Building The Team
Caro's sojourn in McFarland had an added element as she set about to cast
performers from the community.
It was a long process and included "movie boot camp" for the novice actors she
found in McFarland. But as a
result, three out of the seven runners on the team in the movie are from the
McFarland area: Sergio Avelar and
Michael Aguero were actual runners and Ramiro Rodriguez was a champion soccer
Caro began to build the cast about a year before the start of principal
photography and describes the very
involved casting process. "The casting directors held open casting calls in
McFarland, Bakersfield and San Diego,"
relates Caro. "Then all of that footage was sent to me in New Zealand. Amazingly
enough, the kids that really
resonated for me were the ones from McFarland. We narrowed down the list of
candidates by giving them
fundamental acting exercises and eventually committed them to tape so we could
show the studio. And that's
how we ended up with our team."
It's a casting style that producers Gray and Ciardi support and have
also embraced themselves in previous movies. They cast real jockeys
in "Secretariat" and went even further in "Miracle," as Gordon
Gray explains: "Niki's approach is also our preferred way of casting
movies. When we made 'Miracle,' we couldn't decide whether
it would be better to cast actors and teach them how to skate or
to get hockey players and teach them how to act. [Director] Gavin
O'Connor and I took ice skating lessons for a day to see how hard it
would be to teach a neophyte how to skate and after about a half
an hour, we decided we'd be better off teaching a hockey player
how to act. Then we went even further than that and got hockey
players from Boston. So whenever possible I think you want to get
authentic actors and athletes and sometimes they are one in the
same. Sometimes it's better just to go to the source and Niki is really
good with actors, so we never had any doubt."
As Caro lined up her team, she
and the producers also found
their coach in Kevin Costner, who
was always the actor they hoped
would play Jim White. "I think it's always a good sign after you've filmed a
movie that you can't see anyone else in that part and that's how we feel about
Kevin," comments Gray. "He was the person we always had in mind when we
were developing the script. He's absolutely perfect for that role. He's the
age, he's a grown-up, he gets kids and he gets coaching. He's a great actor.
He's got a sense of humor. He conveys a real quiet strength."
Gray adds, "He's always been one of my favorites. And he was great with those
kids. It's helpful to have an actor
who knows his way around a set, especially when you have young actors or in our
case, kids who had never acted
in a movie before. He used to give those kids tips in a really low-key way. They
really looked up to him and I think
they enjoyed each others' company in general."
As soon as Costner signed on, Caro began a close
partnership with him that continued throughout
production. "We worked quite thoroughly in preproduction on the script. We had a
relationship even before we got to set. He's such a
gift to this movie, such a great actor but an equally
fantastic collaborator and a really generous man. I
think he really brought not just strength to the role
but also his tenderness and vulnerability and his
care with the boys. He really mentored them; he
was like a coach to them and that's something you
Kevin Costner was a great
hit with the young actors. He
quietly mentored them and
offered advice if they wanted
it but for the boys, listening
to Costner's stories and
watching movies with him in
his trailer was a highlight.
can't fake. That's the soul of the movie," says Caro.
From day one of the filmmaking process, Costner found Caro to be a real
ally. "Niki has been true to me," says
the actor. "She's been incredibly consistent and that sounds like a boring word
but actually it's heroic and noble
because that's what you want in life-somebody to be consistent. She's very creative and she gives me a lot of
room but she has both eyes on me and has helped me directorially in certain
scenes. She just came up to me and
whispered something to me that made a big difference, so I've appreciated her
as a director and as a friend."
The narrative and themes of "McFarland, USA"
appealed to Costner, who says, "It's a heartfelt story
but it's not a soft one. It definitely falls into the canon
of Disney family films but among the elements
that resonated with me was that it is a true story.
You're thrilled that this could actually happen in this
small, American town. Jim White represents the
difference an individual can make in a community
That difference, Costner adds, did not just impact
one generation of runners but many to come as Jim
White built a track-and-field dynasty in McFarland that exists to this day. But
it all began with that improbable
1987 team. "They were like the little engine that could," says Costner. "They
didn't have the trappings of success,
didn't have the gym with fancy equipment and didn't even have the shoes. And
somehow they did it. The
greatest thing about athletics is that talent ultimately levels the playing field. Doesn't matter what economic
strata you come from. Can you run? Can you play? Can you compete? Jim recognized
that in these seven boys
and taught them to see it and believe that, too. This story follows these seven
boys on their way to manhood and
in the process they set a standard in that town that was followed by the entire
community. Now young people
growing up there want to be a part of the McFarland cross-country team."
