By AMY LONGSDORF
21st Century Media
Jon Hamm insists he wasn’t specifically looking for a movie that was the complete opposite of “Mad Men.” But that’s what he found with “Million Dollar Arm,” a feel-good baseball film that gives the actor a break from the darkness of Don Draper and company.
For his first starring role in a mainstream Hollywood feature, Hamm plays J.B. Bernstein, a real-life sports agents who, in an attempt to keep his company afloat, travels to India to unearth cricket players he can transform into baseball greats.
He finds two prospects (“Life of Pi’s” Suraj Sharma, “Slumdog Millionaire’s” Madhur Mittal) who wind up becoming like sons to him. Lake Bell (“In a World”), Alan Arkin and Bill Paxton co-star.
“This is about 180 degrees from Don Draper,” says Hamm of the PG-rated film, which opens Friday. “It’s [life]-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 has this wonderful message and it’s nice that I get to be in something like that … My day job is I play not the greatest guy in the world … But this is a film that I can tell my friends to take their children to.”
Kid-friendly projects are a rarity for Hamm. On the big screen, he’s appeared in R-rated comedies like “Bridesmaids” and “Friends With Kids” as well as provocative indie dramas like “Stolen” and “Howl.”
And then, of course, there’s “Mad Men,” one of the most grown-up shows on TV. Hamm stars as Don Draper, a philandering, cutthroat ad man in 1960s New York. The AMC program, which has netted four Emmys for Best Drama Series, is now in the midst of its last season. The final batch of episodes will air in Spring 2015.
If “Mad Men” is about the decay at the core of the American Dream, then “Million Dollar Arm” theorizes that the American Dream is alive and well, and achievable through hard work.
“We live in this incredibly cynical time and [this is a story about] working hard,” says Hamm. “I still play baseball, terribly. But the journey that these two boys went on from literally never having seen a baseball to getting to an elite performance level is an impossible journey and [entails so much] hard work.
“Rinku started from zero and got to 100 in a year. It’s mind-blowing, but it doesn’t’ happen without an incredible work ethic and an incredible commitment, and [ability] to focus … and [a desire] to want to make his family proud and to represent his country.
“Those were the…emotions I responded to. For me, it doesn’t need to be edgy to be good, it needs to be good to be good.”
Hamm says as soon as he read Tom McCarthy’s (“The Visitor,” “Win Win”) screenplay, he was interested in stepping up to the plate.
“I read the script and loved it and then looked back to the title page and went, `wait a minute. This is true?’ I am a huge baseball fan and somehow this [story] went under my radar. So immediately, I was on Google finding out everything I could about [these guys].”
One of Hamm’s only concerns for “Million Dollar Arm” was that it avoid easy sentimentally. With “Lars and the Real Girl” helmer Craig Gillespie behind the camera, the actor was assured that the movie would never go gooey.
“I was so pleased to see how Craig expertly managed the tone so that it didn’t veer into the world of sentimentality or sappiness or hokiness or over-earnestness or any of that,” says Hamm, 43. “It stays true to the basics of the story, which is incredibly emotional. [This experience] changed J.B.’s life [for the better].
“It’s hard to talk about this movie without sounding hokey but it just has this beautiful sensibility to it. And I’m a sucker for that…It’s nice when the lights come up at the end of a movie and you’re not, `what did I just watch? Who was the bad guy and why did the things crash and what blew up and why is the President mad?’
“It used to be when you got out of a movie, you felt something. You were either emotional or you wanted to be a better person. And this is that kind of movie. It’s a pleasure to be a part of it.”
A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Hamm grew up the son of Deborah and Daniel Hamm, a trucking company exec and secretary, respectively. At 10, Jon’s mother died suddenly from colon cancer. A decade later, Hamm’s father passed away.
The actor believes his own history gave him a direct connection to Bernstein’s story.
“I lost my parents very young,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of surrogate parents in my life who have sort of adopted me in many ways. I have a very fluid definition of family as well.”
Hamm’s fluid definition of family extends to his partnership of 16 years with actress/director Jennifer Westfeldt (“Kissing Jessica Stein.”)
“I’m a modern family man. Everyone is, like, ‘when are you and Jen going to get married? We’ve been together for 16 years and we’re as married as anybody, I guess.
“I don’t have kids but I’ve been a teacher, a daycare teacher, and I have tons of nieces and nephews and I feel like all of these people are my family.”
Yet another reason “Million Dollar Arm” appealed to Hamm is that he found it easy to relate to Bernstein’s temporary string of bad luck. Just like the agent, Hamm struggled before finding success. It wasn’t until “Mad Men” came along in 2007 that Hamm became, at 36, a household name.
“I identified obviously with that that part of J.B.’s experience [where] he’s trying to win these guys over in the room,” says Hamm, who auditioned more than a half-dozen times before landing the role of Don Draper.
“You have to project this confidence, you have to project this sort of charisma and then it falls apart. That’s every audition I’ve ever been on for the first three years of my career in Los Angeles.
“You walk in the room, and you’re, like, ‘This is going to be great! I’m the best guy and you love me. No, it’s not working? Okay, bye.’
“[Acting] is … such a capricious, strange existence [because] you’re basing your life on the whims of others and basing your kind of ebbs and flows of confidence on the fact that people either choose you or don’t.
“You often run up against a wall. ‘Oh yeah, I guess they hired Brad Pitt.’ So you move on.”