It can be hard to be The Natural. The hot prospect with the dynamite arm. The guy who lands sports magazine covers his first season out. The one pegged for greatness.
Locally filmed “The Phenom” explores the grueling rigor that can be necessary to turn a Little League standout into a future All Star, and the psychological demons that can follow a hyped young pitcher to the mound.
Actor Johnny Simmons wasn’t a huge baseball fan before he signed on to play Hopper Gibson, a highly touted rookie pitcher sent down to the minors when he suddenly can’t seem to find the strike zone. The complex relationships between Hopper and his overbearing father (Ethan Hawke) and nurturing counselor (Paul Giamatti) drew Simmons to the project.
“It started with the script, then I sat down with the director,” he said during an interview. “I just loved the idea that I would get to uncover what would happen to these athletes.”
The movie, out now in theaters and on demand, was filmed here at locations including Coolray Field, home of the Gwinnett Braves.
“This was my intro for baseball,” said Simmons, who worked with a coach to adopt the pitcher’s stance. “Watching a baseball game is now totally different. I now love the game of baseball whereas I didn’t find it that fascinating before. I really didn’t understand it.”
Working with Hawke and Giamatti, both Oscar nominees, was a treat.
“I watched both of these guys growing up and also coming up as an actor,” said Simmons, whose screen credits include “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “21 Jump Street.” “I just really loved their work as well as who they are as people. Luckily for me, they were really cool and kind.”
He developed an empathy for baseball players while working on “The Phenom.”
“Acting is probably a lot like sports — a lot of it is psychological,” he said. “You do all this preparation. A lot of the job plays right between the ears.”