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On the Set: The Mentalist Goes Back in Time for the 100th Episode

Date October 26, 2012

Simon Baker

Think about it. We're now five seasons into The Mentalist and we still don't know all that much about Simon Baker's title character — the sad, tormented, ultra-private Patrick Jane. What happened to him right after the murder of his wife and daughter by the mad slasher Red John? Is it true he was in a mental hospital under suicide watch? And, if so, how did he ever get his act together to join the major crimes unit at the CBI? To celebrate the 100th episode of the CBS series, creator-exec producer Bruno Heller is flashing back — eight years to be exact — to cough up a few answers. Prepare for a very different Patrick Jane.

"We started out the series in the past, showing how Jane's scheming and manipulation as a fake psychic led directly to the loss of his family, then we jumped ahead to find him on the job with the CBI — now we'll reveal what happened in the year in between," says Heller. "This Jane is fresh out of the insane asylum. He's shucked off his straitjacket and comes directly to the CBI offices to find out what the hell is going on in the search for Red John."

Baker and costar Robin Tunney, who plays CBI senior special agent Teresa Lisbon, are shooting that very scene on the Warner Bros. Studios lot in Burbank. Jane, dark circles under his eyes and a rumpled, crumpled mess, has shown up unannounced at CBI and asks Lisbon for details on the investigation. She is understandably evasive and more than a little concerned about Jane's mental state. She gently tells him to beat it but, before long, her maternal instincts kick in.

"Jane is very much the rescue dog — homeless, shattered, looking for a place to be and perfectly willing to tag along," says Baker during a break in filming. "For the first time, the audience will see him not in control of what he's doing. The last thing he wants to do is go back to being a con man because that's what got him in all this trouble to begin with."

Truth be told, Baker was leery of this time-travel stuff. "When I first saw the story outline, I was concerned it could be hokey and that we might f--- it up," the actor says. "This is tricky business. We need to forget about the relationships we've established over all these years and reset the series completely. We have to show how Jane got in the door at CBI in a believable way — not easy since he annoys everyone so much."

This back-in-time device also threw Tunney. "It's a very clever notion but also kind of scary," she says. "How as actors do you try to come off eight years younger? Simon and I were like, 'Uh, could someone hit the Benjamin button?' Inevitably, you just throw your hands up and hope the audience is with you and believing you." Tunney did ask permission to wear lots of padding: "I wanted Lisbon to be really heavy — like a Shallow Hal thing — and just not comment on it. It would have been hilarious, but they wouldn't go for it."

There was serious talk of giving the extra poundage to Owain Yeoman's character, Agent Rigsby, however. "I weighed quite a bit more when we started the series," says Yeoman, who has since taken up a vegetarian lifestyle. "They wanted to go back to that, but in addition to a fat suit, they wanted a beard and glasses. I said, 'What is this — Rigsby meets Santa?'" Nixing that idea but still needing something to suggest a time jump, Yeoman tried an artificial goatee "but wound up looking like Ming the Merciless." He settled for growing his own.

The CBI offices also underwent a retro-makeover with touches both major (the place looks pretty dumpy) and minor (Arnold Schwarzenegger's photo is back on the wall, since he was governor). Gregory Itzin makes a return appearance as CBI boss Virgil Minelli, who retired in Season 2. And while there are early hints of the fan-fave bromance that will develop between Rigsby and Agent Cho (Tim Kang), don't go looking for Agent Van Pelt (Amanda Righetti). She hadn't yet joined the CBI team. In fact, Jane gets punched in the nose by her hot-headed predecessor, Agent Hannigan (Gary Basaraba), which creates the job opening Van Pelt will eventually fill.

It's that same punch — and the possibility of a lawsuit — that helps secure Jane's position as a criminal profiler at CBI. "He realizes this is a place where he can stay on top of the Red John case and it brings back his confidence," says Baker. "By the end of the episode, you start to see the Jane we all know. The guy is back on his horse!"

The Mentalist airs Sunday at 10/9c on CBS.

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