By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—On the eve of the season finale of the popular AMC drama series “Mad Men,” the show’s star Jon Hamm is busy promoting his much more kid-friendly movie, “Million Dollar Arm.”
The Disney movie is based on the true story of JB Bernstein, a down-on-his-luck sports agent who concocts a scheme to scout for would-be pro baseball pitchers in India, a country where baseball is virtually an unknown sport. It is, however, a country filled with cricket players, a British game imported during colonial times.
Bernstein reasons that if he can snag a couple of cricket players with a good fastball, he might be able to sign them to major league contracts in the U.S. After hundreds of tryouts, he and his aging scout (Alan Arkin) find two very promising young athletes. He brings them home to school them in the finer points of baseball.
With the help of his compassionate and charming guesthouse tenant (“Children’s Hospital’s” Lake Bell), this formerly self-centered businessman learns a lesson about caring for others, and the two young men are signed to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The 43-year-old Missouri native says it was fun reuniting on screen with Bell, with whom he’d worked previously on “Children’s Hospital,” where he played the recurring character of Derrick Childrens. Orphaned at a young age, Hamm knows firsthand what’s it like to have to create your own family. He and actress/screenwriter Jennifer Westfeldt (“Kissing Jessica Stein”) have been together 17 years.
Q: This character is wildly different from “Mad Men’s” Don Draper. What was it about this script though and this story attracted you?
Hamm: You’re right, it’s about 180 degrees from Don Draper, this character that I play. It’s affirming and it’s uplifting and it’s heartwarming and it’s 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 much more it was than just the sum of its parts. It has this wonderful message, and it’s nice that I get to be in something that is different. In my day job, I play not the greatest guy in the world. So it’s nice to make this movie that out is just a family film, that I can tell my friends to take their children to, and not be like, “Don’t watch the part where I say horrible things.”
Q: Had you heard about the story of this sports agent and these two players before you read the script?
Hamm: No, I read the script and then when I finished it I loved it. Then I looked back to the title page and went like, “Wait a minute. This is true?” I am a huge baseball fan and somehow this flew under my radar. I didn’t know (about it) and so two hours later I was on Google trying to find out everything I could about it. I was like, “Oh my God, this actually happened!” It’s just this incredibly uplifting story about thinking outside the box and really following through with something and working hard and succeeding.
Q: Why do you think it works?
Hamm: It works as a story on several levels. It’s a testament to not only JB (Bernstein) and Rinku (Singh) and Dinesh (Patel’s) amazing true story, but it’s also testament to Lake (Bell’s) wonderful performance. (Actors Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal as the ballplayers) are so fantastic in it and bring so much soul and depth to what could be just a one-note performance. They bring this whole world of emotion to it and it resonates. I was so pleased to see how Craig (Gillespie, the director) expertly managed the tone of the film. He didn’t veer into the world of sentimentality or sappiness or hokeyness or over-earnestness or any of that. He just stayed 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. I’m so pleased with it and so proud of it, this thing we made. I just want people to see it, so tell everyone to go see it.
Q: Is there a difference for you as an actor when you’re playing somebody who is real person as opposed to a fictional character?
Hamm: You know what you desperately don’t want to do is be false, but I think that translates into any performance. It was such a pleasure to meet not only JB but also 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 sort of offend and portray them in some way that rings false. It’s just a testament to Tom (McCarthy’s) wonderful script that he got everybody on the page. Tommy is a wonderful writer and he has the ability to make what seems like a simple story resonate in a way that brings so much more to it. You see it in his films “The Visitor” and “Win-Win.” It’s an unbelievable story and yet he imbues it with so much 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.
Q: Have you ever had a career high or low as JB does in this movie?
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 sort of project this confidence. You have to project this sort of charisma and charm and everything, and then it all falls apart. That’s every audition that I’ve ever been on for the first, like, three years of my career in Los Angeles. You walk in the room and you’re feeling like “This is going to be great! I’m the best guy and you love me and … No? It’s not working? Okay, bye.” It’s immediately apparent. So I identified with that part of JB’s experience of trying to win these guys over in the room and then realizing they’re going with (another agency). That’s an easy parallel to draw. It’s such a capricious, strange existence, basing your life on the whims of others and basing your kind of ebbs and flows of confidence and lack of confidence the fact that people either choose you or don’t. Lake and I have both had very similar careers in that sense of you just run up against a wall, and you think, “I guess they hired Brad Pitt, so I’m moving on.”
Q: What was it like working in India?
Hamm: I had never been there, so being thrust into the chaos of India was an eye-opener. It let me understand on a visceral level what JB went through. Coming up with this idea (of recruiting Indian ballplayers) is one thing, but then sort of willing it into existence is a whole other thing. 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, is impossible. And yet it happened, and this is the result. We have these incredible young men, who are incredible athletes, and literally living my dream as a child of being a professional baseball player. The unbelievable hard work that both of them went through to will this thing into existence is so inspiring to so many people. A lot of athletes these days are precious and feel sort of entitled. When they see this story and what these guys went through and where they came from, 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.
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 going to get married?” We’ve been together for 16 years. We’re as married as anybody, I guess, I don’t know. It’s 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, and that was part of the thing that again attracted me to this. This guy learns 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 and 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—family, friends, family-friends, who have sort of adopted me in many ways. So I have a very fluid definition of family as well.