Based on an incredibly inspiring true story, Million Dollar Arm is so much more than just a sports film. It tells the story of sports agent JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm), who comes up with a scheme to save his career by finding the next Major League Baseball star among the totally raw and untapped talent in India. Once there, he finds two 18-year-old boys, Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal), whose knack for throwing a fastball could quite possibly lead them straight to a major league contract.
During this conference at the film’s press day, actor Jon Hamm talked about why this script interested him, how he fell into a Google hole doing research for the true story aspect, why he didn’t feel limited by the PG rating, the weight of playing a real person, the chaos of India, and his own modern family, while the film’s real-life subjects JB Bernstein and Rinku Singh talked about what it was like to watch other people portraying their lives, how close the story and characters are to the reality, living the American dream, how approaching the future is not just about seeing a dream but respecting the opportunity, and helping kids in India reach their goals. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
Question: Jon, this is a terrific performance in a big leading role that is wildly different from Don Draper on Mad Men. What was it about this script and this story that interested you? Did you know anything about this true story?
JON HAMM: No. I read the script, finished the script and loved it, and 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. I didn’t know. So, two hours later, I was in a Google hole, finding out everything I could about this. I was like, “Oh, my god, this actually happened.” And that element is this incredibly uplifting story about thinking outside the box, and really following through with something, and working hard and succeeding. This character that I play is about 180 degrees from Don Draper. It’s affirming, it’s uplifting, 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. It’s much more than a sum of its parts. It has this wonderful message.
It’s nice that I get to be in something that like this because, in my day job, I play not the greatest guy in the world. This 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 not only to JB and Rinku and Dinesh’s amazing true story, but it’s also a testament to Lake Bell’s wonderful performance, and the boys are so fantastic in it. They 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 (director) Craig [Gillespie] expertly managed the tone of the film, to not veer into the world of sentimentality, sappiness, hokiness, over-earnestness or any of that, and just stay true to the basics of the story, which has this incredibly emotional component to it. And 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 so proud of this thing that we made, and I just want people to see it, so tell everyone to go see it.
As an actor, you’re known for your edgier roles. Did you feel limited by the PG rating?
HAMM: Absolutely not. We live in this incredibly cynical time. I almost started crying when Rinku was talking about his struggle. It’s such a beautiful story, and it’s about working hard. I still play baseball, just 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, and he hasn’t been doing it since he was in third grade. 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. Theses guys want to be proud of themselves, and represent their country and their families. Those were the things that I responded to, in the movie. For me, it doesn’t need to be edgy to be good. It needs to be good to be good. Craig shepherded the tone of the film, so that it doesn’t veer off into over-earnestness or sentimentality. We’re all very proud of this, and I’m thrilled to be in a PG movie.
JB BERNSTEIN: When someone’s going to make a story about your life, there’s a lot of trepidation. But, because of [Joe] Roth, I had a huge level of trust. I’ve known those guys forever, so I just stood back and let them put this together. I spent a lot of time with (screenwriter) Tom [McCarthy]. He would call me at 3 o’clock in the morning and ask, “What would Brenda say to you, if you did this,” and he spent a lot of time with Rinku and Dinesh, in real life. What’s amazing about this story is that all the major points are true. My fish-out-of-water journey is almost exactly how it happened, down to the costumes. Rinku and Dinesh’s fish-out-of-water journey is exactly as it happened. The way I fell in love with my wife is exactly as it happened. Their first try-out failure was my fault 100%. I’m saying in public, on the record, that that was 100% my fault. Them succeeding with their second tryout was100% their fault. So, all the major beats in this movie are exactly how they happened. When my wife and I watched the movie, it felt like an out-of-body experience. The relationship between Jon [Hamm] and Lake [Bell], in this movie, is so like my relationship with Brenda.
How much time did you spend with Jon Hamm?
BERNSTEIN: The first time I met Jon, they were already deep into filming. We met him in India. I’m just a really easy guy. He’s the best actor out there. He took a great script and did a great job. A lot of my friends who have seen it say, “You know, he really nailed you,” and I just laugh. It’s so funny because he was half way through filming before he ever met me. It’s a testament to how this came together, and to the type of actors these guys are.
HAMM: Obviously, what you desperately don’t want to do is be false, but that translates into any performance. It was such a pleasure to meet not only JB, 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. It’s just a testament to Tommy’s wonderful script that he got everybody on the page. When I read it and, I 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 resonate in a way that brings so much more to it. You see that in his films. You see it in The Visitor, and in Win-Win. He’s able to take this story, which on its face is an amazing, impossible, unbelievable story, and he imbues it with so much more emotion and love. It’s hard to talk about without sounding hokey, but it just has this beautiful sensibility to it. 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.?” This is the kind of movie where you either feel something emotional, or you want to be a better person. And this is the kind of movie that’s a pleasure to be a part of. I do think that it is relatable and utterly moving. That kind of hard work is undeniable and a beautifully moving thing.
Rinku, what was it like to watch Suraj Sharma portray you?
RINKU SINGH: First of all, he’s not just a great actor, but he’s a great young man, as well. I’m very lucky to have a man like him to play my role. I never have seen any movie like this before. It’s such an inspiration. I think a lot of American kids are gonna carry this movie with them for the rest of their life. I took over 200 ball players to see the movie. When you sign a 19-year-old kid with a million dollar signing bonus, they don’t know what to do with it. When people see this movie and see how I have struggled and where I came from, a lot of people come to me and say, “Rinku, I apologize. I never thought that was where you came from, man. This is something really amazing. We’re gonna get really, really serious about this business.” You can learn from seeing a young man do something like this, not just in America, but all around the world. Thanks to the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, we’re here today. They’re the ones keeping me alive, so thanks to them, and thanks to Disney.
