A movie about a hustling L.A. sports agent poaching the ranks of India’s cricket leagues is, pardon the phrase, not everyone’s cup of tea. But when Jon Hamm got the script for “Million Dollar Arm,” he saw a rich, textured story, part drama and part comedy, that meshes sports with themes of personal redemption and even international harmony.
Filming for a month in India “was new, it was different, it was exciting, it was intimidating, it was chaotic, all of those really wonderful things,” Hamm said by phone recently.
There were challenges, from sweltering heat, to impassable traffic to digestive disasters for the U.S. crew (“It was a big, serious condition” he escaped through a strict regimen of rice, lentils and beer). For a few patience-testing weeks, the production’s Indian footage vanished into a morass of customs office bureaucracy before it finally resurfaced. Despite it all, Hamm declares himself “very, very proud” of the result.
Hamm has had some memorable film supporting roles — he played a hard-charging FBI agent in Ben Affleck’s bank-robbery thriller “The Town” — and some less so. Playing his first lead in a family-oriented Disney sports movie was the ideal move at a time when his seven-season run on “Mad Men” is entering its final stretch.
Hamm said the finality of the series’ end has sunk in. “Very much so. We’re all aware that this is the beginning of the end. It’s a slow-motion train crash but we are all aware of it.”
“Mad Men” raised Hamm, 43, from a journeyman actor to serious fame in his late 30s. It also locked him into a dark, antiheroic role as 1960s ad agency manipulator Don Draper, whom he calls “maybe not the most wholesome person on the planet.”
“I’ve been incredibly fortunate and humbled to have the opportunities that I’ve been given,” Hamm said, and he’s now grateful for the chance to show that “I can do a lot of different things. As an actor you’re trying not to be pigeonholed.”
“Million Dollar Arm” is about second chances. Hamm plays real-life sports agent J.B. Bernstein, who believed he could find pro baseball pitching prospects in a country without ballparks. In 2008, he staged an “American Idol”-like contest across India and found two phenoms. When he brought them to the United States to try out before major-league scouts, however, his scheme began to unravel. Not until the driven dealmaker saw the dubious impact he had on the young men’s lives could he make amends and prevail.
In the character-rich screenplay, by “Up’s” Tom McCarthy, “baseball is a part of this story but it’s not the only part of the story. It’s mostly a story about relationships and how this experience changed this man’s life,” Hamm said.
“He didn’t set out to have a life-altering experience, he set out to try to make some money. But it did in fact alter his life in a profound way. That’s what drew me to it. The emotional core of the story really lands. It’s not just a sports movie, just a baseball movie, just any kind of a movie. It’s a good movie.”
Hamm’s next film won’t arrive until spring or summer of 2015. “The Minions” is a prequel to the animated “Despicable Me” films, “and I’m very excited to be part of that world.”
Hamm’s first acting memory was from children’s theater. “I was 4 years old in St. Louis, Mo., and I played Winnie the Pooh,” he said. Success came to him relatively late, after years of waiting tables, teaching acting at his old high school and dressing sets for Cinemax soft-core cable erotica. His most fulfilling pre-Hollywood occupation was teaching, he said.
“It was a fun part of my life. Teachers have been very important in my life; they’re people I actually respect and I was happy to give back.” If he ever returns to the classroom, he’d tell would-be actors that “it has to be something you really, really want to do, though, because there’s a lot of rejection and parts to it that aren’t so great.”
“That’s the hard part, you know? Just having the fortitude to deal with rejection, that’s a big part of it and that’s a thing that doesn’t get mentioned a lot. There’s a lot of nos before you get to yes. And that part is tricky. But it’s also character-building in every way. And you need that part, too.”