With MAD MEN well into its seventh and final season, the film industry now has unfettered access to one of the most talented, charismatic and ludicrously handsome leading men on the planet. Whether or not there are interesting roles for someone like this in today's Hollywood is a sadly legitimate question.
I'm not asking you to feel sorry for poor ol' Jon Hamm. There's plenty of opportunity in this business for a good-looking white guy in his early forties. It's just that the throwback mixture of charm and guile that Hamm has brought to Don Draper over the years isn't exactly in high demand nowadays - though his capacity for bottom-of-the-bottle despair could certainly be exploited in the less commercially conscious indie realm. Obviously, I'll watch Hamm in just about anything, but I'd really love to see him take a crack at something witty and peppy in a screwball comedy vein, or perhaps a classy thriller like CHARADE. I just want to see him have fun. On the big screen.
Disney's MILLION DOLLAR ARM is the first feature to let Hamm off the downbeat Draper hook, and though the character of JB Bernstein certainly has his own personal failings, at least they're not the result of being raised in a Pennsylvania whorehouse. Bernstein is an ambitious sports agent who's desperate to sign a big time client to his fledgling management company. When he hits upon the idea to recruit a couple of Indian kids to become major league baseball pitchers, he's focused primarily on bringing the sport to the second most populous country in the world; the first person to tap into that market will have hit a goldmine. As for the well-being of the teenagers who will be subjected a massive culture shock when they leave their families in India to live on their own in the United States, that's of minute importance to Bernstein.
MILLION DOLLAR ARM follows the familiar trajectory of a feel-good family film, and it's a pleasure to watch Hamm effortlessly transition from self-absorbed agent to decent human being. He agitatedly banters with Alan Arkin, strikes up some palpable chemistry with Lake Bell and gradually warms to his two young charges (Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal). It's a tantalizing glimpse of Hamm's leading man potential; here's hoping there are filmmakers out there ready to throw him some red meat.
Though I interviewed Hamm on the day of MAD MEN's Season Seven premiere, I somehow managed to keep my questions to MILLION DOLLAR ARM and baseball. We also discussed his admiration for the careers of Jeff Bridges and Bryan Cranston, as well as the magnificence of Michelle Pfeiffer in THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS.
Jeremy: I know you are a big St. Louis Cardinals fan. Was doing a baseball film an itch you had to scratch?
Jon Hamm: It wasn't necessarily an itch I wanted to scratch. It was mostly very specific to this film. It's a wonderful story that I was taken in by.
Jeremy: Do you have a favorite baseball film?
Hamm: I have many favorite baseball films. My god… THE NATURAL, BULL DURHAM, FIELD OF DREAMS, THE BAD NEWS BEARS… the list goes on. Baseball is a defining characteristic in my life: it's very American and now we're finding that it's getting worldwide. It's such a fun thing to do as a little boy or a little girl. It's slow. It's not based on war. (Laughs) You know, George Carlin used to do this great bit comparing baseball to football. "In football, the object is to march your team into the endzone. In baseball, you just want to go home!"
Jeremy: I imagine being a Cardinals fan makes baseball rather pleasant. I'm an Indians fan, so there hasn't been a whole lot to cheer lately.
Hamm: You had a little moment in the '90s!
Jeremy: Yeah, and now we've got Francona managing. We'll see how this season plays out.
Hamm: I'm a big baseball fan. I love going to games, I love playing, and I love watching. The Cardinals have had a nice run in the 2000s, and it's been fun to watch. I grew up in the '70s, and the Cardinals were terrible then. We had terrible '70s and '90s, and good '80s and 2000s. That's how it works! You've got to take the good and take the bad. There's something about a 162-game season. No one's going 162-0. No one's going to win all of them. That's another beautiful thing about baseball: some days you win, some days you lose and some days it rains.
Jeremy: I imagine having that kind of patience was helpful as you embarked on your acting career.
Hamm: There are a lot of very good life lessons in baseball.
Jeremy: Could you credit playing baseball with helping you develop that patience?
Hamm: No, I'm not good enough. (Laughs) Not at baseball. But there are obviously parallels. I was talking to JB about Barry Bonds, and how his discipline at the plate was so exacting. He waits for his pitch, and when he sees it, it's out of the park. A big part of that is having the discipline to wait for your pitch, identifying your pitch and having the ability to put the bat on the ball when that pitch comes. The parallel to our lives is waiting for the right thing, and when the right thing comes, bang, pull the trigger and make sure you get it. That's the challenging part.
