We took an exciting trip to Hollywood for the McFarland USA Press Conference, to get a glimpse into the making of McFarland, USA, and a glimpse into the lives of the cast, who will be forever changed by this inspirational movie.
The second in our two-part series of interviews features Rafael Martinez, Ramiro Rodriguez, Michael Aguero, Coach Jim White, and the real life brothers David Diaz, Damacio Diaz, and Danny Diaz.
In this interview, Rafael Martinez, Ramiro Rodriguez, and Michael Aguero, talk about learning cross-country and how ridiculously intense the training is, the Diaz brothers share their thoughts on life in McFarland after the championships, and Jim White lovingly opens up about the real Mrs. White. ‘McFarland, USA’ is rated PG opens in theaters February 20th, 2015.
McFarland USA Press Conference Q&A – Part 2
Q: Rafael, you met your real life Diaz brother counterpart. What was your impression of him, since he is sitting here, and did meeting him help you understand your character?
Rafael Martinez: When I met David Diaz, the first thing I saw was David’s smile and how happy of a person he was. It was just so ecstatic to meet my own counterpart that I was to play. What I understood about David Diaz is that he was a man of God, and what he did was he held his spirituality very close. So I used that to portray David Diaz as much as possible in this movie.
Q: Michael, what was it like working on a big feature film like this, and are you looking forward to doing it again at some point in the future?
Michael Aguero: Honestly it was an exhilarating feeling to work in a film like this, especially with the cast we had, and portraying a guy I got to portray. Overall, I'd like to say, that it was amazing and I do look to pursue acting.
Q: Great. Good luck. Ramiro, a lot of great scenes in this movie. What was your favorite one that you were in?
Ramiro Rodriguez: It has to be crossing the line.
Q: I think we could have predicted that. Coach White, the big, obvious question is how does it feel to have a movie made about you and your first championship team?
Jim White: It’s very, very realistic in the way that we’re just thrilled to death that it’s happening, and who’s playing me. That’s, I couldn’t have asked for anything better. Actually, somebody asked me yesterday who would have been my first choice, and I said, “Well, probably Clint Eastwood, maybe, but he’s too old.” The only reason I said that is because a lot of the kids, during my teaching, they always called me Clint because the movies were being shown weekly, but it’s very inspiring for us to have this movie about us. Thank you.
Q: And Diaz brothers, for all three of you, what do you guys hope audiences will get out of the film?
David Diaz: Personally, there’s a champion in each and every one of us, and we just happened to be a part of a great program. We live in a very miniscule type of community, but it doesn’t matter where you come from, what you do. All of us are, not are, can be, if we choose to be, a champion at whatever you choose. Ours happened to be running. That would be my message.
Danny Diaz: The number one thing a young person, a kid in today’s world… It’s different when we were growing up, with the amount of social media out there and the negativity that’s out there, I would say that if you commit to something, give it your all, give it your best, it doesn’t matter what it is. If you give it your best try, at school, at work, with family, with your relationships, whatever it may be, just commit to it and do your best and good things will happen eventually. Just like for us. We ran because it was a lifestyle for us. We never expected anything like this, and 20 years later, to see this coming to fruition, it’s such a humbling, yet very exciting thing to be happening for us.
Damacio Diaz: I would just like to echo what my brothers have been saying, and that hard work pays off. Back in 1987 when we won State, that was a thrill for us. Obviously, there’s been more state titles, from other teams in other years. I was just so happy to see Disney portraying us how we really were. We’re working in the fields, and I'm glad that the whole world is gonna be able to see that. For so many Latino families, Hispanic families, that’s our life. We work in our fields, and that’s gonna be our life.
If it’s not for Mr. White, obviously my parents that instilled in us that education was the door out, and for us it really was. We hated working in the fields, and we sought a better life. I'm so happy that Disney is portraying how things really were.
Q: Ramiro Rodriguez, I am impressed with your fitness. Seeing you running, very chubby, should have been very difficult. How do you do it? I mean was that possible? Was that on purpose, to be chubby, or?
Ramiro: Honestly, I wasn’t like this until like my junior year. I had one year off of soccer, that’s what I do, I play soccer, and after thatI just gained weight. Ever since then I just can’t lose it, and no matter what I do, I try and I try, I couldn't run like how I used to. I just can’t lose the weight, but I'm pretty fit for myself, I think.
Q: Jim, what does it take to do all this? To have under your wings these kids who want to have a better life?
Jim White: I think my whole philosophy on everything is about attitude. I had to have a good attitude, and I had to transfer that to the kids, a good attitude. In order to, achieve anything, it has to be your attitude. That is the only thing that you can control.
I can’t control other feelings about me. I can’t control what happened yesterday or what’s going to maybe happen tomorrow. The most important thing for me to transfer to these kids is the attitude of hard work can transfer into the classroom, and into your jobs, and into their real lives. So when you have problems in life, and we had problems with building the team and outfitting the team, putting shoes on the team, it’s how we let the problems affect you in life that’s the main thing, that’ll get you down.
