Baker, 42, has a pivotal role in the new movie Margin Call, an indie drama about the suits who put America in the financial dumpster. He plays a barracuda brokerage boss who will do anything to keep his high-rollers solvent. "If you're investing money, I don't think he's the one to fear," Baker says. "But as far as empathy, I don't think he has a lot."
You wouldn't catch the real-life Baker near any kind of market play. "I don't like buying stuff that I can't feel, or hold or sit underneath," he says. He despises credit, too, but realizes no one is renting cars with a prepaid handshake. "I'm very old-fashioned and very practical in that sense."
Baker landed The Mentalist as the economy soured in 2008. He now makes a reported $435,000 per episode, the highest salary of any actor in a dramatic series. Risk-aversion and his hefty paycheck have "protected" him in the downturn, he says.
Wealth is a relatively new reality for The Devil Wears Prada star. He grew up in a working-class household, first in Tasmania, Australia, and then in Sydney. His father was a school groundskeeper. His stepfather -- the man he knew as his biological father until later in life -- worked as a butcher. His mother patrolled a store as a security guard for a time, according to one biography. Nobody was doling out financial advice, he recalls. "My parents didn't have a pot to piss in, so it was like, 'You work hard, you get paid.'"
Baker learned about personal finance on the job trail, working as a bartender, time-share salesman, ceiling-fan installer and props man on movie crews. In the late '80s, the dashing lad started to get work in front of the camera on music videos, which led to a prime role on an Aussie soap called E Street. His growing popularity Down Under fueled his desire to make it in Hollywood, so he moved to Los Angeles in 1995.
He became known to American film audiences with two other Aussies -- Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce -- in the 1997 noir L.A. Confidential. He earned his TV stripes with a three-season run as a hotshot druggie lawyer turned child protector on CBS's The Guardian (2001-2004).
As his career took off, he found one of the few investments he was willing put money into: real estate. The father of three owns two homes in Australia. One is near exclusive Byron Bay, where he can surf.
Meanwhile, The Mentalist has invested heavily in him. Baker's revamped contract reportedly provides a generous back-end -- a cut of the show's profits -- plus a producer's share and a bigger slice of syndication returns. The program currently is watched by 13 million Americans in its Thursday 10 p.m. time slot, according to the Nielsen ratings.
It's safe to say Baker's within budget when he indulges his main splurge -- gourmet food. But the luxury of choice isn't always something the A-list can afford, according to Baker. He offers the old saw that money can be a great servant but a wicked master. "And if you let it get the better of you and you have a lot of it," he says, "then you're really enslaved to it still."