Disclosure: This is part of a sponsored collaboration with Disney and Walt Disney Pictures. I received an all-expense paid trip from Disney so that I could gather and share this information. However, all experiences and opinions are always 100% my own as this post is written by me in its entirety.
Seven young men, led by the inspirational stories of seven men from a little town called McFarland, USA, show honor and love to those who made their American Dream come true. To take on a role based on a true story takes courage and heart. To portray a character you know is as real as the air you breathe cannot be easy, especially if you happen to be from that small town that is coming to the big screen.
Carlos Pratts, Hector Duran, Sergio Avelar, Johnny Ortiz, Rafael Martinez, Michael Aguero and Ramiro Rodriguez were cast to play the seven man cross-country running team in the latest front-runner in theaters in North America for McFarland, USA. Three out of the seven young actors on the team in the movie are from the McFarland area — Avelar, Aguero and Rodriguez.
Sergio and Michael are real runners for McFarland Track Club – Sergio has run since 2001 and one of his coaches in middle school was actually Thomas Valles, the real-life person represented by the role that Pratts plays. Ramiro was a champion soccer player and in fact, he didn’t even plan or want to be in the movie. He was cast after executive producer Mario Iscovish repeatedly requested that he audition; he was only there because he offered to drive his cousin to the casting tryouts. The real-life Danny Diaz served as Rodriguez’s counselor in school.
For most of these young men this was their first time acting. They definitely lucked out getting to star besides Kevin Costner, who plays Coach White, and having the opportunity to be mentored by him. All seven had to train for their roles as champion runners. A coach was hired to help them train for the film starting at 8am every morning to build up their endurance. For a few of the boys with some track and field or other sport backgrounds it was only a tad bit easier. The role played by Carlos is that of a natural-born runner, but for Carlos, training came hard and fast, ultimately turning him into an a runner now. Carlos also spent time training with Brian Nguyen, who whipped Mark Wahlberg’s into shape for “The Fighter”.
So what was it like for these seven young actors to get behind the scenes of a true story and help to bring it to life? What was it like getting to know the real-life inspirations behind McFarland? Getting to know these young men on a more personal level was profound.
Hector: I had the opportunity to spend time with the real Johnny Sameniego, who is the character I play. He’s really a great guy. He invited me to dinner and gave me a tour of the city.
Coming from McFarland, Ramiro has actually been around the real-life inspirations throughout his whole life. Danny Diaz was his counselor in high school. The first time Ramiro went to go see Diaz he wasn’t recognized because Ramiro had a wig on. And Sameniego was his 8th grade P.E. teacher, so he knew him pretty well too, but it was an amazing experience to get to know him more.
Sergio’s story is similar to that of Ramiro’s since he is from McFarland as well. The role played by Carlos – Thomas Valles – was Sergio’s running coach since he was a little kid. Sergio tells us that:
“Thomas is just so humble. He always took time off of his job and he would go travel with his runners. He would take them to Oregon, just anywhere around the nation just to go seem them run. To see all the support that they (the Diaz brothers included) still have for the community is just amazing.”
A few of the boys hail from McFarland. To now see their world, their lives, on the big screen must be so exciting. How has the community reacted to the new fame?
Ramiro has to remind himself that all of this is not a dream. He visits the high school to look at the building every morning to pinch himself awake. He is proud of how the town has changed – for the better. He recalls “…there used to be a lot of crime back then, like gangsters and stuff, but like now it’s really holding down it’s spot, for the national spotlight. It’s really coming together and being a community, how it should be.”
To be able to now proudly say you are from McFarland is a big deal to the town. Sergio says “…back then it was known as, where are you from? I’m from McFarland. Where’s that at? Oh, you know, between Bakersfield and Visalia. Oh, that town that smells likes cows…” For Sergio this opportunity to not only have his town showcased but to be able to star in the movie that is making McFarland a household name, “…it’s truly a blessing.”
Playing a runner couldn’t have been easy. As an actor you have to be ready for anything. That includes physical training for this role as cross-country running. The boys had to do their fair share of running to shoot the scenes necessary for the film.
Considering Ramiro’s background in sports, he lucked out and only had to do about a week of training to prep for his role as a runner. The others weren’t as lucky. The group trained for about a month and a half to prepare. Cardio and healthy eating habits were also part of the training the boys had to undergo. Moments of weakness crept in for Rafael:
There’s moments where I want to get some fries and they’re just like no, you can’t have fries.
Even Kevin joined them for some exercise routines. But there was a lot more running that happened than we see in the film. The boys would run about 5 or 6 miles to warm up before starting a cardio routine. With all the “takes” and different camera angles that were required for the film, it seems the boys ran and ran and ran.
Ramiro recalled getting shin splints during running. Fortunately the boys found some relief in their running doubles. Running wasn’t as easy as Ramiro thought it would be:
There’s moments where I couldn’t run. So being a runner is a hard sport. I mean, it’s really a hard sport running. Cross country is a hard sport. I’m saying it’s a really a hard sport. When I first went to audition, I’m like, oh, it’s like soccer and we’ll run and but it’s a hard sport.
An inspirational movie no doubt, McFarland, USA leaves you feeling like you can conquer the world. For these boys, they’ve just lived the American Dream they’ve always wanted. And they definitely learned some value from the movie. Taking with them precious real-life lessons from the film:
Rafael: I think, me as an actor, what I take from this is the message that it’s giving (you can achieve anything you set your heart to). I like to pick and choose my roles because it’s very important that I choose these roles because as Latino-Hispanics were viewed as gang-bangers, playing gang-bangers. Why can’t we be the doctors? Why can’t we be the lawyers? Why can’t we be the detectives? Gina Rodriguez just won a Golden Globe. That’s great, you know. Disney just made a new princess called Elena. So I’m blessed to be in McFarland, USA showing people that us Hispanics are joining the industry.