The area also had personal significance for Costner,
a native Californian who lived for a time in nearby
Visalia. "I've told people before that my favorite year
in high school was my junior year in Visalia. I just loved
the Central Valley. I found myself hunting and fishing
in the mountains. I loved the fields. But in McFarland,
there are a lot of migrant farm workers who vastly
influenced the area and suddenly the town sort of
grew up. I think our movie has attempted to portray
that culture and I hope the people of McFarland will
be happy with it," Costner says.
Caro adds that while Jim White certainly influenced
McFarland, it is also true in the movie that his newfound hometown also deeply
affected him. "It's certainly true
in our movie and in the White family's own story that they got as much as they
gave if not more so from the
community. Jim White had an extraordinary and potent effect on those boys and
their lives and that community
but the community equally had a profound effect on the Whites," says Caro.
Working closely with the seven novice actors who
make up the cross-country team may seem daunting,
but Costner took it all in stride and embraced them
all. "These guys, from the moment I met them, had
smiles on their faces," says Costner. "They came up
to me and were very aware of the movies that I've
made. They made me feel great and I tried to look
out for them during the course of this movie."
He adds, "It's really easy to become a know-it-all, so
I don't want to try to be that. I can see what they're
doing and know that maybe they ought to do it
differently but I would rather them come to me than
be out there telling them what to do. They know they can come to me."
But in the world of the story, it takes a while for Jim to warm up to
McFarland, and his students also regard him warily initially, especially
the truculent Thomas, played by Carlos Pratts. Unlike some of the
team, Pratts is a seasoned actor who starred on Season 1 of the FX
series "The Bridge."
Thomas is a gifted, natural runner but until he encounters Jim White,
he doesn't understand that this talent might provide not just pride
and accomplishment but also a way out of his troubled home life and
what he considers a bleak and preordained future. Through Thomas
especially, Jim White begins to understand the grim reality that
defines the lives of migrant workers and their sons and daughters.
"Thomas has so much turmoil inside, he typically turns to violence
first," explains Pratts about his character. "He has also had to grow
up fast and doesn't want to burden people with his problems, so
he's very quiet and keeps it bottled up and is somewhat a loner.
When he meets Jim White, he's just another boss/foreman. The
foreman runs the crew in the fields and he's used to being yelled at
by these people. Thomas' day begins at 4 a.m.-he wakes up, grabs
a tortilla, runs out to the fields, picks, runs back and by 7 a.m. he's in
school. His reaction to Jim White is, this is
my world and you don't understand it."
Jim's recognition of Thomas' athletic ability begins
to bridge the cultural and emotional divide between
them. "Jim constantly pressures Thomas to join the
team and ultimately Thomas realizes that Jim isn't
using him for anything, he's helping him," relates
Pratts. "He becomes much more than a coach; he
becomes a shoulder to cry on and finally Thomas
realizes he isn't alone. Jim White saves his life."
Off-screen, Pratts says that Costner was also a great
teacher and often Pratts learned by his example on
how to behave both as an actor and as a person.
"Working with Kevin was amazing and the way he
treats people, so honestly and so openly, as a young
actor, it was great to see and really helped me
understand the kind of man I want to be. Working
with him was one of the best experiences of my
life," comments Pratts.
In turn, Pratts performed a similar service to the
young actors who played his teammates. "He
brought a real kind of leadership to the group and
really helped the other boys along," Niki Caro notes.
The rest of the actors making up the cross-country team are: Rafael
Martinez, Ramiro Rodriguez and Michael Aguero who play the Diaz
brothers David, Danny and Damacio, respectively; Hector Duran as Johnny;
Sergio Avelar, who portrays Victor; and Johnny Ortiz as Jose. Each had a
different route to the project but together, Caro says, "All of them brought
a really strong sense of family and community spirit to the movie."
Martinez, soft-spoken, polite and sweet natured, sheepishly admits that
he cut school to make the audition for the movie. "But it was worth it
because I got the part and making the film was such a great experience on
every level and it was a real education."
Like many of the cast, Martinez met his real-life counterpart and took the
opportunity to get to know and understand him and his journey. As is true
of many of Jim White's champion runners, David Diaz remained in the
community and coaches kids today. "He certainly lives up to the character
in the script,"
observes Martinez. "He is the oldest of the three
Diaz brothers, the most mature of the bunch. He
had to take on many responsibilities for the family
and his brothers, and he took it upon himself to be
on point, to make sure he was a good example for
his brothers and his family. He has a big heart and
great faith-he worked harder and prayed harder
than anyone, which I admire about him."
