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Q&A with Johnny Simmons

The star of movie 'The Phenom' talks baseball, training, and his unconventional workouts.

In the new movie The Phenom, up-and-coming actor Johnny Simmons plays Hooper Gibson, a pitching prodigy who skips college to play major league baseball. But when he loses control of his pitches, he gets demoted to the minors and starts seeing a sports psychologist (Paul Giamatti). It's during these sessions that Gibson uncovers that his issues stem from his upbringing and his dad (Ethan Hawke). "This isn't so much a typical baseball movie," Simmons says, "but more of a film that looks at someone who's struggling and how he overcomes it." The movie premiered earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, and hits select theaters and VOD on June 24.

It's interesting how this movie takes a look at the psychological side of sports.

I didn’t actually know the extent to which this existed. But it's based on actual factual information from real players who had this same struggle, and many times it’s hard for them to recover from it. I think that baseball is especially a sport that projects this very macho persona and they don’t talk about these types of things. That was one of the main reasons I liked this project so much. 

Did you have prior experience playing baseball?

I played a little baseball, but not enough to know anything about this side of it. But I did have a great coach, Kenny, who taught me a lot. By the end of the filming, I was throwing 70 mile an hour fastballs, and I learned how to control the ball. It was really fun. I still can’t believe that was my job.

Right. Because it’s important to look like you’re a phenomenal pitcher.

Yeah, that was certainly my goal—to not have stand-ins come in and pitch. I think we got pretty close to that. I got as close as I could within the two or three months leading up to the filming.

Any interesting stories from your training?

It gave me a whole new respect for pitchers. Now I know why they go home and put their arms in buckets of ice. Putting your arm in a bucket of ice doesn’t sound like a very enjoyable experience, but now I know why that feels comfortable.

You were a football player in another film, right?

I was, in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. What’s up with all these sports roles?

And now you’re portraying a baseball player. Which sport is harder?

I think baseball, because I actually had to learn how to throw the ball. Our director, Noah [Buschel], really wanted me to learn how to throw it. You’ll have to watch the movie to see whether or not I actually accomplished that. But I feel good about it. On one of those takes on The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I ran to the wrong side of the field. And this was in front of about 500 extras. So that was embarrassing. But I still think baseball was harder. 

If you could be any kind of athlete in another movie, what would you be?

I wouldn’t mind doing baseball again. I’d love to get another chance to pitch, now knowing what I learned. Football was fun, but you have to be built a certain way, especially if you’re going to play at that level. I think I’d just get better at baseball. 

What’s a typical workout for you? When you’re not training for a role?

Netflix and Papa Johns. That’s my general workout. It’s intense and the recovery time is generally pretty long. [Laughs]

This interview has been condensed and edited.