Kevin Costner first became aware of the Jim White story (chronicled in McFarland, USA) in an article in Sports Illustrated some years ago. “I remember being very taken with it. I had lived in the Central Valley in Visalia. I actually played McFarland in high school baseball. But I was taken with the story, and then of course closed the page and moved on with my life,” Costner told Movie Fanatic.
It was a chance to play a real life coach who had made a difference and changed lives. As teased in the McFarland, USA trailer, Costner plays White who was a somewhat disgraced football coach who left a prime job in Idaho under questionable circumstances and moved his family to the titular city.
When he saw these migrant workers and their kids toiling in the field, he noticed something. These kids who attended his school had a natural gift for speed. White started a cross country team and they have become legendary in California.
For Costner, he relished the opportunity to shed a spotlight on people who are helping build our future. “There are these men and women all over America who are affecting our young people, and the relationship that coaches establish with young people is something that carries through their life,” Costner said.
“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 if they are of the cloth that Jim White came from -- [they] let them know what was possible, look what happened -- champions. It’s a great lesson to us. If we give our children goals, we let them see what’s possible, they can exceed beyond their own wildest expectations. I was proud to play the essence of Jim White.”
Did Costner have a Jim White in his life? “I've had two coaches. One was from Visalia, his name was Jim Barnett. He was a baseball coach. He was a real help to me in a lot of ways,” Costner recalled.
“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 for the boys. I started to get in a little bit of trouble. He just took me off to the side, and he said, ‘I thought you were a Jesus man.’ I remember, I just looked at him and I just started crying. I felt like I had disappointed him.”
The superstar, who is no stranger to sports movie classics (watch Field of Dreams online), believes that McFarland, USA transcends that genre and says so much more and inspires in so many different ways.
“If you want to make a great sports movie, don’t put too much sports in it,” Costner said and smiled. “It’s the backdrop. Bull Durham was about men and women, why they can and can’t get along and have to still be together. I think McFarland, USA is about you can be more than you think you can. You're just as good. And if you work harder, you can be better.”
McFarland, USA also shines a spotlight on the community that is predominantly of Mexican descent, and how it triumphs their spirit, sense of family and desire to make a difference in this country to those who will follow in their footsteps.
“I've grown up in Ventura, and also in Visalia. I saw people working in those fields. I played, fought and had friends whose families were pickers in Saticoy, California -- a little Mexican barrio school that I went to. You think apple pie and baseball’s American? No. McFarland is way more American. Those are pastimes. There is no more of an American story than parents who are willing to do anything to better their children, to give their children a chance,” Costner said.
“There’s nothing more American and it’s been playing out over the last 300 years, here.”
The title is perfect, because it’s not just about McFarland, California. This is a true story about McFarland, USA. “There’s a mythology around McFarland because their lives changed when they understood that they could be champions and repeat that idea. There’s nothing more noble than a father and a mother making an opportunity for their child, knowing that their life is gonna be hard. There’s something very noble about that, to me; something incredibly heroic.”
After having achieved so much (he won two Oscars for Dances with Wolves) and attaining massive box office success, he clearly appreciates how his hard work has paid off, but he cautions he is far from done.
“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, [and be] in the bathtub with Susan Sarandon,” he said and laughed.
“I’ll wait for something to come along that I can respond to. If I plan my life so much in advance, I'll miss this. I would have missed McFarland. We all have to have our north star we fix on and we go to. But life is so much about the things that bump into you. McFarland, USA is one that I treasure.”