Leslie David Baker TUFFTalks

Leslie David Baker, actor who played Stanley Hudson on "The Office," speaks with University Theatre assistant director Mia Self, at the TUFFTalks event at Stewart Theatre on Monday, March 6, 2023. Baker answered interview questions and questions from students in the audience.

TUFFTalks is an annual segment presented by the University Activities Board (UAB) that aims to emulate the TED Talk experience. This year’s TUFFTalks event featured a live interview and Q&A with Leslie David Baker, who is best known for his role as the ill-tempered, crossword-loving paper salesman Stanley Hudson from “The Office.”

Colby McSwain, a third-year in mechanical engineering and the UAB entertainment committee chair, chose Baker because of how popular "The Office” is among students. McSwain and the board decided to make this year's talk different with more of a late-night interview feel.

After sharing his preferences on pretzels — he only likes them if they have chocolate, caramel or pecans on them — Baker said his career has not always been in acting. After earning a degree in psychology, he began medical school until he realized it was not for him. While attending graduate school for human services administration, he substituted in schools and picked up odd jobs to pay for his education.

“Every job I've ever had in the corporate sector, I balled little bits and pieces and helped mold Stanley,” Baker said. “That and a lot of the other places where I worked, I got to see some things that helped me bring Stanley to life.”

Following his time in graduate school, Baker worked for the City of Chicago’s communications department but later transferred to the city’s health department, reporting to the CDC during the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Despite his work in the field of public health, Baker said he was always involved in acting to some degree.

“All in elementary school, high school, college — I loved theater, but back then in the day, you couldn’t go home and tell your parents ‘Guess what I want to do? I want to become an actor,’” Baker said.

After a tense separation from the City of Chicago that resulted in a lawsuit and fairly large settlement, Baker said he found himself with a bit of money and an opportunity to pursue his passion for acting. He took this opportunity to perform multiple monologues in Los Angeles for a week. After trying multiple approaches to his monologues, he said it was his dramatic monologue that sent a woman leaving the auditorium in tears and two agents interested in hiring him.

“I didn’t move to LA until I was 40 years old,” Baker said. “So anybody who's sitting here talking about, ‘I don't know if I have time to do it,’ you’ve got plenty of time, you'll be fine.”

Prior to “The Office,” Baker said his career was mainly made up of minor characters, such as his first role as an ice cream truck salesman who found a porcupine in his garage and took it to the vet in the sitcom “Maggie.”

Upon hearing from his agent that roles were available for the American version of “The Office,” Baker said he was skeptical at first, as the original show by the British studio left much to be desired, but he decided to audition for the role of Stanley Hudson regardless.

Baker said he arrived at the audition early and at a time when the casting was too busy to see him. He was told he was overdressed for his role, and after driving to another audition in the city and getting stuck in traffic, Baker said his frustrated mood helped him secure the role of Stanley during the improvised segment of the audition.

“On the way back, I ran into every ambulance, hearse, car, bus, — you name it — and traffic was LA traffic,” Baker said. “By then, I was wrinkled and frumpy and cranky. [I] went into the audition, met Phyllis Smith [and] the executive producer Greg Daniels … after I finished the lines in the script, I kept going and I was like, ‘God, Phyllis, it's just hot out today. It's sticky. Every person God ever made is out on the street.’ … Two weeks later, they said, ‘You got it.’”

Baker said he has a difficult time comparing newer roles of his with “The Office.”

“It’s a tough act to follow,” Baker said. “I think as an actor, that's kind of like lightning striking. … I would hope that I would do something that would be equally fabulous and fantastic, but if it doesn't happen, I'm okay with that. I've been able to work with a lot of wonderful people on ‘The Office’ that I probably wouldn't have come in contact with.”

Baker said he credits the success of “The Office” to the representation of exaggerated, yet real, personalities.

“The reason why the show continues to resonate with so many people, whether you are at university, or working a job in an office, or your school, or your high school or wherever you are in life, you're going to always see glimpses of those characters,” Baker said.

In response to a question about his favorite moments that did not make it on screen, Baker said he fondly remembers a scene where Stanley and Phyllis pass a bottle of liquor back and forth.

Baker said the comedic writing and sometimes-improvisational acting in “The Office” prompted real reactions from actors, which made the show even more organic.

“Breaking character wasn't too much of a problem, but laughing — uncontrollable laughter — that was the issue,” Baker said. “By the time Stanley would finally bust up laughing, it became an event. It's like, ‘Oh my God, he's laughing, you can see all of his teeth.’”

Baker said he realized the true impact of “The Office” when a man approached him on a cruise and told him he watched the series with his children during his chemotherapy sessions. 

“It's not just a TV show,” Baker said. “You become a part of people's lives. I didn't become a doctor, but I'm still helping to heal people.”

Anna Haddad, a first-year studying political science, said what surprised her most about Baker was his professional career in public health.

“When I think of an ‘Office’ character, that's the opposite of the kind of job I think that one of the actors would have,” Haddad said.

Samantha Pressly, a first-year studying communication, said she attended the event because of her lifetime connection with “The Office.”

“I grew up watching ‘The Office,’” Pressly said. “So it's surreal to actually meet someone from it.”

Pressly said Baker’s change of careers at an older age was inspiring.

“I think the fact that he didn't move out to LA until he was 40, which is crazy to me because I feel like most people assume you have to go out there while you're young,” Pressly said. “And he's like, 'No, follow your dreams at any age,' which is honestly really inspiring.”

After the event, UAB handed out complimentary pretzels — Stanley’s favorite office snack — and custom “World’s Best Boss” mugs.

I am a first-year studying English with a concentration in Rhetoric and Professional Writing. I joined Technician as a correspondent in August 2022, and I write primarily in the news and culture sections.

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