Kevin Costner plays Coach Jim White in Disney’s “McFarland, USA,” which tells the true story of a coach who inspired his seemingly hapless students to form a cross country team and go the distance. In interviews in a college conference call and on the Santa Barbara International Film Festival red carpet, Costner and White talked to the Daily Nexus about the film.
Once known as the “Heartbeat of Agriculture,” McFarland, California is home to fields of cotton, almonds, sugar beets, oranges and grapes. Within this farming town’s predominantly Latino population, many students at the local high school in 1987 did not quite feel that it was home. Neither did their new gym teacher … until he saw how fast they could run.
The last thing Coach White expected to run into in this little farmland was a group of speedy students. He sought kids who strived to succeed, so he had a tournament and offered the top four runners ice-cold Gatorade, a nicety during a hot Central Valley afternoon. Seeing how quickly they raced, he upped the stakes.
“I took the top guys in and bought them a milkshake,” White said in a college conference call with the Nexus. “I wanted a little more out of them so I said, ‘If all of you can run a mile in a certain time, I’ll take y’all out to dinner.’ This way, you’re building a team instead of just an individual because they have to encourage each other as a whole.” Upon finding further success, Coach White ran the idea of starting the high school’s first cross country team by the principal, and the rest is history.
To Costner, the sport aspect is merely the backdrop of the story. What made this inspirational was not so much the finish line but the authenticity. This little town in the Central Valley gave distinguished track teams a run for their money and won nine state championships. “It’s a combination of young men and a man with a level of wisdom and desire who come together with one goal in mind and achieve that through hard work,” Costner said.
White established a cross country empire that dominates the sport to this day, as the pool of talented runners never seems to run dry. The 1987 team reached their stride with pure raw talent — without the gym, fancy equipment or even shoes. The seven runners ran against immense obstacles while working long hours in the fields to make ends meet. To overcome that and succeed shows that they were not run-of-the-mill high school students, a theme that manifests itself during Costner’s inspiring speech towards the end of the film.
“Coaches have the power to build people up and we can equally tear someone down. So it’s a very delicate thing when you put the life of a young person [in] your hand,” said Costner. “Jim represents the difference an individual can make in a community like McFarland.”
Besides being a true story, another special part about the film is that it stars three first-time actors from the town McFarland. “I think [Director] Niki Caro did a very interesting thing, casting actors from McFarland. That’s very brave. It also galvanized the community; it galvanized the boys that they were good enough to be there,” Costner said on the red carpet.
Ramiro Rodriguez, who plays the film’s lovable chubby runner Danny Diaz, is from McFarland.
“Seeing all the details [of the film] really brought joy to my heart. What you see onscreen is the real McFarland, [where] you see kids picking in the fields and going back to school,” he said.
At the screening at SBIFF, Rodriguez waltzed down the red carpet, arms around his brothers from the movie, Michael Aguero and Rafael Martinez. All seven runners showed up to the Arlington, along with Costner and Caro. Within the boisterous group, Rodriguez and Aguero were the ones who couldn’t stop smiling.
“Having us three — having all seven of us in one room, you’re going to have chemistry and chaos — nothing but jokes. We love each other like brothers, we fight each other like brothers,” Martinez said, to which the goofy-smiled Aguero interrupted. “We got competitive — we’d always push each other [onset].”
Johnny Ortiz, who plays Jose Cardenas in the film, didn’t have the same playful attitude as the others at the red carpet, but gave thoughtful answers to reporters.
“[The film] shows that Hispanics can play other roles … we can be doctors and lawyers … we don’t always have to be the gangbangers,” he said. At the end of the film, it was revealed that the real-life Cardenas went on to become a journalist for the Los Angeles Times.
All in all, it is clear that “McFarland, USA” has meant a lot to the little community in the Central Valley. The movie has helped reshape how the city is represented in the long run.
“Our old logo of the heartbeat of agriculture is obsolete. Now we have a silhouette of an athlete running and underneath it reads ‘Tradition, Community, and Excellence’,” White said.
The 1987 McFarland High school cross country team was started by boys who wanted to run away from home and escape their dreary hamlet. Coach Jim White transformed it to redefine home as something to run for … and toward.