Million Dollar Arm: Alan Arkin on Listening to the Ball

Million Dollar Arm Alan Arkin

Million Dollar Arm is based on the true story of J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm), who created a pitching competition to find baseball talent in India. In the movie, he meets a recruiter in India named Ray who reluctantly comes along with him to tryouts. Ray seems to be disengaged but claims he can hear the speed of a pitch, so when Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel start throwing, he tells J.B. that they’re the ones. Ray is played by the incomparable Alan Arkin, and we had the pleasure of meeting Arkin in Los Angeles to discuss the film and his legendary carer.

CraveOnline: Was Ray a real guy?

Alan Arkin: That’s what I hear. I read about two weeks ago that is a real person. Who did I meet? I met somebody two weeks ago that told me he was a real guy. When I did the movie I had no idea.

Was that not important?

I’m sure it was important to him. I don’t think it was important to the script or the audience particularly. It’s not like he was a well-known figure so I just took my license.

Ray feels like he can hear the speed of the pitch. When you react to those pitches, was it important you got some sense of what different speeds sound like?

Oh yeah, absolutely. I spent a lot of time just listening to what a ball sounds like. A lot of it is apocryphal. You have to have ears like a dog to hear the sound of the ball going through the air. I think the only thing you can really hear is when it leaves the hand a little bit, when it hits the glove. Hitting the glove is when you can get a sense of how fast something is going.

When would you listen to pitches and who would pitch for you?

When they were practicing. It wasn’t for me, I was just watching a little bit of practicing, listen to the speed of the glove. I never got very good at it but it doesn’t matter that I got good at it. Ray was good at it.

Was that just practice in between takes?

Between takes because I wasn’t around baseball in the time it would’ve taken, and I had no opportunity where I was living to be around in that proximity to people pitching and catching. On the set I used to pay a lot of attention to listening when all the people were trying out for the parts of the ball players, a lot of whom lost the contest.

Did you have a better time in India than Ray does?

Oh, it was a nightmare. We were shooting 12 hours a day in 125 degree heat. It was impossible. All you can do is think about survival. A lot of people just passed out cold. It was tough.

You’ve been on some tough movies. Was Million Dollar Arm a tough shoot compared to Catch-22?

Yeah, that was tough for a lot of different reasons. Too multiple to go into.

We’ve read the history of that. Would you say this was the toughest shoot you’ve been on?

Well, in terms of physical difficulties, yeah. I’ve had things that were vaguely comparable in the other direction, like shooting in 20 degree weather in Montreal with no overcoat on. But that, thank God, only lasted a few days. This went on for weeks.

At least in the cold you can always put more layers on.

Well, if it’s in the script, I can put more layers on, but if you don’t have an overcoat on in the script and it shows you running out of the house with your short sleeves on, then you’re going to be cold.

Do you take those factors into consideration when you choose movies?

More and more, yeah. It used to be I’d do anything and play anybody, but as time goes on, the parameters of what I will subject myself to is smaller and smaller.

This has been a particularly lucrative time for you it seems. Have you been working more than ever these last few years?

Yeah, I’m astounded. The past five years has been really extraordinary, in a lot of ways the best time of my life.

Did you notice it dramatically right after Little Miss Sunshine?

No, not right away. It was like a tsunami. It takes a while for it to decide whether it’s going to be a tsunami or not.

How about after Argo?

No, it’s just been generally slowly better since Little Miss Sunshine.

What did you discuss with director Craig Gillespie about Ray?

I don’t remember discussing anything. I think it was kind of an innate trust that he had of me. Every once in a while he’d tell me to do a little less, which is not a comment I usually get but I’d say a line or have a reaction, he’d just tell me to do a little less, which apparently he was doing the same with Bill [Paxton] and Bill’s wonderful in the movie. I guess his instincts were very good. I think the movie’s terrific. Whatever he’s doing is right on target.

Do you usually watch your own movies?

Yeah, I like to see whether it came together or not. I don’t dwell on it in particular.

Do you take inspiration from other performances of your colleagues?

Very much so. A lot of other people’s performances are completely inspirational to me. I’ll watch them over and over again. To me the greatest performance that I ever saw in my life is a movie I’ve watched endlessly basically to look at it, it’s a great movie, a basically unseen Sidney Lumet movie called Running on Empty which is an extraordinarily moving film. Brilliant performances throughout and in it is the greatest performance I’ve ever seen by an actor named Steve Hill. It’s a 10-minute scene, there’s no music, he doesn’t raise his voice and it’s the most extraordinary work I’ve ever seen.

Sidney Lumet would do scenes like that.

Yeah. I worked for him for two years on a series called “100 Center Street.” He was wonderful to work with, a master craftsman. He hid his craft. He never showed off ever, just constantly buried his craft, had a lot of humility. He was a master. I loved working with him.

Are there any directors you’ve worked with recently who have that level of craft?

Affleck is a master. He may have only done three films but he knows exactly what he’s doing in every department. He has a complete mastery of every aspect of filmmaking. I was enormously impressed with him and then over the years, working with Sidney Lumet and Norman Jewison I had that feeling. Norman had a quality, he had the ability to create an environment on the set that was really like a family. It was the most congenial environment I’ve ever experienced ever making a film.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.