Whether or not you know their names, or know that they’re actually married, Dylan and Becky Ann Baker have a habit of always making you glad when they appear in something, whether on TV or onstage. Becky Ann Baker is best known for playing Freaks and Geeks’ Jean Weir and Hannah Horvath’s long-suffering mother on Girls. Dylan Baker has gotten three Emmy nominations for playing a creepy client on The Good Wife. They’ve appeared together on TV occasionally, as a married couple on Smash and on opposite corners of NBC’s ambitious canceled biblical drama, Kings — they still wear the Kings down vests they got as wrap gifts, which are apparently very comfortable.
Now the Bakers are together again, in “Humane Animal Trap,” an episode of Netflix’s pandemic anthology series, Social Distance, which they filmed themselves in their own home, playing a married couple who bickers through the early days of the COVID pandemic. Her character insists on keeping up her work at a hospital, and his frets about her health and tries to get her to stay at home, relax, and listen to some Steely Dan.
Calling from the home where they shot their episode, America’s most reliable character-actor duo caught up with Vulture to talk about acting as their own crew, how they almost did Girls together, and the precarious situation of being older actors who need to work for their health care.
Are you at the house where you filmed now?
Dylan Baker: Yep, we’ve pretty much been here the whole time!
Becky Ann Baker: We’re on the Delaware River, on the border between New York and Pennsylvania.
Were you in the middle of working on anything when everything shut down? What was your early March like?
D.B.: I had just finished Medea at BAM with Bobby Cannavale and Rose Byrne, and our final show was on March 8. So Becky and I jumped in the car that Sunday and we drove up here. We were thinking it would be a couple days before we go back to New York, and all of a sudden the world shut down and here we were.
Your episode of Social Distance takes place in the early days of the pandemic, but when did you start filming it?
D.B.: It was mid-June when we started hearing about it. Becky and I had a family get-together down in North Carolina, with my sister and her husband and their extended family. We were quarantining; they were quarantining. We just got in a car and drove all the way there and were able to quarantine with them. When we came back here, the show was just about ready to start, so we found an RV in our driveway. A huge RV!
B.A.B.: It had been delivered while we were gone!
D.B.: And we found 13 to 20 boxes on our front porch, so we just started getting to work.
So they just sent you all the set dressing for the show?
B.A.B.: Oh yeah. The medical scrubs I’m wearing in the beginning, and all kinds of food items to pack into the RV so it looks like I’m living there.
D.B.: The one thing was that they said, “If there’s any chance you could plug in the RV, that would be great,” and I tried and I kept popping the fuse! So I walked down to my neighbors, who I hadn’t talked to in a while, and said, “Any chance you can tell me how to plug in an RV?” He plugged it into this one circuit, and I was like, “Can you do that?” He was like, “Dylan, I’m also an electrician.”
Did you divide up the crew jobs among yourselves?
B.A.B.: I can do nothing technologically, so all the camera tricks and the lighting Dylan took over. I was the art director and the caterer. I made sure that everything was swept and cleaned and put all the props where they needed to be.
D.B.: I became Sal the grip and Murph the camera assistant. They gave us 12 or 14 different iPhone 11s, so we had to plug them all in and label them all. I had to put programs in and put them on tripods. I had so much fun, and it was exhausting. Grips are not paid enough! Sal complained more than anybody on the set.
How did you communicate with Jesse Peretz, the director, as you were filming?
B.A.B.: For each shot, there were two iPhone 11s. One would be facing you with Jesse or different people Zooming. Everybody was there, but then they would pop up when they needed to talk to us. The tripods could hold both phones at the same time, pointing in the direction that they needed to point. A courier would show up at about ten o’clock, and he would pick up the phones we’d shot with that were waiting for him in a case on the porch. He’d run it up to the city so they could watch the dailies the next morning.
D.B.: They didn’t tell us this was gonna happen, and the first night, it was late, there’s a car out front and a guy’s knocking on the door! There was also one technical person, a sound person they brought to us, who was great and stayed out of the house and wore a mask. He was very safe. He’d put the lav mics we needed on a table and leave and we’d come and pick them up.
How many days did it take to shoot the episode?
B.A.B.: The actual shooting was for four or five days. But the week before, we did a lot of prep. We had a Zoom costume fitting where they sent all the clothes. We did a makeup thing, because I have an injury when I first come in, from the PPE.
The episode ends with Becky’s character driving off and going back to work. Did you talk about whether this couple would stay together?
