What do actor Zachary Levi and retired two-time NFL MVP, Super Bowl champion, and Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner have in common? Turns out, a lot. Warner and Levi are the new generation of men confronting challenges publicly, sharing vulnerability openly, and taking responsibility as mentors.
We spoke with Warner and Levi about their upcoming film, American Underdog, a biopic about the struggles, life, and success of Warner that inspired a generation of college athletes. Warner’s story is well known but the movie digs much deeper into what really happened during the time between collegiate ball and signing on with the NFL. Levi plays Warner as a young man through his trajectory of being dependent on food stamps after graduating from college and working at a grocery store to becoming one of the most successful quarterbacks in NFL history.
“There’s stoicism about Kurt, but he also has a great sense of humor,” Levi reflects about his first biopic portrayal. “I’m very outgoing and demonstrative and Kurt is more subtle and nuanced—so I had to pull back a bit to embody his wit and quiet approach.”
“The essence of who we are as men is actually very similar,” Warner pipes in. “You want to find someone who looks like you, but I also wanted to capture the essence of who I am. Getting to know Zach, we came to realize that we believe in a lot of the same things and want to represent ourselves in the same way.”
The movie features standout performances by Ser’Darius Blain, as Warner’s best friend Mike Hudnutt. and Dennis Quaid as Warner’s St. Louis Rams coach and surrogate father-figure, Dick Vermeil. Actor Danny Vinson shines as Warner’s future father-in-law—notably during a potent scene (in a garage) about loyalty and the deep responsibilities of marriage and parenthood. Warner’s son Zachary is played by Hayden Zaller—a small but weighty anchor in the movie.
American Underdog opens on December 25, 2021.
Men’s Journal: From an actor’s standpoint, what do you think differentiates American Underdog from the canon of iconic sports movies like Rudy, Remember the Titans, Field of Dreams, Hoosiers, and Miracle?
Zachary Levi: In those movies, there were physical and other perceived limitations: Professional Russian hockey team versus college kids; short college kid with athletic limitations playing for Notre Dame; college students overcoming grief. What’s different here is Kurt Warner had the physical athleticism and elite level ability—yet he still faced a mountain of challenges, closed doors, rejection, and repeatedly hearing No. The common denominator of all these movies is, of course, persistence and determination. But American Underdog focuses much more on self-love—knowing you were meant to do something and not letting anyone tell you differently.
Beyond the expected underdog thread, American Underdog weaves into its narrative all those forms of non-romantic love that leverage human potential to the fullest.
Our movie isn’t heavy-handed in its underdog theme. Kurt cared so much about the game and the people around him that they all loved him back. There’s a lot of similar DNA in sports movies, but what differentiates American Underdog is that it’s 25 percent football and 75 percent faith and family. It’s about being stuck and getting unstuck. It’s about believing you are meant for something bigger and greater than what others believe. That’s what Kurt learned from Brenda. Even if you have someone who believes in you and supports you, you still have to believe in yourself.
You’ve mentioned some of the differences, personality-wise, between you and the football icon you’re portraying. Beyond that, do you see hidden similarities?
Kurt and I definitely do have things in common. He knew when he was young that he was born to play football at the highest level. I can relate to that because I have wanted to be an actor since I was 4 years old. No matter your age, you have to have an unrelenting faith in yourself. There is simply no substitute for faith in self. If you work really hard and follow positive, trusted mentors, even if you don’t have those male tent posts to thread that needle of accomplishment for you, trust in self is crucial to manifesting your own vision. Doesn’t matter if you’re dreaming of becoming an athlete, an actor or anything else. It all begins with that trust in yourself. During the shoot, I just kept trying to stay as grounded as Kurt is. Kurt and [wife] Brenda were on set for much of the shoot. For actors, that’s usually nerve-wracking, but I was grateful to have them there because they’re both so generous and kind. There’s a signature confidence about Kurt. I think all of these characteristics were important to bring forward in honoring his story, his family, and him.”
You’ve experienced your own share of obstacles and challenges. Were you able to draw upon some of those to help tell Kurt’s story?
Kurt and I both had a lack of a father in our lives. That’s something I really struggled with—along with my own mental health years ago. When I was 37, I did not know if I wanted to live anymore. So I sought out help. Therapy was immensely helpful for me. The most important thing is to value who you are, not what society wants you to be. Life is exponentially easier if you value your own self-worth. If I do nothing else in this life but help men of all ages open up about their emotions and needs, that’ll be enough. That conversation is at the forefront for me. It’s priority number one.”
As a 41-year-old actor taking on the role of a 24-year-old Kurt Warner, could you have seen yourself playing this role 17 years ago? Is there an emotional advantage to the age gap?
I could not have played this role as a young man. Bringing my life experience to it allowed me to embody the full arc of Kurt’s experience—so I really do feel very grateful that I’m not younger doing this role because the depths of what I’ve lived through and the challenges I’ve faced informed my performance as a man and an actor. It allowed me to look both forward and back, while infusing my character with all of that essential life experience. Had I been 24 years old as an actor, I wouldn’t have been able to bring the same maturity and depth of understanding forward in the performance.
Men’s Journal focuses on ever-evolving definitions of health, family, responsibility, work, and masculinity. Can you tell us more about Active Minds—the organization you work with to provide resources and mental health guidance for young men?
