Getting the part of Jess in ‘A League of Their Own’ was like a home run for Canada’s Kelly McCormack

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In baseball terms, Kelly McCormack booking the role of Jess McCready — the “wildly chain-smoking, spitting, gnarly shortstop” in Prime Video’s “A League of Their Own” — was the equivalent of hitting a home run in her first at bat.

The Canadian actor had just moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 2019 and the first audition sent by her new manager was for the TV version of the beloved 1992 movie about a team in the wartime All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

As soon as McCormack read a description of Jess, “I thought, ‘Who else is going to play this part?’ And that’s not because of ego or cockiness” — in fact, McCormack said she was “swimming in a pool of self-doubt” — “it was just, ‘This is me. I’m gonna do that.’ ”

She explained that she’s “excited about characters that live outside the various mainstream ideas of femininity, where their vocation and their passion are the most prevalent aspect of who they are as people.”

“After I booked (‘A League of Their Own’) there was a lot of ‘Her batting average is incredible,’ like one for one,” McCormack added during an interview at a Toronto hotel.

Sticking with the baseball analogy, McCormack really impressed the coaches, i.e. series creators Abbi Jacobson and Will Graham — not least because she created a 40-page biography for Jess and sent them videos of baseball plays she practised on weekends to incorporate into the show.

“I was just sort of wowed by her,” said Jacobson, who also stars in the series, in a video interview. “As we went through the process of production, as an actor I feel like I learned so much from Kelly.”

“She’s amazing,” added Graham.

McCormack has drawn kudos on this side of the border for characters like tough hockey player Betty-Anne in “Letterkenny” and science nerd Zeph in “Killjoys.” She has also written several films of her own, including the award-winning “Sugar Daddy.”

But now she’s gaining notice in a highly anticipated TV series that, as of Friday, is being seen in 240 countries and territories.

Jacobson (“Broad City”) and Graham (“Mozart in the Jungle”) said their aim in rethinking one of the most beloved sports films of all time was to tell stories the movie didn’t tell.

Those include the stories of Black players barred from the league — represented in the show by pitcher Max (Chanté Adams) — and queer players, of whom there were many, albeit closeted.

For McCormack, 31, it was important not just to tell queer stories but to tell them as commonplace narratives that weren’t about hardship.

“There were times on set where we were kind of, as one does when they internalize years of homophobia and misogyny … ‘Is this show, are we making it too gay?’ And then we were like, what an absurd thing because no one ever questions — I mean, I do question — the hegemonic love interest stories between a man and a woman. And I’m hoping that the way we presented these gay narratives, straight people can see themselves in those stories because we’ve been asked to see ourselves in straight narratives for so long.”

It’s ironic that McCormack’s way into acting was through an art form that has traditionally adhered to rigid heterosexual gender roles: musical theatre.

She was seven when her mother took her to the Harold Prince revival of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical “Show Boat” in Vancouver.

“I had never seen a play or a musical before, and Lonette McKee walked out in the second act, sat on a chair and sang the song ‘Bill,’ which I think is one of the most exquisite pieces of music ever written.

“And I had a seven-year-old panic attack, like my hair was standing up, I was sweating,” McCormack recalled. “And in that moment there was nothing that was gonna get in my way of being onstage.”

She immediately demanded her mother enrol her in acting and singing lessons. “All I ever wanted to do was be on Broadway.”

Kelly McCormack as Jess McCready in A League of Their Own.

McCormack did get to New York eventually, where she joined the experimental Flea Theater company.

“It really wasn’t until I moved to Toronto about seven or eight years ago that I started making films myself and then working in film, but I never anticipated that. I really just wanted to be like a full experimental theatre nerd, musical theatre nerd, opera (nerd).”

But whether it’s TV, film, theatre or music (she’s working on an album), “at the end of the day, it’s just storytelling and I’m addicted to it.”

It’s also key that whatever job she takes “is trying to push things forward on behalf of women, which are my muse, my religion, my love. So the idea that I got to play this, like, cool, swaggering … shortstop and got to be in a show that was politically so in the right direction, I mean it feels very surreal.”

McCormack is also stoked that Jess is from Moose Jaw, Sask., which was her idea.

Not only were there lots of Canadian women in the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, begun in 1943 to keep Major League Baseball fans entertained while male players were away in the Second World War, Moose Jaw was a relatively open-minded city.

Though surrounded by farmland, the city was involved in bootlegging during Prohibition, had lots of brothels and bars, and even held a lesbian parade in the ’40s, McCormack said.

She described Jess as “a farm boy,” but doesn’t necessarily see the character as non-binary. “There (are) people who maybe don’t want to identify as anything; they just want to be themselves and maybe be a ballplayer or an artist in my case.”

Jess is a member of the Rockford Peaches, the most successful team in the real league, which was also the focus of the film “A League of Their Own.”

Luckily, McCormack didn’t have to fudge during her audition when asked if she played baseball. She did play growing up, along with volleyball, a little hockey, and was a nationally competitive synchronized swimmer.

But all of the TV Peaches trained for a couple of months with players like pitcher Kelsie Whitmore, catcher Beth Greenwood and Justine Siegal, the first female coach of a professional men’s team.

And yes, McCormack and Lena Park, the series’ baseball co-ordinator, would spend time between shoots videotaping plays to show to Graham and Jacobson and the director of photography.

“By the end of it, (the cast) were just like ball players who happen to have to act,” McCormack said.

“I’m hoping that in the second season, fingers crossed, we get to do a lot more baseball.”

“A League of Their Own” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Debra Yeo is a deputy editor and a contributor to the Star’s Entertainment section. She is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @realityeo

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