Q: This question is for the Diaz brothers and Coach White. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how the cross-country program at the high school has changed the town overall, or what impact it’s made on the fabric of the community.
Jim White: Let me start, and then they can finish it. That way I can make it short, and they can make it longer. As an example right now, our town is really changing. They’ve really picked up this thing with cross-country so much so that we now have a new city logo. It’s not the heartbeat of agriculture or whatever they showed on the first one. I don't even know where that first sign came from, in that movie. It now has a silhouette of a runner running through the field, and underneath it, they gave this to the high school for a scholarship: whoever comes up with the best city logo.
A girl actually developed this. Underneath the silhouette of a runner running through the fields, you have “Tradition, unity, and excellence.” That has really changed our whole city. Our school came up with a new logo. We have now a water tank that’s 20 by 80 feet in the town that’s completely dedicated to our state championships. The silhouettes of runners, a big sunset, the big cougar coming out of the State of California, and their names are on the water tower; everybody's names that were state champions there.
Diaz Brother: Well for me, I want to echo what Damacio was saying about being in cross-country and making it our lifestyle. I started running in the fifth grade. Joe Vega took me to our first meet. We idolized Mr. White at a very young age, him coaching, so we wanted to be part of his team. We were pretty good, so we were glad that we were an asset for him. But moving right along, it’s hard. Cross country’s not an easy sport. Very few people know that. It’s a very discouraging sport because you're going to be out there running the 5K as fast as you can.
They say that they all ran for Mr. White, but very few people ran for Mr. White, let me tell you. Cross country is a very, very special sport, and it’s the fastest growing sport in America. Probably never catch up to soccer, but it’s a very rewarding sport in that it’s you competing against yourself. If you want to be part of a team, that’s great, but it’s just you and the road, you and the sights, you and that watch. That’s why I still coach today to try to emulate what Coach White has done for us.
Jim White: Let me add one thing to that, if these other brothers aren’t going to speak. It has developed in such a way that David is coaching, Thomas is coaching, and they are taking kids all over the United States. They just got back from Carolina, where they had a number two girl in the nation in the junior Olympic program. Their 8 and under program, girls, was second in the nation.
I started the program way, way back and these guys have developed it so much that, David could give me better numbers, but from the 8 and up, through recreation, through junior high, there’s probably over 100 kids into the high school, girls’ program, boys’ program, varsity and all of the above there’s probably another 60 kids. That has really grown and developed, too. That’s changed.
Q: This is for the Diaz brothers. I was wondering, since most of you went on to go to college and get degrees, almost all of you came back to McFarland. What about the city inspired you to come back?
Damacio Diaz: All of us in our family, it was expected, it was a requirement. My parents really pushed the college bound future for us. We all graduated, some of us went to different universities in California, and over the years we kind of migrated back to McFarland. We all live within probably three or four miles from our parents. There are seven of us in our family, and six of us are teachers. I’m a police detective, but we all live in that community because we feel we owe, and we are willing to give back to what we received from the fields, from the community, from the people who live there, from our coaches and teachers. It’s something, and for us, it couldn’t be any better.
David Diaz: Just to add to that, I would definitely say that my parents are instrumental, and the reason why we came back. My mom, she makes breakfast. I have seven kids, and everybody has a lot of kids. My mom makes breakfast, she expects you to be there for breakfast every single day. She makes lunch after church on Sundays, and we can find 70, 80 Diazes at my mom’s house. So when you have free food, you're gonna come. You’re gonna live in McFarland.
Jim White: And I can vouch for that. It’s very good food. Remember, I had seven enchiladas.
Q: This question is for Michael, Ramiro, and Rafael. Cross country training is very tough. I was a cross-country runner. What do you feel that, putting your body through that to be able to get into the role, how did it help? Especially being able to take their lives, and to be working in the fields. What was that influence for you?
Rafael Martinez: I had run cross-country for one year in my freshman year of college. I had some understanding of what it was, but it was more for recreational purposes, just for me to learn what this is, just to get out and try something new. Two years later is when I got the role in McFarland. We went to training and this was the real cross-country. I mean every day, five to six, sometimes seven days a week just running. For the warm ups, right Michael, we were at what, 5Ks?
Michael Aguero: It was like P90X on steroids.
Rafael Martinez: It was just ridiculous. I think we all, especially me, had a new appreciation for the sport of cross-country, because it really is a difficult sport. It’s mind over body, and it’s incredible. I admire the sport so much that I run every day, now.
Michael Aguero: It also helps if you have a group of boys that you know push you; don’t let you give up.
