Diane Baker, a seasoned veteran of the craft, teaches young actors how to do it in S.F.
By C.H. Clyde
Diane Baker could rest on her laurels as an actress, sitting around telling stories about famous directors like George Stevens and Alfred Hitchcock, name-dropping the likes of Joan Crawford or Sean Connery, or lamenting Hollywood’s past and ignoring its future. But she doesn’t.
She is still a working actress and producer, but she’s also the executive director of acting at the School of Motion Pictures and Television here at the Academy of Art University in SOMA. The cliché of “those who do, do; those who can’t, teach” does not apply here. The first thing she tells her students is that acting is hard work. “Some kids come here and try to get me to promise them jobs. That’s so bad. They ask and expect to work in Hollywood from square one. They expect to become stars. But it’s not about that. It’s about the art and craft of filmmaking.”
And if students think the Academy of Art’s acting school is easy, they’re in for a rude awakening. “While we are teaching the students, we want them to feel like they’re working actors. The acting clinic involves body movement, improvisation, reciting Shakespeare, singing, speech, how to behave on camera.”
Baker’s passion for the craft is contagious. “We’re always reshaping and moving it forward. We’re taking risks. We have one-on-one teaching. Shaping actors means students not being afraid to fall flat on your face or to look bad.” Then comes the payoff, “When they disappear into character, when students aren’t afraid to lose themselves in a role. That’s acting.”
Baker has built the school from the ground up with Academy of Art president Dr. Elisa Stephens. “When I arrived in 2004, we had no theater, we had no soundstage, the film department needed equipment.” Things have changed since Baker’s arrival. “Elisa has been great. We have two soundstages. We shoot in HD. We have the Morgan Theater on Post and Mason.” She also changed the curriculum. “We have our students who are learning to be directors work with students learning to be actors. Actors need direction.”
Baker, who wants “real behavior, real life,” says, “I try to teach directors to keep the camera rolling even if the actor isn’t doing exactly what they’re told, because an actor’s motivation and performance can still be real.” Spoken like a true actress.
Just one look at Baker’s filmography shows and she is the real deal. Her film career began in 1959 when she signed a contract with Twentieth Century Fox. Director George Stevens chose her to play Margot Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank. “I loved him. He was my fist director. I had a crush on the man,” Baker says. Her film list goes on and on, including playing Senator Ruth Martin in Silence of the Lambs, but I had to ask about working with Alfred Hitchcock on Marnie after she left her Fox contract.
“Hitch had a difficulty with women, although he was always kind and loving to me. When I got on the set, he and Tippi [Hedren] weren’t talking. I was the middle person … they spoke through me.“ Baker called him “Hitch” without sounding pretentious; she was friends with the famed director. “We were at his house in Brentwood on the golf course, and his wife, Alma, was making a quiche. She showed him a Life magazine with Grace Kelly on the cover.” The rest, shall we say, is history.
Also starring in Marnie was Sean Connery, whom Baker plans to invite to the academy to speak at graduation. She stunned an academy staffer who does a “spot-on” Connery impression by putting Agent 007 on the phone with him.
Baker passes on Hitchcock’s meticulous preparation and storyboarding of every scene to her students; ditto on what she learned from Anthony Hopkins from the set of Silence of the Lambs. She also plans to invite Dr. Hannibal Lecter to speak to her students as well.
There are no clichés with Diane Baker. Her students learn everything she has to give from her years on the sliver screen. “I pass on all of it,” she says, and “I love it.”