Jon, India is like a study in extremes. How might you apply something like that to your own career, with the highest and lowest moments, and how they changed your life?
HAMM: It’s not difficult to draw a parallel between an agent’s life and an actor’s life, in many ways. You have to project this confidence, charisma and charm, and then it all falls apart. 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 and you’re like, “This is going to be great! I’m the best guy for this. You love me. Oh, it’s not working? Okay, bye.” 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 when they hire Brad Pitt. The chaos in India was an eye-opener. It let me understand, on a visceral level, what JB went through. The unbelievable hard work that both Rinku and Dinesh went through to will this thing into existence is so inspiring to so many people. A lot of athletes these days are precious and entitled. They see this story, and they see what these guys went through and where they came from, and their eyes are opened. It puts everything into perspective, in the best way.
BERNSTEIN: The short answer to your question is yes. But, it wasn’t that I was trying to be a prick. I was so focused on business that I’d become myopic, and the only thing I really took pride in was getting deals done for my clients. That was my sole source of pride. It became this self-fulfilling prophecy where I was defined, as a person, by being an agent. There’s actually a point in the movie where Jon is yelling at Lake, in the hospital. When Brenda and I went to see the movie, this woman in front of us, who didn’t know that I was sitting behind her, said, “Wow, this guy JB is a real prick.” And Brenda was like, “Watch the rest of the movie. He turns out good.” So the, the reality is that having Rinku and Dinesh thrust into my life opened me up, mostly to the importance of family and having people around you that you love and support. It opened me up to the possibility of having a wife and kid of my own, and Brenda came along and filled that role. So, yes, I was a prick, but I’m going in the right direction. I’m still not perfect, but I’m still going in the right direction. I’ve got a beautiful daughter and a great wife, and I owe it mostly to Rinku and Dinesh, who started me down that path.
Rinku, you’ve achieved the American dream, in the broadest of terms, but you’ve said that this was not your original dream. What did you hope and expect to do with your life, when you were a kid?
SINGH: I’m still living the dream. As a kid, growing up in India, my goal was to represent my country and be an Olympian player. In 2007, I qualified for the Olympics, but never really had a chance to go, thanks to [JB], who gave me a million dollar arm. So, I came to America. That wasn’t really a hard decision to make. A lot of people made fun of me for being an 18-year-old kid who knew nothing about America and the culture, and leaving friends and family. I didn’t even have a chance to finish my degree. But, giving me a chance to help my family really changed my life.
SINGH: The message I would give to every single human who wants to succeed in their life is that succeed is a very easy word to say, but you don’t want to just succeed, you want to succeed better than breathe. Since I signed a professional contract there’s so many, so many things I’ve had to do differently. If my team was doing workouts for two hours, I had to do five, six or seven hours. I didn’t play baseball growing up so I always had to put in my 110% effort. It doesn’t matter how you feel, how much you sleep you know, what’s going on in family, girlfriend, it doesn’t matter, but still I have to get up, show up, dressed up and be on time, give 110%. That’s my message. So, it’s not about just seeing a dream. It’s about respecting the opportunity.
Jon, 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 [Westfeldt] going to get married?” We’ve been together for 16 years, and we’re as married as anybody. With JB and Rinku, there is this paternal and loving relationship. I don’t have kids, but I’ve been a daycare teacher, and I have tons of nieces and nephews. I lost my parents very young, but I’ve had a lot of surrogate parents in my life. I have a very fluid definition of family.
JB, what are you doing back in India to help kids there in reaching their goals, whatever they may be?
BERNSTEIN: Yes, we are doing something, and it’s a movie called Million Dollar Arm. The reality is that there are half a billion kids in India, in these villages, who grew up just like Rinku and Dinesh. It’s not that they were unhappy, but they have a pre-determined life. They’re going to work for their dad. If they’re very lucky, like Rinku, and they’re a gifted athlete, maybe they can compete for the Olympics, or maybe they can get into the military. Rinku’s brother got a great government job because he was a long-distance runner. Two of his brothers are in the special forces. But if you’re not a gifted athlete, in that respect, then you’re going to end up working for your family and you’re going to perpetuate what your family is. It’s gotten to the point, in these villages, where there’s no hope. You can live in any circumstance in the United States, and there’s someone just like you who succeeded in exactly what you want to do. There’s literally an example of someone just like you. In India, that doesn’t exist. These kids are seeing their dream through Rinku and Dinesh. It’s not that they’re going to want to be a baseball pitcher, but the first spark of hope is when you ask yourself the question, “What gift did God give me that I can develop and use to better my life?” Every kid wants to give their family a better life.
I created an outreach program for half a billion kids, and this movie is it. We’re not going to get a bigger megaphone than a Disney movie that shows a real story about someone just like them, who went and did something not impossible or improbable, but that had never been done in the history of the world. No one’s ever gone from a position of not hearing of a sport to signing a pro contract in ten months. Within 13 months of Rinku stepping on U.S. soil, he actually won a game for the Pirates. He knew so little about baseball, at that point, that they were mobbing him on the mound, and he was like, “Yeah, we won!” And they were like, “No, you won!” And he was like, “How can a relief pitcher win a game?” That’s the inspiration that kids need. It’s the impetus and the catalyst. If a kid can’t take away motivation from this story, nothing will motivate them.
Million Dollar Arm opens in theaters on Mary 16th.