In fact, the Diaz family and McFarland in general
struck a personal chord with Martinez. "It reminds
me of the village in Mexico where my family is
from-Colorines. Certain blocks in McFarland remind me of Colorines. It brought
back so many memories for
me. It is also a small, family-oriented community where everyone knows everyone
and looks out for each other,"
The boys lead parallel lives as farm workers before they even arrive to
school. Ultimately Jim White decides to truly understand the unique
and daunting obstacles these boys face when he joins them in the fields,
which resulted in an interesting on-screen moment between Martinez
and Costner. "I'm probably the only actor who gets to say he taught Kevin
Costner how to pick cabbages," laughs Martinez.
Ramiro Rodriguez, a bit of a jokester off camera, is a McFarland native
who makes his acting debut in the film. In fact, Rodriguez initially had no
intention of auditioning. He was just the transportation. Describing how he
came to get the part, Rodriguez says, "I went because my cousin needed a
ride to the tryouts. One of the producers asked me if I wanted to be in the
movie. I said no thanks. But he kept asking me and the next thing I knew, I
was competing against my cousin! I had been planning to start college but
I couldn't pass up the opportunity."
But as it turned out, Rodriguez had several connections to the film. "I knew
about the story-in fact, Mr. Diaz
[Daniel] was a counselor at my school when I went there for high school. I
didn't know that until I got to meet
him for the movie. I was like, are you serious? When I found out I was going to
play him, I was so relieved. He's
super nice and he's a really funny dude," says Rodriguez.
Not a runner and not a trained actor, Rodriguez had a steep learning curve to
master. Fortunately, he had ample
help from director Niki Caro and Kevin Costner. "The great thing about Niki is
she is so supportive and really
listens and encourages our ideas," says Rodriguez. "She let me be me in a lot of
the scenes, which made it much
easier. And Kevin was amazing. If someone felt down or confused, he picked up
that vibe and was so helpful,
especially for me. I didn't know anything about movies; I didn't know what a
mark was or how to look for camera
and he showed me all that and gave me tips and told jokes and kept it light."
Michael Aguero, who plays Damacio Rodriguez and is from the nearby city
of Bakersfield, found real purpose and joy in "McFarland, USA," also his
first acting experience. Emancipated from his parents at age 14, he found
solace and purpose in high school arts classes. However, he was working
two jobs to support his young son when he heard about the open casting
call. "I figured, why not, I should give it a shot," relates Aguero. "I'm so
happy that I did. I got to work with a lot of good people, especially Niki.
She helped me embrace this whole acting thing, to try to create a career
for myself in this. She's been so helpful to me, so nice and generous and
if I ever had anything on my mind, about the work or whatever, she was
happy to talk to me about it. She pulled me aside many times, in her quiet,
kind way and explained things to me. She had a lot of patience with me
and I am very grateful."
Caro was equally impressed with the young, novice actor. "Michael brought
a smile to my face that I could not get enough of," Caro says. "He stood out
from the first time I saw him and that never ceased."
Some of Aguero's favorite memories of the movie were the locations. Because
cross- country runners race in all
sorts of terrain, he experienced a cross-section of
picturesque places, from the Central Valley to Los
Angeles. "I really enjoyed Griffith Park. I had never
been there before. I had no idea that was where the
Hollywood sign was! The views were amazing, you
could see all the way to Malibu Beach. Castaic Lake
was just beautiful; running down to it, you could
see the dam and all the mountains. It was amazing,"
A particularly indelible scene for Aguero was one in
which Coach White takes the team to the beach for
the first time in their lives. The company shot that
scene at Sycamore Cove in Malibu. Like his character, that scene also marked
Aguero's first visit to a beach and
first plunge into the Pacific-a chilly introduction to the ocean, considering
the October shooting date. "It was
brutal," recalls Aguero. "I jumped in and immediately wanted to jump out. They
shot it with two cameras and
you could see me in the wide angle but not in the tight because I wanted to
scoot! So we did it again. It was
definitely cold but it was fun."
Hector Duran, the affable thinker of the group, has been acting since he
was 9 years old, appearing mostly in small television roles, but "McFarland,
USA" is his highest profile project and his first feature film. His description of
his character Johnny is not too far from Duran himself. "Johnny Sameniego
is a very bright, witty kid who likes to have fun and also get things done at
the same time," says Duran. "He helps get the team together, in a really
uplifting way. I really love my character; he always has a big smile."
