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LAS VEGAS — To portray J.B. Bernstein, the sports agent behind the signing of the first two Indian major leaguers, Jon Hamm had to act like a noble guy in Disney’s based-on-a-true-story Million Dollar Arm, instead of the cutthroat ad exec he embodies on TV’s Mad Men.
“I’ve played Don Draper enough,” Hamm said while promoting the film. “I get a lot of scripts that are a version of Don Draper. But I wanted to play something that had heart.”
That’s not to say he isn’t going to miss playing the notorious TV character. The Matthew Weiner-created series is now in its final season.
“It’s going to be difficult to say good-bye,” Hamm says. “It’s going to be emotional. For most of us it’s been career-defining.”
After playing Don Draper for seven seasons, Hamm says he still doesn’t know how he’d like to see his character’s story conclude. “I think there’s two answers: one for Don and one for the show,” he says. “I think I’m too close to it to really say what would satisfy me.”
When Mad Men wraps next year, Hamm says he’d be open to signing on to another series. For now, though, he’s focusing on film — mostly of the family-focused variety. Next he’ll voice a character in 2015’s animated The Minions, a spin-off to Universal Pictures’ Despicable Me franchise.
“I’m happy to be involved in something that my friends can take their kids to,” says Hamm, who admits he’s not sure what a film like Million Dollar Arm will do for his career. “Well, I hope it doesn’t kill it,” jokes the 43-year-old actor.
“When you find out that someone like him is going to play you in a movie, it blows you away because everyone in Hollywood is trying to get him into a part,” Bernstein said in a phone interview. “The fact that he related to the journey that I went through was a big honor.”
In Million Dollar Arm, sports agent Bernstein’s career is slipping, so he cooks up a plan to travel to India to find a pair of cricket players and turn them into major league pitchers. After finding his throwers, Bernstein moves them to the United States to train. It takes a little push from the agent’s neighbor — and eventual love interest — Brenda (Lake Bell) for Bernstein to learn to strategize with his heart rather than his wallet.
Indian actors Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi) and Madhur Mittal (Slumdog Millionaire) portray ball players Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, respectively. Both signed contracts with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Patel was hired as a production assistant on Million Dollar Arm to teach Sharma and Mittal how to pitch.
Disney pursued Hamm for the role of Bernstein, but when the actor first arrived in Los Angeles from St. Louis in 1995, no studio was pursuing him and he struggled to find work. He took a couple of small parts on shows such as Ally McBeal and CSI: Miami before he landed the role in Mad Men after auditioning for the part seven times.
“The knock on me was that I wasn’t sexy enough to play this character,” Hamm says. “But Matt [Weiner] fought very hard for me and I will always owe him for that.”
Now a bona fide sex symbol, Hamm has tough competition when it comes to leading roles. “I have to compete against Christian Bale, Brad Cooper ... fill in the blank,” he says. “Whenever you move up into a different echelon, it comes with a lot of benefits, but then you have to compete against these guys.”
But Hamm acknowledges he’s been fortunate to have a “side career” consisting of comedic roles in films such as Bridesmaids and comedy series like Parks and Recreation.
“I’ve been accepted into the group of weirdos,” he says. “Part of being Don Draper is that you have a lot of currency in that dramatic side of things, but I hope to be able to bounce back and forth.”