When Dennis Quaid played "The Rookie" in 2002, the crowd-pleasing sports movie gave his languishing career a major boost.
Now, Kurt Russell hopes that another feel-good sports movie, also made by Disney, will similarly reverse his waning stardom. In "Miracle," Russell plays Herb Brooks, coach of the US Olympic hockey team that won against the seemingly unbeatable Soviet team in the 1980 games.
"I went all out for this one," Russell says. "It's a great story, plus a role that could change my career around."
Russell has long circled the fringes of Hollywood's A-List of actors, but has never been able to fully capitalize on hits such as "Escape from New York," "Backdraft," and "Breakdown." In "Miracle," the former child actor of "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes" fame may have found a role that will remind critics of the promise they saw in Russell in "Silkwood" and last year's gritty cop drama "Dark Blue."
Russell did more than just impersonate the coach. He strove to embody Brooks by understanding his tough-love ethos.
"Herb knew that driving the boys so hard - teaching them a different way to play against the Russians - might make them hate him," Russell says. "He figured if they bonded together, they would unanimously forget about everything else but working hard, even if they disliked him."
The actor opted to replicate Brooks's loner mentality on set, shunning the opportunity to spend any time with the hockey players who were hired to play the team members. "It was the hook I had been searching for in my characterization," Russell recalls. "I didn't spend any time off the set with the team. Usually I do. I kept telling myself, 'The coach doesn't want to be their pal; he wants them to win.' "
The result, he says, was one of the loneliest times of his life. Russell not only sidestepped invitations to join the cast to watch a game or have dinner, he practiced skating at a different rink from the others.
The actor is no stranger to the game of hockey, but he had to learn to replicate the coach's unique style of skating. And when he was off the ice, he mimicked Brooks's walk. ("He had a stride like someone was chasing him; there was no tendency to amble," Russell says.) There was something else Russell had to get used to - Brooks's style of dressing. "Bring on the plaid pants, the rainbow-checked shirts, the multicolored socks," laughs Russell.
A few evenings before the filming ended, the actor invited the entire team to a party. It was then that he explained to them why he'd been so standoffish on the set. The players were relieved to discover the actor was being a diva for a reason.
"We talked hockey most of the evening, something I had intentionally avoided during production," says Russell.
Kurt Russell also had the opportunity to meet Brooks, who died last year. "We liked each other immediately," says Russell, who talked with the coach about their common interest: sports.
"I just wished Herb had seen the picture," Russell later told one of the coach's sons. "He didn't have to; he lived it," the son replied. "He'd be proud you played him so well."