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McFarland, USA, the based on a true story of seven cross country athletes with no training or experience competing not only for their school but for a better future. Under the guidence of Coach Jim White (Kevin Costner), director Niki Caro‘s new film is is a heartwarming story of grit, perservance, and sportsmanship.

We were recently invited the to film’s press day where Costner and Caro talked about working on location in McFarland, the culture gap, and more. Also there were Johnny Ortiz, Sergio Avelar, Hector Duran, and Carlos Pratts, who talked about the training, meeting their real-life counterparts, and how they hope the film shows that Latinos can be more than the sterotypical characters you see on TV. Hit the jump to read their quotes.

Johnny, did you ever get to meet your real life character, what was that experience like?

Johnny Ortiz: Well, my character actually didn’t get to meet him. He was
actually in the military, serving. He’s still in the military. I heard. 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. And going through the role, it’s a beautiful role because it’s about a young kid, you know, growing up by himself and how he goes through a struggle, and he’s just by himself. 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. But 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.

Sergio can you talk about your experience in the film, and what do you think it meant to the people of McFarland?

Sergio Avelar: It was just surreal. Coming from McFarland, and um, everyone talking about that they’re gonna be making a movie, and it never happened, and then you know, here comes Disney and you know, a great director like Niki Caro, um, to you know, start the film process. And I mean it was just so surreal, especially filming out there. You know, you see more out there on set, you know, hundreds of people out there just going and supporting just the film, and you know, it was just so surreal.

Interviewer: 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. And as far as training, we all know diets are horrible, um, but yeah. 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. But you know, Sergio being a runner from McFarland really helped me out, and – as well as Hector and Johnny and everyone. And so we do that. Then we would go to the studio and rehearse the film, and then after that I would make the fun drive in the Hyundai Elantra, which I’m very thankful for because my car was in a bad place; thank you, Disney, and I would make the fun drive to Redondo Beach. At Redondo Beach, I would then go through a lot of pain from the great people at Brick Fitness – thank you, Brian Gwen, and he would just help with the strength, then nutrition and all that. And so for about three months, I couldn’t have a carb and I didn’t wear a shirt in my apartment.

Hector, 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. And 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.

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Kevin, for you, sort of the same thing but in reverse: what was it that most appealed to you about playing Coach White?

Kevin: Well, you know 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. But I had read about it in Sports Illustrated. And I remember being very taken with it. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­I actually played McFarland in high school baseball. And, uh – but I was taken with the story, and then of course closed the page and moved on with my life. And then this movie came up. Um, and this shining cloud Niki Caro said, “Would you be in this movie?” And it’s so nice to be wanted. I mean 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. And to play Jim, who, you know, there’s these men and women all over America who are affecting our young people. And relationships that coaches establish with young people is something that carries through their life if it’s done right.

There aren’t a lot of Jim Whites, but there are Jim Whites, and he represents the best of really the best. It’s almost biblical, our children having a hard time listening to our parents, there’s a moment in time where a kid doesn’t want to hear anything from our parents, but our coaches can take on that thing, if an employee is cut from the same cloth as Jim White, a very graceful, a very quiet young man, who some how let them know What was just possible; not that they were gonna get there, but this is possible for you, a goal. And Jim White, in just kind of putting the goal out in front of them, look what happened. Champions. Look – they did – the 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. And uh, it’s just a very good lesson, this movie. So I was proud to play the essence of Jim White. I’m not Jim White. You know, I think we’d all like to be Jim White in some way. But it was a pleasure to be able to do that, kind of from that Sports Illustrated article make this giant circle to actually being in the movie. I mean that feels like a movie, doesn’t it?

Niki, what was it the story, and that sort of fits with film making sensibilities?

Niki Caro: I was inspired, simple as that. Um, and – and not only and just by Jim White and the original team and the scale of their achievement, and the legacy that they 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. And it was great for me to be able to light that up. Um, and films that I’ve made previously, I really enjoy getting a big kick out of it, actually, working with real communities. And this is a real story, it really is. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­You drive to McFarland, you’ll see a bunch of people you see on screen. It’ll look like it does on screen. Um, and 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. And then 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.

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Sergio, the film sounds like your story is almost about yourself, you haven’t acted before, so can you talk about the process of getting the role?

