When I was first ushered into the curtained-off "room" for my double interview with Bill Paxton and Alan Arkin for [Million Dollar Arm](movie:397703), I caught Paxton in enthusiastic mid-sentence, responding to a story Arkin was telling. Punching the record button as fast as I could, my eyes bounced back and forth as I tried to keep up with the banter and privately wondered in which chair I was supposed to sit (like I've said before, I'm not always smooth).
"He didn't have enough for passage," Arkin was saying. "He stayed there for months until he had enough money for passage."
"And he lived in New York originally when he did?" asked Paxton.
I kept eyeballing the three chairs, and thinking that these two would be an interviewer's dream but a transcriber's nightmare.
"No, he ended up in Canada."
Finally, Paxton turned to me with a friendly smile and motioned me to sit, while Arkin gave me a decidedly Arkin-y look, which was two parts, "nice to meet you" and one part "sit, you dumba**," so it was basically perfect.
"We're talking," explained Paxton, "about the idea that this story [Million Dollar Arm] is an immigration story. These guys come over from another country and they’re trying to assimilate an American culture. But you know ALL of our ancestors came from somewhere else."
I mentioned that my ancestors had come straight from Italy, and Paxton turned to Arkin:
"You ever been out to Ellis Island - they've kind of turned it into like a museum."
"Yes, I did, I did a documentary out there, very cool." Paxton continued on enthusiastically. "What always killed me were those, the, you know, they’d come in and someone’d say 'What’s your family name?' and they’d say 'Lajinsky'. And they go, 'Okay, you’re - you’re uh, Jones now!' and that whole lineage, whole ancestries are just completely-- "wiped out?" offered Arkin dryly. After some more good-natured bantering about the nature of being an immigrant without papers, we finally talked about the movie...for a little while, anyway.
You’re at points in your careers where you have the ability to pick and choose exactly what you want--
Arkin: We have the ability to pick and choose?
I mean, what was it about this film that made you say, “Yes, this is the one I want to do next?”
Arkin: That’s true and that’s not true. Actors like to affect that myth but it’s not… Unless you’re Tom Cruise… Nobody, nobody gets to pick and choose, I mean Tom Cruise gets to pick and choose as long as he’s doing the guy from Mission: Impossible or some variation of that.
As long as he's just being Tom Cruise, basically.
Arkin: Yeah! Yeah! I mean, it’s in much tighter boundaries than--
At this point, Paxton cut in to defend Cruise's honor: Tom’s done other things. You got to see him in Tropic Thunder...I've got to jump in to his defense there because how about Magnolia? But it’s also kind of what the, you’re right, what the market will bear.
Arkin: The force of exceptions are like - Scarlet Johansson seems to be doing everything she wants to do in every genre, but she’s tempering that by making sure she’s doing a lot of highly commercial offerings.
She's riding that Marvel train but getting off now and then.
Arkin: Yeah, so I don’t know whose got that luxury really. I certainly don’t. I never have. I take the best thing that’s offered to me. The only thing that I can pride myself on is that - and I know a lot of actors in my category and even a lot more famous than me get terrified of not working for a period. They don’t know what to do with their lives. I don’t have any trouble. I can go the for the rest of my life again without working again and still be able to fill my day up with stuff that interested me without panicking.
Paxton: Death of a thousand paper-cuts!
Arkin: What do you mean?
Paxton: I get it. I got it. I need the action.
Arkin: Yeah, I don’t need it. I used to but I don’t anymore.
Paxton: Yeah, you know what I’m talking about.
Go crazy if you’re left to your own devices?
Paxton: Oh, good lord, yeah.
Arkin: I don’t need that anymore. I feel like I've been freed of something.
Paxton: I still need it… But that’s good, that’s good!
So what was it that truly drew you both to this movie?