Ramiro: Throughout high school and pretty much my whole life, I’ve been the chubby one, and in this movie, I see it a lot. They picked on me. Despite all this, like in the movie I know, it was a joke. Yeah, they could tell me that I’m fat, but like to be honest, in real-life, it really did hurt me. And for him to triumph the way he did (Danny Diaz’s role in winning the State Championship), it’s really a triumph for me also, because he proved everybody wrong, that a big man could do it and it also showed me that I could do it too.
Hector: One of the biggest things I’ve learned throughout this film, which I had already known but it just reinforces it even more, is the idea of equality and not judging a book by its cover because you never know, as you see in the film. Kevin Costner, he comes into this small town, small town, and he kind of judges the book by its cover. But once you get deeper into what’s real and all the values that are there, you see that everybody’s equal. Everybody had their own opinions. The only thing that separates us is the color of our skin, so we should try to treat, treat each other equally.
Johnny: This is very important, because we’re all family. It’s a very inspirational film and what I want people to take away from it is basically, motivation, dedication, inspiration, and anything’s possible.
And the chemistry they have on film comes through in real-life as well. They all consider Hector to be the “little brother” of the group. They continue to stay connected via texts and calls to each other. Checking in with each other to make sure everyone is doing okay. Sharing a love as brothers, even when the director called “cut”, the chemistry and love remained between them.
McFarland, USA brought new experiences for everyone. For Michael it came in the form of visiting a beach for the first time in his life. For Carlos, who has plenty of acting experience under his belt, being in a movie was quite different from shooting for a TV show. The boys are all growing with experience from filming McFarland, USA. The cross-country inspirational movie has definitely opened a lot of doors for all of them, and they are grateful for that.
And working with an experienced actor like Kevin Costner was a definite plus. They had a great time with him, and really got to know him. Kevin shared plenty of stories with them, “He was more stories that a library, I swear”, Michael chimed in.
Carlos: What is Kevin like? Unless you know Kevin, you can’t really make an opinion. And you hear things prior to working with Kevin. I know someone asked it earlier. You hear, it’s gonna be amazing, or it’s gonna be like someone unleashed the Kraken. And it’s so much better than amazing, and just the person that Kevin is. I have a 9-year-old little brother and these guys have all got the chance to meet my family because we are family. We bring each other in. And so my little brother comes on set and Kevin takes a real liking to him. A 9-year old, as we all know, there’s no flood gate. It is what it is. It’s just kind of [SNAPS FINGERS], just get it out there. And Kevin is like, I want you to see this, ’cause it’s November, like right after Thanksgiving. We’re about to go to Christmas, so everyone’s really excited about the holidays. And he’s got this DVD of Christmas at Kevin’s, and it’s like George Lucas and Spielberg said let’s make our own holiday. And there’s camels, there’s presents. They have blocks and blocks and blocks and blocks of huge things about the size of this room, where they make snow for the kids. And it’s a beautiful thing. Well, my little brother looks at it, and he said Kevin, how much money do you have? And Kevin response, he just looks to him and he says it’s not how much money I have, it’s about the fact that I just share with everyone else. This is who Kevin is.
Johnny shared a very personal story with us. I was so humbled by what he had to say that I just had to share it.
I remember being 5 years old and I called 4-1-1, and I asked how do I become an actor? And my dad looked at me and he was like ah, my adorable son, but felt like he couldn’t help me because he didn’t know how the industry worked. Dreams are possible. Goals are possible. I got in McFarland.
And that’s not all he got, he’s also starting on the TV show called American Crime with Oscar-winner John Ridley. Growing up in a crime riddled family, Johnny broke the chain.
I decided I don’t want to go through that path. I don’t want to live that life. So if I want to do that, I got to put my mind and my heart. I’ve been in and out of jail back in my past history. There’s struggle out there, and we got to help these kids out, there’s a lot of kids out there that have talent, that have a lot of heart. They just don’t have the access or the opportunities.
Hearing what came next really caught my attention. Johnny got his start thanks to a non-profit organization called Casa 0101. Josefina Lopez, author of Real Women Have Curves and founder of Casa 0101, brought Johnny into the theatre and ultimately changed his life. For Johnny the last thing he cares about is the fame and money. What he really wants to see is change, and more opportunities for at risk youth, like he was once.
Sergio understands Johnny’s sentiment:
It opened up new doors for us (being in McFarland, USA). Not just for us, but for the Latino community in the industry. Coming from McFarland, you never even think you’re gonna become an actor. It’s either you work the fields, the oil fields, or you work the prisons, and that’s it. At our school, we have no drama class. We have nothing like that. We don’t have all these resources like they do out in L.A.
But most importantly, the boys have empowered each other in ways they never realized. Michael gained a confidence to believe in himself in everything he does, including the music he is now writing. These boys have brought upon themselves an empowerment no one will ever be able to take away from them. They went out there and put themselves on the line, and won.
If you still haven’t had the chance to go see McFarland, USA, I highly recommend you do. Check out the audience score from Rotten Tomatoes, McFarland is at a 91% rating!!!
McFarland, USA is now playing in theaters everywhere. Check with your local theater for showtimes. Get social online with the official movie hashtag #McFarlandUSA and my teams reporting #McFarlandUSAEvent to learn more and interact with other fans on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.