AUSTINITE MIGUEL SALAS, A FORMER college and high school baseball player, decided to give acting a try and found himself in the dugout for three months with Dennis Quaid in the Walt Disney film The Rookie. The 23-year-old rubbed elbows with director John Lee Hancock (who wrote the original script for A Perfect World), actor Jay Hernandez (Crazy/Beautiful), producer Mark Johnson (Rain Man and The Natural), and Jim Morris (the film is based on his life). Salas was served gourmet lunches everyday on the set and at the end of the shoot walked away with a Screen Actor’s Guild card in his wallet. Salas talked to Texas Monthly about the pop flys and grounders of acting in a big studio film and Hollywood’s usage of the word “next.” Where and how did you audition?
Miguel Salas: I auditioned at a hotel in Austin. About a thousand people came to the casting call. Basically we just waited in line for about an hour. A bunch of people were in a room, and in the center of the room toward the front was a table with two people who were taking interviews. The interviews were thirty seconds with each person. They’d call a person up to the table, size him up, just look at him, and ask him a few questions about his baseball experience. Some people auditioning were aspiring actors. One of the two interviewers would ask about baseball experience. A person who waited for an hour to get this little thirty-second interview would say that he wasn’t a baseball player but had done several movies. One of the two interviewers would tell him that they were only looking for baseball players and say, “Next!” What was the procedure when you finally made it to the table?
MS: They had us fill out baseball résumés while we waited. When I got up there, I handed it to them, and they looked it over quickly and asked me about my two years playing ball in Kingsville. They asked me why I only played for two years and asked if I had been injured. I said that I had not been injured but had decided to go to UT-Austin to business school. They asked me what position I played in high school, and I told them I had played shortstop. They asked me what position I preferred, shortstop or outfield. In college I played outfield. I was really kind of hesitant, because I didn’t know what they were looking for. I stammered, and they asked me if I could play shortstop, and I told them yes. They said that was great because they needed shortstops. They told me they would see me on Saturday at the tryout. They took a Polaroid picture of me and said, “Next!” Where was the second round of auditions held? How long did the entire process take?
MS: Out of the thousand from the casting call, roughly five hundred people were asked to the tryout at Dell Diamond. It was a three-day tryout in early March of 2001. The tryouts lasted about three or four hours each day. They’d stick a number on your chest and divide everyone into pitchers, outfielders, and infielders. Then you just sat around and waited for them to call your number. When they finally called your number, you’d go up there and get three ground balls and three throws to first, and then they’d say, “Next.” Were all of the tryouts at the same location?
MS: All of the tryouts were at the Dell Diamond. They chose sixty people out of the five hundred. They divided the sixty of us into two groups: high school players and professional players. I got put with the high school players because I look young. The decision was based solely on looks; it didn’t have to do with skill. There were about forty high school players and twenty professional players, and we would practice. After about three practices, they picked the Owl players. There were five Owl players chosen. [Dennis Quaid is the coach for the Owls.] The rest played guys on the other team. Did Jim Morris play a role in deciding the cast members since this story was based upon his life as a coach and a Major League player?
MS: No. A couple of guys work only on sports movies: Mark Ellis (Varsity Blues and Any Given Sunday) and Bill Landrum (former pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, the Chicago Cubs, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Montreal Expos). Mark Ellis was really good and knew what he was looking for—athletes. He turned down some people just because they looked too old or they didn’t “look” like ball players. Some guys would walk up with long hair, and he would look at them and tell them that they didn’t look like a ball player and then say “Next!” He was brutally honest. The thing about people in the film industry is that when they pick individuals, they’re brutally honest, but once a person is chosen and out there, everyone is so Hollywood. They say things like, “love ya babe.” It seems so unreal. I know you had lines in the movie. Did they hold separate auditions for speaking parts?
MS: No, they didn’t tell us we were going to have lines; we were just expecting to go do our scenes and not talk and just do our baseball thing. About ten minutes before the scene, they came up to us and told us that in the scene they wanted us to walk up to Dennis Quaid and say, “It’s your turn, coach.”
