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.
‘McFarland, USA' became more than just another feel-good movie after Director Niki Caro hand-picked seven young boys to be the star of her new movie. It became a heartfelt movie celebrating a legacy, a legacy about a group of underdogs that overcame the odds to become champions.
The first in our two-part series of interviews features Kevin Costner, Director Niki Caro, Carlos Pratts, Johnny Ortiz, Sergio Avelar, and Hector Duran.
In this interview, a humble Kevin Costner shows his love for these young actors, much like that of a proud father, and we learn just how much Director Niki Caro immersed herself in this culture, purchasing her own low-rider car. Plus, runners Carlos Pratts, Johnny Ortiz, and Sergio Avelar, share their experience meeting and getting to know their real-life counterparts, the Diaz brothers. ‘McFarland, USA’ is rated PG opens in theaters February 20th, 2015.
McFarland USA Press Conference Q&A
Q: You got to meet your real-life counterpart, right? What was that experience like, and how did that inform your acting and your role in the movie?
Johnny Ortiz: My character was actually in the military, serving in the military. I heard he’s coming tomorrow – I mean on the 9th to the premiere. So I don't know that much about him, but I did talk to Niki, who gave me the directions and how she wanted it.
It’s a beautiful role because it’s about a young kid, growing up by himself and how he goes through a struggle. He’s trying to make it in life, he’s trying to do something, and how you know, he managed to go to school, go to fields and all that stuff.
All the characters have something in common because they all come from a different background, which show that this is happening out there; this is what happened and it’s just beautiful seeing this come to life.
Q: Sergio, what was it like filming in McFarland, and what do you think it meant to the people of the town there?
Sergio Avelar: Honestly, it was just surreal. Coming from McFarland, everyone talking about how they’re gonna be making a movie, and it never happened. Then here comes Disney and a great director like Niki Caro to start the film process. It was just so surreal.
Q: Carlos, talk for a minute if you will about the training that you had to go through to become a cross-country runner in the movie.
Carlos Pratts: First off, I want to say thank you to everyone for being here, and you know, go McFarland USA. As far as training, we all know diets are horrible. I would say in the mornings, we went to Santa Clarita and I would run like five or six miles with these guys, and I cried more than I cried when I saw Bambi. Sergio being a runner from McFarland really helped me out, as well as Hector, and Johnny, and everyone. Then we would go to the studio and rehearse the film, and then after that I would make the drive to Redondo Beach.
At Redondo Beach, I would go through a lot of pain from the great people at Brik Fitness – thank you, Brian Nguyen – and he would help with the strength, and the nutrition, and all that. So for about three months, I couldn’t have a carb and I didn’t wear a shirt in my apartment. I'm kidding about that part.
Q: Okay, Hector. The big, obvious question: What was it like to work with an actor like Kevin Costner?
Hector Duran: Well, now that he’s in front of me, it’s a little more nerve-wracking. No, I'm just kidding. Working with Kevin was obviously an amazing experience. He’s such a humble guy. One of the greatest memories I have on set, which really shows his character for me, was we’re on set at like 4 in the morning, and it was really cold outside. And Kevin’s like, “Hector, are you cold?” And I was like, “Yeah.” He’s like, “Do you want my jacket?” And it really showed how much he cares about his fellow actors.
Q: That’s great. And then Kevin, for you, sort of the same thing but in reverse: what was it that most appealed to you about playing Coach White?
Kevin Costner: Well, I had read the story some time ago. I don't know if it was ten, 15, 20 – I don't know – I'm 60, so I don't remember how long ago I read this story. [Laughter] I had read about it in Sports Illustrated, and I remember being very taken with it. I had lived in the Central Valley in Visalia – I actually played McFarland in high school baseball. I was taken with the story, and then of course closed the page and moved on with my life.
Then this movie came up, and this shining cloud Niki Caro said, “Would you be in this movie?” It’s so nice to be wanted. You might think that I get everyone I want; I don’t. And to be wanted, and for that to match up was really a nice thing for me, and it was a beautiful thing, actually.
To play Jim, there’s these men and women all over America who are affecting our young people. Relationships that coaches establish with young people is something that carries through their life if it’s done right. There’s not a lot of Jim Whites, but there are Jim Whites, and he represents the best of the best. It’s almost biblical; our children have a hard time listening to their parents, right? There’s a moment in time where kids really don’t want to hear anything from their parents. But a coach can take on that, and if they are of the cloth that Jim White came from, a very graceful, very quiet man, who somehow let them know what was possible.
What was just possible; not that they were gonna get there, but this is possible for you, a goal. Jim White, in just kind of putting the goal out in front of them, look what happened. Champions. They exceeded beyond their expectations, so it’s a great lesson to us, McFarland, that if we give our children, our young men, our young women goals, we let them see what’s possible, they can exceed beyond their own wildest expectations. I was proud to play the essence of Jim White. I'm not Jim White.
