Zachary Levi on playing a true underdog

American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story
Dennis Quaid as Dick Vermeil and Zachary Levi as Kurt Warner in American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story.
Michael Kubeisy/Lionsgate

Sports movies have always been a source for inspiration, but with the latest addition to the popular genre, audiences get a peek into what makes a champion off the field.

“American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story” follows the true story of football player Kurt Warner (Zachary Levi) who went from a stock boy at a grocery store to a two-time NFL MVP, Super Bowl champion, and Hall of Fame quarterback.

How Warner achieves his dream is where the heart of this story lies. The football player makes it to the NFL, then gets rejected almost immediately. The journey back to his dream involves hard work, but not in the form of professional football or a slew of training sequences. In fact, most of the film showcases his tenacity just as a man and a father.

We see Warner swallow his pride in more ways than one to provide for his family after he meets Brenda (Anna Paquin) and her two children Zack (Hayden Zaller) and Jesse (Cora Wilkerson). Whether its running miles during a snowstorm for a tank of gas, or taking on a job in Arena League Football to provide, Warner did what he could to be a family man and a football player at the same time. And it paid off.

Star Zachary Levi sat down to talk more about why he wanted to take on the role of Kurt Warner and what he hopes people take away from the tenacity that is shown in “American Underdog.”

Why did you want to take on this role?

I was very clued in when the public-facing part of the story was happening in real-time. I was 18 or so, I had been watching football my whole life and watching this guy — a total Cinderella story — take his team to the Super Bowl, win, and take the country by storm. It was just an incredible moment and a miraculous and inspiring journey. I was very aware of it and I was a fan of Kurt’s for years since then, so when that circled back into my life and all of the sudden I’m presented with this opportunity to be him in his biopic, that was very tempting. But, ultimately, the strength of the script and the underpinnings of all of the rest of that story I think is the reason that we’ve made this movie. It’s a very real story, a grounded story. I’ve been very successful in doing a good amount of films that have levity in them, not that this movie is without levity, but there’s a lot more drama in this. There are a lot more subtlety and quiet moments and I just felt like it was a really beautiful story that I couldn’t wait to tell. The script was so greatly written, it felt like it was meant to be and now I’m sitting here feeling really proud of what we’ve done. So it feels even more like it was meant to be.

Anna Paquin as Brenda Meoni and Zachary Levi as Kurt Warner in “American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story.” Michael Kubeisy

For a movie about a football player, most of the scenes show what Warner had to do off the field to get to where he did. Why is that important to show?

Every time that you’re making a movie, the last thing you want to do is rehash something that somebody already did really well. Or a trope everybody does that you might fall into. The football side of it is something that a lot of people, not everybody, but a lot of people know that part. You’ve only got about 90 minutes in a movie — a very limited amount of story to tell it and make it cohesive enough and powerful enough to bring people though that emotional roller coaster. At the end of the day, training wasn’t necessary. Everybody knew and knows you’ve got to train really hard [in football]. But since the movie is only 25% football, it’s 75% the life story and what happens off-field, what happens in those in-between moments and what happens in that grind and the hard work and the perseverance… It’s not just on the field stuff. It’s how do you pay the bills when you’re not getting paid by the NFL? You go work at a grocery store if that’s what you gotta do. You swallow your pride and go do it, and in Kurt’s case, swallow his pride again and go play in the Arena Football League because, hey man, if the NFL isn’t going to come knocking and if I can make better money for my family then I’m going to do the dang thing. Then lo and behold, having humbled himself to go do that thing that he was too prideful to do to begin with, now he gets discovered by the very entity he wanted to go and work with in the NFL. All that stuff is just magical, but it starts with the relationship between him and Brenda and their support of each other and the relationship with the kids and even Zack’s support. I don’t think Kurt would have believed in himself nearly as much if he didn’t have Brenda and Zack and Jesse all believing in him and telling him he could do it. He knew he could, and yet we all still struggle with our fears of what if we blow it or what if we screw this up? He was able to navigate that with the love of his family.

What were some of the conversations that you had with the Warners prior to filming?

The biggest help for me, we had conversations on Zoom and I was able to sit down with them for a few days before we started shooting and they were with us on set a good amount of the time. [I found] I didn’t want to do an SNL mimicry of Kurt Warner, I wanted to understand what his essence is and then mimic that. What is his energy? What is his essence? What is his soul and his spirit about? I try to throw some mannerisms and cadence and all that stuff the best you can, but I think you’re doing the most service to the story and the character of the people by really trying to establish their character. What is their character and how can I emulate that best? That was the most helpful stuff, spending face time [with Warner] soaking it up. The more Kurt and I have gotten to know each other, the more he’s revealed himself and the more I’m learning.

After you got to know him, what parts of his personality did you want to make sure came across?

The quiet confidence where the fire comes out when the fire needs to come out… And then there’s a real chillness to him. When he’s not on the field and driving his team down the field, he has an energy that is very confident. Also, the humility that he continues to hold and the love for his wife and family that he continues to hold… Those are the things that I really like anyway and try to do in my life, so they didn’t feel too alien to try and take on.

Zachary Levi as Kurt Warner and Kurt Warner on the set of American Underdog.Michael Kubeisy/Lionsgate

What do you hope people take away from “American Underdog?”

In the general sense, I just want them to walk away inspired — to be a better person, to go support somebody else and their dream, to go back to a dream that they let go of and fight for that, or be inspired to be hopeful again in life. The good life or the life we think we’re supposed to live is not a straight line… It zigs and it zags and you can go to a whole manner of places. Sometimes those are places that you derailed yourself off to because of poor decisions, or sometimes those are things that are outside of your control. But either way you have to relinquish that trust and trust that those things can be redeemed and help make you a better person and help you retain your dreams that you might not have thought would make your journey.

“American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story” opens in theaters Christmas Day.

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