‘The Ironmen’ producer thinks he’s found his Nile Kinnick lookalike
Listen to the full speech given by Nile Kinnick when he received his Heisman award in 1939. Audio of Kinnick's speech was provided by the University of Iowa.
Joe Heath is pretty sure he's found Nile Kinnick.
The University of Iowa football legend died following a plane crash in 1943, and Heath's been on the hunt for an actor to play the role of Kinnick in his film "The Ironmen."
“I half joke about how if you go to the web page for cultural affairs they’re still pushing ‘Field of Dreams’ and ‘Bridges of Madison County,’" said Heath, referring to two other Iowa-set films. "If we pull this off, it’s gonna be a big deal for a long, long time."
When the Press-Citizen reported on the film late last year, Heath, the film's producer, was looking at a 2020 premiere in Kinnick Stadium. While that remains the goal, there's a chance the premiere will be pushed to 2021 as the film's director and cast are finalized.
Heath, who's been working on getting the film made for 13 years, has personal preferences for a director and some actors, but he has a very specific name in mind for Kinnick himself. He's been pushing Shane Alan Graham, who plays Charles McCullough in the AMC show "The Son" alongside Pierce Brosnan.
"(Graham's) an actor, he’s an MMA fighter, he’s a dead ringer," Heath said. "He’s the exact same size, build, look, just a dead-ringer, and he can act, which is what comes first."
When Heath reached out to Graham about the part in December, Graham got back to Heath within 48 hours with audition footage.
Graham recalled Heath suggesting he listen to Kinnick's Heisman speech — considered one of the best ever — which Graham replicated in his audition.
"I went through and voice matched him and even matched my mannerisms to portray him truthfully,” Graham said.
Graham was already somewhat familiar with the name Kinnick because his stepfather is a University of Iowa alum. Between reading through the script and researching Kinnick further, Graham fell so in love with the Iowa football player he couldn't help but shed a tear as he came to the end of the script.
“I just thought to myself, it would be a good challenge as an actor and as an artist to make him really relatable and structured," Graham said. "I knew I had my homework cut out for me. When you have someone so pure of heart and good and so loving to his family (as Nile Kinnick) you need to portray that truthfully, and that’s what I love as an actor.”
Though Graham does not have the part yet, he has Heath's backing as the producer. Heath has been campaigning for him with "#YouCast Kinnick" on the Iron Men Movie's Facebook page. Big names that Heath isn't allowed to reveal are also up for the role of Dr. Eddie Anderson, the coach of the Hawkeyes during Kinnick's tenure.
Final casting decision will be determined through a collaborative effort involving the studio, producers and director.
Beyond the excitement of bringing in big name stars, Heath plans to keep the project as local as possible, filming as much in Iowa as they reasonably can.
"That’s really what I’m ultimately trying to do is be able to make movies from start to finish here," said Heath. "I think our current schedule calls for 10 to 14 days (of shooting). We hope to wrap up shooting on the Pentacrest with a big old pep rally scene with maybe some fireworks."
Outside of using local architecture and familiar landmarks, Heath also plans on having actual locals in the film. Not only with extras he plans to use for football scenes once the movie starts filming, but also to play two famous UI figures: painter Grant Wood and artist Elizabeth Catlett.
“(Rodney Lehnertz) dropped the idea of Grant Wood, that was his idea," Heath recounted. "He said, 'Theoretically Elizabeth Catlett came here the next year for her MFA, she could be touring the campus and bump into Nile who is in front of the art building where Grant Wood worked.'"
Both parts have lines in the script at the moment. Whether those lines will make it to the final cut on screen, Heath can't say, but he's holding a casting call on June 22 at FilmScene from 9 to 11 a.m.
Having written a book on the University of Iowa's architecture, Senior Vice President of Finance & Operations Rodney Lehnertz was used as a valuable a source for identifying places on campus for the film crew.
“They met with me and they asked where might be the places that are visually accurate with the way things might have looked in 1939 and one of those that I mentioned to them was our 1936 art building," Lehnertz said. “In fact, because of the flood of 2008, many of the additions were removed and demolished leaving the building much as it was in 1936. I proposed that the building might be a good historic spot."
Though Lehnertz stressed that "the University of Iowa is not a funding partner with the film project" he also mentioned that this is an exciting opportunity to see an important part of Iowa's history comes to life on screen.
"My interest is to remain engaged enough to make sure that the depiction (of Kinnick) is the best it can be," he said. “You only get one chance to remember Nile on film and as this team is putting their effort together (I hope it is) in the most successful way possible.”
Heath hopes to see the film green-lit in the coming months with official casting announcements soon after. His goal is start filming between October of this year and March of next year.