Q: And Niki, what was it about the story that attracted you to the story, and sort of fits with your film making sensibilities?
Niki Caro: I was inspired, simple as that. Not only and just by Jim White and the original team, and the scale of their achievement, and the legacy that left and the legacy that goes on, but I was really inspired by the people, by how hard they work, by the commitment to their families, their faith, their community. It was great for me to be able to light that up.
You drive to McFarland, you’ll see a bunch of people you see on-screen. It’ll look like it does on-screen. That’s deeply satisfying to me to, to go in and tell a story that is not only meaningful, but is true and real, and tell it with the real people. If that weren’t enough, to go in with the likes of these people, this has been a deeply, deeply satisfying experience for me and I hope it will be for the audience, too.
Q: Sergio, it sounds like your story is almost a movie in itself, that you haven’t acted before, but you get a film that’s about your hometown. Can you just talk about how you got involved?
Sergio Avelar: My cousin gave my mother a phone call saying that there’s a open casting call, it was actually in Bakersfield which is 30 miles south of McFarland. He said, “Tell Junior to go out there, to see if he could get the movie.” I thought of it as a joke, like they’re not gonna get the locals; they’re gonna try to get the guys that can act.
Next thing you know, I was getting call backs to go and talk to the casting directors, that way they could get to know me a little more. Then there was a hiatus, it was about a year and a half or so when I didn’t hear anything about it. Next thing you know, I get this call from the casting office, and they say, “Would you like to continue the process on to trying to get back into the movie in McFarland?” I was like, “Oh, yes.” I completely forgot about it.
Coming out here to the auditions was very nerve-wracking because I was going up against these actors, and I've never acted in my life. I never took drama classes or anything like that.
Next thing you know, I'm at work and I get a call from Niki. She’s like, “Oh, this is Niki Caro from McFarland, and I was wondering if you would want to work on this project McFarland.” Oh, my gosh, I was – that was the best phone call. [Laughter]
I just jumped up and down, I ran inside the job that I had, and I was like, “Oh, my God, I got the movie, I got the movie!” Everyone was congratulating me. It’s amazing. I thank everyone.
Q: Your bond is so strong in the movie. What did you do, either on set or off set to kind of create that bond?
Sergio Avelar: I think what really helped us bond with each other was our training prior to us filming. We had to train for a whole month, and every day, like Carlos said, we would go out, run five or six miles. Then we’d do even more workouts. Through that process, we were able to get to know each other.
Niki Caro: Can I just speak to that a little bit? I give Kevin credit for a lot of that. He continues to be so generous to these boys. Amazing.
You continually propped them up, was their coach in many ways. Me and my team got them prepared physically and dramatically, but what you see on that screen, the closeness of that team and that coach is real, and it is due to Kevin’s generosity, and tenderness and enthusiasm for these amazing kids. That has given this movie something special.
Kevin Costner: That’s very generous of you to say, it really is. But it bears saying, Niki bought a low rider car, and she completely immersed herself in this culture. It’s a style that Niki does, which she trusts the people that she’s going to film. That's why she could trust in the idea of Sergio.
She is very willing to go with someone who grew up on those streets, who had their own dreams, and to make that phone call, the phone call that Niki was able to make, you have no idea. That phone call changes lives. There’s a hundred hearts that broke, and there’s like eight hearts that just, their lives get a chance to change because the phone call that Niki makes, the trust that she has in the face, the words she heard spoken back to her. Niki was really our leader. I was a player on the court for her, you know?
Niki Caro: How lucky am I, right? [Laughter]
Kevin Costner: She was our leader, and she’s like a piece of steel. She is gentle but she’s gonna get her movie and she protects her cast and her story. With Niki, there’s no committee, and it’s nice. She’s our boss.
Q: Kevin, I wanted to ask you. Since you did play sports in your youth, did you have a Jim White-like coach in your life, and can you talk about that experience?
Kevin Costner: I've had two coaches. One was from Visalia, his name was Jim Barnett. It was a baseball coach, and he was a real help to me in a lot of ways.
But there was a man that was very powerful. His name is Joe Vaughn, he’s the winningest basketball coach in the state of California for girls’ basketball. I was the last team he coached the boys. Maybe he was sick of us, but he was the kind of person…
I remember I started to get in a little bit of trouble in high school, and he just took me off to the side, and he said, “I heard you – I thought you were a Jesus man. I thought you were a Jesus man.” I remember, I just looked at him and I was just like: [imitates crying] I just started crying.
It was a guy that I really respected, and I felt like I had disappointed him. I kind of got my act together and instead of making that why, I came back to center. I was always listening to my father more than anyone. I was always afraid of my father more than anyone. But there’s a moment in time where other men in your life can have a huge impact.