Mental health and a healthier definition of masculinity is such a crucial thing to be talking about now. When we talk about “toxic masculinity” in particular, what does that really mean? It means someone has experienced trauma. At some point in life, an individual has experienced a broken body or a broken mind, and if left untreated or dismissed that’s when toxic byproducts rear their head. We—men and the young men we mentor—need to discuss grace and empathy and shift how we see health and mental health. We all have so much going on in our hearts and minds. That needs to be listened to and valued when expressed. It shouldn’t and can’t be considered a sign of weakness.
The pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues in young men. There has been a rise in anxiety, depression, isolation and insecurity about the future. What’s especially important right now?
At any time, but certainly during this time, we need to be reaching out to young men and boys in their lives during their formative years—during that time when minds are most malleable. We need to give kids that essential tool kit to live healthy lives and find it in themselves to weather through life’s challenges. Those tools are vital for navigating life from an early age.
Listen—mental health is like flossing your teeth. The earlier you start as a kid, the easier it is to keep that habit of therapy and counseling going. If you stop brushing your teeth and stop flossing, guess what happens? Cavities—and eventually pulled teeth and root canals. With young men, we need to start with mental health maintenance at a much younger age. Prevention and support are so much better than reactionary triage, rehab—or worse—sending first responders when it’s much too late.
Back to American Underdog. At its core, what’s it really about?
American Underdog is about the DNA of self-love and acceptance. Yes, I’m six-foot-four and athletic, but to be an elite athlete you need to be mentally healthy too. No matter what your beliefs are, we need to accept where we are. In the film, Brenda accepts where Kurt is and continues to encourage him even through the highs and lows of confidence-shaking life events. Things will start manifesting when you believe in yourself and surround yourself with positive, supportive people. People who truly care about you and your future as young men and men. Self-love is what it’s all about.
Kurt—over to you—was it hard to hand your life to Zachary Levi, or any actor for that matter, in the making of such a personal movie?
Kurt Warner: It’s easier when you realize that the two of you are quite similar in many ways—and also when you notice certain parallels. Similar to what Zach was saying about things happening later as opposed to earlier, had I entered the NFL immediately after college, I wouldn’t have been the same person or player. In my mind, I wouldn’t have accomplished the same things I was able to later in my life. When I look back, I could not have done that nearly as well had I not had that seasoning, time, and training ground to struggle.
Did you see anything in yourself while watching Zachary on the screen that you hadn’t previously recognized?
That’s a really good question. As athletes we’re kinda taught “no emotions.” Always be confident. Always believe in yourself. A huge part of my life was just wanting to believe I was going to make it. But there are all those human emotions and questions that go along with that. Am I good enough? Am I gonna make it? That internal wrestling match is ongoing. There were moments of doubt that I tried to suppress, but they were there. Zach captured both my confidence and my vulnerability.
Do you have a favorite scene in the film?
It’s hard to pick one moment or scene from that time in my life, but if I had to I think it would be the wedding scene. It connects football and being able to move past that and seeing something bigger. That’s when I realized that football isn’t everything. That was a big part of letting go and becoming who I fully wanted to become in life.
Athletes and non-athletes alike are out there mid-pandemic hearing a lot of No. That’s a weighty syllable in this film. What’s the mindset that helps you reach Yes?
A lot of people out there are in that exact same position right now. When I worked in a grocery store, I realized that this is not the end of the game. My Supermarket Moment was acknowledging that I have to take that next step. I didn’t know what my path was. Ups and downs, goods and bads—never let your circumstances define you. That to me is the message. You just gotta have faith in yourself. You’ll get closer to your destination if you develop as a person. One of my favorite lines in the movie is during that Hall of Fame speech: ‘Sometimes you gotta do what you have to do while you are waiting to do what you were born or want to do.”
Fatherhood and its absence is such a giant theme in the film. For young men—or men of any age—who feel dissonance from being neglected by the absence of their fathers, what’s the message here? Where is the positive path forward?
Try to learn from every circumstance. I asked myself what did I miss and what did I need at that age? And then I decided my own kids would never miss that. I learned from some of the least favorable circumstances. My father and I had to work through that rather than blaming anyone. What do we do with what happened in the past—now? Where can we connect as men? It wasn’t perfect right away. It was a slow process. We needed to figure this out rather than holding animosity. We worked it out. I learned what I could from what I missed as a kid but I continue to seek out what I want. Now we’ve gotten to a place where we’re very close and he’s an unbelievable grandfather to my kids. I want him to be the kind of grandpa that he wasn’t as a father. He’s grown, and I’ve grown.
Post-quarterback career, what are some of the things you’re most passionate about these days?
I’m most passionate about continuing to impact people with different endeavors I’ve taken on. I’m very passionate about the community my wife and I have created at Treasure House—an active living community for young adults with cognitive and developmental disabilities. The goal of Treasure House is to provide young adults with an accessible, safe living environment that will support them as they grow, develop, and thrive.
A few quick huddle questions before we wrap up. Favorite NFL team?
Cardinals and the Rams.
Favorite NCAA team?
Kansas State, because my son plays there right now.
Best quarterback in history?
Tom Brady is the best of all time, but growing up I was a big Dan Marino fan.
Who’s gonna win the Super Bowl?
I’d like it to be the Arizona Cardinals, but I think it’ll be Tampa Bay.
Best shovel pass in the NFL now?[Laughter] … Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs has a pretty good one.
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