Sergio: Yeah, man. My cousin gave my mother a phone call a movie in itself, that you haven’t acted before, but you get a film that’s about your hometown saying that there’s a open casting call, and it was actually in Bakersfield, which is 30 miles south of McFarland. He said, “You know, tell Junior to go out there, to, you know, see if he could get the movie.” And you know, I thought of it as a joke, like aw, they’re not gonna get guys from, you know, the locals; they’re gonna try to get the guys that can act, you know? It never came to mind. And um, next thing you know, I mean I was just getting, you know, call backs on – to go and, you know, to talk to the casting directors, that way they could get to know me a little more and things like that. And then there was a hiatus of a year and a half or so when I didn’t hear – I didn’t hear anything about it. Next thing you know, um, I get this call from the casting office, and they say, you know, “Would you like to continue the process on to trying to get to the movie – to try to get back into the movie in McFarland?” I was like, “Oh, yes,” like I completely forgot about it. And next thing you know, I mean, you know, coming out here to the auditions, and you know, it was very nerve wracking because I was going up against these actors, and you know, I’ve never acted in my life, I never took drama classes or anything like that. So I thought I was no way into – you know, competing with these guys. So next thing you know I was at work, I get a call from Niki, and she said “This is Niki Caro” from McFarland, and I was was wondering if you wanted to work on this project McFarland. And oh my gost, I just jumped up and down, I ran inside my – the job that I had, and I was like, “Oh, my God, I got the movie, I got the movie!” And everyone was congratulating me. I mean, it’s amazing, you know. I thank everyone.

Hi, everybody. Congratulations on the film. It’s really a beautiful film, very powerful., I was wondering, you guys have such – it’s so obvious, your bond is so strong in the movie. What did you do, either on set or off set to kind of create that bond?

Avelar: Um, 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. And then we’d do even more workouts. But through that process, we were able to get to know each other, you know, our limits were, and how to mess with each other, so that’s the chemistry that you see.

Caro: I give Kevin credit for a lot of that. He continues to be so generous to these boys. Amazing. And you know, continually propped them up, he was their coach in many ways. You know, 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. Um, that has given this movie something special. You know, when I called “cut,” it didn’t stop. It’s ongoing. You can see.

Costner: You know, that’s very generous of you to say, it really is. It bears saying that Niki bought a low rider car, and so she completely immersed herself in this culture. But it also is – it’s a style that Niki does, which is she trusts the people that she’s going to film. And that’s why she could – you know, trust in the idea of Sergio. And that – even though that doesn’t get ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­translated in their conversation, it’s not lost on anybody that she trusts the members of this community to be able to work in the movie, and to be great. And there’s – that’s the kind of thing that gets unspoken. But in a way, it’s the DNA of how she works. She is very willing to go with someone who grew up on those streets, who had their own dreams, and then to make that phone call, the phone call that Niki was able to make, you have no idea. That phone call changes lives. You know, um, there are – you know, there’s a hundred hearts that broke, and there’s like eight hearts that just – their lives get a chance to change because of – because of the phone call that Niki makes, the trust that she has in the face, the words she heard spoken back to her. But you know, Niki was really our leader. I was a player on the court for her, you know?  But she was our leader, and it was – and – and – boy, you know, she’s – she’s like a piece of steel, you know? She is gentle but she’s gonna get her movie and she protects her cast and her story. And it’s really nice to see that. There’s – with Niki, there’s no committee, and it’s nice. She’s our boss.

Kevin, I wanted to ask you. You were speaking earlier about the coaches, the importance and how special someone like Jim White is, you know, how they’re not always out there but when they are, it’s really wonderful. Um, I was wondering for 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?

Costner: Yeah, I did have – 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 – but there was a man that was very powerful. His name is Joe Vaughn. And he’s the winningest basketball coach in the state of California for girls’ basketball. Uh, he was – I was the last team he coached the boys. Maybe he was sick of us. Um, but you know, he was the kind of ­­­­­­­­­­­­person, I remember I started to get a – just a little bit of trouble, in high school. And he you know, 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.” And I remember, I just looked at him and I just started crying, you know, it was like a guy that I really respected, you know, felt like I felt like I had disappointed him. And, uh, you know, I kind of got my act together and instead of making that why, I came back to center, uh, you know. 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, you know, men – other men in your life can have a huge impact. And so Joe Vaughn did. And, you know, now, you almost don’t know what to say to kids because you could be dragged into court, you know. But here’s, you know, somebody that took me around the corner and said, “Look, I – I think that you – 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.”

Kevin, what did you learn about Mexican people, about Mexican crowd after the movie?

