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Kevin Costner is back on the field

Dale Robinette/Summit Entertainment

Kevin Costner understands that some may doubt whether there’s a legitimate story in a movie about the NFL draft. Costner, who stars in “Draft Day,” set to open on Friday, had some doubts of his own.

Speaking by phone from a Los Angeles promotional event, he admits that his initial reaction to the project, which casts him as fictional Cleveland Browns general manager Sonny Weaver Jr., was “How do you make a movie about that?”

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Sure, millions of fans tune in to the draft on TV each spring, and a few thousand even pack Radio City Music Hall to catch the proceedings in person. But those are the diehards. Pointing to the 10-minute window that football teams receive to make each of their draft picks, Costner says with a laugh, “that’s not long – but if you played it out as a movie, it would be like watching paint dry.”

Still, after all the career mileage that Costner, 59, has gotten out of sports movies – a partial list includes everything from “Bull Durham” and “Field of Dreams” to the cycling-themed “American Flyers” and the upcoming track drama “McFarland” – he also knew to keep an open mind.

“I still listened to the pitch,” he says, “because somebody once told me they wanted to make a movie about dead guys coming out of a cornfield, and that didn’t sound like a very good story, either. And then I really responded to the script for ‘Draft Day.’ I felt that if we could follow that, we had a chance to make an exciting movie.”

Chadwick Boseman (star of last year’s Jackie Robinson biopic, “42”), who plays draft prospect Vontae Mack, echoes the impression made by the screenplay, which was co-written by Pulitzer-nominated playwright Rajiv Joseph.

“This was number one on the Black List,” he notes, alluding to a go-to Hollywood resource for rating top unproduced scripts.

‘Somebody once told me they wanted to make a movie about dead guys coming out of a cornfield, and that didn’t sound like a very good story, either.’

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Then Boseman goes where the studio and NFL marketing teams won’t, adding, “And you knew the business aspect would work because of ‘Moneyball.’” (Some might also point to “Jerry Maguire” as a reason for confidence, or the greenlighting of next month’s Jon Hamm drama “Million Dollar Arm,” about a sports agent venturing abroad. We’ll leave HBO’s “Arli$$” out of it.)

Directed by Ivan Reitman (“Ghostbusters,” “No Strings Attached”), “Draft Day” establishes Sonny as a dedicated but embattled exec under pressure to bring in a franchise savior, the player who’ll turn around the Browns’ perennially lousy fortunes. With the start of the draft mere hours away, Sonny trades up to get the number-one pick, paying an outrageous price in future picks in the bargain. But is polished, mega-hyped quarterback prospect Bo Callahan (Josh Pence) worth it? The team’s recently hired coach (Denis Leary) thinks not, and voices his opinion in typical Leary fashion. The movie references a classic never-can-tell contrast: infamous draft bust Ryan Leaf being selected with the second overall pick, when a couple of years later, Tom Brady languished until number 199. (Meanwhile, Newsday reports that a scouting trick used to test Callahan’s character comes straight out of Bill Belichick’s figurative playbook. Bo Knows . . . the Patriot Way?)

Sonny himself had been considering other options: Boseman’s Vontae, a linebacker with passion and integrity, but less buzz. Or Ray Jennings (real-life NFL star Arian Foster), a running back who’s had legal troubles, but could bring some prefab popularity as a second-generation Browns player. But they wouldn’t make the splash that the team’s owner (Frank Langella) demands.

That’s just the professional drama, though. The story works hard to break from its “Moneyball” template in the hellacious amount of chaos it drops on Sonny’s private life. He’s in a relationship with Ali (Jennifer Garner), the team’s smart, testosterone-tempering budget-cap guru, but they haven’t even gone public – and she’s just told him that she’s pregnant. He’s just lost his father, a venerated Browns coach who died heartbroken that one of Sonny’s first moves as GM was to fire him. And his mother (Ellen Burstyn) just keeps at him about Sonny Sr.’s last wishes – when she’s not busy re-tweeting prematurely leaked draft developments.

