“There’s nothing more American than parents wanting more for their children.”
That quote, spoken by actor/director/musician Kevin Costner to his McFARLAND, USA director Niki Caro was a perfect statement to encompass not only his latest film, but the overall aura around it – both on-screen and off. Based on the true story of Coach Jim White and his underdog team of cross-country runners in 1987, it would be easy to look at McFarland, USA as just another come-from-behind sports film… and that would be a very wrong assumption to make.
“There was so much more about the movie than the finish line. The finish line’s for them [the kids],” Costner explained while meeting with a family-focused group of writers and bloggers at the W Hotel in Hollywood earlier this month. “You can give young people something to shoot for, and what we realize watching this movie is that when we do, they can somehow exceed beyond their own expectations. We realize that’s actually in front of all of our children, and if you really want to get specific about it, it’s actually in front of us, too. Wherever you’re at in your life, there is a chance to do something else. We’re not done. The same things that we offer our children, we shouldn’t be so ignorant to not offer up to ourselves.”
Costner (60), a father of seven himself, was drawn to the film after reading the script and identifying with the overall arc of family, and the driving message of always striving to do better. Despite a parallel between his real life and playing a father of two coaching a team of seven (including several novice actors), Costner was careful not to force himself upon his co-stars as a “father figure,” but to be there for support when needed.
“I think that 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, and be Yoda and have all this stuff that you can tell them,” he says, elaborating on the dynamic between his experience and the newcomers’ lack thereof. “It’s more authentic when they actually come to you and you’re not just spouting off, [but] nothing was off limits when they would come to me to talk, and they began to understand, and hopefully appreciate that. It was important for me for them to be good, and for me to let them know that they needed to be even more prepared for Nicki — that’s who gave them a big shot in their life, and they owe it [her] to be as prepared as they can, every day.”
Experience can also be noted for Costner and sports films – a genre he’s practically dominated (can you think of another actor so associated with it?), tackling baseball (BULL DURHAM, FIELD OF DREAMS, FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME), football (DRAFT DAY), golf (TIN CUP) and bicycling (yep, 1985’s AMERICAN FLYERS), all in addition to making a cameo in the boxing pic PLAY IT TO THE BONE and serving as narrator of the 2008 documentary, NASCAR: THE RIDE OF THEIR LIVES. Just don’t think that Kevin would take just any sports feature that comes his way…
“There’s a lot of sports films that come to me that I’ll never do because they’re not very appealing. They’re maybe too much about sports or they’re too obvious. The best ones are about people, and there’s less sports in it than you would imagine. The ones that try to make a wall-to-wall sports movie might as well make a documentary or watch that on ESPN,” he quips. Being selective is likely why Costner doesn’t have a bad sports film on his resume.
McFARLAND, USA is most certainly about people first, and the story of a man creating something from nothing and leading a team to do better – both on the track and off – is inspiring, and doing better has everything to do with a sense of belonging.
“When you make someone feel like they belong, they start to feel like giants. And what happened? They won — and they continued to win, and it was all because somebody said it’s possible if you’re willing to work at it. An emotional thing for me is that I hope somebody talks to my sons and daughters that way should I not be around — about what’s possible. “
Sitting in a room with Costner, it was hard not to think of him as one of the last true “movie stars” that still exists in Hollywood — detached from much of the instant-access world of social media (although his band, MODERN WEST, does have a presence on Twitter & Facebook), and still – in my mind – known predominantly for his on-screen works rather than his off-screen exploits.
Having seen McFARLAND, USA (my formal review is forthcoming), the man that I often think of as Eliot Ness, Crash Davis, Ray Kinsella (and more recently, Superman’s Dad), just may add Jim White to his growing list of iconic roles in the eyes of many audiences.
McFARLAND, USA opens February 20, 2015 via Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Order Tickets now via Fandango.