We all have someone in our world that we look up to, whether it’s a pop star or a parent. There’s always someone whose story you watch closely, taking note of their walk and talk, how they handle the ups and downs of life, the way they handle success and failure. If you’re lucky, you might get to meet your hero one day. And if you’re Zachary Levi, you might get to become your hero, at least on the big screen.
On Christmas Day, Levi will appear in theaters as NFL Hall of Fame player Kurt Warner in American Underdog. Warner’s journey to becoming one of the NFL’s greatest players on and off the field is infamous. Most football fans know the story of the man who went from the grocery store to the gridiron. But Levi, a fan of Warner himself, felt like there was more to the story that people were missing out on.
“Most people have a version in their mind, some idea of who Kurt is or who his wife Brenda is or who their kids might even be,” Levi explains. “But this movie, I think, really helps you to build so much more empathy for their whole journey of where they were, where they really were, how much they were struggling, scraping change out of car doors to go get gas.”
Warner’s personal story is one that’s become increasingly familiar over the last few years, as the economy has fluctuated and job security has changed drastically due to the pandemic. Everyone struggles in their own ways, and the struggle is often what connects us to one another, even to actors like Levi or world-class athletes like Warner.
The Story of Kurt
Warner’s story is more than the typical “rags-to-riches” story.” It’s a story fueled by a whole lot of perseverance and even more of God’s faithfulness. After his college football career ended in 1994, Warner went undrafted and spent time stocking shelves at a local grocery store. Instead of seeing this time as the end of his football career, Warner shifted gears and tried out for the American Football League, signing with the Iowa Barnstormers.
He spent a few seasons working and waiting patiently, continuing to press on toward his dream of playing in the NFL. In 1998, the St. Louis Rams gave him a chance as the back-up quarterback. Warner took the opportunity and ran with it — literally. Following an injury sustained by the first-string quarterback in a pre-season game, Warner was made the starting quarterback and led the team all season, culminating in a Super Bowl win.
His unprecedented freshman season rightfully garnered praise and adoration, but it didn’t change Warner’s spirit. Throughout his 10-season NFL career, Warner continued to achieve awards and titles while striving for something greater, something bigger than himself.
“Kurt had the arm and body of a champion but did not initially have the heart of a champion,” director Andrew Erwin noted. “He found his heart of a champion through his relationship with his wife Brenda and his family. It was in that discovery of things that were more important than himself, including living in service to his family, which enabled him to become a true champion on the field.”
The Story of Zac
While Warner’s story was playing out in real life, Levi was at home watching it all unfold.
“It was very inspirational,” Levi says. “Particularly as a person of faith, you were like, ‘Oh, my gosh, look at all this Cinderella story playing out and the acknowledgement that he gives to his faith and to God.’ And whether you were a person of faith or not, it was still this insane story for everybody to watch.”
Without much prompting, Levi is ready and willing to speak about his faith. It’s like he is looking for opportunities to bring up who God is and what He’s done in Levi’s life — not in an overbearing sense, but in a genuine way that makes it evident Levi knows how present God has always been in his life.
As a child, Levi felt like God was telling him to be an actor one day. It was something that excited Levi even if he didn’t quite know how it would happen.
“I knew that God was like, ‘You’re going to be an actor one day.’ I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to go do this thing,’” Levi says. “And I am, but it was also partly because tenaciously I never gave up on it because I really, really believed in that. I believed in that promise or that feeling, or whatever that vision or whatever that dream is.”
Over time, Levi’s dreams have come true in the theater, on the small screen and on the big screen. He’s played a comedic spy on Chuck, a singing bandit in Disney’s Tangled, an Asgardian in the Thor movies, and a superhero in Shazam!
Throughout his journey, Levi has always been outspoken about his faith, even sharing with RELEVANT back in 2002 that his role as a Christian defines his life in all areas. He’s continually credited God for pushing his dreams forward and making them a reality.
“I believed that I had those talents,” he says. “I could sense them in myself and they were validated to me every time I would do a play, or a musical, or do something. I would have people come to me and say, ‘You’ve got a talent for this.’ And I knew that it was always… God talking to somebody else, encouraging me along the way.”
Capturing the Story
Warner’s story was heading down a different direction without Levi’s lead before the pandemic hit. But as production began to start up again, Levi was able to take the reins and portray Warner’s story.
“Zac has superstar charisma, a world-class athlete’s physicality, and lovable cockiness – all of which were necessary to portray Kurt Warner,” said Erwin. “He checked every box.”
Warner’s story goes beyond the football field, something Levi understood going into the project. He spent three and a half months physically preparing for the role with a team of coaches, and even more time mentally and emotionally preparing by spending time with Warner himself.
“It was important to me to capture the Kurt everyone knows – the football hero – and the Kurt that maybe most people don’t know so well … the guy inside the helmet.”
Levi and Warner spent quality time together, on and off the field. “I gave him some football tips during our time together – and not just how I throw a football,” says Warner. “Zac wanted to see how I processed things, how I watched the game, what I was looking at on a play. He was even more interested in observing me outside of the game – who is this guy, how does he relate to his kids, how does he relate to his wife, how does he go about his job? He wanted to get to the essence of who I am. If Zac could get that; he knew he could do the role justice.”
The Point of the Story
Inspirational stories happen around us all the time. If we know what to look for, we can see pieces of hope scattered throughout the day. But a year and a half into a deadly pandemic, after years of cultural divides taking root, it can be difficult to look at humanity through a hopeful lens. Sometimes life seems bleaker than it really is, and we need someone like Warner or Levi to remind us that there is hope left for humanity.
“I think movies always have the opportunity to inspire,” Levi says. “To generally inspire audience goers to do something, whether it means to inspire them to go create themselves, or inspire them to be a better person, or inspire them to have more faith, or inspire them to have deeper hope.”
But, beyond living a hopeful life, Levi wants people to remember that sometimes, even when things don’t go according to our plan, God is still at work. As Warner’s life demonstrates, we aren’t in control of our lives, as much as we like to think we are. One of the biggest takeaways from the film, according to Levi, is that “we make plans and God laughs.”
“And it doesn’t matter what faith you are or if you are of no faith at all, that’s true of everyone,” Levi explains. “Nobody gets to time this stuff out. But what is true is that a lot of that journey is that we spend a lot of time in the wilderness. We find ourselves asking ‘God, what am I doing out here?’ And God’s just like, ‘Just trust me. Just keep on that path, because you’re about to learn some stuff that you didn’t know, and you weren’t going to learn it anywhere else.’”
Many of us have felt stuck in a weird place since March 2020, some may even feel like they’ve been stuck longer than that. It may feel like that feeling won’t ever go away, but as Warner’s story reminds us, all seasons come to an end eventually. And in its place is a feeling of freedom and confidence. You just need some grit and grace.
“For anyone who feels like, ‘I’m stuck somewhere and I don’t know how long I’m going to be stuck here,’ have hope that you’re not always going to be stuck there, but do the work on yourself,” Levi says. “You’ve got to go work on you. You have got to go figure out how to love you and accept you more and more, and that will help you love and accept other people more and more and help build your character.”