“I’m talking about all my embarrassing splurges!”
Stella Baker has been treating herself this summer, and rightfully so. She has plenty to celebrate thus far in 2021. After a breakout performance in the Amazon Prime thriller Tell Me Your Secrets earlier this year—which, I should add, she booked three weeks out of grad school—Baker is back in the spotlight this month with a starring role in the new The CW series The Republic of Sarah. So yes, I would say those covetable Chanel sunglasses she admits she spent far too much money on are well deserved indeed.
Baker has been working pretty much nonstop since graduating from the Yale School of Drama in 2018, but becoming an actor wasn’t always the plan for the 27-year-old. In fact, she spent most of her young adult life avoiding an on-screen career. Growing up under two acting parents (Simon Baker and Rebecca Rigg, that is), the harsh nature of the industry was made abundantly clear. “The messaging was very much ‘Education first and then acting later, if that’s something you want,’” she says of the tough-love narrative at home. So she wasn’t much interested in Hollywood, instead setting her sights on becoming a writer. Three years into a philosophy degree, however, the inevitable happened: Her passion for performance came to the forefront. One play and some positive reinforcement from her peers is all it took for Baker to shift gears.
Right out of the gate, her talent caught the eye of casting agents, landing her an exciting part opposite Lily Rabe in Tell Me Your Secrets. Not long after that, she was cast in the title role of The Republic of Sarah, which premiered on June 14. A rarity these days, the show is a completely original story following Baker’s protagonist Sarah Cooper as she leads her small town to independence. The stakes are high for Sarah, who must navigate the challenges of building a country from scratch while satisfying the diverse needs of her community. For Baker, the opportunity to be a part of creating a new world while building a character who is incredibly smart and driven—but flawed, too—was a dream.
Ahead of the show’s debut, I jumped on a Zoom call with the rising actress to discuss the joys of playing Sarah Cooper and, yes, those recent fashion and beauty splurges.
The Republic of Sarah is an original story of a high school teacher who, when her town is on the verge of being taken over by bulldozers, proposes the idea to gain international sovereignty. What excited you most about coming into this project?
I feel like everything that gets made these days is either a remake or based on a novel or a comic book. Not only is it exciting that [The Republic of Sarah] is an original concept, but because it’s an original concept, there is an opportunity to create a tone. You get to create a world, a visual world. Who are these people? What is this place? It’s TV, it’s fiction, and we get to create a whole new world. For a season one of a show that is an original concept, there is an exploration and a little bit of finding what that is, and that’s a process, but it’s a really fun process—especially as an actor—to get to be a part of that because we have such collaborative producers and writers. We’ve been able to talk through a lot of stuff and have input.
What were your initial thoughts reading the script?
Jeff King, our writer, has created such an interesting character with Sarah Cooper. She is so knowledgeable and smart and curious and driven. She has a crazy work ethic, and she’s endlessly optimistic. And you’ll see as the show goes on, toward the end, her ability to be like, “Okay, there’s no way out of this, but I’m going to figure out a way out of this.” She is incredibly resourceful, which are all exciting elements for a protagonist. But at the same time (the showrunner and I talked about this a lot), it was really important that we made her a complicated and flawed protagonist and someone who makes a lot of mistakes and learns from her mistakes and feels human. She feels like someone you can relate to because she doesn’t get it all right and she messes things up and she has to make a lot of sacrifices. So the character was really exciting for me. And then once I met the producer and producing team and Kat Candler, who directed the pilot, and Jeff King, I was like, “Oh, these are people I would really love to work with and people I could collaborate with.” So the second I met them, I was like, “I would love to be a part of this.”
How do you think this story will resonate with audiences right now?
I think we are living in a time where—I am about to try and say something really complicated, and if I mess it up, forgive me—because of globalization, we are all connected to our phones and know what’s going on everywhere all the time, and we are losing a sense of our immediate physical community. Who is my neighbor? Who is the person who lives across the street? What are the policies that are being enacted on a civic level that are affecting the people who I live around and affecting myself? So we have that happening, and at the same time, we have a huge movement for people to be more invested in their immediate community on a grassroots level and people calling and getting involved with their local representatives and following what’s happening on a local level. This show is based around a group of people who are so tied to their community and so protective of their community that they are willing to stand up against this thing that feels like an impossible hurdle. It sends a really exciting message about the value of holding tight to the people who live next door.
Sarah is essentially building a new country from scratch, and she is faced with a new set of hurdles each episode. It makes you realize how difficult it would really be for a town to claim independence. What challenges surprised you most?
I am trying to think back to the episodes. The fact that our solution is our own currency, I think it’s actually really amazing. That episode, on the one hand, it’s like, “Really, if you are starting a new country, you are worried about what color your currency is?” But the fact that Sarah has the foresight to understand the value of this mineral deposit that they have is so immense that if they do create their own currency their potential is huge. You see this character looking years and years down the line and invested in generations to come and the best way to set up this place so that it has longevity and stability. When I first read that episode, I was like, “Wow, their own currency. That seems wild.” But then I was like, “This is someone who believes in long-term stability, and she is really investing in that, and she is going to get these people on board.” And of course, she needs her friends to do that. She rarely can actually do anything on her own. There is a lot of really complicated stuff that comes up, and then there is a lot of fun TV stuff in terms of how the characters deal with it—like in the episode when the border gets shut down and I tell AJ to get in a boat at night to go get this stuff. I love that about the show. It’s hilarious.
Do you think this is something we could see happen today?
