Q&A with Ethan Hawke and Paul Giamatti of The Phenom
SI recently sat down with Ethan Hawke and Paul Giamatti, stars of The Phenom, to talk about their new sports film, which tells the story of Hopper Gibson, a major league rookie pitcher pushed by his abusive ex-con father (Hawke) and sent to an unorthodox sports therapist (Giamatti) after he chokes on the mound. The conversation ran into extra innings, ranging from topics on whether the former Oscar nominees have a shot at being SI swimsuit models and how, if acting was a sport, it would be baseball. Phenom opens in theaters nationwide on June 24.
SI: Is The Phenom a sports movie?
PG: I didn’t necessarily think of it as a baseball movie. Yes, it’s about baseball but it could be about a concert pianist or an artist or an actor.
EH: And that’s what makes sports so beautiful. At their finest, they represent something that we all relate to. That’s why we love to see Muhammad Ali succeed and excel. It makes us see the possibility for success in ourselves, right?
SI: What was it like growing up with baseball commissioners in your family? (Paul’s father, Bart Giamatti was the commission of Major League Baseball for 5 months until his death in 1989. Hawke’s grandfather, Howard Green, was the commissioner of multiple minor baseball leagues in Texas.)
EH: When I would go to baseball games with my grandfather, everybody would know him at the door. We didn’t have to worry about getting tickets.
PG: I remember going down to the field with him to see if it was too wet to play a playoff game and everybody had cameras around him and I was like, ‘Holy s---, this is wild.’ So I mean that kind of entrée was crazy. But my dad also was super philosophical about the game so I got a lot of that even from a young age, that it was a divine very special sort of place.
SI: Does baseball hold a special place in your hearts?
EH: One thing that is wonderful about baseball more than other sports is that it lends itself to philosophy. There’s something Zen about the game.
PG: And it’s open. It’s weird the way it’s configured—there’s not two sides at each other. And there’s all that time.
EH: The fact that the game has no relationship to time is so interesting. Basketball’s 48 minutes, football, they’re all based on the clock. So in theory, you could be down 200 runs in the ninth inning and it’s possible you could win.
PG: That’s the other thing, is that it changes on a dime in a way that other sports don’t quite. There’s always this push and pull.
EH: If you’re up 20 points in a basketball game with four minutes left, you’re going to win the game. Baseball? Eh, maybe.
PG: And you get to study these guys way more intently than other athletes who are covered up or moving too fast but in baseball you can actually look at these dudes.
EH: I remember once when Mariano Rivera came out, it was the year of September 11th, and everyone was really pulling for the Yankees and he came out in the 8th and he didn’t look like himself. He was chewing a piece of gum a little too hard. The pressure, all that 9/11 stuff, you felt for the first time burden. And he blew it. I saw Rivera get ready, when he picked up his mitt to walk out. I was like, ‘Oh! He doesn’t want to be going out there right now.’
PG: You can really see that, in their whole body.
EH: You have no idea how Peyton Manning really feels when he’s taking the field. Is he hurt, is he not hurt? They’re all bundled up.
PG: And hockey players are moving so fast and they’re covered up, you can’t tell.
SI: What were defining sports moments for you growing up?
PG: The Bill Buckner thing is a huge thing with me. I was in a room full of Mets fans in college and there was one other guy who was a Red Sox fan and the interesting thing about that game was, it was when they brought Bob Stanley out. He was a really good relief pitcher but he would choke at weird times and everybody hated him. And I remember, they brought Bob Stanley out and the other Red Sox guy just got up and walked out of the room. Because he knew it was over. Because Bob Stanley was going to f--- it up. And Bob Stanley did f--- it up. And so to this day…I remember Bob Stanley almost better than Bill Buckner.
EH: My defining sports moment, I thought you had meant a moment in which we participated, and I remember going to this Pop Warner football banquet at the end of the season in seventh grade. Somebody had to speak for the team. So I got up and I gave a speech about the season and I came back and sat down at the table. And my mother said, “Why did they let you speak? You don’t even start.’” And I said, “I was the only one who wanted to!” That’s when my mother said, ”Something tells me he might have a different future than football.’
SI: If you were a pro athlete what sport would you play?
PG: Hockey. I could never do it but I just love watching hockey. It looks like a f------ blast. Oh my god, it just looks like so much fun.
EH: Yes! I just want to skate into somebody and vrooooom!
PG: Totally. I just want to slam into somebody. That would be amazing.
EH: I just don’t want them to do it to me. I definitely have always dreamed of playing basketball. I love basketball so much. When they pass well–there’s this strange phenomenon that a really great pass makes the shot more accurate. It’s a sense of flow. It’s like jazz or something where one person’s doing well helps the other person to do well. It’s really exciting to watch.
SI: What are your sports fan personalities, do you always root for the underdog?
EH: This year the Raptors were having a little bit of choke problem and whenever I watch a human being struggle with their confidence like that I really immediately start rooting for them. I think we all relate to it. And nothing made me happier than watching Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan take off and start to be themselves. Because when the pressure gets high we love to see human beings shine.
PG: I don’t feel that way the Yankees this year, watching them choke all over the place though. I kind of feel some schadenfreude. But it’s weird to watch them stumbling along.
EH: I have a pathological problem, which is that I spent the great majority of Michael Jordan’s career rooting against him. Only when he retired did I realize, ‘Wow, he was fun to watch!’ And when Lebron was the favorite, kicking ass at Miami, I always rooted for every team against him and now that he’s an underdog, I’m sleepless worrying, hoping that he has a good game. I want him to win it for Cleveland.
PG: I’m disappointed in the Cubs, actually. I used to like the Cubs. I don’t like them this year because they’re real good. No — not really, but it’s funny watching them rise up. I’m a little less interested.
SI: As an actor, performing for an audience, do you have a lens into what an athlete’s life might be like in the arena or on the mound?
PG: Yes, I don’t think it’s that different.
EH: I think it’s very similar but I find it more relaxing to watch because…
PG: They’re so f------ good.
PG: I get more nervous watching an actor and thinking he’s going to f--- it up.
EH: “Ugh, he’s gonna f--- it up. Why is he blowing this script? What an idiot.”
PG: “Jeez, do I have to watch this guy do this?”
EH: “Yeah, now I have to work with him next year, I’m going to have to tell him he did a good job? Ughh.”
PG: If I’m going to watch LeBron James, I know it’s going to be fine. It will be super entertaining.
SI: He might say the same about watching you guys.
PG: You think he would?! Would you ask him what he thinks of me? I’d like to know what LeBron James thinks of me.
Ethan Hawke: So what’s it like as a woman writing at such a male-based magazine?
SI: Actually, there’s a lot more women working at SI than you’d probably guess. Not including when SI Swimsuit models come in for castings.
EH: Do we have a shot?
PG: At being swimsuit models?
EH: Yeah. I’m just saying. Do we have a shot?
SI: We do a celebrity body paint spread in the Swimsuit issue every year. Maybe you guys could do that.
The Phenom is available on VOD and in the iTunes store starting Friday, June 24