Interview: Carlos Pratts of “McFarland USA”

Posted on May 17, 2015 at 3:57 pm

Copyright 2015 Walt Disney Pictures
Copyright 2015 Walt Disney Pictures

Carlos Pratt plays a real-life high school championship athlete in McFarland, USA, available on DVD and Blu-Ray June 2, 2015. Kevin Costner plays Coach Jim White, who has never coached running before when he helped a group of boys from one of the poorest schools in the country to win the state championship.  Pratts talked to me about what makes a great coach and the sports movie that made him decide to be an actor.

What is it that makes Coach White so special?

He saw something in his kids. He was just a teacher, a true teacher. He was there for them. He was a mentor to them and as well as their parents. He went the extra step.

And what was it like with Kevin Costner, was she also kind of coachy with you guys?

Absolutely. Kevin was super coachy. He just made us feel right at home. We are quite a family. And if we had any questions he was always there, and if he had questions we were there. We just worked together. It was great. Kevin is an awesome, awesome man.

Did you have to audition for this part?

I did. I auditioned quite a few times. I read for the role of David Diaz originally. But the casting director thought I was more right for Thomas.

How would you describe Thomas as a character?

Oh man! He’s just tough. He’s gone through a lot in life and he’s kind of been shut down so many times. It’s hard for him to open up to everyone. He kind of thinks that this is as good as it gets. He’s come to that realization so he’s not really expecting more out of life. That was just it until Coach White comes to his life and shows him that there’s more. His father was working and his mother at the house and his sister getting pregnant and his father really not being there because of work, end of story. He had to grow fast.

How much running did you do for this film?

Before we were filming we would do 5 or 6 miles a day as a team and then while we were filming it varied. I ran a lot for sure. We filmed one race that was three miles. But filming it, we would run 9 miles before that was over.

And did you go running it all with the real runners from the story, who we see at the end of the film?

No unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance. I did meet Thomas while we were filming but I was very brief with him because…not brief but we have more a little bit of a time together because I did have to go shoot the next scene so I didn’t have the chance to go with anyone but I do think that Hector Duran who played Jonny Samaniego, I think he went for a rune with the real Johnny Samaniego. I almost thought that he did.

What movie made you say, “I want to do that?”

There’s a movie called Friday Night Lights that was like my high school story. And then I went to college and I saw the movie and I just remember welling up. I was like, “Whatever this feeling is, I want to get it back to the world.” and that’s when I said, “I’m going to act.”

One of the most powerful scenes in the film is when the team sees the ocean for the first time.

There have been so many sports movies, but I come understand really quick but that there’s something about Nikki Caro in having a woman’s touch that just makes this one a little different. And I think the way she had everything set up strategically, it was almost like she was being a mother. We did that scene maybe in, like, November and when we got there we were just excited. For me it was like I was seeing like my little brother for the first time. So you find that and then you just challenge yourself and you go and have fun and you jump in. You jump in the ocean together. It was cold but it was awesome. I felt super organic with everybody. You put the seven of us together in any room, we’re going to have a blast. We really are brothers so you can see us just having fun and playing in the water.

You and the other actors had to learn to work together just like your characters did. What is it that creates a team?

Here is the thing about a team. Everyone is going to have a different personality and an ego of some sort or whatever but if you realize that you’re all coming for the same goal and you accept each other and who they are for their strengths and their flaws, then I think you work together in unison. You have to try and encourage each other and help each other but you only push them whenever they can’t push themselves anymore. I think we really did a great job of that.

What has meant the most to you in the responses to this film?

I’ve been hearing a lot that “I’m proud to be a runner again,” that “I’m proud to be whoever,” but it’s really awesome to hear people say, “I’m proud to be me, “I’m proud to be Hispanic,” “I’m proud to be Mexican,” “I’m proud to be black,” or “This inspires me.” Kids will tweet me all the time in their finals week and they’ll take a picture, a screenshot and make fun of when I’m running and they’re like, “I just need that push.” I’ll savor it and say “Good luck.” It’s really cool that something like that gives a little extra strength. That’s what you make when you do with a film. To encourage and start planting seeds that lead to a better tomorrow.

What’s the best advice you ever got about acting?

That you are enough. What that means is that who you are as a person is enough. Never be afraid to show it. Some people act and they are phenomenal at it, but it’s very hard to showcase who you really are and your real emotion. That’s the best advice that I got. It was just to give a side of Carlos in that situation, in every situation.

What do you look for in the films you take on, as a producer or an actor?

I just want to be a role model and I want to film great stories. Before every audition I say a prayer. I say, “God, thank you so much for giving me this opportunity. Thank you for allowing me to be here. Allow me to use the tools that you’ve given me and to perform nerve-free. If my words and actions are positive, let that everyone see that and learn from them. And if what I’m saying could be viewed in a negative way let people learn what not to do from my actions. And that’s it, I just want to influence and encourage and help make a better tomorrow.

