a circle for three hours.
I think you’re speaking to something. I was pumping quarters in Pole Position when I was eight. And then, I remember the first time I saw the stand-up for Spy Hunter that had the pedal. I was, like, “Wow, I can drive!” And then the next phase was getting to actually sit in the car, and then they actually moved! It’s always been chasing the one-to-one. How realistic can we go? The truth is, for people who really understand what this sport is, and what this experience is like, it’s not about a driver that sits behind a wheel and goes around the track. It is about understanding that drivers don’t win races: teams do.
Right, because rally racing isn’t on the same kind of pristine courses as Formula 1…
There’s a team of people who are wizards, who are sitting stationary, measuring every facet and component of the track, and wind, and weather, and running algorithms to understand the physics of what that car is designed to do and how that design is going to be met with the obstacles of that specific track with all the variables that are around it, and being able to communicate, cogently and clearly, that information to the driver. Not telling him what to do, but saying, “Here’s the information.” Can I take that turn at 26 MPH instead of 24 MPH? That’s seconds that can determine who is going to win the race… Even talking about it gets my blood up! It’s understanding that there’s a narrative we will naturally imbue into an experience. What they’ve done is being able to say, we’ve simply given that character a name, and given that narrative some structure so that when you are forming your career, your career will truly be, just like AJ’s, one of a kind. And the question we pose to you at the very beginning of it: will you be the best?