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.
At the film’s press day, co-stars Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi) and Madhur Mittal (Slumdog Millionaire) spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how they each got involved with the film, their instant chemistry, why this was so much more than just a role, whether they would have had the nerve to go to a pitching try-out, what it was like to meet the real Rinku and Dinesh, and where they’d like to go next, in their acting careers. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
SURAJ SHARMA: I was in L.A., per chance. My agent said, “Craig Gillespie wants to meet you and just have a conversation. It has nothing to do with a movie. He just wants to meet you.” I said, “Yeah. Sure, of course.” I had seen Lars and the Real Girl, so I knew what he could do. So, I met him and we talked at length about life, and everything. There was nothing too movie-based. Eventually, he said, “We want to check you out and see what you’d do. If you seem appropriate, we’ll give you the role of Rinku.” I said, “Yeah, sure.” So, they gave me research material and we had email conversations. I didn’t know for sure whether I had the role or what was happening, until the final audition of Madhur’s. I was reading Rinku for all of the people who were auditioning for Dinesh.
MADHUR MITTAL: That audition got me the part. That was the thing that got me the part. It was just the sheer chemistry I had with [Suraj]. It was huge. We hadn’t met each other before. It was the first time we had met each other, and it was my third reading for the character. I was approached by the casting director in India. She sent me a copy of the script, and I was struck by it. It’s a true story that I didn’t know about, and my family and friends didn’t know about it, and I think t needed to be told. And it was a chance to play true life characters. It was everything that I was looking for in a project. And then, finally, when I auditioned with Suraj at my third audition, I asked about Life of Pi, but we never talked about the season. But when we finally started the scene, we were just vibing. It was just great chemistry. I had never felt that before. That set the tone for the rest of the film. It just increased. We tried to take it much higher, every time.
SHARMA: The whole dynamic was set up, right then. Four other people did Dinesh’s reading, and then Madhur came in. After he did his reading and left, me and the casting director looked at each other and we both knew what was going to happen. We were like, “Okay, that’s done.”
MITTAL: Sometimes you audition and you just know that this is going to come to you, and that happened once I auditioned with [Suraj].
Did that instant chemistry carry over and grow, throughout the process of filming?
SHARMA: That whole dynamic was carried right through. It was really cool. We didn’t know each other, and Rinku and Dinesh didn’t know each other. They found out stuff and went through this intense period of training, and we had to go through training. There was this parallel journey for us. There was this whole simultaneous thing happening. When we were put into that situation where we finally had to pitch, we were like, “Wow!”
MITTAL: We had three and a half weeks of preparations in Delhi. Our trainers came down from America, and we had four hours of baseball training, every day. We were both quite thin, so we had to put on muscle to look like athletes who can pitch 90 mph. There was that aspect to take care of, as well. When you’re on set, you have to perform and look the part. What was really hard was having to learn baseball, and then having to unlearn for some scenes where we had to look really bad again. And then, an hour later, we’d have to be back to our best self. It was great to have to challenge yourself to see how you’d come through in those situations.
MITTAL: Yeah. It’s best on a true story and real people, which was the biggest challenge, and what really attracted me to the part. It’s a great challenge to get to play a real-life character. Every actor would love to get a chance, at least once in his life, to play a real-life character. What was great was that Craig [Gillespie] gave us that little bit of freedom to take the characters and interpret them in our own way while staying true to certain traits that made Dinesh and Rinku, Dinesh and Rinku. I think what Suraj did tremendously well with Rinku is capture his playfulness, his adaptiveness and his wittiness. He’s so easy-going and he takes everything in stride. He believes in himself without being a show-off. He captured that tremendously well. And what I tried to capture with Dinesh is his innocence, that softness, and the kindness that he has in his eyes. He’s always homesick. He’s so connected to his roots and his family. They’re two really different people, which makes great chemistry for the characters. And they’re both really different people from who we are, in real life. I wouldn’t flatter myself by saying that I’m as kind as Dinesh. It’s a really great opportunity for actors like us to get these really meaty parts to sink our teeth into.
Have you thought about how, if you hadn’t become actors, whether you would have had enough nerve to go try out for something like this?
SHARMA: For fun’s sake, yeah, but I know that I wouldn’t get it.
MITTAL: Suraj had to pitch left-handed in the movie, and that’s a completely different motion. It’s very hard to get that. So, he did pretty okay. He’s not bad, at all.
SHARMA: That was strange, but it worked out. They coached us by breaking each movement down to its bits and pieces, and repeating that. That made us understand a lot more than the movement of the pitch. It helps you understand the intricacy involved. When you watch baseball, here’s the ball and he’s going to throw it and it has to go into the glove, but there’s so much more precision to it. That puts you in a certain mind-set and really helps. All the drills were really useful. Everything that we did was something that Rinku and Dinesh might have done.
MITTAL: It was great to have Dinesh in Delhi, giving us the exercise they would do when they were training and giving us little anecdotes. It was great to have people around us that helped push our performances higher.
How much did it affect your performance to get to meet Rinku and Dinesh?
SHARMA: I didn’t meet Rinku until right at the end, but Dinesh hasn’t changed much. Madhur could really tap into that. And Dinesh helped me because, if I was Rinku dealing with Dinesh, I would do certain things. That gives you a completely different perspective on Rinku, hearing the stories that Dinesh tells about how he feels about Rinku. Dinesh really helped us, from pitching to understanding emotions, to stories and anecdotes, and he did it in such a simple way. He’s so innocent.
MITTAL: He’s so loveable, too. If you talk with him for five minutes, you fall in love with the guy.
SHARMA: He’s big, too. And Rinku is huge.
Where do you go from here, in your careers? How do you top a project this special?
MITTAL: We are very young [in our careers]. Obviously, after every film you do, you wonder what you’re going to do next. I’m sure after doing Life of Pi with somebody like Ang Lee, or when I worked with Danny Boyle on Slumdog, you wonder how you’re going to top it. But the thing about this business is that you always end up finding these amazing stories and these amazing people who make amazing films. I just want to work with good people and keep challenging myself with different kinds of characters. This is Suraj’s second film, but he’s done two absolutely different characters. And for me, this is great because it’s completely different from what I did in Slumdog. I’ve done television in Europe where I’ve played different characters. I want to keep that going, and I’m sure that Suraj does too.
SHARMA: Not that I’m the person to say anything on this, but I don’t think you’re trying to top it. You’re trying to find something that might not be better, but is different. If you take a diamond that’s raw and you put one face to it, it has that one face, and then you’ve gotta find another face. At the end, you’re going to have this diamond that’s everything you’ve done. I feel that’s the way you should look at it because that puts you in a constant state of progress.
Million Dollar Arm is now playing in theaters.