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Actors Interview

McFarland USA

Posted on February 19, 2015 at 5:58 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material, some violence and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Some gang-style violence, mostly off-screen, characters injured
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 20, 2015
Date Released to DVD: June 1, 2015
Amazon.com ASIN: B00UI5CUSM
Copyright Disney 2015
Copyright Disney 2015

In 1987, Coach Jim White (Kevin Costner), who had never coached or even run cross country, took a team of kids from one of the poorest communities in California to a state championship. Of course that would have to become a Disney movie. But in 2015, it is near-impossible to make a movie about a white coach and his all-Latino team without falling into one of two equally fatal traps. We are no longer in an era when it is acceptable to have a “mighty whitey” movie has a white savior teaching people of color a better way to live. We are also no longer in an era where it is acceptable to have a “magical Negro” plotline, with a person of color teaching a white person a better way to live. We all have people in our lives who teach us important lessons, but presenting these stories in a sensitive way is an almost insurmountable challenge.

“McFarland USA” comes as close as it can to surmounting that challenge by wisely — and honestly — showing what everyone in the story learns from the experience. That comes from warm, sensitive performances by all involved and by telling details. The best is after the team comes in last in their first meet because the coach failed to check out the terrain. The team had never practiced on an incline and the course of the raise included some steep passages. So, for their next practice, Coach White brings them to a place where he and the audience see enormous piles of something under tarps. White knows only that this is a good place to practice running uphill. The team knows what is under the tarps — millions of discarded almond shells, removed by field workers, so supermarkets across the country can stock shelled nuts in little plastic pouches. The symbolism, and White’s growing understanding not just of the challenges faced by his team but of their dedication, perseverance, and strength is un-sappy and touching.

It begins with White getting fired for an outburst at an arrogant high school football captain, and taking a job as an assistant football coach in the small farm town of McFarland in central California. The entire population is Latino and most of them work in the fields as “pickers,” starting at age 10. The kids and teenagers work before and after school. White is quickly relieved of his responsibilities as assistant coach when he takes a player out of the game because he has been injured. He decides to start a cross-country team, even though the principal tells him ‘That’s a private school sport.  They breathe different air.”  White has no experience.  Also, because this is 1987, it would be about a decade before he could just Google how to do it. No one at the school has the time — or the shoes — for distance running. But he can see that they can run, and he gets them to agree to try to compete.  At first, he does not even have a stopwatch to time their runs.  He uses a kitchen timer.

It is a poor community.  No one in the boys’ families has more than a 9th grade education.  The high school is next door to the prison, with a barbed-wire fence.  The families see sports as “not essential,” a distraction that keeps the boys away from paying work on the fields.  “Every hour with you is food off my table,” says one father.  But White and the community learn to trust each other, even after a scary encounter.

Director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) has a sensitive touch and a trust in her story and characters that gives them space to breathe.  The running scenes are vivid and exciting.  By the time we get to the end credit sequence, showing the team now in their 40’s and still running every day in McFarland, we see that more than the state championship has been won.

Parents should know that there are a few bad words, some drinking, and some gang-style violence. It is mostly off-screen, but characters are injured and there are brief disturbing images.

Family discussion: Which teachers have made you see that you were capable of more than you thought? How did White and the team demonstrate that to each other?  When did the team start calling him “coach” and why?

If you like this, try: “Spare Parts,” “Chariots of Fire,” and “Hoosiers” and this interview with Carlos Pratts

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Based on a true story DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Sports Stories about Teens

Coming to Theaters: February 2015

Posted on February 1, 2015 at 3:39 pm

Happy February! Here’s some of what we’ll be seeing in theaters this month:

February 6

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water Everyone’s favorite residents of Bikini Bottom are back on the big screen with a 3D adventure, co-starring Antonio Banderas as a pirate.

Jupiter Ascending Anything from the Wachowski’s (“The Matrix,” “Cloud Atlas”) is guaranteed to have dazzling visuals.  Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, and Eddie Redmayne star in a sci-fi/fantasy story about the battle for Earth.

Seventh Son Jeff Bridges stars in a sword and sorcery epic about the sole remaining warrior of a mystical order and a young hero born with incredible powers, the last Seventh Son (Ben Barnes).

Ballet 422 A 25-year-old member of the corps de ballet gets a chance to choreograph a major piece for the New York City ballet in this behind-the-scenes documentary.

February 13

Fifty Shades of Gray The steamy international blockbuster about the couple who experiment with the Red Room of Pain comes to screen in time for Valentine’s Day.

Copyright 2014 Castle Rock
Copyright 2014 Castle Rock

Rewrite  Hugh Grant plays an Oscar-winning screenwriter whose subsequent series of failures have left him with no job, no family, and no money.  He accepts a teaching position, intending to do as little as possible, but finds that the students, including single mom Marisa Tomei, have something to teach him about what matters.

The Last Five Years This sung-through (almost no dialogue) musical tells the story of a five year romance from his perspective (Jeremy Jordan) and hers (Anna Kendrick).

Kingsman: The Secret Service Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson star in this stylish spy story.

Old-Fashioned A serious-minded antique dealer meets a free-spirited young woman who is drawn to his views on faith.

February 20

Hot Tub Time Machine 2 The sequel to the raunchy comedy with returning stars Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry, Clark Duke, and Chevy Chase.  This time, they go into the future!

McFarland USA  Kevin Costner plays a track coach in his film inspired by the 1987 true story of novice runners from a predominantly Latino high school in McFarland, an economically challenged town in California’s Central Valley.

February 27

Focus Will Smith and “The Wolf of Wall Street’s” Margot Robie star in a story of two con artists.  Can they work together without conning each other?

Maps to the Stars Julianne Moore plays a fading movie star in this David Cronenberg-directed Hollywood satire, co-starring John Cusack, and Robert Pattinson.

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