Jon Hamm will happily tell you he loves baseball — and, if you ask, he’ll confess that he has a reasonably good feeling about his St. Louis Cardinals this year.
But even the Mad Men star, passionate fan that he is, had never heard the intriguing true story behind his new movie Million Dollar Arm, which opens Friday in area theaters. The film follows the efforts of down-on-his-luck sports agent J.B. Bernstein (played by Hamm) to drum up a new source of revenue. He hits upon an unorthodox idea that makes a major league investor take notice: He’ll set up a contest in India, identify elite cricket players and get them to compete as pitchers for a hefty check and a shot at the big leagues. Just like Yao Ming opened up the Chinese market for the NBA, an Indian MLB player will lure millions of potential new baseball fans.
The plan sounds crazy — bowling in cricket is light years from pitching a perfect strike — but the real-life Bernstein made it happen. Producers Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray — the team responsible for two other notable based-on-a-true-story sports films, The Rookie and Miracle — knew Bernstein before they even got into the film business and always thought the story could be an entertaining feature film. They’re also a big part of why Hamm signed on to the movie.
“ The Rookie and Miracle, those movies are both in the canon of sports movies,” says Hamm from his Los Angeles press day. “They have the ability to make these stories where you can veer into sentimentality, but they always strike the right balance. They really do tell a hell of a story, and this was no exception. The script had a wonderful balance of heart and inspiration — and it’s a true story that’s just amazing.”
In Million Dollar Arm, Hamm, 43, gets the chance to shed the role of ad man Don Draper, the alcoholic, womanizing antihero of AMC’s Mad Men, now in the first half of its final season. As written by screenwriter Thomas McCarthy ( Win Win, The Visitor, The Station Agent), J.B. Bernstein shares a few of Don’s qualities in less toxic amounts: He’s ambitious, driven by a need to succeed. He can be selfish, and he has an eye for attractive women, particularly models. But the real-life Bernstein changed over the course of the Million Dollar Arm contest: He became something of a father figure to aspiring pitchers Rinku and Dinesh (played in the film by Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal), and along the way he falls in love (Lake Bell plays his love interest in the film). Like the events in Miracle — about the U.S. hockey team’s victory over Russia in the 1980 Olympics — the truth makes the unbelievable easy to swallow.
Playing a real person, especially one who spent a lot of time on the set, was a challenge, Hamm says (though one suspects any guy who learns that Jon Hamm is playing him in a movie wouldn’t be too bent out of shape).
“Obviously you don’t want to be false, but that’s the response to playing any character,” Hamm says. “You have to be true to the character as written. There’s more responsibility playing an actual, real-life human being. The movie is a marginally fictionalized account, but we do show what he went through. This story happened to him! He didn’t set out for this to be life-changing. He was trying to make money, and it ended up changing his life for the better. The reason the story lands emotionally is that truth is the emotional heart of the film.”
Resting a feature film on the shoulders of an actor so identified with an iconic TV character can have its pitfalls. But director Craig Gillespie ( Lars and the Real Girl, Mr. Woodcock) was eager to make use of Hamm’s versatility, demonstrated in serious roles in such films as The Town and in wildly goofy spots on sitcoms like 30 Rock (Hamm’s appearances on that series’ live shows remain some of the funniest television moments of the past decade).
“I was so excited we could get him,” Gillespie says of his leading man. “Because of Tom’s writing, there’s this balance of humor and drama. We’ve seen Jon do both, with Mad Men and very dramatic roles and then broad comedies like Bridesmaids. But I’d never seen him do it all in one film. To balance those scenes, he does it so effortlessly. Few guys can pull that off. He’s unbelievable. He was put through some of the most brutal days. We shot part of the film in India, and our schedule was so ambitious. It was the middle of summer, and we had a week and a half where it was 125 degrees. The sweat you saw on him was real.”
Shooting in India proved tough for everyone, Gillespie says — “honestly, it was like we were living the film, but I went into it expecting a certain amount of chaos” — but the locations pay off handsomely, especially in one sight gag involving the Taj Mahal. The crew had to carry all the equipment into a field behind the marble mausoleum because trucks weren’t allowed, and in the middle of shooting the scene a herd of cows wandered through the frame.
“Jon just kept going,” Gillespie remembers. “You just think ‘Keep rolling! Keep rolling!’ ”
For Hamm, the Indian locations were “a study in extremes.”
“It was an eye opener in the best possible way. It was very, very hot. Very, very crowded. As you’d go through the days looking at this insanely crowded, massive city, you’d think, ‘How did this guy come here and wrestle this thing into existence out of this chaos? This is impossible! There’s no way this could work.’ But it worked beyond all expectations.”
Sports movies are the perfect vehicle for offering such upbeat metaphors for life and showing that hard work, commitment and faith can accomplish the impossible. For Hamm, they’re appealing for just that reason.
“In sports, there’s a winner and a loser,” he says. “It’s a defined characteristic. You can look at the Oscars — best actor, best movie. All of those things are so subjective. But sports aren’t. You beat the clock, and you’re on the right side of the story.”
As for stepping away from his Mad Men persona for a bit, Hamm figures he’d better get used to it.
“It’s always nice to get an opportunity to do something else. Playing Don Draper has afforded me that in spades,” he says. “It’s been for me the singular experience of my life, and it’s nice to have that to go back to. It’s going to be so awkward when I don’t have that to go back to, a real challenge. It’s been a fun opportunity, one of the great ones. Hopefully if another part like that raises its head I’ll get another chance. But all good things come to an end.”