Entertainment » Movies

With ’Million Dollar Arm’ Jon Hamm Stretches His Range

by Fred Topel
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday May 15, 2014

Jon Hamm is back as Don Draper in the long awaited final season of "Mad Men" currently airing on AMC. As fans consider the end of the series, Hamm is entering his movie career. He's been in "Bridesmaids," "The Town" and "The Day the Earth Stood." Still, "Million Dollar Arm" is the first movie in which he plays the starring role.

The film tells the true story of J.B. Bernstein, a sports agent who had the idea to recruit cricket players from India to pitch in American baseball. He went to India and brought back Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel through his "Million Dollar Arm" contest. The true story made Hamm feel responsible for doing a good job.

"What you desperately don't want to do is be false, but I think that, that translates into any performance," Hamm said. "It was such a pleasure to meet not only J.B., but Rinku and Dinesh and everyone who's involved in this whole story. The last thing you want to do is offend and portray them in some way that rings false. When I read it I didn't realize it was a true story until I looked back to the front page. And I was like wait, this is crazy. I am a huge baseball fan and somehow this flew under my radar, so like two hours later I was in like a Google hole of finding out everything I could about this. I was like, 'Oh my God, this actually happened.'"

Role models

The real Singh and Patel became role models to Hamm.

"We live in this incredibly cynical time," Hamm said. "I almost started crying when Rinku was talking about the struggle. It’s such a beautiful story about working hard. I still play baseball, terribly, but 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. He has to put in 200% because he didn’t grow up playing this sport, hasn’t been doing it since he was in third grade and going on traveling teams 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 for Rinku to focus on this and to really achieve. Rinku wants to be proud of himself and his family and represent his country and all of these things."

The message is admittedly more wholesome than "Mad Man," in which it seems Don Draper seems to be falling off the wagon further and further. There were equally vital themes to portray for Hamm in "Million Dollar Arm."

"For me it doesn’t need to be edgy to be good," Hamm continued. "It needs to be good to be good. It is like the way you felt when you got out of a movie and were emotional and inspired to be a better person. This is that kind of movie and it’s a pleasure to be a part of it. It’s just this incredibly uplifting story about thinking outside the box and really following through with something and working hard and succeeding. 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 a lot of athletes these days are precious and sort of entitled; but when they see this story their eyes are opened. It puts everything into perspective in the best way. And that’s just reason number 400 that I’m incredibly proud to be a part of this project."

Just like Hollywood

At the beginning of the film, Bernstein is struggling with clients who expect million dollar signing bonuses. The independent agent can’t offer that investment like corporate firms could. Hamm related to Bernstein’s struggles, as he struggled to become a successful actor, really only making it when "Mad Men" premiered.

"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 was the experience of every audition that I’d been on for the first like three years of my career in Los Angeles. You know, 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...’ Then, it’s ’No it’s not working? Okay bye.’ I identified obviously with that, with that part of J.B.’s experience of trying to, you know, win these guys over; but then after winning them, it’s ’oh you’re going to go with CAA? Okay, great, thank you so much, good bye.’

"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 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.’"

Off to India

A portion of "Million Dollar Arm" was filmed in India, which encapsulated a portion of Bernstein’s journey to the country at the start of the contest. In recreating that trip, For Hamm it was his first time to visit that nation and it was something of a revelation.

"Being thrust into the chaos of India was an eye opener. It let me understand on a visceral level what J.B. went through, which is literally, coming up with this idea is one thing, then 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 and have no experience over there is impossible. It is impossible, yet it happened and this is the result: this incredible young man who is an incredible athlete and literally living my dream as a child of being a professional baseball player which I kind of hate him for."

Hamm recognizes that the Disney film is a change of pace for him, perhaps a change in image, not only from "Mad Men" but from edgy R-rated comedies or hardcore crime dramas. That is just a bonus to the passion he described above.

"It’s about 180 degrees from Don Draper, this character that I play, but it’s affirming and it’s uplifting and it’s heartwarming and it’s emotional. It’s not a ’sports’ movie so much as it’s a movie that moves you. My day job, I play not the greatest guy in the world. It’s nice to you know portray [a positive message] and to make this movie that’s a family film. It’s a film that I can tell my friends to take their children to."

"Million Dollar Arm" opens May 16.


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