Million Dollar Arm tells the true story of JB Bernstein (played by Jon Hamm), a sports agent who came up with the idea of looking for potential Major League Baseball pitchers in India; he created a reality TV program called “Million Dollar Arm” in which cricket players could compete for a cash prize and chance at a contract to come to America and play baseball. The two finalists, Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, came to the US and lived with Bernstein while working intensely with USC baseball coach Tom House. Over time Bernstein grows into his role as surrogate parent to the two, leading to changes in his life and priorities, one of which is Brenda (Lake Bell), the med student who rents his guest house and becomes an increasingly significant part of Bernstein’s world.
The producers and cast members assembled for a press event at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills recently to discuss the making of the film; present were producers Gordon Gray and Joe Roth, actors Jon Hamm and Lake Bell, and the real-life subjects of the film, JB Bernstein and Rinku Singh.
Jon Hamm set the tone early on; when introduced by the moderator as “the star of the film,” Hamm quickly corrected him, saying “A star,” nodding to Lake Bell, before giving a quick plug for Mad Men‘s current season. Much of the panel was dominated by hilarious back-and-forth interplay between the two actors, leading Bernstein to remark that he felt like he was having an out-of-body experience; “It’s like me and Brenda literally arguing in front of you right now.”
Gray and Roth explained that Million Dollar Arm, while being about baseball, is not a sports movie; the competition is part of the story, but isn’t really the central point. Gray says, “this is a movie really about JB as a fish-out-of-water going to India with his crazy scheme, leaving a single guy, a bachelor having a fun life and then through the evolution of this development with the players, becoming a surrogate father and ultimately opening up his heart to find, find love and marriage.”
“I love the second chance stories and I love fish-out-of-water stories and I love the idea that I’m sitting in a movie theater and I’m thinking ‘wow, if these two guys can accomplish that, I can get up out of here when the lights get on and I can accomplish almost anything’,” Roth added.
The panelists all commented on the fact that this is an actual “family movie,” one that viewers of all ages can enjoy. Roth states, “whether you’re a 12-year-old girl or a 55-year-old guy or vice versa, whatever, whether you’re here or you’re in India or you’re in the UK, everybody comes away feeling great about the movie, so this is something I’m very proud of.”
Hamm was enthusiastic in his praise of the script, explaining, “I read the script and finished the script and loved it and then looked back to the title page and went like, ‘wait a minute… this is true?’ I am a huge baseball fan and somehow this flew under my radar and I didn’t know, and so I immediately, like two hours later was in like a Google hell of finding out everything I could about this, and I was like ‘oh my God, this actually happened…'” He went on to compare the role to his Mad Men character; “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, and it’s not a “sports” movie so much as it’s a movie that moves you. It’s nice to portray that and to make this movie that as you rightly point out is a family film. It’s a film that I can tell my friends to take their children to, and not be like, ‘but maybe… don’t watch the part where I say horrible things.'”
Director Craig Gillespie was singled out for praise, with Hamm saying “I was so pleased to see how Craig expertly managed the tone of the film to not veer into the world of sentimentality or sappiness or hokeyness or over-earnestness or any of that and just stay true to the basics of the story, which has this incredibly emotional component to it.”
Lake Bell was attracted to the script by the quality of the writing, especially the role of Brenda; she praised screenwriter Tom McCarthy’s work, saying “I’m a huge fan of his as well, but I think that in the script, there’s very much, everybody has their own world, so the female character in a sea of male characters still is well thought out and has her own world. You know, Brenda – that’s what really attracted me to the script so much, because I think a sea of gentleman, and in a sports movie, perhaps the female character can get left on the sidelines. I felt the character itself is very present and has a lot of energy and [is] somewhat of an emotional catalyst for [Bernstein’s] emotional journey.” She continued, “I think it’s a well-drawn character. You know, she’s smart and she’s layered and sometimes, even for a supporting peripheral character that’s sort of supporting his emotional journey, that is often, I mean that’s absolutely rare, so I’m very thankful to it.”
