"I'm Keith Hernandez": The Complete Interview Pt. 1
Illustration by Adam Walko
An interview with director Rob Perri about his film I'm Keith Hernandez for this week's print edition of Runnin' Scared had enough interesting quotes in it that we thought it would be a laugh to reprint the entire thing. It's basically a raw interview, so it rambles at times, but stick with it to read gems such as:
These guys are like blowing lines and banging chicks—and that’s baseball to me, not some pituitary case of a guy who can’t get his helmet on his head, with shrunken testicles.
VV: Tell me the genesis of the film. How did you get the idea? Are you a Mets fan, by the way?
RP: Yeah, well I’m both a Mets and Yankees fan. I grew up watching both, but I was more of a Yankees fan, and in some ways I was going against my dad, who was a die-hard Brooklyn Dodgers fan and a die-hard Mets fan. So I think a lot of the genesis of the movie… the players, whether or not they did good or bad, had an impact on his attitude, on the way he felt about the day. Like, if the Mets lost, he was a little pissed. I always found that kind of interesting, how this game—the game is kind of silly in a lot of ways—had certain impact. I played. I played baseball growing up. I enjoyed it very much, and I played really competitively up until college age. So it was things like that.
The whole genesis of the film though came from this racketball rule book that I had found digging for a racketball racket in my dad’s closet. I bought a racket for my dad, and I found this rule book that had this cover on it with a guy, a racketball player, in an action pose. Inside of the body, were all these illustrations of him winning, lifting weights, doing all these things that were like exercise-related or eating healthy, like what it would take to become this athlete. It looked very much like my friend and collaborator Adam Walko's art work. So I brought it to him, 'cause he collects all these pieces of art. So I brought it to him as a gift, and I was like 'Man, wouldn’t it be rad if there was like, instead of like swimming and all this other stuff, there was like bombs blowing up and sex and drugs, and all this stuff, like all the things we love about sports.' He was like, that would be cool, and we started throwing it around for like years, and then it sort of grew from that.
I kind of had this idea in the back of my mind, and I was thinking about [Hernandez]. Hernandez had a big impact on me when I was a kid: the way he looked, and his mustache, and he was like… He had something about him, you know? He was a really good player. But you weren’t sure if you liked him fully or not. You kind of had some reservations about him. So I [thought] That would be a really interesting study, you know? So it sort of grew out of that. So just what I remember from him, I remember some of the reasons it was like that was because, he was also known for sort of… smoking cigarettes in the dugout, and cocaine, and some of this other stuff. And it was all sort of there, but he kind of came out unscathed, and you’re like, man this guy is bad-ass, you know? He’s got two World Series rings... And he was really arrogant, really cocky, really outspoken, all these things. So putting all these things together, coming up with this picture of who this guy is… And as I was thinking about it more I was like, 'Man he’d be a great study.'
So I started doing some of my research on him and I really started to like him, because his cockiness and his arrogance and something that I didn’t like became something that I really liked about him because I found out that like, this is a guy who’s got that attitude, but he comes through. He says he’s going to do something… He told his brother he’d get that hit, and you know what, damn it, he got the fucking hit. You know what I mean? It’s that, I was like, 'I wish I could be more like that, like I wanted to say I’m going to do something and just go ahead and do it.' So I really respect that about him... that sort of machismo or alpha male kind of thing, I just thought I’d tie them all in together and make it interesting and entertaining, and see how that ties into how males view themselves, how they want to be… how it is when they look in the mirror. Are they looking at Joe Schmo who has to go to work and work some shitty job every day, and really is like fat and beer bellied and got, you know—is wearing the Hernandez jersey that’s too tight, and his jersey is busting open but it says Hernandez on the back. So I just try and tie all the things in and make it funny and make it real and really talk about some of the things that were kind of going on then and see if I could make it interesting.
VV: Why did you decide to blend in some fictional elements into the narrative? They’re very conscious…
RP: I think in today’s age it’s like, what is really real and what is… I see news things that are just totally false. And because it’s on the news people believe it. So I wanted to play with the documentary formula, and see how people would respond to that. So is this real or is that fake? Some of the things that are real, people think are fake. Some of these things that are sort of innocuous that are fake and people would think they were real just because of the way I was presenting it to them.
VV: And what about the interplay between Hernandez and Good and Strawberry? There’s kind of a sinister element to it too, you know?
RP: I think that’s really interesting. The way I feel about it, I just always pictured it that way. I just always pictured Hernandez as that guy on the team. Along with, you know… Bobby Ojeda was involved. I just know that these people were involved. You just know it, no matter what else happened. But I think it’s an interesting thing. Why is it that Hernandez comes out and stays and has a job and some of these guys are kind of in trouble now? Really what I think is that Hernandez had some people looking out for him. I think these guys were so young that they really didn’t know what the hell was going on and they didn’t have people looking out for them. What do they know, you know what I mean? They’re making a lot of money. They think it’s going to last forever. I don’t think I was trying to paint like a sinister picture there, but I wanted to get that point across that there’s casualties in this as well. That these guys were all Hall of Fame players. They’re amazing. There’s this one part in particular where like Gooden throws this twelve-to-six curve ball that’s like, “Jesus!” From behind the plate, I’m like, man that thing is nasty. That was like when he was coming off of throwing a ninety-mile-an-hour fast ball right before it. It was incredible back then. I remember watching and just being like, 'Man, this guy’s amazing.' To see him sort of go downhill is sort of sad.
VV: It’s the story about Gooden getting in more trouble.
RP: Yeah. I don’t necessarily know how I feel about that. It’s definitely not blaming Hernandez or anything like that. I just think those are some of the pitfalls of this kind of high-profile sports lifestyle, and money, and the fame, and the celebrity.… I tried to make that a part of the film that has an impact, how these guys are turning into these sort of mega stars, when really they are just playing with a ball and a stick on a field… It’s really interesting. Back in the day, the Brooklyn Dodgers, they were riding the subway to the field with the people. 'Dem Bums.' They were like part of the neighborhood. They had jobs in the off-season. Just how times have changed. Also just how cocaine and drinking and that kind of stuff—I wanted baseball to go back to that, you know? I was going through all this footage and looking at this stuff and I went to the ’82 World Series and the best hitter is Robin Yount. They guy is like 160 pounds. He is the best player, and these guys are like blowing lines and banging chicks—and that’s baseball to me, not some pituitary case of some guy who can’t get his helmet on his head, with shrunken testicles. The game doesn’t look the same to me, doesn’t feel the same. It doesn’t feel right. It feels almost wrong or strange. Some giant dude with a little toothpick in his hand is like… Not every guy who was stepping up the plate looked like that: there were a couple of big fat guys. It was a different feel. So I kind of wanted to remind myself of what I loved about baseball why it meant so much to me as a kid growing up, why it was exciting back then, because it’s a lot less exciting to me now. I wanted to make a time capsule, also, put that all together and have other people remember those times and enjoy it. And I get so much of that by seeing people watch it. They scream out. It’s the funniest thing. They see a player… They scream his name out because they remember.
(to be continued)
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