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MILLION DOLLAR ARM

Finding The Cast and Director
The quest to find an actor who could become JB Bernstein began and ended with Jon Hamm. "Jon was our first choice, no question," says producer Ciardi. "We've wanted to work with him for years. He came on board early and has been a great partner. I think Jon really got JB - his combination of frustration, emotion, comedy and sympathy. The thing about JB in our movie is that he is an Everyman. The audience sees India through his eyes. And then later, in some respects, the boys, as they adjust to America and in the process, change JB. He's really our POV as an audience and Jon understood and incorporated that from the start."

"I am a big sports fan and I was intrigued by this story which had gone under my radar," Jon Hamm says. "I read the script, looked up the real story online, and the more I found out, the more fascinated I was. So on a fundamental level, I was intrigued. It's more a story about people and how they relate to each other. As the story unfolds, we realize that JB is learning as much about himself as the boys are about their new life. So it all just coalesced. The more I learned about it, the more at rac ve it became."

Hamm adds that the movie's bigger, more traditional themes also appealed to him. "It's a compelling, old-fashioned story about hard work and coming up with the big idea and seeing it through. The fact that it worked out so brilliantly for these two kids and for JB is a testament to their commitment and work ethic. They were willing to apply and devote themselves 150 percent and to maximize this opportunity that was by no means a guaranteed success," Hamm notes.

Whereas "Million Dollar Arm" quickly found its lead actor, the search for a director was a more lengthy process that ultimately led to Craig Gillespie. Gillespie's filmography is eclectic but, as Ciardi points out, his work and approach dovetailed perfectly with what "Million Dollar Arm" required.

"Craig is very prepared and really good with actors," producer Ciardi says. "'Lars and the Real Girl' is the perfect movie to point to. It also has a quirky, funny, dramatic tone and expertly walks the line between comedy and drama, which was what we wanted for this movie," he says.

Producer Gray adds, "When Mark and I look for a director, we have an idea in our head about the course of the movie and we wait to hear something that either matches that or beats it. Craig did both. And he was very passionate about the material."

Producer Roth says, "Craig did a fantastic job. The movie is as good as it is because of him."

Gillespie says that Tom McCarthy's script and the incredible story appealed to him and also struck a personal chord. "I love Tom McCarthy's writing; he's got a distinct way of doing drama and humor with a balance that I can relate to. On top of that, it was quite an amazing story. On the surface, it doesn't seem like a movie that is applicable to me but I related to JB and Rinku and Dinesh. There's JB trying to balance his career with having an emotionally rich life, which he comes to terms with throughout the film and I've always tried to have that balance between career and family. And on the other side, with the boys, I came to the States when I was 19, not knowing anybody and I felt like such a fish out of water. It's not nearly the same scale as them, but I can understand that idea of being the outsider. So I could see both sides of the story," Gillespie says.

The notion of Jon Hamm as JB also intrigued Gillespie, who thought the role tapped into all of Hamm's prodigious skills in ways that hadn't been seen before by audiences. "Jon was on board before I was but I loved the idea of him in this role. He was perfect for it. This part is truly a way for him to use all of his tools. We've seen him in drama and straightout comedies but to be able to blend the two and use all of his assets in one performance was really exciting," Gillespie says.

Casting the real-life Rinku and Dinesh was one of the most challenging aspects of pre-production. The roles went to Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal. "Suraj had that incredible moment in 'Life of Pi.' We met with him, Craig, Gordon and myself, the night before the Academy Awards and it was clear that he was a special kid. He's smart and funny and very centered. And Rinku has a real personality and playfulness, as does Suraj. Of the two characters, Dinesh is more of a worrier, more conservative. Rinku's a true left-hander and had that unique pitching motion. He embraced America and this whole challenge, didn't get nervous, and it was clear that Suraj could embody all that," Ciardi says.

After they cast Sharma as Rinku, it was important to find an actor who could not just convey Dinesh's physicality and demeanor but could also mesh well with Sharma. The two would play friends, nearly brothers, in the film and would spend a lot of time together, both on screen and off , as they, like their real-life counterparts, trained to become baseball players.

