Opening May 16th, Disney’s “Million Dollar Arm” is based on the inspiring true story of entrepreneurial sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) who comes up with a bold plan in a last ditch effort to save his livelihood. Hoping to find a young cricket pitcher he can turn into a Major League Baseball star, JB travels to India to produce a reality show competition. With the help of cantankerous but eagle-eyed retired baseball scout Ray Poitevint (Alan Arkin), he discovers Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) and Rinku (Suraj Sharma), two 18-year-old boys who have no idea about playing baseball, yet have a knack for throwing a fastball.
JB brings the boys home to America to train hoping to sign them to major league contracts. While the Americans are definitely out of their element in India, the boys, who have never left their rural villages, are equally challenged when they come to the States. As they learn the finer points of baseball, JB, with the help of his charming friend Brenda (Lake Bell), learns valuable life lessons about teamwork, commitment and what it means to be a family. The biographical sports drama is directed by Craig Gillespie from a screenplay by Tom McCarthy and also stars Bill Paxton and Aasif Mandvi.
At the recent Los Angeles press day, Hamm talked about what attracted him to the project, his reaction when he first read the script, why the journey of his character resonated with him so strongly, the challenges of playing a real life character, the comparisons he drew between J.B. Bernstein and his own life experiences, what it was like shooting in India, how being an actor known for edgier roles influenced his performance in a PG-rated movie, and what he drew from his own family life for the role.
Here’s what he had to say:
QUESTION: Jon, this is a terrific performance in a leading role that’s wildly different from Don Draper. What was it about this story that attracted you? Had you ever heard of it before you read the script?
JON HAMM: No. I read the script and finished the script and loved it. Then I looked back to the title page and went, “Wait a minute. This is true?” I am a huge baseball fan and somehow this flew under my radar and I didn’t know. So immediately, like two hours later, I was in Google finding out everything I could about this, and I was like, “Oh my God, this actually happened.” It’s just this incredibly uplifting story about thinking outside the box, following through with something, and working hard and succeeding. You’re right. This character that I play is about 180 degrees from Don Draper. It’s affirming, uplifting, heartwarming, and emotional, and it’s not a “sports” movie so much as it’s a movie that moves you. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the finished product and how it’s much more than just a sum of its parts. It has this wonderful message, and it’s nice that I get to be in something that different from my day job where I play not the greatest guy in the world. It’s nice to portray that and to make this movie that is a family film. It’s a film that I can tell my friends to take their children to.
It works as a story and it works on several levels. It’s a testament to not only JB and Rinku and Dinesh’s amazing true story, but it’s also testament to Lake’s wonderful performance. The boys are so fantastic in it and bring so much soul and depth to what could be just a one note kind of performance. They bring this whole world of emotion to it and it resonates. I was so pleased to see how Craig expertly managed the tone of the film to not veer into the world of sentimentality, or sappiness, or hokey-ness, or over-earnestness, or any of that, and just stay true to the basics of the story which has this incredibly emotional component to it. Having spoken to JB, I learned that these events changed his life positively. It’s a tremendous honor to get to be able to tell that story and I’m so pleased with it. I’m proud of this film that we made. I just want people to see it, so tell everyone to go see it.
Q: Is there a difference in your approach as an actor when you’re playing a real life character that is still around?
HAMM: Obviously, you know what you desperately don’t want to do is to be false, but I think that that translates into any performance. Again, it was such a pleasure to meet not only JB but Rinku and Dinesh. Everyone who’s involved in this whole story has their real life counterparts, and the last thing you want to do is offend and portray them in some way that rings false. It’s just a testament to Tommy’s wonderful script that he got everybody on the page to the point where I read it and didn’t realize it was a true story until I looked back to the front page. I was like, “Wait, this is crazy!” Tommy is a wonderful writer, and he has the ability to make what seems like a simple story resonant in a way that brings so much more to it. You see it in his films. You see it in “The Visitor.” You see it in “Win Win.” You see it in all the stuff that he does for himself, and he’s able to take this story, which is on its face an amazing story, an impossible story, an unbelievable story, and imbue it with so much more emotion and love. It’s hard to talk about it without sounding hokey, but it just has this beautiful sensibility to it, and I’m a sucker for that. It makes me feel something and that’s a nice thing. It’s nice when the lights come up at the end of the movie to not be like, “What did I just watch? Who was the bad guy, and why did the things crash, and what blew up, and why is the President mad?” (Laughs) It used to be when you got out of a movie you felt something, and you were either emotional or you wanted to be a better person. This is that kind of movie, and it’s a pleasure to be a part of it. I do think that it is relatable and utterly moving regardless because of that. It’s the sheer hard work that pays off to success. I mean, it’s undeniable and a beautifully moving thing.