I don’t know how likely it would be to happen in America, but there are different instances throughout history. There is an area in New Hampshire that tried to do this in—I think—the 1800s. They tried to have their own country called The Republic of Indian Stream. Our showrunner, who is a cartographical savant, said there is a plot of land in the Middle East that no one owns that anyone could go to right now and just put a flag in and say, “This is my land.” So there are instances throughout history that are background for this. I mean, how is a country ever started? And then we get into a very complicated conversation about who the land belongs to—2021.
Sarah is quite different from your Tell Me Your Secrets character, Theresa Barlow. What a wild ride that series is. Can you tell me a little about your experience working on that show?
Yeah, that was a wild ride. I finished grad school, and I booked the show maybe three weeks later, which was really shocking. I was like, “Wait, are you guys sure you want to do this?” I was quite nervous, but I loved the cast so much. Most of my scenes are with Lily [Rabe], and I loved working with her so much. Because she was number one on the call sheet, she really set the tone for this show, and watching her work was really informative and an amazing learning experience just in terms of her professionalism as an actor. I got a lot out of watching those actors work. I tried to absorb as much as I could, and then when I was working on The Republic of Sarah, I tried my best to bring the same professionalism. It was a great learning experience, and I loved the people I was working with on that show.
Who are some of the creators that make you excited to work in this business?
There’s a lot. I have my old-school faves, but the contemporary people who inspire me a lot are… Florence Pugh is really talented, and I love watching her. I think Kelvin Harrison Jr. is a really talented actor, and I love watching his movies. I think Sam Levinson is doing really interesting work. Succession is an amazing TV show and an amazing cast. It’s been a weird year, but I think there are a lot of artists reinventing the craft in a really exciting way.
Your parents are also actors. Did you know from a young age that this was the career path you wanted to take?
No. I think maybe deep down I did. My mom started acting when she was 11. She had a strong career in Australia and ended up leaving high school early to continue her acting career. My dad has had a strong, solid career. Growing up, the narrative was very much, “This is a really difficult industry, and it’s based on luck, and if you can make a living doing it, that’s incredibly rare, and you are really lucky, and it doesn’t happen to many people.” The messaging was very much, “Education first and then acting later, if that’s something you want.” So I spent most of my life being like, “I’m not interested. I want to write. I want to be a writer.” I went to college and studied philosophy, but deep down, I was always so curious about it and wanted to try it, but I was just scared. I did a play and had so much fun doing it, and people were like, “Hey, you are good at that,” and I was like, “Well, great. Thank God. Now, I can just focus on this thing finally.” My parents came to see that play. I was 20, and I was like, “This is what I want to do, and I’m going to try and go to grad school for it.” I remember my dad saying to me, “If you’re happy making no money doing this for the rest of your life—because that’s likely what will happen—then this is a very solid path to follow.” I’ve been really lucky so far, and I feel really grateful. I don’t know what will happen next, but I just love acting.
You co-wrote, produced, and starred in the short film Candace. What are the kinds of projects that interest you as a writer and/or producer? Do you have any other projects in the works?
Yeah, I have a few scripts in the works, but I don’t know if I want to talk about them. They feel very nascent, you know? It’s definitely something I want to do. I would love to write and direct, and I have scripts I’ve been working on for years, and I’ll get there.
I want to talk about style a little bit. What would you say are some of your signatures?
I really like to feel comfortable. I feel hesitant with trends. I am very drawn to classic pieces that feel like they can exist at any time and make sense. I don’t know if you are familiar with the Italian brand Il Bisonte, but they are an old leather company that makes timeless bags, and I have this beautiful, very ’70s leather bag that I carry everywhere. Oh, I just splurged on these very exciting [Chanel] sunglasses. This is the most money I have ever spent on anything. It’s the most outrageous thing I’ve ever bought for myself, but I feel like they will make sense forever. I like classic, simple, timeless things that I can wear forever. And also, my mother’s hand-me-downs.
What are the mainstays of your summer wardrobe?
I have racks and racks of dresses that I have collected over the years. A lot of them are secondhand dresses, like silk slips and linen things that are light and airy and feminine and make me feel beautiful. Do you know the company Dôen? They make these very delicate little T-shirts that have a little bow right here, and they remind me of this French company Petit Bateau that my mom used to buy for me when I was little. I have been living in those with a simple little skirt or a pair of shorts. Every now and then, I have a little adventurous day where I dress like a little kid and cover myself in a bunch of different colors and wear everything in my wardrobe and feel embarrassed about it eventually. It’s nice to take risks sometimes.
You live in New York, where there are some of the best vintage shops. Do you have a favorite?
Honestly, this is such a lame answer, but I don’t. I don’t go shopping very much anymore. I have lived mostly in Brooklyn, and even there, I didn’t go shopping very much. Mirth Vintage is a store in Brooklyn that has really simple, beautiful stuff. It’s well curated.
What about your beauty essentials?
I spent a lot of my life getting keratin treatments trying to get my hair to be straight and contained, but I have gotten to a place where I embrace my curls and let them be. It’s pretty low-maintenance. I just use gallons of conditioner. It’s just always dry. I’m talking about all my embarrassing splurges! Skincare-wise, I just bought some La Mer, and I’m really happy about it, honestly. Kat Burki has a really beautiful vitamin C cream that’s really nice. Makeup-wise, I am pretty simple. I love some good blush. I think blush is an incredible tool and think everyone should wear blush all the time. It works wonders.
New episodes of The Republic of Sarah air Mondays at 9 p.m. on The CW.
Photographer: Marie + Lee
Stylist: Chloe Hartstein
Hairstylist: Patrick Kyle for Exclusive Artists using Unite Hair
Makeup Artist: Mary Wiles using Kat Burki Skincare