So Joe Vaughn did. Here’s somebody that took me around the corner and said, “Look, I think you can be better than maybe who you're hanging out with, or maybe what you're doing.” And you know, I remember tearing up and going, “I think I can, too. Does this mean I still get to start on the team?” And he goes, “Yes, you do.”
Q: For Kevin, what did you learn about Mexican people, about Mexican crowd after the movie?
Kevin Costner: I've grown up in Ventura, and also in Visalia. I've driven down these roads. I saw people working in those fields. I played and fought and had friends where their families were, pickers in Saticoy, California, a little Mexican barrio school that I went to. I didn’t invest the way I did until Niki brought me this movie. Bending down to work and seeing a field go forever, understanding that this is forever, this is every week, this is every day in all kinds of weather, the appreciation of who these people are, this is as American story as you can possibly have.
You think apple pie and baseball’s American? No. McFarland is way more American than any of those things. Those are pastimes.
There is no more American story than parents who are willing to do anything to better their children, to give their children a chance. McFarland is not some weird little town, like oh, poor McFarland. Poor McFarland? No. Number one, there’s a mythology around McFarland because their lives changed when they understood that they could be champions, and repeat that idea. But the simplicity of, there’s nothing more noble than a father and a mother, making an opportunity for their child, knowing that their life is gonna be hard. There’s something very noble about that, to me; something incredibly heroic.
Q: My question is for Kevin, and maybe Niki can chime in, too. Kevin, you’ve been a part of some of mine and society’s favorite sports movies. What I love about them is they’re about sports, but they’re really about so much more. What it is about a sports movie that allows us to address other issues with the wider society, and especially here with McFarland?
Kevin Costner: I think Niki hit on it perfectly. If you want to make a great sports movie, don’t put too much sports in it. It’s the backdrop. It’s the environment. Bull Durham was about men and women, why they can and can’t get along and have to still be together.
I think in McFarland, I think Niki figured this out really, that yes, the running had to be authentic and the boys had to work hard. And the idea of going to that last meet, where these guys had been building themselves up, they look up and they see these big buses with these big schools and these really nice uniforms, and they start to shrink. They start to pull back. We weren’t going to let them fall back.
We were going to have them look these other boys in the eye, and know that they’re just as good, and in my mind, they’re better. That’s what the movie was about: that you're just as good, and if you work harder, you can be better.
Kevin Costner: You know. I do not want to have this conference end on a question to me. I'd love there to be two more questions if we could, and it to be to Niki and to these boys.
Q: For Johnny, Sergio, and Carlos, and Hector. There are a lot of Latino movies coming up. How do you feel that these movies that are coming out are touching close to home? Are you're thinking about doing more movies in Latino, for Latinos, with Latinos?
Carlos Pratts: I think for the longest time, we as Latinos have always, just in general want to see ourselves in a better light. And now we have that. This film shows us that. And everyone, I mean I think you look at a Jim White, he’s a part of it and everyone needs a Jim White. I just can’t wait to see more of it out there because Kevin and I are the same. I mean he’s got a lot more money, but you know. [Laughter]
The only difference is the color of our skin, and we came into this world the same and we’re gonna leave the same.
Johnny Ortiz: For me it’s very important that this thing rolls out like this, because it’s very important. Coming from a culture, I grew up in Highland Park, and most of my family members are gang bangers. Coming from that culture, I had to break that chain. I had to become something in life, and I wanted a change for myself. Niki has been so great for casting me in this role. It’s beautiful.
Sergio Avelar: From Niki, Kevin, and Disney, they basically just put a big stepping stone for Latinos on the acting industry. I was never really a part of it, and now that I've stepped into it, it really opened up my eyes. Working with someone like Kevin, you know, big time, it just really opened up the doors for us. Just a big stepping stone inside the acting industry for Latinos.
Hector Duran: I feel like this was an amazing opportunity for me. I know that we all go through struggles in life, no matter what the color of your skin is. For us Latinos, this is a huge stepping stone, like Sergio said. I feel like this will open the doors for not only Latinos, but for all other ethnicities that are waiting for their recognition.
Q: I want to know what it’s like, because you're a great director, Kevin’s a great director – won the Oscar – I just wonder what it was like working with him?
Niki Caro: Every day was a really good day at the office. It was amazing. Bull Durham, if you haven’t seen it, see it. If you’ve seen it, see it again. It was one of my favorite movies, top five movies
Look at me; I'm not a sports girl. But working with Kevin was nothing but a privilege, and a pleasure. I'd do it again tomorrow, if you don’t mind. And working with these guys, too, I'm a little uncomfortable. Bless them, they are so happy and grateful to be in this movie, but they’re not as grateful as I am to have had the opportunity to work with them, and to work on this story and to light this culture up. Yeah, McFarland USA.
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.