Jeremy: In terms of doing the work as an actor, there are those who need a lot of takes to find the moment, and then there are those who are ready to go at rehearsal. Where do you fall on that spectrum?
Hamm: I come from TV, and there's not a lot of time to find it on the day. You've got to come prepared and ready to go, so I'm probably more in the second camp than the first. But I do appreciate that other ability to go, "Let's try this a bunch of different ways and see how it feels." That's perfectly legitimate and useful as a way to find it. But if the story's not on the page, it's hard to find it on the day. And we were very lucky to have, number one, an incredibly inspiring true story, but also Tommy McCarthy, who adapted the story into a beautiful script. He's got the ability to find emotion in these little moments, and I think the film does an excellent job of capturing those.
Jeremy: There's a really fun set up and payoff with Alan Arkin's character that concludes with the two of you going out for a seemingly inconsequential lunch.
Hamm: That was one of my favorite scenes to shoot, too, because it was just us and the realization of what he's doing. [Arkin] is so talented and such a warm presence, which is contained in the gruff, grumbly uncle kind of deal. But he's wicked smart and present, which is all you want as an actor. He'll play off of you. He's paying attention. He's not coming in and going (Imitating Arkin) "I'm going to come in, do it one way and then I'm going to go." No. He's eighty-some years old and he still wants to play. God bless, I hope I just make it to eighty. It's a wonderful quality he has, and it's right there on screen.
Jeremy: Arkin's one of those actors who's had an interesting career trajectory. He was both a leading man and a supporting actor in his prime, and now he's one of our great character actors. Do you watch other actors' careers and say to yourself, "I'd like to do it that way?"
Hamm: Sure. The one that I like to say is Jeff Bridges. I've been a fan of Jeff Bridges forever. TRON was a big moment in my life. (Laughs) But you watch Jeff Bridges… he was a star at seventeen in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, and he is amazing in that movie as a young, young kid. And then growing up through the '70s and '80s, blowing up in the late '80s, and then becoming an action star - and you could tell he wasn't really into that. So he went away for a little bit, and then he came back with THE BIG LEBOWSKI, CRAZY HEART and TRUE GRIT. You're just like, "Goddamn, where have you been, Jeff Bridges?" He's so good. You watch him in THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS or STARMAN, and they're all different. They're all over the map. That's inspiring to me. And someone like Bryan Cranston: look at the work he did on BREAKING BAD, then watch him on MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE or SEINFELD. He is wildly talented. I saw him on stage doing ALL THE WAY, and my jaw was on the floor. That guy can do anything.
But I definitely have guys I look to like that, and Arkin's one of them.
Jeremy: I'm glad you brought up THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS, because Bridges has amazing chemistry with all of his leading ladies, but in that movie it's just scorching.
Hamm: How hot is Michelle Pfeiffer in that movie? My god.
Jeremy: She's off the charts. But you also have that chemistry with just about every woman you've worked with. There's something that just crackles. I know it's impossible to quantify something like that, but have you ever thought about it?
Hamm: It's interesting in this film because Lake and I have known each other forever. I think we met through David Wain. But we've just known each other for a long, long time, and I've been a fan of her work. Lake is wildly intelligent and ambitious. She doesn't take any shit, which is so refreshing in a beautiful woman. People can be like, "Oh, just sit here and be pretty," and she'll be like, "No, I'm going to give you my opinion." She brings such a marvelous quality to the film, and it's a nice counterpart to JB. It was basically the first time we'd gotten to work together, and it was fun. But as for chemistry? I don't know. Mostly, it's just if people get along. I'm a polite guy and a pretty friendly person, so maybe that's why I get along with everybody.
Jeremy: You've directed a couple of episodes of MAD MEN. Is directing something you're looking to do going forward in your career?
Hamm: Directing a feature is very different from directing a television show; you're coming up with something from whole cloth rather than just keeping the train on the tracks. It would have to be something that I was very, very passionate about. It's a commitment. It's basically a year of your life, and there's no guarantee that, at the end of that year, it's going to amount to jack shit. So you better mean it, and you better really want to do it. I've watched [Jennifer Westfeldt] do it, I've watched John Slattery do it and I've watched Ben [Affleck] do it. These guys have something they want to say, and it's been successful for them. I'll never say never to anything, but it's not very high on the list right now.
MILLION DOLLAR ARM is currently in theaters.