Actor brings intensity to role of Darrell Royal in Steinmark movie

6:36 p.m Saturday, June 28, 2014 Sports

Aaron Eckhart can recognize a stud, a term he labels a co-worker whose professionalism on a movie set matches his own.

A young man wearing a No. 20 Arkansas jersey approached Eckhart for advice during the filming of “My All American,” the tragic tale of former Texas football star Freddie Steinmark. That kid, says Eckhart, is a stud. So is his teammate, No. 49. The biggest stud is Jordan Shipley. The former Texas receiver is approaching these 12-hour days with the same razor-sharp focus required to beat Oklahoma.

“I know who’s a stud and who’s not,” Eckhart said Friday, standing in the north end zone of the Alamodome.

Of the latter category, the non-studs, are two guys playing catch during a break from filming. For the second time, a wayward pass whistles toward the actor. And for the second time Eckhart snaps, demanding the two move anywhere else. Whether the veteran actor would have responded the same way on the set of, say, the romantic comedy “No Reservations,” is unclear. On this day, at this moment, in this role, he’s not to be crossed.

“Once you’re in the coach’s mode, you’re in the coach’s mode,” Eckhart bristles. “Coach Royal don’t mess around, and I don’t mess around.”

For the sake of accuracy, Eckhart, playing legendary Texas coach Darrell Royal, didn’t say mess. He used a stronger verb, an unprintable word Royal might have spoken to admonish a player faking an injury. Eckhart, 46, is a year older than Royal was in 1969 — the year much of the film is shot. The movie’s decision-makers tabbed the handsome, chiseled blond for his physical resemblance to Royal (debatable) and for the stiff-jawed intensity he shares with the coach (not debatable).

Eckhart arrived in Austin a month before filming to immerse himself in the character. With no knowledge of the man he’d be portraying, Eckhart picked the brains of everyone from former Texas coach Mack Brown to Royal’s widow, Edith, to Steinmark’s teammates, Bill Bradley and Bob McKay. Admittedly bad at replicating accents, Eckhart downloaded Royal’s voice and listened to it everywhere he went. He noticed the coach embellished his Texan drawl when speaking to homespun folk and ditched it at media gatherings.

Recognized by casual movie goers as Two-Face in “The Dark Knight,” Eckhart has carved out an all-star career with mostly singles and doubles. His reputation is that of a worker.

Eckhart joked, but was dead serious, that if he screws up he’ll never again be able to step foot in this football-crazed state.

“He has researched the role within an inch of its life,” said Paul Schiff, the film’s producer.

Added director Angelo Pizzo: “He’s an intense actor, a very focused guy. Coach Royal was a very intense guy.”

On Friday, the crew shot scenes of the classic No. 1 vs. No. 2 duel in 1969 between Texas and Arkansas, a 15-14 Longhorns victory dubbed the Game of the Century. Pizzo chose the Alamodome over the game’s actual site, Razorback Stadium, for lighting purposes. By the time special effects are added, he said, the audience won’t be able to tell the difference. Liberties are taken, but the film strives for faithfulness to Jim Dent’s best-selling book, “Courage Beyond the Game.”

Depicting the game’s quarterbacks are two men whose names resonate among the burnt orange faithful. Juston Street, son of Texas quarterback James Street, plays his dad, who died last September.

“It’s a walk between living a dream and having him back for a while,” said Juston, an actor by trade.

Playing Arkansas quarterback Bill Montgomery is Case McCoy, a Texas quarterback from 2010 to 2013. McCoy was invited into the project by Bud Brigham, an Austin oil entrepreneur and the film’s primary bank roller. McCoy, whose character throws a crippling interception in the fourth quarter, cracked that he took the role because “I’m giving the game away to the right team.”

Shipley, freshly retired from football, plays receiver Cotton Speyrer. Shipley said he declined an invitation to attend an NFL team’s camp, opting to focus on his on-screen role with the outdoors TV show “Tecomate.”

Finn Wittrock, an alumnus of the prestigious Juilliard School, plays Steinmark, a dreamy safety who never played a game after the win over Arkansas. The next week he was diagnosed with cancer and doctors amputated his leg. Steinmark died two years later.

“You feel like you have a responsibility to do it justice,” Wittrock, 29, said. “Because he’s such a beloved person, there’s a certain amount of pressure from this community. But more than pressure, it’s been a gift. It’s been an education.”

Don’t expect to see “My All American” before 2015. When ready, its makers promise, it will premiere in Austin.

Pizzo spoke with confidence that the film will receive wide distribution even though it has yet to be acquired by a production company. Pizzo, the writer and director of timeless sports classics “Rudy” and “Hoosiers,” has fumbled recent efforts, including the 2005 box office flop, “The Game of Their Lives.” The soccer film grossed just $388,998 worldwide, undermined by the substance abuse of star Wes Bentley. Bentley has admitted to addictions. He reportedly has been sober for four years.

Pizzo has no such problems with Eckhart, a teetotaler who used hypnosis about 10 years ago to quit drinking and smoking. Sobriety, the actor says, made him more personable. His edge remains sharp. Dressed in slacks and a button-down shirt — let’s not forget the Longhorns T-Ring on his hand — Eckhart stalked the ground between scenes, unwilling to break character, unwilling to let his fire die. At one point he even sprinted in circles, a sign of dedication consistent with a man who shamelessly prepared for a role in “Rabbit Hole” by visiting a support group for parents who lost a child and pretending to have lost one himself. He later admitted what he did was rude.

Eckhart long ago stopped predicting the success of his films. Asked if this one will be a hit, he said he doesn’t have a clue but that “all the elements are in place” with a poignant script and a talented crew, including himself.

“When you look around and you see people sitting on their asses and not giving 100 percent, I don’t think Coach Royal would have liked that,” he said. “That’s why he worked people so hard. That’s why he demanded so much. That’s why he won national championships. That’s why he’s at this game today. That’s why he had the respect of (Arkansas coach) Frank Broyles and the rest of the nation. That’s why he has a stadium named after him. He didn’t sit on his ass, and I don’t sit on my ass.”

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