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After almost passing on role, failed baseball prospect shines in Sugar


The Americans on the other end of the line told the Dominican infielder that -- out of the hundreds they'd scouted -- he was The One. They told him that he would travel to the United States, that he would have his shot at potential fame, possible fortune. As a kid growing up on the outskirts of the baseball mecca of San Pedro de Macorís, Algenis Pérez Soto had always longed to hear those words, but he figured they would have come from the mouths of baseball scouts, not filmmakers.

But there was one problem: After moviemakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck called to tell Pérez Soto he'd won the starring role in their new movie Sugar, they didn't think he wanted it. Boden and Fleck had sat through 600 auditions for the lead role of Miguel "Sugar" Santos, a Dominican pitcher trying to lift his family out of the depths of poverty with his knuckle curve. They'd watched -- amazed and saddened -- as they handed out the script to some of the young Dominicans auditioning, only to learn that they couldn't read, not even in their native language. And of those who could, some spouted out the stage directions and character names along with the dialogue, not knowing how a script should be read. And after all of the hours of auditioning, all those clamoring for the part, they'd picked the one who didn't seem to want it?

"I really wasn't interested," Pérez Soto said of when his older brother, Ángel, mentioned a movie audition. At 23, he had long since abandoned his dream of playing baseball as a career, but not as a hobby. That's why Pérez Soto shirked the audition Ángel had arranged, opting to be "a good Dominican," he says, by playing a pick-up baseball game scheduled for the same time instead. But by dint of fate or a small island -- take your pick -- Boden and Fleck's casting call was across the street from Pérez Soto's game. Boden and Fleck, who were looking anywhere and everywhere for their Miguel, simply shifted their audition to the field and stumbled across their no-show. Ángel scolded his brother for failing to show up, and the shamed Pérez Soto approached the moviemakers, who asked if he wanted to be an actor. "Yeah, of course," he told them. "But I just said that because I thought that was exactly what they wanted to hear," he says now, "but I really wasn't interested in being an actor because being an actor was something out of my world."

Impressed with his expressive eyes and ballplayer's body, they handed him a scene and asked him to return the next day. That night Pérez Soto studied the scene, one in which Miguel asks a Puerto Rican carpenter who has come to his aid who his favorite baseball player is.

"Jose Canseco," his sister, Omayra, read from the script (playing the part of the carpenter).

"Is that the best you can do?" Pérez Soto recited from the page.

But as he read through the lines, soon it wasn't just Miguel asking that question of the carpenter, it was Pérez Soto asking that of himself. By the end of the night, he'd committed not just his lines to memory, but himself to the project. "I went to the audition with another mind," he says. "I was already getting involved in this. In that moment, I wanted to be in this."

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When he arrived the next day for his second audition, Boden and Fleck -- who earned critical acclaim for their debut film, Half Nelson, and an Oscar nomination for star Ryan Gosling -- were struck by Pérez Soto's skillful storytelling and quite confidence. "He is so expressive without doing anything at all," Boden says of Pérez Soto, the 452nd person to audition. "He just didn't seem like he was trying to impress us with anything," Fleck adds.

Convinced that they'd found their Miguel, Boden called Pérez Soto to tell him what she thought was the good news. What she heard on the other end of the phone, however, was a quiet, seemingly disinterested acceptance. "I was excited, but I was skeptical," Pérez Soto says. "I don't want to get so excited so that they could call me back and say, 'Oh, sorry, we found another guy. Sorry about that.' "

On the Third World island, many promises are as empty as wallets. Pérez Soto didn't expect a thing. But when the film crew showed up, cameras in tow, the former aspiring baseball player with zero acting experience was memorizing his lines, and in some cases, improving them. Boden, Fleck and Pérez Soto went through the script, line by line, to ensure that the language matched a 19-year-old Dominican's linguistic tendencies. "For example," Pérez Soto says referencing some of the movie's Spanish dialogue, "a boy like [Miguel] doesn't use the word bonita, we say 'heavy.' "

It isn't just improvements in language but conveyance of emotion where Pérez Soto shines. With his heavy-lidded eyes, he communicates the cultural dislocation Miguel feels when shipped off to Single-A ball in Iowa and the wide-eyed amazement at the discovery of the hotel minibar and adult movies on-demand.

The same attention to detail that Boden and Fleck paid to exacting the language of the film, they paid the precision of the game. They enlisted the help of 1990 World Series MVP José Rijo (and, no, the irony that they worked with Rijo, who is under federal investigation to see if he exploited baseball players in his native land, is not lost on the filmmakers). Rijo helped teach Pérez Soto, who had never pitched, proper mechanics. "Some people thought I did a good job because I was a baseball player," Pérez Soto says, "but [pitching] was one of the tougher parts of the movie for me."

Pérez Soto eventually mastered Miguel's biting curve -- the pitches filmed are the pitches he threw -- and he is now, in baseball parlance, a free agent. He lives outside of Boston now, watching his DVD collection of Prison Break, in order to improve his already proficient English and study the acting on screen.

"Now this is my dream to become an actor," he says.

He doesn't have any projects in the works, but his understated performance has garnered unanimous praise, even from some of the toughest critics. "David Ortiz, Pedro Martínez, they thought it was good," he says. "They think there's a second part. I said, 'No, there's not a second part. All those guys who play baseball, they don't have a second opportunity to come back.' "

But for a prospect who never made it, baseball may not have offered a second chance, but life offered a second act.