Arkin: I was moved, I was just moved by it. I was moved by the script. I said earlier, something has got to have four elements in it that attract me and I don’t care what the ratios to those elements are as long as they add up to a hundred: The Part. The Script. The director and the people I am going to be working with, the actors I’m going to be working with. Now that’s got to add up to a hundred, and I almost don’t care in what ratio. Now, if it’s Jean Renoir directing it then I don’t give a damn about the script, or the other actors, or what my part is - I’ll sweep his floors. If it’s uhhh, you know, it varies in those ways.
Paxton: I didn’t know [director] Craig Gillespie. I didn’t have a chance to. When I got cast, I got cast late. These guys were already in India filming. I knew his movie Lars and the Real Girl which I thought was kind of a great sensitivity and unusual story so it was the script that brought me onboard. I was just moved, it had a quintessential kind of essence that was - What am I trying to say? Trying to get all articulate. But um, I just liked the story. Great human interest story and I loved the fish out of water. The culture shock of these innocent boys. I like John Hamm being a schmuck! Who goes over there - he’s going to be the schmuck who ends up getting some, some kind of enlightenment through the course of the story. But I was really moved by the boys. Really, I like the JB Bernstein, I like the idea of that but I think it’s the boys journey to America that really kicks it into high gear.
Arkin: Yeah, that was the heart and soul of the film for me.
Paxton: And then Pitobash who plays the interpreter, when I got to the scene when, when he goes out to give the boys to give the boys a pep talk that, that was the closer for me! I was enjoying the script, I was enjoying it and then I got to that and I was sold. I was a little uncomfortable by even the thought of me trying to play somebody who’s a master teacher of professional baseball. But now, but now I have a whole new appreciation for what, for what’s going on on the pitchers mound that I never had before.
So were you a baseball fan before, or did you have to pick it up?
Paxton: Oh, I was a baseball fan when I grew up, God, I don’t think anybody’s not a baseball fan that grows up in this country.
At this point, I mention I'm a long-time (and long-suffering) Pirates fan and Paxton starts to laugh: Well, have you seen - there’s a great thing. If you haven’t seen this then I have to turn you onto it, but speaking of the Pirates, there was a great pitcher back in the day named Doc Ellis and I think this was in the early ‘70s. He pitched a perfect game completely high on LSD and they, these guys, it was something he never talked about but after he retired he gave a very candid interview and these animators took the audio from the interview and they animated it. It’s a three minute film that I have got to show you. It is, it is absolutely outrageous! It’s the coolest thing to go on YouTube, it’s called 'Doc Ellis and the LSD No-No.' It’s maybe the coolest thing I ever saw on YouTube.
Arkin: Really? I've got to write that down!
Paxton: And they took the audio from the interview and they animated it and it’s genius.
But you're right, baseball is just one of those sports that is universal, you know?
Paxton: I like the way fans support their baseballs teams through the good and bad years. I mean, think of how long the Mets had that support before they won the series. I grew up - the Yankees dominated when I was a boy. And I liked the Yankees. I thought the uniforms were cool and the guys like Mickey Mantel, I had all their baseball cards. I got to meet Mickey Mantel when I was about eleven. My dad took me to a Yankees game. We went to New York and we stayed at the mid-town Hilton. We were there and he rented a car called a Mustang, the first Mustang - a red Mustang, this was 1964 and he was taking us to the World’s Fair out in Queens and we also took in a game at the old Yankee stadium. And I took my son when he was a little boy to a game there before they tore it down.
Arkin: I grew up where I could hear the games at Ebbets Field. Where the Brooklyn Dodgers would play. I used to go asleep listening to the night games and people screaming.
But I lost interest in baseball when the Dodgers left Brooklyn. That was the end of baseball for me.
Paxton: Theres something nice about listening to a baseball game on the radio, even still. I find it, weirdly comforting. It’s a sport where you can go, even attending a game - it’s really nice. I remember when I took my son to this game years ago it was still sunlight and as we were there the evening came on and, you know, you could have a conversation and then whoa, something happens!
Arkin: Yes, something calming and gentle about seeing all those guys patting each other on the a**. His face was wryly amused and I snickered as Paxton shot him a look. "Well, I love it."
[Million Dollar Arm](movie:397703) is in theaters today.