Duran spent a lot of time with his real-life doppelganger, who is still a
part of the McFarland community. "Mr. Sameniego still lives in McFarland
and when we shot there, I was able to get to know him personally," remarks
Duran. "He was very welcoming. He had me over for dinner and his brother-in-
law is the mayor of McFarland, so
he invited me over to his house, too.
The entire Sameniego family was
very hospitable. They took me on a
tour of McFarland and were so nice to me. They showed me the house
where he grew up and all of the medals that he won. He was very gracious
but also humble."
Sergio Avelar, who plays Victor Puentes, is also a McFarland native and a
former runner and member of the McFarland Track Club. He had a prior
personal relationship with Jim White and one of the original runners. "I've
been running since 2001 and I was always a decent runner," says Avelar. "One of
my coaches was actually the role that Carlos plays, Thomas, when I was in middle
and high school. He's a great man. He took us to the meets that weren't on our
schedule, like the Junior Olympics. He really inspired us to do good things, on
and off the field. And Coach White? Legit! Just a fantastic person, wonderful
and very nice. Even after he retired, he still helped us out at the practices
and meets. He was always really easy to get along with and he was always color
blind. Even though he is Caucasian and we are Mexican, it never mattered.
He and his wife are the coolest, most wonderful
According to Avelar, his character, Victor Puentes, is "a cocky, machismo,
ladies' man." "He's always preening himself and always checking out girls and
making sure he gets the attention," says the young
actor. "He gives Jim [Coach White] a hard time, but
just being a smartass. He doesn't give White any respect at the beginning, but
once his uncle talks to Jim, Victor
sees that he is okay and that he needs to give him respect. Victor's uncle is
his father figure because his father
is in jail. His uncle's trying to keep him out of the gang life and it seems
like Victor's trying to get in, just trying to
still be that little badass. To get him away from that, the uncle is telling
Victor to continue running. Whatever his
uncle says, goes."
Caro has nothing but praise for Avelar and says, "Sergio was magnificent
and particularly helpful to me in understanding the running because he
ran in state championships for McFarland."
Johnny Ortiz knew he wanted to be an actor at age 5 when he saw "Spy Kids."
After years of studying, his first real audition led to a role on
which led to other small parts but none like Jose in "McFarland, USA."
Describing Jose, Ortiz says, "He's a shy, quiet boy and that was fun to play.
I'm usually playing the crazy, loud one in high- speed car chases. Jose's
different; he's humble and loves poetry. And he loves to run. When he
runs, it's like his anger comes out. I used to wake up every day and jog in
the Rose Bowl. It's so much fun. You just feel the breeze, like nothing can
stop you and in that way, my character and I are very similar."
That's not to say Ortiz didn't have his moments of craziness, especially
in the car wash scene. That sequence involves the community coming
together-Anglo and Latino-at a makeshift car
wash put together to raise money for the McFarland
track team. "I felt like I was with family in that
scene, it was so real," comments Ortiz. "Washing
cars, playing with the folks, dancing with the music.
There's a sequence where Michael [Aguero] and I
breakdance. When that '80s beat came on, I did a
front flip and Michael was like, 'Whoa!'."
Ortiz adds that in general his teammates and
Costner contributed to that familial feeling, on and
off the set. "I truly bonded with all the guys, they're
really wonderful," says Ortiz. "We really connected
and related to each other. And Kevin was a big part
of that. Sometimes, after we would rehearse on set
and they would start lighting and placing cameras,
Kevin would go over the scene with us and tell us
what he thought. Or we'd go to his trailer and watch
movies. It really did feel like a family."
This little family of young men underwent a powerful
and, for some, life changing experience in filming
"McFarland, USA," from athletic training to acting.
They all rose to the occasion, impressing everyone
on the crew, including Caro. "It was very intense for
them, even for Carlos, who had more professional acting experience," says Caro.
"But for the others, who had
never been in a movie before, it was seismic. It was
amazing to watch them go through that experience
and to get them on the set that first day. I talked to
the crew as I do always before I shoot and one of
the things I said to them was, 'These kids are really
green and we need to take care of them. We need
to recognize that they don't know anything and if
they screw up, be gentle and generous.' But they
never did; it was like they were born to it. It was
amazing how effortlessly they came to it. They were
well-cast and well-prepared, but in the end it comes
down to the fact that they are just great kids and
Rounding out the cast is the
White family-Maria Bello
as Jim White's steadfast wife
Cheryl and Morgan Saylor and
Elsie Fisher as their daughters,
Julie and Jamie. Prior to principal
photography, Caro organized an
informal gathering for the onscreen
White clan that proved
insightful for her and them. "In
pre-production I got the White
family together-Kevin, Maria, Morgan and Elsie-and had them play Monopoly as a
family. That was really
interesting, even in a tiny little exercise like that, watching the family
dynamic just click in, and that's the way it
was for the rest of the shoot," says Caro.