Costner: I’ve grown up in Ventura, and also in Visalia. And I’ve driven down these roads. And I saw people working in those fields. I played and fought and had friends where their families were – were pickers in Saticoy, California, a little Mexican barrio school that I went to. But again, I didn’t invest the way I did until Niki brought me this movie. And 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. What’s American – maybe I’m gonna get real sentimental, here, because it’s getting dark, but there is no American story than parents who are willing to do anything to better their children, to give their children a chance. There’s nothing more American, and it’s been playing out over the last 300 years, here. And so McFarland is not some weird little town, you know, 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.There’s nothing more noble than a mother and father making an opportunity for their child, knowing that their life is going to be hard. And there’s something very noble about that, to me; something incredibly heroic.

I run marathons, but I’ve never done cross country so I have mad respect for the kids, In the movie, your characters I think all can run one mile in five minutes, or something like that? Uh, that’s And also – and also – and also, you run also with some Converse on, or some crappy shoes before you get, you know, the nice shoes. So were there any injuries during the running thing for that – with that shoes on? And so how fast are you compared to the characters that you play?

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­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Carlos: I’ll take the first part of this. As far as how fast I am in comparison featured in this film. well, when we were doing the music video for – for Juanes’ “Juntos” – give it up for “Juntos” – um, they were telling me Juanes wants to run. And I said that’s fine, but make sure that he knows that we are going to movie run, and not cross country run. So Thomas is light years faster than me, unless there’s a taco truck or an ice cream truck in front of me, okay? Also Kevin and Niki, super fast, man. Everything Kevin just said and all that, thank you so much for bringing out our culture. I mean it’s just a beautiful thing and the way that you guys support us, and I just want to say thank you on that, as well.

I run marathons, but I’ve never done cross country so I have mad respect for the kids, In the movie, your characters I think all can run one mile in five minutes, or something like that? Uh, that’s And also – and also – and also, you run also with some Converse on, or some crappy shoes before you get, you know, the nice shoes. So were there any injuries during the running thing for that – with that shoes on? And so how fast are you compared to the characters that you play?

Pratts: I’ll take the first part of this. As far as how fast I am in comparison featured in this film. well, when we were doing the music video for – for Juanes’ “Juntos” – give it up for “Juntos” – um, they were telling me Juanes wants to run. And I said that’s fine, but make sure that he knows that we are going to movie run, and not cross country run. So Thomas is light years faster than me, unless there’s a taco truck or an ice cream truck in front of me, okay? Also Kevin and Niki, super fast, man. Everything Kevin just said and all that, thank you so much for bringing out our culture. I mean it’s just a beautiful thing and the way that you guys support us, and I just want to say thank you on that, as well, so.

Caro: He’s just being a little bit modest, um, because they had to run. They were – they had to run. There’s a – there’s a hill in that movie; there’s no special effects. Those kids, including Danny Diaz, are going up that hill really fast. And the porta potties were at the bottom, and I was at the top. And I made myself run up and down it many times that day, and it’s brutal. So um, yeah, you don’t get to be so modest, actually, Carlos – or any of them because they had the goods, and that’s them for real, running seriously fast.

Kevin, do you have any character that you have not done yet that you want to do?

Costner: I’ve really had a – you know, I’ve been able to do a lot of things in the movies. I’ve been able to run with the buffalo, you know, I’ve been able to pitch a perfect game in Yankee Stadium, in the bathtub with Susan Sarandon. I enjoy sports, but I enjoy sports so much to the point that I wouldn’t do the movie unless I thought it had a chance to be good. That’s how much I like them. I’m not dying to do a sports thing and have it just look average. There’s nothing that I covet out there. I wait for something to come a long that really is a clear sound that I can respond to, and that I can just really move to it. So I’m not looking for – you know, the next – you know, the next sports movie at all, by any stretch. I did two sports movies back to back – Field of Dreams and Bull Durham,and no one thought that was a smart idea. But those movies separated themselves so much. So if I plan my life so much in advance, I’ll miss this. I would have missed McFarland by getting in my mind what I’m going to do in my life. I mean we all have to have our north star we kind of fix on and we go to. But life is so much about the things that bump into you, and Niki and I know the story more than anybody, but it’s one I – it’s one that I treasure.

Kevin, um, about culture gap. You have been many countries, and interacted with the culture gap of food and the mothers in cultures. So what was, uh, kind of biggest, uh, culture gap experience now you can laugh about?