For Gillespie, casting is immensely important. "It's everything, particularly in tone. You can't make people be funny or sympathetic, it has to be in their DNA. The casting of the boys was particularly tricky and important. Suraj was one of the first people to come to mind on that front because of his vulnerability and accessibility in 'Life of Pi.' And then we ended up putting several actors with Suraj to figure out a good dynamic. Madhur came in and their energy together was incredible," Gillespie says.

"Million Dollar Arm" is Sharma's second film and, as he likes to say, his first feature acting opposite people, as opposed to a green-screen faux tiger. In Madhur Mittal, he found a kindred spirit.

"Madhur is awesome. I met him the day he was doing his final audition for this role," Sharma says. "I had just done the same scene with four other people but when he came in, it was so easy; I got that feeling that we were not acting. In the first five minutes, it felt like we were actually having a conversation through these characters, really natural and fluid. I knew he would get the part and I was so happy because that took pressure off me. I haven't had much experience working with other actors so having someone like Madhur was great. He gave me the space to explore and react in a real way."

Mittal also felt the connection between Sharma and himself during that audition and notes that although their paths have been different, they share a comparable exposure to the international spotlight and "overnight" success.

"There was so much chemistry. I love the guy," Mittal says. "Suraj is an incredible talent and I'm so happy I had the chance to work with him. We had a similar way of working and we had both been exposed to the same sort of career experience where, boom, out of nowhere, your whole world changes because of one movie. We had a lot of common ground. He felt like a younger brother to me."

Mittal has been acting since boyhood and, as evidenced by his portrayal of Salim in "Slumdog Millionaire," has a knack for playing darker characters. The role of Dinesh was a refreshing opportunity to explore a more ingenuous soul. "Ever since 'Slumdog,' I've played great characters - a kidnapper, a pirate, stuff like that," Mittal says. "But this was an opportunity to play someone who was very innocent and pure. He's very shy and always smiling and pleasant, so it was great to play a really nice guy."

Director Gillespie adds that Sharma and Mittal also served as unofficial Indian ambassadors and technical advisors. "The boys were so dedicated to their roles and were great about keeping us in check, as far as what was plausible and believable in terms of Indian culture. They were the gatekeepers. They were always so focused and honest and brought so much more to their characters."

Adding a strong hand, experience and a sense of humor, Alan Arkin is the irascible but keen scout Ray Poitevint, whose gruff demeanor belies a real concern for both the game and the new recruits. "I wanted Alan from the start and I was thrilled that we managed to seduce him for the fi lm and he was fantastic," Gillespie adds.

In the movie, Arkin's Ray is so good he can hear a power pitch - even in his sleep. While that bit may be a stretch, Ciardi notes, "It isn't a huge one and exemplifi es a larger point: 'Million Dollar Arm' is not a documentary. The real Ray is really smart - and did have fits of narcolepsy."

The team cast Aasif Mandvi as JB's Indian-American partner Aash. Mandvi and Hamm of course know each other from "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," where Mandvi is a correspondent and Hamm is a frequent guest.

"Aasif has done a lot of comedy but he comes from a dramatic background. He did a lot of theater before he got into comedy so it was great to be able to see him flex his acting chops," Gillespie notes.

Mandvi notes that of all the characters in this movie, Aash uniquely straddles the India-America divide.

"Aash is JB's business partner and the pragmatist to JB's idealist. What I love about him is that while a good deal of the movie takes place in India, Aash spends most of his time holding down the fort in the States and is completely American - and yet he is also in this weird position in-between. He literally lives between those two worlds, which is an interesting position," Mandvi says.

In classic Mandvi deadpan, he downplays his contribution to the film. "They scoured the country for an Indian American to play Aash and all they could come up with was me. But it's not often you get to play a truly American guy who has an Indian ethnicity and that was fun," he says.

When the novice ball players come to America, they receive a warm welcome and a new instructor and friend in the form of the iconoclastic Coach Tom House, played by Bill Paxton.

"House is a former big league pitcher. He played at USC," Ciardi explains. "Baseball has caught up to what he was doing 30 years ago. He's kind of like a throwing guru. So JB was thinking, who is going to take these two kids and teach them how to pitch? So he went to Tom House who he knew a little bit and figured if it is going to be anyone, it's going to be this guy. In our script, we say half the people think he is crazy and half the people think he is genius. A guy like that would be willing to take these kids on."

