“A lot of guys play center fielder, but I can play catcher and have my own gear. That's why I'm valuable to the team,” jokes Jon Hamm.
We're talking baseball here, and the 43-year-old actor plays in a local ball club when he's not being the dashing but enigmatic Don Draper on “Mad Men” or off making a movie like Disney's “Million Dollar Arm,” which opens Friday.
A lifelong sports fan, Hamm was getting updates by phone about his beloved St. Louis Cardinals baseball team and the St. Louis Blues hockey club, which were playing at the time.
In “Million Dollar Arm” he portrays real-life sports agent J.B. Bernstein, who after some setbacks in his career hit upon the idea of going to India and turning cricket players into baseball pitchers.
Something of a stunt at first, the decision turned out to be a life-changing one for Bernstein, which — besides the baseball angle — is what attracted Hamm to the project.
“The guy wanted to earn money and ended up having this experience that taught him about life and being an adult and being responsible for people and understanding that life is more than about making deals,” Hamm says. “That's what spoke to me. It's inspiring and uplifting — all things you want in a Disney movie.”
The actor talks about a moment when he was watching another Disney sports movie — “Miracle,” about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team that upset the Soviet Union. There is a scene in which legendary coach Herb Brooks (played by Kurt Russell) is working out the team and asking them who they play for. At first, the players respond with the names of their respective clubs.
“When they finally get it and say the United States of America, I'm weeping,” Hamm says. “Love that stuff.”
As a kid in Missouri, Hamm says he was always involved in sports, whether it was baseball or going to the pond when it was cold enough to ice skate.
“I think sports are important. It's a character-building thing. There are lessons to learn about being in a community, being on a team, being a teammate, being a team player, on sportsmanship and also work ethic. No one gets good at anything without working their ass off.”
As an example he points to Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, the two Indian athletes discovered by Bernstein. In 2007, the sports agent got backing to create a contest called “Million Dollar Arm” in India in which 40,000 hopefuls competed in a televised, nationwide competition. The endeavor appeared to be doomed until he found Singh (played by Suraj Sharma from “Life of Pi”) and Patel (Madhur Mittal), who could throw the ball with speed and accuracy. But the two athletes didn't even play cricket, which has a passing similarity to baseball. Neither had really even picked up a ball before the tryout. Singh was, in fact, a javelin thrower.
Bernstein took them to America to not only teach them baseball from scratch, but to get them ready for a major-league tryout within a few months — all this in a culture they were unfamiliar with. Without giving anything away — this is a feel-good movie — the two were eventually signed to professional contracts, but not before going through enormous difficulties.
“To go from a baseline of zero to becoming elite-level athletes in a sport is mind-boggling,” Hamm says. “It's a testament to their insane work ethic. They didn't grow up playing baseball. So whatever those guys had to do was three times as hard, and that's as inspiring as it gets.”
(The real Singh says it wasn't until teammates saw the movie that most of them realized what he went through.)
In the movie, Oscar winner Alan Arkin plays a crusty retired baseball scout who helps Bernstein find the two, and Aasif Mandvi is his business partner.
Lake Bell plays Brenda, a tenant in Bernstein's guest house who helps him get Singh and Patel acclimated to America. She also, Bernstein has readily admitted, helped him become a better person. They would eventually marry and have a child.
The sports agent describes himself as not being a nice guy at times, although the word he uses is unprintable here. Watching the screen relationship between him and his future wife was like an “out-of-body experience” because it seemed so accurate, says Bernstein, who didn't even meet Hamm until midway through the shoot.
Though Don Draper and the screen version of Bernstein may be thorny and aloof, Hamm comes across as genuine and grateful for his success. He says he really enjoyed his time in India while they were shooting last summer, even if the temperature hit 120 degrees some days.
“It's this spectacular collision of sights and sounds and smells and culture and cuisine,” Hamm says. “I was on Wikipedia every day to learn something new about the country.”
While there are some recognizable shots of Los Angeles where the American part of the story really happened, the rest of the “Million Dollar Arm” filming — because it was cheaper — was done in Atlanta, with Georgia Tech's baseball field filling in for USC's Dedeaux Field. Hamm brought his glove every day, ready to play ball, although he was often dressed in a suit.
The actor is currently finishing up the last episodes of AMC's “Mad Men.” The first half of the show's final season is airing now, with the rest scheduled for next spring. Hamm says he knows the specifics of what happens to Don Draper from conversations with “Mad Men's” creator Matt Weiner, but didn't know “the larger aspect of how it's all going to wrap up.”
As for what he will do after the show, he admits, “Honestly, I haven't put one iota of thought into it. I kind of go down a rabbit hole when I'm working on the show.
“I really want to be in that moment of experience because it is important to me. I feel like it's giving the show its proper respect. So whatever happens afterwards, happens.”
“I think it's all a good thing. ... If you can be associated with something that is so career defining, there's no downside,” Hamm says.
“They'll be opportunities to do other things, but there are never any guarantees,” he notes. “I just hope to have an interesting career afterwards that hopefully lives up to the promise ‘Mad Men' has offered.”
And he always has his catcher's gear handy.