The real JB Bernstein described the process of seeing his life turned into a movie, saying “when someone’s going to make a story about your life, there’s a lot of trepidation, but because of the Roth guys and because of the Mayhem guys, I had a huge level of trust. I mean as Gordon says, I’ve known those guys forever, so I kind of just stood back and let them put this together. I spent a lot of time with Tom and I think that’s reflected in what Jon and Lake are talking about… he would call me at 3 o’clock in the morning, like ‘what would Brenda say to you if you did this’ and, he spent a lot of time with Rinku and Dinesh and with the characters in real life. What’s amazing about this story is all the major points in this story are true. My fish-out-of-water journey is almost exactly how it happened, down to costumes. Rinku and Dinesh’s fish-out-of-water journey is exactly as it happened. The way I fell in love with my wife. Their first try-out failure, which was my fault 100%. Now I’m saying that in public, so I’m on the record. It was 100% my fault. Their succeeding with their second tryout, which was 100% their fault. So all the major beats in this movie are exactly how they happened, so yeah, when I watched the movie, my wife and I, you know we went to watch it and it does kind of feel like an out-of-body experience, and the relationship between Jon and Lake in this movie is so like my relationship with Brenda ,and a lot of that we owe to Tom, but also to these guys. I mean, for never meeting Brenda it’s almost like she’s sitting right here right now. You know here like chiming in on Jon and I’m just like oh my God, that’s totally Brenda.”
The task of playing a real person who is alive and on the set can be daunting for an actor, Hamm explains, saying “obviously you know what you desperately don’t want to do is be false, but I think that translates into any performance, but again, it was such a pleasure to meet not only JB but Rinku and Dinesh, and everyone who’s involved in this whole story has their real life counterparts and the last thing you want to do is sort of offend and portray them in some way that rings false. I think it’s as Lake said, it’s just a testament to Tommy’s wonderful script that he got everybody on the page, to the point where I read it and didn’t realize it was a true story until I looked back to the front page. And I was like wait, this is crazy. You know Tommy is a wonderful writer and he has the ability to make what seems like a simple story resonant in a way that brings so much more to it, and you see it in his films, you see it in The Visitor, you see it in Win-Win. You see it in all the stuff that he does for himself, and he’s able to take this story, which is on its face an amazing story, an impossible story. Unbelievable story and yet he imbues it with so much more emotion and love I guess. It’s hard to talk about without sounding hokey, but it just has this beautiful sensibility to it that – I’m a sucker for that. It just makes me feel something and that’s a nice thing. As Joe was saying, it’s nice when the lights come up at the end of the movie to not be like, “what did I just watch? Who was the bad guy and why did the things crash and what blew up and and why is the President mad?” It used to be when you got out of a movie you felt something and you were either emotional or you wanted to be a better person, and this is that kind of movie and it’s a pleasure to be a part of it.”
“I don’t know squat about baseball or sports for that matter,” Bell says, “so you know in watching the movie and also just thinking, reading the story I’m always utterly moved and I think that it’s because there’s something about raw talent that’s undeniable, and hard work which you can just, I mean anybody can relate to that, and I am very moved by great sports movies that have an emotional core because of that. Not that I know and relate to how to do things, sporty, I don’t. I wouldn’t even know what to do. But I think that’s what makes me proud of it as well which is, like you said, that your whole family, there’s not one family member that you would not recommend to see this.”
Singh was very happy with the way Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi) portrayed him in Million Dollar Arm, saying, “first of all, I think he’s not just a great actor, he’s a great young man as well; I’m very lucky to have a man like him to play in my role.”
“I took over 200 ball players, like all my teammates went to see the movie, and the reality is what they carry,” Singh explained, “A lot of people, they sign, like [a] 19-year-old kid signing with [a] million dollar signing bonus, they don’t know what to do with it. You know, they’re just young, and seeing this movie, how I have struggled, where I’m coming from, they never realized, and soon as they saw the movie, they come to me, saying “Rinku, I apologize. Apologize [for] that word we have using, how we have treated [you], we never thought that where you’re coming from, man. This is something really amazing, and we gonna get serious. We’re gonna get really, really serious about this, this business.” So I think this is really, really serious, you know, you can learn from it, seeing it’s basically for young man, you know, not just in America, all around the world. I would say see it and it’s something reality that where we have been through, you know, and thanks to Pittsburgh Pirates organization, otherwise we wouldn’t be here today. They’re the one keeping me alive, you know, so thanks to them and thanks to Disney.”
“In an age of cynicism, which we’re in, obviously,” Roth said, “and both in the real world and in the movie world, it is so unusual to work to work on a project like this; usually when you have these kind of things and I have to drag the actors in and have them make up stuff they don’t believe in and say it was such a pleasure doing a seventh chapter of whatever movie it was. And so for me sitting up here it’s, again, very, very few movies come together in a way where they turn out to be something much more than what you expected, and it was a great script by Tom, it’s a wonderful cast and, and the director, Craig, who had done Lars and the Real Girl and Fright Night, it was hard for me to make, frankly ,to make the connection, but then when we actually see the movie come out, it is an un-cynical movie in a very cynical time and so it’s a very important movie to me personally and I think to, to all the rest of us too.”