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Column: How do you put God on the big screen? The Kurt Warner film starts with a life of faith

Two men dressed in suits hold microphones, one of them with an open envelope in the other hand.
Zachary Levi, left, appears alongside Kurt Warner, the NFL Hall of Famer whom Levi portrays in a new film.
(Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

There is a video making the rounds of a man in Kentucky playing the piano in the remains of a home after it was destroyed by one of the tornadoes that ripped through eight states Friday night. His name is Jordan Baize. His sister, Whitney Brown, posted the video.

“I was standing in his bedroom packing anything I could salvage, and I heard the most beautiful sound,” Brown said. “Music.”

But it wasn’t just any song.

Opinion Columnist

LZ Granderson

LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports and navigating life in America.

With the roof of his house gone and debris all around, Baize sat at the piano to play the gospel song “There’s Something About That Name,” thanking God that he and his family were still alive.

It was a powerful show of faith. One that would certainly test my mettle and perhaps yours as well. One that reminded me of an adage attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, which actor Zachary Levi shared with me in a recent conversation about Christianity and Hollywood: Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.

For Baize to thank God in the midst of all of that destruction says more about faith than nearly any sermon I’ve heard.

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Making a movie that handles faith with that kind of nuance is not easy. Levi’s latest project, “American Underdog,” does a really nice job of it.

The biopic follows the incredible journey of Kurt Warner from undrafted quarterback to Super Bowl MVP. The film, in which Levi plays Warner, is to open in theaters on Christmas.

Admittedly, when I first learned the movie was being made by Christian filmmakers, I was disappointed. Not because I had a problem with the faith — I too am a Christian — but because religious films tend to be a little heavy on shots of gray clouds parting at just the right moment.

Thankfully “American Underdog” avoids making Warner’s story — especially as it pertains to his faith — cheesy. A lot of that has to do with the man who portrays him.

“I was a fan of Kurt’s from watching all of this stuff go down in real time,” Levi told me. “It so great and magical and surreal … watching this guy who came out of nowhere to bring his team all the way to the Super Bowl and win it when the odds were completely against him was incredibly inspiring. … That he was a person of faith was inspiring to boot.”

A football player sharing his faith is fairly common.

But a Hollywood leading man? Not so much.

In fact, it’s easy to assume being religious is somewhat of a detriment, despite all of those “I want to thank God” speeches we hear around awards season. But like Warner, Levi’s brand of spirituality is more rooted in that St. Francis quote, emphasizing actions more than words.

“I don’t think Hollywood is a deeply spiritual place,” Levi said. “I don’t know if any industry is a deeply spiritual place. … But I’m not trying to proselytize anybody.”

Levi said he doesn’t feel persecuted in any way, nor does he feel as if he’s missed any opportunities, something his resume supports. From starring in the hit TV show “Chuck” to singing a Grammy-winning song from the animated movie “Tangled” to being nominated for a Tony, Levi appears to be more limited by the constraints of time than talent or his faith.

That’s not what we’ve heard from actors such as Kevin Sorbo, who said “I’ve been completely blacklisted” for being a Christian. “If it wasn’t for faith-based or independent movies,” Sorbo has said, “I wouldn’t have a career anymore.”

Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey told podcast host Joe Rogan that he has not had difficulties in Hollywood because he identifies as Christian, but he said that he’s seen others play down their faith for fear of being ostracized.

“To illegitimize someone because they say they are a believer, it’s just so arrogant and in some ways hypocritical to me,” he said.

Levi says that being a believer helped him connect with Warner and the power of the story. That comes through in the movie, which shares heartbreaking aspects of the Hall of Fame player’s life — such as losing his would-be in-laws to a tornado. “American Underdog” balances the practical and the impossible beautifully, allowing moviegoers to draw their own conclusions about spirituality.

“None of us wanted to make a faith film,” Levi said. “Not that faith isn’t a part of the film.

“I’m not worried about anybody being like ‘I can’t believe they are trying to shove some Christian garbage down our throat,’ because we don’t do that. We’re just being honest in those moments.”

And if you happen to see God in that, well, that’s on you.

@LZGranderson


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