Playing a professional athlete on screen can be daunting. But, if you tack on the fact that you've never actually played the sport at hand before, you're acting in your second major movie ever, and you're doing it all under the watchful eye of Jon Hamm, you've got the makings for a potential nervous breakdown. But, that's all just a small fraction of what Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal went through to film Million Dollar Arm.
Sharma and Mittal play Rinku and Dinesh, two prospective baseball players brought to the States from India by an agent (played by Jon Hamm) hoping to save his career with the next diamond (or diamonds) in the rough. It's all for the sake of a competition to find the best pitcher in India — a country with almost no exposure to this American pastime. In other words, Sharma and Mittal's characters have no idea what they're doing on a baseball field. But, watching them learn is part of Million Dollar Arm's charm.
It's also part of the actors' appeal off the big screen. Just like Rinku and Dinesh, Sharma and Mittal had never played baseball before they stepped onto Jon Hamm's field. "We had no baseball knowledge whatsoever," said Sharma. "Basically, once we got the roles, we had three and a half weeks to train and to look like professionals." The actors also had to beef up quite a bit, a process that became the running joke on set. As self-described "scrawny boys," they developed an ongoing push-up competition on the advice of the movie's trainer.
"We ended up doing push-ups everywhere from elevators to five-star restaurants to parking lots," Sharma explained. The contest even extended to the floor of the hotel room during this interview. (But, we'll call it a draw to avoid any hurt feelings.)
Watching Sharma and Mittal interact on screen, you get the feeling they're lifelong friends. They certainly have enough in common — with starring roles in Life of Pi and Slumdog Millionaire respectively, both actors left quiet lives in India and stepped into the whirlwind of Hollywood insanity. But, surprisingly, they met for the first time during the audition process.
Mittal believes it was his instantaneous friendship with Sharma (who had already been cast) that won him the coveted part. "Once the camera went on, I've never had the chemistry that I had with this dude," he said. "We were high-fiving and improvising immediately after meeting each other. As you can imagine, we took off from there."
Million Dollar Arm is first and foremost a sports movie, but it's also about building relationships and finding yourself — this is a Disney movie, after all. In the film, Dinesh and Rinku struggle with the pressure of being thrust into an MLB tryout and with the intimidating task of adapting to life in Los Angeles.
Life mirrored art somewhat as Sharma and Mittal traveled the same path to the big leagues, and they say they have each other to thank for providing a support system in taking on such a large project. "We had a blast hanging out together, and we had so many things to connect on," said Mittal. "We became like brothers by the end."