Bello was incredibly moved by the "McFarland, USA" script and committed to
the project almost immediately
after reading it. "The humanity of the story really touched me; these kids and
their passion and what they had
been going through with their families, the work they had to do, all the huge,
emotional and physical obstacles
they had to overcome," informs Bello. "And then the dedication that they had
for cross-country and for Jim
White, this man who incited in them this commitment not just to running
but to themselves and each other. It was fantastically empowering and
inspiring. I've always related to the underdog. How these young men, with
Jim White's encouragement, rose beyond their circumstances with such
grace really spoke to me."
Of course, at first, Cheryl, wary of her new neighbors, is not thrilled
the family move to McFarland. Her initial view of McFarland is narrow but
she and Jim slowly come to understand that they have more in common with
the people of McFarland than they initially anticipated. Bello, a bonafide
human rights activist, was particularly interested in Cheryl's philosophical
transformation, particularly as it relates to events today. "Cheryl doesn't
begin the movie being a citizen of the world, in a lot of ways," explains
Bello. "She's lived in a very small box of a life until she gets to McFarland
and realizes that there's so much that she hasn't seen; so many different
kinds of lives that people are living. And in her own way she becomes
an activist, I suppose. It's so relevant even now to what we're going through
in terms of the migrant workers,
fair pay, immigration and our
borders. I think it illustrates
that we can be more open and
understanding of the people
who are here picking our food."
Kevin Costner, with whom Bello
shared many of her scenes, says
that Bello brought subtlety and
strength to Cheryl, which made
her role more than just the
standard-issue spouse. "Maria's a world-class actress and she commands the
screen," comments Costner. "She
has presence and she's given that wife role a lot of dignity and a lot of
authority and that's because she knows
how to hit her marks and she knows how to deliver those lines and be authentic.
Maria's very skilled and doing
as much as she can but not trying to do too much. She's playing a person who is
willing to tell her husband
when she thinks he's wrong and also able to love
him for the things that she knows are going wrong
in his life."
Morgan Saylor and Elsie Fisher, playful and
affectionate with each other, connected like sisters
on and off screen. In fact, all the ladies developed
a special bond. "The girls are fantastic. Morgan is
incredibly mature for her age, a deep thinker and
artist and always effortlessly herself, so there is
never a false moment. And Elsie is so funny, quite a
free spirit," enthuses Bello.
"Maria is wonderful," adds Saylor in response to Bello's praise. "She's a
really sweet person, so smart and funny.
She and Elsie and I would hang out and giggle for an hour over nothing. Or sit
in Maria's trailer and talk about
clothes or life, whatever. Everyone was so great but
that bond with Maria and Elsie was a real treat and
made all of our scenes together really fun."
Saylor shared several scenes with Costner also,
as a father and daughter who not only have to
navigate McFarland but also their own precarious
relationship. "Kevin is really cool and one of the
most fascinating people I ever met," says Saylor.
"It was fun to get to know him and to work with
him. He's an interesting actor to watch; he's really
present in the scene and he really works it out
in rehearsal. It's not just about getting to set and
performing when the camera rolls. I definitely asked
him a lot of questions and he was happy to answer
them. Plus he's lived such an interesting life and had
Saylor and Carlos Pratts also had several scenes
together and in some ways their characters'
friendship becomes a bridge between the Whites
and their new neighbors. Saylor often had lunch
with the rowdy bunch of boys and was bemused by
their off -screen antics. "They were a delight and a
handful," remarks Saylor. "I worked the most with
Carlos and we got along really well. But it was fun to
hang out with them. Sitting at a table with all seven of them was a little
overwhelming. They have a lot of energy
and humor. But they were all really kind and excited
to be a part of this movie. I think it is an important
story to them and they loved the chance to be on
set and especially to work with Kevin. They called
him KC and every day they would say something
like, 'You know what KC told me?' They were very
cute and enthusiastic."
Rounding out the cast are Martha Higareda as
Lupe, Danny Mora as Sammy, Valente Rodriguez
as Principal Camillo, Vanessa Martinez as Maria
Marsol, Chris Ellis as Coach Jenks and Diana Maria
Riva as Senora Diaz.
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