Kurt Warner needed belief to become the proud owner of a Super Bowl ring, two Super Bowl MVP awards, and one of the NFL’s most unlikely success stories. At times, belief in himself and the belief of those around him was all he had as he worked in a grocery store, waiting for his NFL dream to come true.
The events that led to his meteoric rise in the NFL, via a $5.50 an hour job and the Arena Football League (AFL), are played out in the new movie American Underdog, which arrives in theaters on Christmas Day.
Shazam! star Zachary Levi has the honor of playing the Hall of Famer but his co-star Anna Paquin has an equally as important role.
American Underdog is more family drama than sports biopic, with Paquin playing Kurt’s wife Brenda Warner, whom Kurt credits with helping him achieve his sporting ambitions.
Kurt, alongside Brenda, admitted to Newsweek that ahead of production he was worried about ‘Hollywood taking creative license’ and ‘changing the story’ but he needn’t have been. « We don’t think that the events needed to be dramatized to make it a great story, » he says. « I feel like they did complete justice to the story. »
When it came to casting the younger versions of themselves, they were both thrilled with the choices—eventually.
After finding out who’d be playing him, Kurt invited his doppelganger, Levi to his house in order to vet him, but luckily it turned out they shared a lot of the same beliefs. « He [Levi] came out to spend a few days with us and it was very evident early on that we had a lot of the same values and that he believed in a lot of the same things. He’s just a good quality person who loves people and has great charisma. »
Levi wasn’t the only one under inspection ahead of the movie, as Brenda had to make sure Australian Oscar-winner Anna Paquin was up to the task of playing her. « I saw a strong woman, I saw a sassy woman, » Brenda told Newsweek of her FaceTime meetings with Paquin. « I saw a woman that’s honest and bold and will fight, just by the way that she would pose questions and ask me why I believe what I believe. And then throw in an Oscar, not too shabby. She’s amazing. »
« Make no mistake, we were constantly vetting them, » Kurt chimes in, « We were constantly looking on set like, ‘Are they gonna be able to pull this off?’ But they got it. »
If it sounds like Levi and Paquin were under pressure to impress the Warners, it’s because they were. Paquin admitted to Newsweek that she found the first meeting with her counterpart « nerve-wracking » while Levi found his to be « daunting with a lot of expectation. »
« If you’re Daniel Day Lewis and you’re playing Abraham Lincoln, you get a little creative liberty because nobody’s really holding you to anything other than a photograph, » Levi tells Newsweek, « But when you’re bringing to life someone who is alive, and they’re on television regularly and all over the internet, there’s an extra pressure for sure. »
While much of American Underdog focuses on Kurt and Brenda’s love story—primarily during Kurt’s years outside of professional sport—the movie also shows how Kurt was welcomed in by Brenda’s two kids from a previous marriage. « I don’t think you would be accurately telling Kurt’s story, if you didn’t acknowledge the degree to which Kurt himself credits Brenda with being the reason that he could do all of these things, » Paquin says. « It is really lovely, when you get to see the nuance and actual texture of somebody’s life outside of the thing that’s really shiny and flashy because movies don’t always focus on that. »
If Brenda wasn’t such an integral part of Kurt’s life, and therefore the movie, we probably wouldn’t have seen Paquin in it either. « To be perfectly honest, I probably wouldn’t have been particularly drawn towards the movie if the family wasn’t as well conceived but also as well represented as they are, » she says.
Movie Kurt’s story begins in college when he meets Brenda, who is already a mother to two children, one of whom, Zack, is blind after he was accidentally dropped by Brenda’s ex-husband.
« That relationship between Kurt and Zack was really the key of the whole film, » says Andrew Erwin, one half of the Erwin brothers, the co-directors of American Underdog.
Early on in their story, as Kurt is trying to court Brenda, Kurt connects with Zack on a level she’d never seen before. Young blind actor Hayden Zoller plays Zack in the movie, and he was « such a light on this film » according to the directing brothers.
Brenda says Kurt immediately melted her heart in real life when she saw the two connect. She said: « In the scene where my son Zack meets Kurt, it just reminded me of that love. It honestly changes everything. And my son being legally blind, he loves differently than I believe a sighted person. He sees their heart and when he met Kurt, that love affair started. »
The unlikely scenario that made Kurt’s story so compelling also helped him encapsulate the notion of the « American underdog, » according to the Erwin brothers. « We just bind to stories that are inspirational, motivational to us, we love to deliver hope to the audience and stories that we tell and, and we just fall in love with Kurt’s story, » John says.
Kurt went from being an NFL reject and grocery store worker to an inspirational national superstar in a matter of years. Levi feels it’s a relatable story that he parallels to his own acting career, especially in times where he’s lacked self-belief. « There have been lots of moments where I’m on my knees and really wondering like, am I trying to force a square peg into a round hole?, » Levi admits, « But by and large, you still have to have that driving force of, this is who I am. This is what I’m built for. This is what I’m meant to do, and I’m going to keep charging at it. »
As a certified NFL legend (he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017), Kurt, 50. carries an important voice in the game. So it was especially impactful when, in 2018, Kurt tweeted his support for players who chose to take the knee during the national anthem. Echoing a statement made by politician Beto O’Rourke, Kurt wrote: « He hit the nail on the head & he did so not by dividing the 2 sides but by joining them together in realizing the freedoms of our country have been forged by soldiers but also by many others who have fought in diff ways! »
Three years on from that statement on the taking of the knee—five years on from when Colin Kaepernick first made the gesture—Kurt wants people to be able to share their own beliefs without persecution and judgment.
« For me, stand for what you believe in, whatever that is. So I’m never going to criticize anyone if they feel strongly about something and for representing that. »
« To me I think the other part of it is that it opens our eyes, » Kurt continued. « I think back to those things that I said back then, I have learned so much about myself. I learned so much about those different causes. I have had my eyes opened to some of the things that go on in our society, and I’ve grown through it. And that, to me, is what that whole demonstration was about. »
« I think I’ve just embraced it more because it’s shown me some things about myself that I’ve wanted to change and I think I’ve become better through those things. So that to me is what having a voice and having a platform is all about, whether it’s standing up for social justice issues, whether it’s standing up for faith or anything in between. We’re blessed to have those platforms and use them for good. »
American Underdog is out in movie theaters in the United States from December 25.
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