'McFarland USA' Testifies to the Power of the Heart (INTERVIEW)

Starring Kevin Costner as real-life coach Jim White, 'McFarland USA' is a movie that's about more than running.
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McFarland USA Photo

(Photo: Disney)

You can count on one hand the number of films that have been made about cross-country running and still have fingers left. It isn't a sport that has been romanticized on the big screen in the same way as football and baseball, but with the release of Disney's McFarland USA this Friday, that's about to change.

Set in 1987 and based on the inspirational, true story of a team of novice runners from the economically challenged town of McFarland, Calif., McFarland USA, starring Kevin Costner as Coach Jim White, is a movie that's about more than running. Rather using the sport as a backdrop, it displays the power of heart, commitment, family and an incredible work ethic.

That isn't to diminish the incredible athletic achievement made by McFarland's first cross-country team and the coach that inspired them to succeed, but it is also proof of the difference one individual can make in a community, even as the community gives back to him and his family.

"There's not a lot of Jim Whites, but there are Jim Whites, and he represents the best of the best," Costner said at a press day for the film. "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 thing, and boy, if they are of the cloth that Jim White came from, a very graceful, very quiet man, he somehow let them know what was possible."

A cross-country team is compromised of seven members, and for the movie, three out of the seven runners that make up the movie team are first-time actors, who hail from the McFarland area: Sergio Avelar (Victor Puentes) and Michael Aguero (Damacio Diaz) were actual runners and Ramiro Rodriguez (Danny Diaz) was a champion soccer player. The rest of the team is comprised of Rafael Martinez (David Diaz), Hector Duran (Johnny Sameniego), Johnny Otiz (Jose Cardenas), and Carlos Pratts (Thomas Valles).

McFarland USA Photo

(Photo: Disney)

Of the bunch, Rodriguez has the most interesting casting story. He initially had no plan to audition. He was simply his cousin's ride to a call back. He tells Bio, "They spotted me and they were like, 'Oh, you want to be in the movie?' I was, 'Oh, no thank you.' They were, 'Come on. Be in the movie.' They really pushed me to try. One week later, they sent me a contract, and I signed."

P.S. His cousin still talks to him, and Rodriguez, who was reluctant to audition because of his weight, gleaned a great deal from saying yes. Being a part of the movie experience instilled in him a self-confidence he previously lacked.

"Throughout my whole life, I have been dealing with people judging me about my weight," he says, "It really showed me that I could do [something]. I never thought I could. Now look at me. I'm doing it. I'm big, yet I have this big thing. Never once did they judge me for my weight."

Training for the movie was a full-time job. The team — with the exception of Rodriguez who didn't join until the final week when he was signed — ran a minimum of five days a week for a month before filming started and sometimes as many as seven days. As grueling as that sounds, for Pratts, who starred in Season 1 of The Bridge, the hardest part was the food plan.

"In one word, the diet, that was it," Pratts says. "Being true to it, and knowing that every little bit does count, and I had [a] responsibility that I had to make towards this film, and for my character. So going months without rice and beans, which I love, it was very hard."

But in the end, it paid off and with his physical training, which pushed Pratts to his limits, combined to teach him an important lesson.

McFarland USA Jim White Photo

Coach Jim White. (Photo: Disney)

"If it wasn't for the times that I didn't want to do something, and they said, 'No, finish it,' I wouldn't have been able to make a final push to beat [the real runners] by a knee," Pratts says, of filming the final race scene in the movie. "I take that lesson more so now than ever with everything that I do in my life. It's that one little bit; you never know when it's going to pay off, but it will."

Pratts wasn't the only one who took life-changing knowledge away from the movie. Martinez learned "how to become a team with a group of people, even if you're not familiar with them. How to talk to people easier, and how to learn to put up with pressure."

Aguero says he discovered that you are never alone: "Deep down to the bone, we are all the same, and your dreams will come true when you have the right support and the right family."

One of the people on the production who gave the young men that much needed support was Costner, who they label as "awesome," and who more than played a coach. He also coached his team of seven when they needed it on the set.

"He made it a point after the table read, to come up to us and say, 'Are you ready for this journey?,'" Pratts says. "So at that moment, Kevin took down all the barriers, and after that we just went and had fun."

"When I think about celebrities, I think about them being unreachable, being unrelatable, being big people that I can never fathom being around," Martinez adds. "Not to mention, making a movie with them. But Kevin is not that person. He really is down to earth and understood us. We love him for it."

McFarland USA Photo

(Photo: Disney)

Portions of McFarland USA were filmed in the actual town, where today there is a sense of pride that didn't exist prior to the victory of the cross-country team. And a good deal of that stems from the actions of the real-life Jim White, who appreciated the sense of community he found in McFarland.

So in order to preserve that, White, who even in retirement continues to ride his bike alongside the team as it runs, told his athletes that if they went to college, they needed to return to McFarland and pay it forward. A majority of the original runners on the championship 1987 cross-country team did just that, becoming educators in the McFarland school district and actively supporting the cross-country teams of today by coaching, and helping out with the meets and practices.

"For all of us in our family, it was expected, it was a requirement," says the real-life Damacio Diaz, who is a police officer in Bakersfield, Calif., of their return. "My parents really pushed the college-bound future for us. So we all graduated, and over the years, migrated back to McFarland. We all live within three or four miles of our parents. There are seven of us in our family, and six of us are teachers. We all live in that community because we feel we owe, and we are willing to give back, for what we received from the fields, from the community, from the people who live there, from our coaches and teachers. For us, it couldn't be any better."

Disney's 'McFarland USA,' directed by Niki Caro and also starring Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor, Martha Higareda, Danny Mora, Valente Rodriguez, Vanessa Martinez, Chris Ellis, and Diana Maria Riva, opens in theaters on Feb. 20th.