Kevin Costner Interview, McFarland USA

Kevin Costner sees the potential in a group of young high school athletes and transforms them into a championship cross-country team in the inspiring sports drama, “McFarland, USA,” directed by Niki Caro based on the 1987 true story. A newcomer to a predominantly Latino high school in the small California town of McFarland, Coach Jim White (Costner) recognizes the boys’ exceptional running ability, their unwavering commitment to family and each other, and their impressive work ethic. Together, with grit and determination, they create an enduring legacy.

At the film’s recent press day, Costner talked about the appeal of playing Coach White, Niki Caro’s directing style, the bond that developed between all the actors during filming, the pivotal role a coach can play in a young person’s life, the Jim White-type coaches who influenced Costner’s life in a positive way, what he learned about Latino culture growing up in Visalia, why he waits for projects to come along that he can really respond to irrespective of genre, the biggest cultural gap he experienced on this film, and how sports movies allow us to address other issues within the wider society.

Here’s what Costner had to say:

QUESTION: Kevin, what was it that most appealed to you about playing Coach White?

KEVIN COSTNER: Well, I had read the story some time ago. I don’t know if it was ten, 15, 20 years 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. I actually played McFarland in high school baseball. I was taken with the story, and then, of course, closed the page and moved on with my life. Then this movie came up, and this shining cloud Niki Caro said, “Would you be in this movie?” It’s so nice to be wanted. I mean you might think that I get every film I want, but I don’t. And, to be wanted, and for that to match up, was really a nice thing for me. It was a beautiful thing to play Jim, actually.

There are these men and women all over America who are affecting our young people. The relationship that coaches establish with young people is something that carries through their life if it’s done right. There’s not a lot of Jim Whites, but there are Jim Whites, and he represents the best, really, of the best. 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, and boy, if they are of the cloth that Jim White came from, a very graceful, very quiet man, who somehow let them know what was possible. What was just possible; not that they were going to get there, but this is possible for you, a goal. And Jim White, in just putting the goal out in front of them, look what happened. Champions. Look – they did – they 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, if 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. I’m not Jim White. I think we’d all like to be Jim White in some way. But it was a pleasure to be able to do that, to make this giant circle from that Sports Illustrated article to actually being in the movie. I mean that feels like a movie, doesn’t it?

Q: The bond you have with these young actors is so obvious and strong in the movie. What did you do, either on set or off set, to create that strong bond?

COSTNER: Niki bought a low rider car, and so she completely immersed herself in this culture. But it also is a style that Niki does, which is 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 able to work in the movie and to be great. That’s the kind of thing that gets unspoken. 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. Niki was really our leader. I was a player on the court for her. But she was our leader, and she’s like a piece of steel, you know? She is gentle, but she’s going to get her movie, and she protects her cast and her story. It’s really nice to see that. With Niki, there’s no committee, and it’s nice. She’s our boss.

Q: Kevin, you played sports in your youth, did you have a Jim White-type coach in your life?

COSTNER: Yeah, I did have. I’ve had two coaches. One was from Visalia, his name was Jim Barnett. He was a baseball coach and he was a real help to me in a lot of ways. 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. I was the last team he coached the boys. Maybe he was sick of us. But he was that kind of person. I remember I started to get in just a little bit of trouble in high school. 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 was just like [imitates crying]. I just started crying, you know. It was like a guy that I really respected and I felt like I had disappointed him. And, I kind of got my act together and instead of making that “Y,” I came back to center. 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 so Joe Vaughn did. And now, you almost don’t know what to say to kids because you could be dragged into court, you know. But here’s somebody that took me around the corner and said, “Look, I think that you can be better than maybe who you’re hanging out with, or maybe what you’re doing.” And I remember tearing up and going, “I think I can, too. Does this mean I still get to start on the team?” And he went, “Yes, you do.”

Q: What did you learn about Latino culture growing up and what can you tell us about a small California town like McFarland?

COSTNER: I’ve grown up in Ventura, and also in Visalia. I’ve driven down these roads. I saw people working in those fields. I played and fought and had friends where their families 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 a 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 going to get real sentimental here, but there is no more an 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 father and a mother making an opportunity for their child, knowing that their life is going to be hard. There’s something very noble about that, to me; something incredibly heroic.

Q: What was the biggest culture gap you experienced on this film?

COSTNER: Well, you know, Niki made it a point to highlight that from the mural that was painted on the walls of the first house I go into, to the little restaurant, and the Quinceanera that highlights a young girl’s coming of age. I think the celebration of America is in these things that our cultures bring to America. I’d never been a part of a Quinceanera, 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. It’s the thing you want as a father. It’s 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 mean, this is something that 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. The boys dressed up so nice and we had chickens walking around and the lights were everywhere. It was just so lovely. It was modest, but it was a single moment and the community rallied around that, and the neighborhood rallied around that. And then, of course, the architecture of the movie and then something dark happens. I just really liked all of it. The kind of love that these young men have and the respect that they have for their fathers, I don’t see that as much in America as you see in the Latino community, and it’s really something to behold. So, our movie was just completely peppered with that. It would not have been appropriate without it.

Q: You’ve been a part of some of our most memorable sports movies. What is it about a sports movie that allows us to address other issues in wider society?

COSTNER: I’ll tell you, 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, 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, in McFarland, I think Niki figured this out really, that yes, the running had to be authentic and the boys had to work hard. They didn’t have all the facilities that the other teams have. 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. But Niki’s direction to 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. It’s set against the world of cross country, but I don’t think either one of us knew anything about that. In fact, I hate running.

Q: You’ve done a lot of different characters over a lot of different genres. Is there any character that you have not done yet that you 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, you know. 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 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. No, there’s nothing that I covet out there. I wait for something to come along 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 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 I was really happy with how this happened. It’s a story that I treasure.

“McFarland USA” opens in theaters on February 20th.

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