I had another line during the championship game. They didn’t tell me what to say, they just put the camera on me and told me to start speaking infield chatter. Since I have done it before when I played baseball, I knew what to do. For about a minute, they had the camera on me, and for that one minute I was saying everything possible. They chose the line: “It’s a long strike, Rudy.” After the cast was chosen, did you practice together before the filming began?
MS: We’d have practice over at St. Michael’s baseball field two or three times a week for the first three or four weeks. They would have the scenes drawn on giant cue cards that showed us how they wanted the scene to be done. After a couple weeks of practice, they would just call out a number, say scene three, and we would already know what we were supposed to do. We’d know that scene three was a ground ball to the shortstop or something. At practice it was just Landrum, Ellis, and the players. Was Jim Morris on the set?
MS: I actually talked to him. He went out to the set a few times. He’s a big guy. He was just as in awe as we were. He was like a kid in a candy store. He seemed to be having a good time out there and couldn’t believe they were doing a movie on his life. How realistic did he find Hollywood’s rendition of his story?
MS: He told me it was really accurate, including the conversations on the bench that the coach has with his team. There was a conversation, which served as the turning point of the movie, where the coach tells his team not to quit on their dreams and they ask the coach about quitting on his dream of joining the majors. Morris said that whole conversation really happened. Where was most of the filming done and how much of your time was involved?
MS: Most of the filming was done in Thorndale. If you go past Hutto and through Rockdale, you’ll hit Thorndale. It is northeast of Austin. All of the action scenes for the baseball team were filmed in Thorndale at the Thorndale High School baseball field. We also filmed out in Del Valle. There was an old run-down school that wasn’t in use, which we used for the locker room scenes. I worked from early March to early June. I had to go to the set about three days a week. Did you live out there for three months?
MS: No. I would have to be there at six-thirty in the morning, and it was an hour away. I would wake up at five in the morning and drive over there, and we would film until it got dark, which was about seven-thirty or so. I wasn’t getting home until about nine o’clock at night. You know, waking up everyday at five and getting home at nine—it was really hard for me, especially since I was still in school. I didn’t realize how demanding an actor’s life is. Were you compensated for this?
MS: I got a little more than $4,000. They would pay us a little more if we did really well during our scene, or if we were the focal point of the camera. There is a scene where I am at bat and I hit the ball to the shortstop. He jumps up, grabs it, and throws it to second base. That scene was off of a live pitcher; it was pretty hard to do. I did it, and they gave me an extra $200 for that day. How many takes on average were done until the director was satisfied?
MS: Some of the takes, something easy like throws, were finished right away. The one I had was to hit a line drive at the shortstop, and that one took twenty different pitches. If I was able to hit a line drive to the shortstop every time, I would be playing in the major leagues. It’s hard to do that with a live pitcher. What did you do in your spare time while you were on the set?
MS: I brought my books and studied between scenes. Or I would find a shady spot or a bench in the dugout and sleep. Some people played cards. Where there any perks?
MS: We became SAG [Screen Actors Guild] eligible, and I hear that’s pretty hard to do. They fed us really well. Everyday there was a huge buffet. I mean we had swordfish and grilled shrimp everyday for lunch. For breakfast, you could order whatever you wanted. You could order French toast, waffles, or omelets. There was this big guy named Tiny, and he cooked the best omelets. What was Dennis Quaid like on and off of the set?
MS: He didn’t interact with us. He’s a chain smoker. He’d put his cigarette down to hit golf balls. He practiced his chip shots. He wasn’t very talkative to the rest of us, but he did know what he was doing out there. He’s really good at what he does.
This lady came up to the dugout during one of the breaks of a scene and asked for his autograph. We were expecting him to be distant, because that is how he had been to everybody else. The lady was good-looking and asked if she could have an autograph for her daughter, and all of a sudden Dennis Quaid got really nice and said, “Sure, no problem. Where do you want me to sign it?” She then asked, “Oh, can my other daughter have one too?” And Dennis Quaid said again, “Oh, sure. No problem.” She walked away, and he turned to us in the dugout with this smirk on his face and said, “Chicks dig me.” We all started laughing.