Q: This film is a study in extremes. I’m wondering how you might apply something like that to your own career, the highest moment, the lowest moment, and how you felt it changed your life, much as this trip changed JB’s life?
HAMM: It’s not difficult to draw a parallel between an agent’s life and an actor’s life in many ways. I mean, you have to project this confidence. You have to project this charisma and charm and everything. And then, it all falls apart, and that’s every audition that I’ve ever been on for the first three years of my career in Los Angeles. You walk in the room. You’re like, “This is going to be great! I’m the best guy and you love me and we love… No? It’s not working? Okay, bye.” (Laughs) It’s immediately apparent. I identified obviously with that part of JB’s experience of trying to win these guys over in the room, and then winning them, and then, “Oh, you’re going to go with CAA? Okay great. Thank you so much, goodbye.” That’s obviously an easy parallel to draw. Again, it’s such a capricious, strange existence basing your life on the whims of others and basing your ebbs and flows of confidence and lack of confidence on the fact that people either choose you or don’t. You run up against a wall and then, “Oh yeah, I guess they hired Brad Pitt. I’m moving on.”
Q: What was it like shooting on location in India? How was that experience?
HAMM: Well India, I had never been, and then being thrust into the chaos of India was an eye opener. It let me understand on a visceral level what JB went through, which is literally coming up with this idea is one thing, then sort of willing it into existence is a whole other thing, and we show a bit of it in the film. But, the practicalities of doing that in India when you have never been there, have no experience over there, it is impossible. It is impossible and yet it happened, and this is the result, and these incredible young men who are incredible athletes and literally living my dream as a child of being a professional baseball player which I kind of hate them for. (Laughs) The unbelievable hard work that both of them went through to will this thing into existence is so inspiring to so many people. Rinku was saying that a lot of athletes these days are precious and sort of entitled and all of these other things. When they see this story, and they see what this guy went through, and where he came from, and is still as successful as he is, their eyes are opened, and the scales fall off, and they go, “Oh my God, you’ve got to be kidding me.” It puts everything into perspective in the best way, and that’s again just reason number 400 that I’m incredibly proud to be a part of this project.
Q: As an actor who is known for his edgier roles, did you feel intimidated or limited at all by the PG rating?
HAMM: Absolutely not. We live in this incredibly cynical time. It’s such a beautiful story. It’s a story about working hard. The journey that these two boys went on from literally never having seen a baseball to getting to an elite performance level is an impossible journey and entails a lot of hard work. Rinku was saying he had to put in 200% because he didn’t grow up playing this sport, and he hasn’t been doing it since he was in third grade or going on traveling teams and all this other that all these other kids have had. He started from zero and got to 100 in a year. It’s mind-blowing, but it doesn’t happen without an incredible work ethic and an incredible commitment on both of their parts to focus on this and to really achieve. Rinku was saying it’s because he wants to be proud of himself and his family, and represent his country, and all of these things. Those were the things that I responded to in the movie, those emotions and those things. For me, it doesn’t need to be edgy to be good. It needs to be good to be good. Again, I sound like a broken record, but it’s come through so wonderfully because of Craig’s shepherding of the tone of the film so that it just represents all of these wonderful things and doesn’t veer off into over-earnestness or sentimentality. It wasn’t intimidating at all. It was inspiring and fun, and I can still go do dumb kind of fun. This is what it is and we’re all very proud of it. I’m thrilled to be in a PG movie.
Q: How people create families is one of the big themes in this film. What experiences from your own family life did you bring to your performance?
HAMM: I’m in a modern family myself. Everyone’s like, “When are you and Jen (Jennifer Westfeldt) going to get married?” We’ve been together for 16 years and yet we’re as married as anybody. However you define it is what it is. You can see in JB and Rinku’s relationship, the real guys, that there is this sort of paternal and loving relationship there and that was part of the thing that again attracted me to this. It was this guy learning that and what that means. I don’t have kids, but I’ve been a teacher. I’ve been a daycare teacher. I have tons of nieces and nephews. I feel like all of these people are my family. I lost my parents very young. I’ve had a lot of surrogate parents in my life — you know, family, friends, family friends who have sort of adopted me in many ways — so I have a very fluid definition of family as well. Again, that’s just reason 401 why I responded to the script, and I think it is a big part of the journey of this character.