Sure meeting Kevin Costner is a pretty memorable moment. Especially when you get to spend a good 15 to 20 minutes with him discussing his latest film McFarland USA. But I have to say, it was just as cool meeting Jim White and the Diaz Brothers (Danny, David and Damacio) in person.
In Disney’s latest film (hitting theaters February 20!), Costner plays science teacher/coach Jim White in the poor town of McFarland, California. In many ways, White is completely out of his element in the heavily Lation community. The sports teams are a joke. Tensions run high. Oh, and there’s a prison right next door to the high school.
The story goes on to tell of White forming a cross country team with seven students, including the three Diaz brothers. Based on a true story (including the amazing, inspirational ending!), it was such an honor to meet the real life inspirations of McFarland USA.
All grown up with kids of their own now, it was amazing to talk with Coach White and the three Diaz brothers. Two things stuck with me from that interview. First, was one of respect. Even though they’re all grown men now, teaching their own children the ways of the world, it’s clear the Diaz brothers still have an incredible amount of respect for Jim White. Just the way they defer to him and politely call him “Mr. White.”
The second point that you couldn’t help noticing is how sincere and humble these boys are. They very clearly are quite grateful to Coach White for everything he did for them. Even though a major motion picture about their lives is hitting big screens across the country (and beyond), these guys and Mr. White have zero ego about them. They’re relatively soft spoken and thankful for every opportunity life’s given them.
Do you feel like the movie does a good job of describing the culture?
DAMACIO DIAZ : Yeah, we’re very, very proud of the way the movie portrayed our family. We were raised in the field. We started picking and hoeing and raking and doing everything you could possibly think of. We were about seven or eight years old when all that began. So for us, it was a way of life. The day after Danny graduated from university with a diploma, he was in the fields working, because that was in our family. It’s what was expected. Until he got hired and, and got his job. So, for us it was normal.
In the movie, your mom is such a scene stealer. Was she really that strict with you guys growing up?
DAVID DIAZ: Not at all. Much worse. [LAUGHS]
JIM WHITE: When Mrs. Diaz saw this film the first time, she came out and said, “I love the film, but they didn’t make me strict enough.”
DAVID DIAZ: I think Hollywood did a very good job of not making it look too guilty as regarding [Child Protective Services.] [LAUGHS] So, just to let y’all know, we’re proud of what Hollywood did and what Niki and the producer and everyone did. But yes we lived in a very, very strict environment and still do to this day.
What was your first reaction when you heard that story was going to be a movie?
JIM WHITE : Well, from my aspect, I guess, it was in various stages, because this was about a 15-year process for my wife and I. We signed with this one company. Two years later we signed with another one. When Disney did sign it, we were thrilled very much because we knew that it wouldn’t have any sex and cussing and cigarettes and that type of thing. We were very happy that that was going to take place.
How much input did you have to have on the making this movie?
DAMACIO DIAZ: Mr. White might have more than us. We basically told our story, got interviewed for hours and hours, and that was pretty much it. Mr. White had a lot more influence in how this script was written.
DANNY DIAZ: Once you give them your story, then they can do whatever they want. So, with myself, they made me chubby in the movie.
DAMACIO DIAZ: Go ahead and call it. It was fat.
DANNY DIAZ: I’m trying to be nice here. But, no, they made me chubby or overweight and hella slow. But that’s okay. That’s what they wanted to do, and I’m just excited to be included in the movie.
A lot of you became teachers. Did Coach White encourage you and do you use any of his style when you’re teaching or coaching?
DAVID DIAZ: He was a very inspirational part. You know, we are a God-fearing folks, so we were teaching in Sunday school. And we did that on Tuesday nights at our local church. Mr. White was there as a person that we can rely on. And, believe it or not, before he was a coach, he’s a scientist. He was a fifth grade teacher so he’s a very knowledgeable guy — when you pick up any type of bug or any type of leaf, he knows what it is.And we try to trip him up on that, and he’s very, very smart in that regard. He’s a pretty good coach, too. [LAUGHS] As far as wanting to be a teacher, he wasn’t the only reason why we got into the education, but he was one of the two or three reasons maybe. My parents definitely pushed us to go that route.
JIM WHITE: Let me add one thing to that. Mr. Diaz, their dad, he pushed education real hard, too. He told me, “I want them to get their education, so I will go back and get my education.” And he did. He went back and got it. He got his GED.
Your culture is all about community and there’s the whole premise that it takes a village to raise a child. Is that still happening in McFarland today?
DANNY DIAZ: Absolutely. It does take a village to raise a child. In our case, there’s seven and my dad worked a lot of hours. So, my dad worked 10, 12, 13 or 14 hours a day sometimes. Both my parents come from large families. My dad has 13 brothers and sisters. My mom has 12. We have a lot of uncles and everybody has a lot of kids. I have seven kids myself. [LAUGHS] All of us have a lot of kids. If it’s not for the help of our cousins, our uncles, our friends and our church, it’s really difficult during these times to raise a child. And to keep him on that straight road is, is tough. I’m always looking out for their kids. They’re looking out for my kids and we’re trying to police each other, because it’s very easy to get distracted and go way off course.
DAMACIO DIAZ: And if I can add to that. Same thing happened back in the day when we were kids. Our father never could ever go watch us race. We were racing big races and trying to accomplish big things, so we looked at Mr. White as our dad. He literally would buy us shoes, feed us, counsel us, console us when we lost, that kinda stuff. And we have a great dad. We love our dad. He is amazing. But Mr. White was our second father. He did a lot of things for us that our dad couldn’t because it financially just wasn’t available.
In theaters February 20, 2015