As neighbor-turned-love-interest Brenda in Million Dollar Arm opposite Jon Hamm’s driven would-be superagent JB Bernstein, Lake Bell gracefully, good-naturally puts style, charm and sharp acting instincts into performance that’s eminently human, real and magnetic. The talented writer, actress and director (her debut film from last year, In a World, is a knock-down perfect satire of Hollywood that has heart, too) took a few minutes to talk to us about filming Million Dollar Arm , working with her co-stars and not being sari for going ‘Full Bollywood.’ …
Schistodb: A lot of the movie is built around the idea that your character, Brenda, slowly builds a relationship with Suraj Sharma’s character and Madhur Mittal’s character while Mr. Hamm is running in and out. Was just hanging out with those guys during those scenes a great, different kind of experience?
Lake Bell: Yeah. Those two actors – and, I want to include Pitobash as well, just because…
… He was very much along for the ride …
… I just enjoyed their company so much. They’re not necessarily actors that I would have a scene with in any other film, so I had the opportunity to really bond with them and get to know them. Not only are they so present, emotionally, but also kinetically. They’re so funny, naturally, and just beautifully talented in that way, but then, to boot, they had to kind of suit up and get on the field and actually train to mimic a professional pitcher. Their job was extraordinary. I was somewhat in awe of them, and also, happened to make some new friends.
The other thing is, playing opposite Mr. Hamm, you know you’re transitioning from “Can I borrow your laundry machine?” to “May I wind up in your arms…?” Is he a pretty easy guy to do that arc with?
I’ve known Jon for years and years, so we’ve been friends for so long and we always hope to work together. There was a couple of opportunities along the way where it almost happened, and we do bits on Children’s Hospital . He comes into our Children’s Hospital family occasionally to play for playdates. So, I’ve known him for so long that there is an ease of camaraderie and whatnot; it made all the scenes very easy. But, yeah, I don’t think Brenda is stereotypical in any way to the most sports movies, where the lady character might be somewhat on the sidelines. Partially, what I loved about it is that Tom McCarthy wrote a very rich female character in a sea of male characters. She is very much an emotional catalyst for JB on his journey, and kind of the glue that gets him to snap the hell out of it and realize that there’s more at stake than just monetary gain.
But, it’s also the nice thing that at no point does Brenda ease up on him. It’s the idea that she knows he’s better than this.
That’s what I mean! It’s so refreshing, and it’s so real, because it’s based on a real woman who really did kick the proverbial ass of this guy and say, “Hey, listen, you’re being a real jerk. Wake up.” And, the real JB, when I speak to him, he’s like “I have so much to owe to my wife, Brenda…”
You mentioned Mr. McCarthy already. He wrote Win-Win, which is such a terrific film, and also a movie that’s sports and not-sports. When you knew that this was his script, did you already get that inkling of, “Oh, okay, this is not going to be ‘We have to win the Big Game””?
Yeah. Listen, listen, I’m with you. I’m a huge fan of Tom McCarthy’s work, and in fact, we have the same editor — my editor for In a World is the same editor as his editor, and that’s partially because I’m so wooed by his work. Knowing that Tom wrote it, and then, thinking about Craig Gillespie directing it, this is, for Disney, is such a cool marriage of two creative minds, you know? And, not an obvious choice on either side. I knew immediately that it was not going to be typical.
Mr. Gillespie did such a great job with Lars and the Real Girl, which could have been such a reductive pitch, and he finds so much complexity in it by the time you have finished watching the film … was it nice to watch character things happen in Mr. Gillespie’s film and Mr. McCarthy’s script that may not have come up from another creative duo?
Therein lies why Brenda is such a rich character. She is a supporting character, but she becomes an integral part of the emotional arc of the movie, because even as a writer, when I think about attacking peripheral characters or supporting roles, that is what is always so hard, but so rewarding, is to have everybody matter. Everybody could step into their own movie on the side. You know?
Yeah; when a movie’s that well-written, you get that the characters are so strong that the focus of the movie feels like just a matter of where the camera happens to be pointed … At one climactic scene, you kind of go full Bollywood. When you get to have that costuming thing of ‘We’re about to lightly drape you in a different culture’, were you looking forward to that, or are you not really a sari kind of person?
(Laughing) Are you kidding? When I’m an actor, I’m a ham. I love that stuff. I was so excited for the sari fitting. I couldn’t wait. I just kept trying to campaign for more jewelry and accoutrements. But, at the end of the day, I think it was really fun to share it with Suraj and Madhur as well, because they approved of where the bindi goes and how everything should be styled. They were really fun in helping me don the look.
Your directorial debut, In a World, came out last year, and it’s a terrific movie, very much about the nature and character of Hollywood film making. Are you working on getting anything up and running now? I’m wondering if you’re thinking about making something else with a theatrical or Hollywood tilt, or what you’re hoping to direct next.
First of all, thank you, because you gave me a compliment in there. I have three projects that I’m sort of nurturing, all at different levels of finish, and one of them is a spec script that I’m nearly ready (to finish), but I’m kind of enjoying re-writing right now, that is tonally very similar but utterly a different world than In a World. The thing with the other two scripts, one of them is a re-write of a beautiful adaptation of a book that I love, so that’s sort of a dream project, and it’s a drama … so now for something completely different. The other project is something I’m developing to write, so I don’t know which one is going to go first, but the nice thing is that I’m lucky enough to not have to rush it, and I work for my own timeline. I respect the process deeply and I want to only put out something that I’m really proud of. So, I’m going to take my time to make sure that I do make the right choices.
One final question: Mr. Hamm has a bunch of great scenes shot in India. Did you just flat-out say “Hey, I don’t get to go on a plane. What’s the deal?”
No, I was really pissed off. I have to be honest. I was like, How is it that everybody got to go to one of the most extraordinary places on the planet, and I’m shooting all my scenes in Atlanta? I love Atlanta, don’t get me wrong … but it’s not India.
You can shoot Atlanta for Los Angeles. You cannot shoot Atlanta for India.
Correct. I just hope that Brenda perhaps should have traveled to India. Maybe in the sequel?