Humble. Completely and unabashedly humble. That’s Kevin Costner in a nutshell.
The 60-year-old award-winning actor is as even keeled and down to earth in person as he is in many of the roles he’s played in his vast acting career. This is the guy who built a ball field in the middle of Iowa so he could have a catch with his dad. The man who danced with wolves and led a band of merry men through Sherwood Forest. And more recently, he’s the dad who helped raise a boy to a Man of Steel with a solid collection of morals.
This is Kevin Costner, and on a bright and sunny morning in Los Angeles, California, I got to meet him. Granted, I wasn’t alone. As part of a whirlwind blogging adventure dubbed #McFarlandUSAEvent, myself and 24 other bloggers sat patiently in a room at the W hotel for the actor to give us some of his time as he worked the press circuit for his latest film McFarland USA.
Hitting theaters on February 20, McFarland USA (based on a true story), tells the tale of a predominantly Latino high-school in California’s Central Valley. Raised in the poor town of McFarland where a prison sits right next door to the school, seven kids find something they never thought they’d have: hope. Costner plays coach Jim White, a man completely out of his element both on and off the field. White and the boys take on insurmountable odds when they form the town’s first cross country running team and compete with the best the state has to offer.
For a movie star who seems larger than life, McFarland USA seems a far cry from Costner’s standard roles. Small town of immigrants who spend long days picking crops in the fields. Latino kids with no experience, starting up a cross country running team. And a cast made up of pretty much unknowns.
Doesn’t even sound like a typical blockbuster film from Disney, does it? Even the title, McFarland USA, doesn’t have much zip to it.
Yet it’s a truly moving story. An important story. And one that Costner, who grew up in Central Valley, definitely wanted to be a part of.
“I played against McFarland in baseball,” the actor revealed. “I lived in Visalia, up in the Central Valley. The important thing for me was that I was able to participate in this movie and highlight a culture that we see all the time, driving down our highways, looking off to the left and right, and somehow we just keep driving. We’re not supposed to text and we’re not supposed to stop our car to look. But that is how the food gets to us.”
As high school coach Jim White, Costner needs to absorb anything and everything that is cross country running and impart his knowledge and wisdom upon a group of uninterested kids. These boys wake up before the crack of dawn to work in the fields for their families before heading off to a full day of school and at times, back to the fields afterwards. He doesn’t just need to train them, but to motivate them.
Luckily, Jim White (and Costner) is real good at motivation. And for Costner’s sake, the training was left to the kids.
“I hate running,” he said, “and so that’s why I enjoyed being the coach. The one time I ran with them, as you see in the movie, I quit. I played the coach part really well; I sat down and had a Coca Cola. I didn’t have to train for this really.”
As inspirational and motivating as White was to those kids in McFarland, California, Costner played an equally important role to the cast of young actors relatively new to the scene. In those situations, it’s real easy to fall into a father figure type of role, especially for a seasoned actor like Costner. And while he did take on a mentor-like position with the cast, it was anything but forced.
“You understand that I’m in that position where that could happen, so it’s better to let that happen than to just go in and be Yoda and have all this stuff that you can tell them. It’s more authentic when they actually come to you and you’re not just spouting off. You know, nothing was off limits when they would come talk to me. And they began to understand that and I think hopefully appreciate that.”
“And it was important for me for them to be good. It was important for me to let them know that they needed to be even more prepared for [Director Niki Caro], that that’s who gave them a big shot in their life. And they owe it to be as prepared as they can, every day. And so I would talk to them a lot about professionalism.”
“You can get carried away and forget that you have a job. So we talked about that. And then the more comfortable they began, they wanted to know about all the girls I kissed. And, of course I told them if you want to keep kissing girls, the best way to do that is to not talk about it.”
Emotions run high in McFarland. When you’re competing in something new and everyone you face is bigger than you, with better tools, it can be extremely frustrating. Tensions can rise. And that feeling of just not belonging is one that’s repeated constantly throughout the film.
For Costner, the most emotional scene of all would have to be near the end of the film. The team’s very last race puts it all into perspective.
“They’ve gone from not knowing anything about what was possible to sensing that everything was suddenly possible. And what happened? They found themselves in the last race, and they saw the buses drive up that were bigger than their bus. Shinier. They saw kids come out of the buses in uniforms that were better. The kids were bigger. All of a sudden, they started to shrink back. They started to go back in their minds to McFarland. They suddenly weren’t gonna be able to compete at this level.”
“And that’s where men, older men and, and older woman will always be at their most useful: to look at them and see the fear in somebody’s eyes, the doubt in somebody’s eyes and to say no, you belong here. When you make someone feel like they belong, they start to feel like giants.”
By the end of the interview, every one of the 25 bloggers in that room felt 10 feet tall.
In theaters February 20, 2015