Paul Sancya/AP

Costner is an advocate for sports films that find their share of drama outside the stadium gates.

If this all seems a bit much, Costner isn’t bothered. He’s an advocate for sports films that find their share of drama outside the stadium gates.

“The thing about a sports movie is, if you want to make a good one, don’t make it too much about the sports,” he says. “If this had been designed just to please a football audience, we might have been better off doing a documentary.”

Foster, a five-year veteran of the Houston Texans, can certainly attest to the dramatic possibilities from a prospect’s perspective. But not necessarily in the way you might guess: Despite having the skills to lead the NFL in rushing in his first full season, Foster went undrafted when he came out of college in 2009. (He ultimately joined Houston as a free agent.)

“I didn’t have the greatest senior year, but you still hang onto the hope that maybe they saw your talent,” he says. “And the seventh [and final] round comes, and you start getting calls from coaches and scouts saying, ‘We liked you, but we didn’t want to pull the trigger.’”

When Foster shot scenes with his screen dad (NFL alum Terry Crews) at Radio City, he laughs, “That’s the first time I had ever been there, because I didn’t get drafted in the real world. Every kid that plays football wants to get drafted as one of the top picks. To finally get that opportunity by playing a character was a surreal feeling.”

Surreal is right – as part of the NFL’s overall endorsement of “Draft Day,” the league allowed the production to shoot during the actual 2013 draft. It’s the screwiest intermingling of real and pretend sports since Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore video-bombed the 2004 World Series for “Fever Pitch.” (There’s no missing NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, but it takes an especially sharp-eyed brand of Pats fan to spot former punter Zoltan Mesko.)

Boseman’s character experiences the draft more like Foster did – at home, from a distance. Still, he’s anything but removed. “My initial response to the role was ‘Not another sports movie,’” admits Boseman, who’d just come off his baseball stint as Jackie Robinson. (He also had a small part as Syracuse football standout Floyd Little in the 2008 gridiron drama “The Express.”) But he was swayed by moments such as a phone call that renders Vontae practically speechless, caught in a mix of laughing fit and joyful sob – a moment he insisted on playing with Costner really talking to him. It’s like a grounded alternative to showy “Jerry Maguire” interplay. “You’re seeing guys become millionaires in a split second, and the way they react to that,” Boseman says. “For Vontae, it’s the reaction you get from someone who’s all about responsibility: How do I get the bills paid? How do I take care of my family?”

Costner, for his part, found that the real-life human element behind the draft left him with some conflicted feelings. He admits he’s a stickler for sports verisimilitude onscreen: “I wouldn’t have done this movie with fake teams and fake uniforms,” he says. “You’ve got to show things the correct way.”

So you can see where there was perhaps the slightest “d’oh!” moment for him when Sonny’s similarly beleaguered trade partner, the Seahawks, won this year’s Super Bowl in the real world. No QB void with Russell Wilson on Seattle’s roster. But on the flip side, the Browns are, in fact, a team in turmoil – after finishing at 4-12 last season, they fired GM Mike Lombardi, who’d given Costner a bit of background during production. (Lombardi is now a Patriots assistant.)

“These are men that have wives and kids and moved them and had the greatest hopes for the team,” says Costner. “And they may even think things are going the right way. And next thing you know, they don’t have a job. They’ve got the Sword of Damocles over their head. It’s brutal.”

So, no pressure then, but we have to ask: Whom would Costner take at number one in this year’s draft?

“It just really depends on what my team needs to look like,” he says opaquely.

Spoken like a true GM.

“But I do look forward to seeing Johnny [Manziel] come into the league,” Costner adds. “I think he brings a lot of drama.”

Spoken like a guy who knows the entertainment business, too.

Tom Russo can be reached at trusso2222@gmail.com.
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