Based on the 1987 true story, McFarland, USA follows a team of novice runners from the economically challenged town of McFarland, in California’s farm-rich Central Valley. As they give their all to build a team under the direction of Coach Jim White (Kevin Costner), their incredible work ethic inspired the town, and the unlikely band of runners eventually overcame the odds to forge not only a championship cross-country team, but an enduring legacy, as well.
During a conference at the film’s press day, actor Kevin Costner talked about what most appealed to him about playing Coach White, creating a bond with the young actors who make up the cross-country team, who the coaches were that inspired him, what people should know about the city of McFarland, a culture gap he had to overcome during filming, what makes a great sports movie, and how he waits for projects to come along that he really responds to, whatever the genre.
Question: What was it that most appealed to you about playing Coach White?
KEVIN COSTNER: Well, I had read the story some time ago. 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 had lived in the Central Valley, in Visalia, and I actually played McFarland in high school baseball. So, I was taken with the story, and then closed the page and moved on with my life. And then, this movie came up and this shining cloud, (director) Niki Caro said, “Would you be in this movie?” And it’s so nice to be wanted. You might think that I get everything I want, but I don’t. So, to be wanted, and for that to match up, was really a nice thing for me. It was a beautiful thing, actually.
There are 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 are 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. 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, if they are of the cloth that Jim White, who’s a very graceful, very quiet man, came from, you can let them know what is possible and give them a goal. Jim White puts the goal out in front of them, and they become champions. They exceeded beyond their expectations.
So, it’s a great lesson to us that, if we give our children and our young men and young women goals, and we let them see what’s possible, they can exceed beyond their own wildest expectations. It’s just a very good lesson, this movie. So, I was proud to play the essence of Jim White, but I’m not Jim White. I think we’d all like to be Jim White, in some way. It was a pleasure to be able to go from that Sports Illustrated article to making this giant circle to actually being in the movie.
In the movie, the bond you have with the kids is so strong. What did you do, either on set or off set, to create that bond?
COSTNER: That’s very generous of you to say. It really is. Niki bought a low rider car, so she completely immersed herself in this culture. It’s a style that Niki has. She trusts the people that she’s going to film. It’s not lost on anybody that she trusts the members of this community to be great. She is very willing to go with someone who grew up on those streets and who had their own dreams. Niki was really our leader. I was just a player on the court for her. She’s like a piece of steel. She is gentle, but she’s gonna protect her cast and story. It’s really nice to see that. With Niki, there’s no committee, and it’s nice. She’s our boss.
Since you played sports in your youth, did you have a Jim White type of coach in your life?
COSTNER: I did. I’ve had two coaches. One was from Visalia, and his name was Jim Barnett. He was a baseball coach, and he was a real help to me, in a lot of ways. There was also a man that was very powerful, whose name is Joe Vaughn. He’s the winningest basketball coach in the state of California for girls’ basketball. I was on the last team he coached for the boys. I had started to get into just a little bit of trouble in high school, and he was the type of person who just took me off to the side and said, “I thought you were a Jesus man.” I just looked at him and started crying. He was a guy that I really respected, and I felt like I had disappointed him. I got my act together. And 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, and Joe Vaughn did. Now, you almost don’t know what to say to kids because you could be dragged into court. But he was somebody that took me around the corner and said, “Look, I think you can be better than who you’re hanging out with and what you’re doing.” I remember tearing up and going, “I think I can, too. Does this mean I still get to start on the team?” And he said, “Yes, you do.”
What would you want people to know about McFarland, California?
COSTNER: I grew up in Ventura, and also in Visalia. I’ve driven down these roads, and I saw people working in those fields. I had friends whose families were pickers in Saticoy, California. But, 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, every week and every day, in all kinds of weather, the appreciation of who these people are, this is as American a story as you can possibly have. You think apple pie and baseball is 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 and to give their children a chance. It’s been playing out here, over the last 300 years. And so, McFarland is not some weird little town. No. 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 father and mother making an opportunity for their child, knowing that their life is gonna be hard. There’s something incredibly heroic about that, to me.
What was the biggest culture gap you had to overcome on this film?
COSTNER: Niki made it a point to highlight that, from the stuff that was painted on the walls of the house to the little restaurant. The Quinceañera highlights a young girl’s coming of age. I’d never been a part of that, or ever 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, it’s the thing you want as a father and the thing you are scared most of as a father. You realize that a million Hispanic men have watched their daughters come out to celebrate this coming of age thing, and how it melds right into America. I don’t know anybody in life who doesn’t want to do that for theirs daughter. It was lovely. It was modest, but it was a single moment, and the community and neighborhood rallied around that. I just really liked all of it. These young men have such respect for their fathers. It’s really something to behold. Our movie is peppered with that, and it would not have been appropriate without it.
You’ve been a part of some of the best and most memorable sports movies, but they’re also movies that are about so much more than that. What is it about a sports movie that allows us to address other issues in wider society?
COSTNER: 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, and why they can and can’t get along. With McFarland, Niki figured out that the running had to be authentic and the boys had to work hard. The movie is about, if you work harder, you can be better, and you can be more than you think you can. It’s just set against the world of cross country. But, I don’t think either one of us knew anything that. I hate running.
Do you have a character that you have not done yet, that you still want to do?
COSTNER: I’ve been able to do a lot of things in the movies. I’ve been able to run with the buffalo. I’ve been able to pitch a perfect game in Yankee Stadium. I’ve been in the bathtub with Susan Sarandon. I’ve had a lot of chances to do a lot of things. I enjoy sports, but I wouldn’t do the movie unless I thought it had a chance to be good. I’m not dying to do a sports movie and have it just be average. So, there’s nothing that I covet out there. I wait for something to come along that I can respond to. I’m not looking for the next sports movie, 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. If I planned my life so much in advance, I would have missed McFarland, by getting in my mind what I was going to do in my life. We all have to have our north star that we fix on and go to, but life is so much about the things that bump into you. I was really happy with how this happened. This is a story that I treasure.
McFarland, USA opens in theaters on February 20th.