While Paxton joined the shoot relatively late, he made good use of his pre-production of me by hanging out with the real Tom House and soaking up all he could. "Bill was so great, someone I was covering for the role. He met with House and came back with a lot of House's attributes, all the way down to his tan and hairstyle and sayings. He really embraced the role. It was fun to see him go that far with it," Gillespie says of Paxton.

Tom House is a unique and inspirational individual; more of a life coach than a sports trainer, according to Paxton. "He's sort of the Obi-Wan Kenobi of coaches. He tends to instruct Socratically, answering a question with a question or even a riddle. He is actually like a Greek philosopher. He has a great quality of assessing but not judging, which I didn't anticipate. He taught those kids not just the mechanics of baseball but the strategy of the game. In the process he gave them tools for life."

Paxton also says that House gave him his blessing to use their sessions with some creative license and to portray him as Paxton desired. "He couldn't have been nicer about it. He said, 'If you play me as you, you'll be the best me,'" Paxton recalls.

One of the most critical roles was that of Brenda, played by Lake Bell. Brenda is JB's tenant who becomes his confidante, cheerleader and sometime critic; ultimately, she guides him towards the more emotionally accessible person he needs to be - for himself and for his two young charges. Brenda, a medical student, is not like any of the women JB has dated. Smart, funny, independent and wise, she proves to be a tonic for Rinku, Dinesh and, to his surprise, JB.

"We were hypercareful with casting our female lead. I absolutely love Lake Bell," Gillespie says. "That was a really tricky role. She is really the cement of the movie. She's really well-written but she had to have a light touch to her because at certain points, she's rough on JB. That was probably the hardest casting and she was exactly what we needed."

"Lake personified a lot of the character," says producer Gray. "She's intelligent, pretty and sexy, but in a real way. She sneaks up on you. And she had great chemistry with Jon."

Bell and Hamm have been friends for years, which accounts for some of their easy rapport; notably, the two had previously performed comedy together. Gillespie capitalized on that, often letting the camera roll so they could riff and play with the dialogue. Bell appreciated that latitude and thought it served not just the characters but also the movie overall.

"Jon and I have been pals for a few years. We did 'Childrens Hospital' together, so I knew him as a comedic guy and he is definitely a fan and an extraordinary player of comedy," Bell says. "He enjoys having the words tumble a little bit and it was great that Craig allowed us to do it. The ease with which Jon and I relate to each other and in fact the way all the characters interact is really important because it's not just a sports movie to me. It is about these interpersonal relationships - JB and the boys, Brenda and the boys, JB and Brenda and ultimately how they all bond and come together. The sort of banter Craig encouraged was really natural between Jon and me and we certainly welcomed it."

Bell also points out that Brenda is a character all too rare in Hollywood - the smart, funny, sexy female lead in a family film. "I auditioned for the role like every other smart girl in Hollywood," she says. "These parts are few and far between. But beyond that, I was excited about the movie because I knew my whole family could see it. JB starts out somewhat misguided - he's just trying to find his next conquest. Eventually he realizes he is on a spiritual journey which I think is somewhat unexpected and definitely interesting."

Another character who fulfi lls a dream is Amit, JB's right-hand man, eager volunteer, translator and die-hard baseball fan, played with funny and poignant aplomb by Pitobash, who makes his American fi lm debut with "Million Dollar Arm."

"Amit was also a character that was tricky to cast. He was there for a lot of comic relief but we didn't want it to be a caricature," Gillespie says. "We saw a lot of actors for that part and we kept coming back to him. At first, I was a little worried that he would be too funny but I discovered that he had this emotional side that was just amazing. It was such a gift to have him in the film and he ended up being a scene-stealer. His role got more nuanced over the course of the film and he always did his homework and came in very prepared, with a perspective of where and who his character was throughout the film."

Part of that perspective came from a very personal place. Like his character, a baseball outsider who loved and pined for the game, Pitobash felt a similar yearning to act. "I am from Odisha (on India's east coast) and I am the first person in 100 years to work in Bollywood from my state," Pitobash says. "Amit is also an underdog in that he came from a place where baseball was not popular and he knew he could never play professionally but he wanted to be involved in some way. JB provided that opportunity and because of his love for the game, he later became a coach. So my personal struggle, how I reached Bollywood and this role in this film, is quite close to Amit's story. In the way he always wanted to play baseball, I always wanted to be an actor."

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