Being a movie star is hot. It is hot, and it is sweaty, and it is the 14th straight hour on set, and would somebody please bring me the spritzer because hell has ascended to earth and stars shouldn't feel like a Peep in a microwave.
Well, it's true. I'm in Atlanta, dead of summer 2013, there to spend a day on the set of "Million Dollar Arm," a feel-good movie about two kids from India who win a reality show and come to the United States to play baseball. It opens next Friday. Screening audiences raved. You really should see it. Jon Hamm is dynamite in his supporting role alongside me.
I end up in Atlanta that day because a public-relations executive thought sportswriters might like the idea of trading a movie role for a story leading up to the release date, and apparently we are entirely too predictable. My colleagues wrote about what the kids are doing these days, and the improbability of the story, and they quoted the stars, and that was all well and good. This is not that type of story.
This is about what it's like to become a star.
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The director is pissed. His name is Craig Gillespie. His biggest film, to this point, is called Lars and the Real Girl. It's about Ryan Gosling and a blow-up doll. Now he's working with Hamm and Pi from Life of Pi and the brother from Slumdog Millionaire and Bill Paxton and Alan Arkin and me. And only one of those people is staring into the camera.
I'm pretty sure I could spend the entire scene picking my nose and it would go over better than the momentary lapse in judgment of looking at the camera, which I learn is about the most egregious sin possible. I'm not sure what to say, so I do what anybody else would and start looking around like it was someone else, because feigning ignorance is the mature way – the only way – to handle such situations. What kind of hack is this guy anyway? I hope he doesn't press the issue further, or I'll have to hit him with some knowledge: The camera loves me; I was merely returning her stare.
Anyway, my mind is a little scattered. I didn't get much sleep the previous night because I was writing a story – um, I mean, Hamm and I were out late talking about the perils of being so devastatingly handsome – and a shuttle took us to the set at 5:15 a.m. The plan is for us to play reporters. I figure my role as a top hat-flipping Abe Lincoln in my second-grade play would get me a better gig, but Hollywood is so political.
The key is to stand out by any means possible. First we go into makeup, where Roxanne primps me. Then we head out to our first scene, in which we walk around while Hamm, who plays the agent bringing the Indian players to the U.S., and Paxton, as former big league pitcher and guru Tom House, have a conversation. I look glamorous, strutting with confidence, moving with purpose. It takes skill to pull off a good performance as blurry background noise.
This one scene goes on for hours. Let me let you in on a little secret we have in the industry: Making a movie is super boring. It is like standing in line at Disney World for hours and then learning the ride doesn't open for 11 months. Like, I bet Hamm is having a good time, but he's got great hair and is a partner at a high-end ad agency and spends his days drinking on the job, so of course he's having a good time. Those of us out here in steerage deserve better.
Just then comes our big break. On the set in a mini-mall parking lot, surrounded by a furniture store and a mattress store and a place called Games & Things, stands a bootleg pitching cage in which Pi (Suraj Sharma) and Slumdog Brother (Madhur Mittal) are going to throw. These aren't just any pitches, either. It's one of the film's most important scenes, the tryout for Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, the two real-life pitchers who eventually sign with ... (contractually obligated not to spoil movie so click here for answer).
Our job is to stand behind the catcher and flinch cartoonishly when Pi and other guy throw the ball into the net. Now, it doesn't matter that nobody in the baseball industry – not the "scouts" surrounding us nor even us writers – would ever fly backward as though dodging bullets like Neo. Truth be told, not much in the scene is real. When Pi picks up a ball and tries to throw it, he looks like a flamingo. Neither of the actors ever played baseball before filming this movie, and both need stunt doubles, which turns a long day into an interminable one for more reasons than the helter-skelter weather that is intermittently rainy and blistering.
Mainly, I'm convinced Craig is conspiring against me for my earlier faux pas. I figure he's just steeling me for future roles that demand concentration, but still. One of the sportswriters gets a prime spot directly behind the net into which all these balls fly. The others stake out their places in the camera shot. Best-case scenario, from where the director of photography is standing, one of my ears makes it in to the movie, and my ears are big enough that it takes a concerted effort to keep them out of a frame.
On and on it goes, take after take, ugly pitch after ugly pitch, monotony and drudgery compounding the depression of knowing that there's no way I'm going to be in the movie. My fellow writers tell me to shut up. I think they're jealous. Bet they weren't Abe in the second-grade play.
After lunch, we learn that because we were part of establishing shots we need to return to the set so all the nitpickers hunting out continuity errors for IMDB struggle to find them. Getting into this movie is a now-or-never proposition, and instinct takes over. I jockey for position and stand directly behind a man named Mark Ciardi. This is intentional. Not only is Ciardi a former big league pitcher and male model, he's the film's producer. Ciardi will be in the movie. Ergo, I will be in the movie. Unless Hamm has final cut and worries I stole his thunder, which prompts me to ditch the method acting and allow my natural emoting skills to carry the shot.
Following 62 takes – that is not an exaggeration – the scene is done. We kick around in case they need us anymore and wrap the day at 8:11 p.m., almost 15 hours after it began. The news about our presence on-set has spread far and wide. Deadspin is kind enough to notice I am the only one of the writers not wearing khaki pants. Every great actor needs his iconoclastic proclamation. My dark brown slacks are that statement. They say: "He likes dark brown pants."
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I awaken the next morning and check my phone, figuring Craig or Ciardi or someone has invited me back to the set for a meatier part. My missed-call list is empty. An oversight, surely.
A few months go by. I run into my co-stars during the playoffs and explain my talent was too big for a movie like this. They say my head is getting big. I wish. Craig couldn't have cut it out of the frame then.
December brings the moment of truth. The trailer starts streaming online. Hamm is his usual charming self. Lake Bell looks beautiful. Arkin gets in a one-liner as a crusty old scout. Suraj and Madhur are funny, too. And then I see the cage. The cage I stared at for hours. The cage that stood between me and my star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
It is our scene, and it is in the trailer, and oh my God they put me in the movie! They put me in the movie! I did it! I did it! That's me! You don't see me? OK. Let me rewind it. Dammit, YouTube. Why does the whole video reload when you rewind it? Stop buffering. I don't want only 240p! No, no, don't go away. I promise I'm in there. Let me screenshot it for you.
After all these years, I am finally a star. They re-name our roles "Scout," and I imagine I'm somewhere in the credits, hopefully as Scout #1, because duh. I haven't seen the movie yet. I want to do so among the common folk on May 16 when "Million Dollar Arm," starring Jeff Passan and Jon Hamm, hits theaters nationwide.
What excites me most is bearing witness to my entire scene. Because upon the 50th or so consecutive viewing of my trailer, I notice something. A split second before I'm standing almost front and almost center in front of the cage, there's another shot, and I see something peeking out, a crescent of familiarity above Ken Rosenthal's head and in front of Bob Nightengale's. Yes, that's a piece of my ear. Craig, you're a genius.