Ramiro Rodriguez: It’s really funny because they had one month and a half, and I only had one week. One week. I guess my part didn’t really have to do a lot of running, but I did. I never did cross-country. I did track and soccer, of course, but after training with these guys, after training with Master College, it was amazing. I sometimes just put on my shoes and go run. It’s really a good sport. I like it. I can say it’s my second favorite, now.
Q: You’ve got the learning curve of the cross-country, you worked with Mark Ellis, you all were a runner beforehand. You had some athletic experience, but you had no acting experience. What was the learning curve like, learning how to act and portray the Diaz brothers, and be respectful of who they were at the same time? Knowing they’re looking over your shoulder, and they’re a lot bigger and they could beat the crap out of you at some point.
Michael Aguero: It was all intimidating up until we met these guys. Then, they made their personalities stand out, and it was easy to read them, just pretty much gave us something to go off of, rather than just sitting and not giving us any feedback when we met them.
Ramiro Rodriguez: I was really intimidated, because in McFarland, we don’t have resources to act or anything, you know? Niki Caro and executive producer Mario, they really pushed me. They said, “Oh, we have your back, anything you need.” Then next thing you know, two or three weeks into filming, they fired the acting coach.
I said, “I thought you guys had my back?” [Chuckle] I had Mr. Diaz, Danny Diaz as a counselor in high school, and it was just amazing. Knowing him and having conversations with him when I got in trouble, really helped me portray him and everything. It was nice.
Q: What about you, Rafael?
Rafael Martinez: They're certainly very intimidating; a lot of trepidation portraying a real person. It’s very scary. You never want to offend anybody, and you always want to remain true. Like Michael was saying, as soon as we met our counterparts, it was just easy from there. We got to know who they were, and it was just so much easier to go on from there.
Q: This is for Jim and the Diazes. Do you think this film will inspire kids that were in your situation when you guys were younger?
Jim White: I do. I definitely do. I think it’s such an inspiration to see that kids can come out of the fields, and kids can have some success with the right attitude and with the work ethics that you can pick up from cross-country. I definitely do feel that it will inspire a lot of kids to go on and do better, I'm sure.
Diaz Brothers: I do as well, only because this is unlike any other film. There’s no other sequel, anything close to it. You have some Hispanic kids from a real small town, and there’s nothing to relate it to. I think it’s nothing less than an inspiration.
More than anything, I think that working the fields, there’s a lot of kids that think they have to stay there, and that’s their calling. We certainly felt that way, growing up, that that was gonna be our lifestyle. I think with this movie coming out, I think that it’s gonna inspire kids to not only, you know, do their best in sports or education, but to know that there’s bigger and better things out there, and there’s these doors that can open. We live in the United States, the greatest country in the world, and you can do everything that you set your mind to. I think this movie’s definitely gonna inspire young people.
Q: This is for Coach White because I grew up in the Magic Valley of Southern Idaho. Since that is the area where you also met your wife, would you expand on Cheryl’s role as Mrs. Coach, specifically the parts that aren’t portrayed in the film?
Jim White: Unfortunately, they didn’t portray her in the proper way. Not that it was bad that they portrayed her, but she was more than they portrayed her. She was a mother, she was a hugger. She hugged their sweaty bodies when they came in from practice. She was a provider, she cooked all the time for them. Sometimes burritos, not as good as Mrs. Diaz, but when we’re on a bus and going to a meet, and they haven’t had anything to eat, then it’s still very good. She provided cookies and just a love for the kids. She loved them all, hugged them. She was like a mom.
Damacio Diaz: If I could echo a little bit on that. I was a little boy, I was 12 years old when I traveled with Mr. White to Oregon. We were there for a week racing, and my mom was home, my brothers were home. It was just me and a couple other teammates. You're 11, 12 years old, you need your mom every night. It was the first time I'd ever been out of the house. Mrs. White took care of us like a mom. She made sure we had a bed, blankets, food. When you're 12 years old, you don’t shower very often. She made sure we showered every night.
Damacio Diaz: So Mrs. White was great. She is a second mom to us. To this day, we are now 40 years old, and we still call her and we still talk to her. And if something's going on in your family, she will call and reach out to you because she is still interested.
About McFarland, USA
Inspired by the 1987 true story, “McFarland, USA” follows novice runners from McFarland, an economically challenged town in California’s farm-rich Central Valley, as they give their all to build a cross-country team under the direction of Coach Jim White (Kevin Costner), a newcomer to their predominantly Latino high school. Coach White and the McFarland students have a lot to learn about each other but when White starts to realize the boys’ exceptional running ability, things begin to change. With grit and determination, the unlikely band of runners eventually overcomes the odds to forge not only a championship cross-country team but an enduring legacy as well. Along the way, Coach White realizes that his family finally found a place to call home and both he and his team achieve their own kind of American dream.
Check out the official McFarland, USA trailer below! McFarland, USA is rated PG opens in theaters February 20th, 2015.
Portions of the material for this event has been provided courtesy of Walt Disney Studios, all opinions are my own.