Costner: Well, you know, Niki made it a point to highlight that from the stuff that was painted on the walls of the first house I go into, which was – you know, and – and – the little restaurant. But you know, the Quinceanera is – I think the celebration of America is that these things that our cultures bring to America, to highlight a young girl’s coming of age. I’d never been a part of that, never seen that, and yet that was a real highlight for me. It was obviously a movie moment, but to see her come out and dressed up so beautifully. And you know, it’s the thing you want as a father, it’s the thing you are scared most of as a father. So you realize that a million Hispanic men have watched their um daughters come out to celebrate this coming of age thing, and how it melds right into America. I mean, this is something that – you know, I don’t know anybody in life that doesn’t go: I want to do that for my daughter. And of course, that’s what happened. You know, my little Caucasian daughter is in a Quinceanera. And the boys dressed up so –nice and you know, and we had chickens walking around, and the lights were everywhere. It was just so – it was lovely. It was modest, but it was a single moment and – and the community rallied around that, and the neighborhood rallied around that. And then of course the architecture of the movie and then something – you know dark happens. I just really I think Niki’s right; the kind of love that these young men and the respect that they have for their fathers, I don’t see that as you see in the Latino community, and it’s really something to behold. And so our movie was just completely peppered with that. And it would not have been appropriate without it.

Kevin, and maybe Niki can chime in, too. Kevin, you’ve been a part of some of mine and society’s favorite sports movies. And what I love about them is they’re – they’re about sports, but they’re really about so much more. And what it is about a sports movie that allows us to address other issues with If you want to make a the wider society, and especially here with McFarland?

Costner: I think Niki hit on it perfectly. To make a great sports movie, don’t put too much sports in it. It’s the backdrop. It’s the – it’s the environment, and you know Bull Durham was about men and women, why they can and can’t get along and have to still be together. And so 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 they didn’t have all the facilities that the other teams have. And you know, and the idea of going to that last meet, where these guys had been building themselves up, and right about that last meet, they look up and they see these big busses with these big schools and these really nice uniforms, and they start to shrink. They start to pull back. And Niki directing me, was 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. And that’s what the movie was about: that you’re just as good, and if you work harder, you can be better.And you can be more than you think you can. And it’s set against the world of cross country, that I don’t think either one of us knew anything – I hate running.

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For Johnny, Sergio, and Carlos, and Hector. You know, there are a lot of Latino movies coming up. What do you’re thinking about doing more movies in Latino – for Latinos, with Latinos.

Pratts: All right, real quick. I mean I think for the longest time, we as Latinos have always, um, we 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. This film is it. This is the truth. And I just can’t wait to see more of it out there because we as Latinos are – you know, we’re – Kevin and I are the same. I mean he’s got a lot more money, but you know? The only difference is the color of our skin, and you know, we came into this world the same and we’re gonna leave the same, so.

Avelar: Um, for me it’s very important that um, this thing gets – rolls out like this you know, because it’s very important. I mean coming from a culture – I grew up in Highland Park, and I mean most of my family members are gang bangers. And coming from that culture, it’s – had to break that chain, you know, I had to become something in life, and I wanted a change for myself. And Niki, you know, has been so great for casting me in this role. It’s beautiful because it shows a different – it shows that why can’t we be the doctors, the lawyers, the detectives in the show? Why do we got to always be the gangbangers.. I’m happy to see that Disney is doing a Latina princess. to be voiced by Sofia Vargaria. I’m just proud that Niki did this. Everybody, the whole cast and crew were great.

Ortiz: Just from Niki, and you know, from Kevin, Disney, they basically just put a big stepping stone, you know, on Latinos, on – onto the – you know, the acting industry. I mean I was never really a part of it, you know, and now that I’ve stepped into it, you know, it really opened up my eyes that you know, being with these people, working with someone like Kevin, you know, big time, I mean it just really opened up – opened up the doors for us, I mean and just a big stepping stone inside the acting industry for Latinos.know that we all go through struggles in life, no matter what the color of your skin is. And for us Latinos, this is a huge stepping stone, like Sergio said. And I feel like this will open the doors for not only Latinos, but for all other ethnicities that are waiting for their recognition.

By Michael Lee

Michael Lee has an English and Communications degree from Concordia University Irvine. He is a fan of films that are comic-book adaptations and dry witty comedies. has been reacquired by its original founders. Please pardon any interruptions during this transitory period.