B.A.B.: In the script rehearsal, I wasn’t so sure about that point, to be honest, in working on it. But then we collectively decided that they do stay together. She’s going back to work, but these are two people who do belong together — they just have very different ideas about how to deal with the pandemic. I think that’s the strongest choice for the piece. The audience can leave it to the imaginations, but hopefully we bound it in so much affection that you would imagine her coming back.
Dylan’s character is also a big fan of Steely Dan. What are your thoughts on Steely Dan?
D.B.: I’ve always loved Steely Dan, I have to say. Aren’t they the ones that Chevy Chase was originally a part of?
B.A.B.: We had that on a trivia question or something! Yeah, sure, we love Steely Dan. What’s not to love?
You’re both actors who’ve found ways to work constantly, whether in theater, television, or film. What was it like to not be able to work for so long?
B.A.B.: It was really hard. We were reading a lot of P.G. Wodehouse because he’s so funny. We did a lot of little things, like those Zoom theater readings, to try to keep some of these regional and New York Off Broadway theaters alive. They were engaging and felt like fun, but for the most part, it was just terrifying not to be able to work.
D.B.: I found myself actually doing a lot of projects at the house with the grass and gardening.
B.A.B.: Everything we ever wanted to have fixed is fixed. I even restuffed the outdoor furniture pillows. But it’s still going on in terms of work for us. There are some things that are starting to shoot again, but the theater’s not coming back till at least the fall of 2021.
D.B.: We have a Zoom group that we go to every week with a close group of people. All of a sudden last week, two of the members, a married couple, sent a text that was like, “We have COVID.” It’s not a joke. The reality of the thing keeps resurfacing.
Do you have a sense of when you personally might feel safe returning to work?
B.A.B.: There’s been a few things that they’ve asked me if I was interested in that were out of town, in Toronto and places like that. To be honest, I said I’m just not ready to get on an airplane. It if was something in the city, I know that some of our friends are starting to go back to work, and they feel like the rules that are in place through SAG are pretty solid. I was in the middle of shooting a couple of episodes of Billions when everything shut down, so I ride my bike in the morning and I’m still repeating the lines just to get ready. We’re also in our 60s, so it’s not like it will be just a bad flu. We don’t know where it will go.
I wanted to ask: You two have gotten to be on so many TV shows that did shoot in the city. Was there ever a series that one of you was on that the other wished they could’ve gotten a part in?
B.A.B.: When I was first cast in Girls, I had worked with Judd Apatow [in Freaks and Geeks], and they offered it to me. But they also offered it to Dylan to play my husband. But it was just a pilot; nobody knew if it was gonna go or do anything.
D.B.: And I was doing an Encores! revival of Bells Are Ringing, where you rehearse for two weeks and do it for the weekend. I wasn’t singing, but there were two nights of rehearsal where I had to be there. I said I could do [the pilot], but there was one night they wanted me and I had to be like, “Ah, sorry, I have another job.” And then it became Girls!
B.A.B.: Then it was Peter Scolari. But it was great, because then I got to audition about 12 men that were all good friends of mine.
D.B.: I can’t imagine anybody else but Peter Scolari doing that job.
The one show where you two actually played parents was Smash, where you were Katharine McPhee’s Kansas parents. That show has somehow really built up a cult fandom, and they’ve even said they want to do a stage version. Has that lasting affection surprised you?
B.A.B.: I do think a stage version sounds great, actually.
D.B.: The singing on it is incredible, and there’s so many wonderful people — Megan Hilty and all these different New York performers that got to do their stuff on it.
B.A.B.: Some people, all they want to do is talk to me about Smash [laughs]. It was so long ago, but it must still have its fan base out there.
You know that cohort of working New York theater slash TV actors pretty well. Have you stayed in touch through the pandemic? What are the conversations like?
B.A.B.: The biggest topic is health care, because for Equity insurance you have to have so many works that you’ve been working on, and here we are all shut down.
D.B.: Then all of a sudden SAG-AFTRA changed the rules, so it really has been tough.
B.A.B.: So here we are in a country coming up in an election that has to do with health care as well, so we’re just all keeping our fingers crossed a lot. If you can’t qualify for your union health care, you’re in trouble.
The Actors’ Equity insurance also just extended the number of weeks it takes to qualify.
D.B.: Yes, they did. It’s a two-headed thing, because there’s no money coming in and you want the health-care plans to survive. It’s a very tough situation, and one that we shouldn’t be in, but we are.
B.A.B.: There we go, another pandemic talk. But it’s funny because actors usually get together and talk and, in the old days, it was always about your headshots and your teeth.
D.B.: And what skin doctor you’re going to.
B.A.B.: And now it’s only about health care.