• Thomas Bonifield

The Experience of "American Underdog" was "Incredible" for Brett Varvel

The actor plays a football coach in this new faith-based biopic about Hall-of-Fame quarterback Kurt Warner.

Brett Varvel (center) poses for a picture with Andrew Erwin (left) and Jon Erwin during production of "American Underdog."
Brett Varvel (center) poses for a picture with co-directors Andrew Erwin (left) and Jon Erwin during production of "American Underdog." Image: Brett Varvel/Instagram.

American Underdog is the coming film from Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin, who are among the top filmmakers in the Christian genre, with movies like I Can Only Imagine and I Still Believe to their credit. The brother duo co-directs this picture, which is based on a memoir written by former National Football League star Kurt Warner and tracks his journey from an undrafted college player who stocked grocery store shelves to make ends meet before eventually becoming a Super Bowl champion.


A poster for "American Underdog."
A poster for "American Underdog." Image: Kingdom Story Company/Lionsgate.

Hollywood star Zachary Levi plays Warner in the movie opposite Anna Paquin who's in the role of his wife, Brenda; Dennis Quaid rounds out the headliners, portraying of Dick Vermeil, who served as head coach of the then St. Louis Rams team Warner led to the title in 2000. Brett Varvel plays Steve "Mooch" Mariucci, another coach who crossed paths with the quarterback years earlier when he was still trying to break into the NFL.


The Christian actor, whom we've worked with and know personally, has just two scenes in the film, but tells Christian Film Blog they are pivotal. That's because in 1994, Mariucci was quarterback coach with the Green Bay Packers and the man who informed Warner he was not ready for the league, which was followed by the team's releasing the player. That setback was crushing, but also served as the catalyst for much of the personal and professional growth that makes up Warner's incredible story.


Brett says the role was a challenge: it's the first time he's played a real person and not a fictional character. In preparation, he watched a lot of footage of Mariucci - who went on to be a head coach with two NFL teams - to get a sense of him in his element. But Brett did not want to do an impersonation, aiming instead to capture the essence of the high-energy coach.

"It was nerve-racking because you're constantly trying not to compare yourself to what you're seeing on TV and on YouTube and in all these video clips of him...but at the same time, that is your source material."

He adds that the Erwins were a tremendous help to him in that regard, saying they are "masters of their craft." In addition, Brett found the Christian brothers "down-to-earth" and "personable," and he says they worked closely with him during his scenes to get the balance right.

"I was so blessed to have the Erwins standing alongside me and really helping me through that, because of not trying to stray into an impersonation, but be myself portraying this character."

And the two brothers were also instrumental in seeing that he got to play his part at all. They of course cast him in the first place, but because of bad weather in Oklahoma during production, shooting of Brett's scenes was repeatedly pushed back. Then the Indiana native came down with a painful case of shingles and there was talk of recasting someone else in part. But he says the brothers were committed to him.

"Praise God the Erwins and Kevin Downes, their producer, they just really believed in me and stuck their necks out for me and rearranged my shoot date so that I could still play Mooch."

Though Brett has acted in many independent movies, including as a principal player in our faith-based film Miracle on Christmas, this was the first big-budget picture he's been a part of and calls it an "incredible experience." He enjoyed filming his scenes with lead actor Levi - they hit it off right away - but the scale of the production was nevertheless "a little overwhelming" when he first arrived on set. The devout Believer says he soon had a revelation, though, that helped him settle in.

"It was a rewarding experience for me, having wanted to be an actor and a director since I was five, just having this moment of realization that the Lord has given me this talent and this ability, and my desire is to use it for His glory...it was this affirmation that the Lord has equipped me to do what He's called me to do. It was a really cool thing."

You can catch Brett's performance in American Underdog when the film hits theaters nationwide on Christmas Day, and the trailer below will give you a sense of what to expect from the movie. In the meantime, you'll get a feel for what he brings to the table as an actor in our film Miracle on Christmas, which is available to stream for free on Tubi TV and Amazon Prime Video.