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An Inside Look at McFarland, USA

If you and your family were to road trip it down the middle of California, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t realize you passed through the town of McFarland. The small, Central Valley community is known more for agriculture than a tourist destination. But after this weekend, that might all change.

The new Disney film McFarland, USA hits theaters Friday. It's based on the true story of Coach Jim White (Kevin Costner), who moved to McFarland, a predominantly Latino community, and in 1987 formed McFarland High's first cross-country team. White coaches, mentors, and pushes the seven members of the team to become better runners and find opportunity in sports. The unlikely group uses their determination and work ethic to overcome several obstacles, achieve success they never dreamed possible, and inspire their town.

In the film, Carlos Pratts plays Thomas Valles — one of the most gifted runners and leaders on the team. SI Kids spoke with Pratts about the physical training required for this role, the closeness of the cast, and why the inspirational story is still so important almost three decades later.

But first, check out the trailer for the film:

mcfarland usa carlos pratts

Can you tell me a little bit about the audition process for this film and how you ended up getting this role? 

The normal audition process is you go in, you read, and if they like you they bring you back in. I was doing a show called The Bridge, and I went home one day and read the script for McFarland, USA and I loved it. I was reading for the role of David Diaz, and I was so connected to the script and thought it was a beautiful story. I was honored to be reading for it. I remember thinking that I was going to be so excited to meet the person who would be playing Thomas because I really liked that character.

I went in to the audition the next day and did my best for David, and the casting director told me, “Unfortunately Carlos, this isn’t going to work for David.” And I was like, “Okay, thank you.” And she goes, “I think you’re Thomas.” And I just said, “Wow, thank you.” So after a few more auditions, I ended up getting the part and that was it. 

What was your reaction when you found out that you were definitely going to play the role of Thomas? 

I cried so hard. I was so passionate about this film and my culture. It was beautiful, and I cried so much. 

Why exactly were you so passionate about it? 

It’s not every day that people of my color and my culture get to see themselves in this light. The story has the potential to inspire so many people, and not just people of my color, but any color. 

Did you have to do anything physical – run or exercise – as a part of your audition? 

Yes, I definitely did. In the mornings I would go to Santa Clarita and I would train with the team (all of the other actors in the movie). We’d run maybe four, five, or six miles, a lot of running. Prior to that I had never run unless there was an ice cream truck in front of me. And then at night I would go to Redondo Beach and train with Brian Guin from Brick Fitness for the more physical, strength, and nutrition [aspects]. 

So you said you had never run before this movie. Were you an athlete in college or high school or anything? 

Yes, I played football. I wrestled in high school, but I never competed in cross-country or did any distance running. 

Did running and training together as a group help you grow closer as a cast? 

Oh yeah, we’re so close. We’re like seven brothers now. I only have a younger brother, but I can imagine we’re like a big family with seven different personalities. We love each other. Every time we see each other it’s like we haven’t skipped a beat. So it’s really great. As a matter of fact, Raphael, who plays David Diaz, was at my house yesterday, and I was helping him for an audition that he had at 3 o’clock at another studio. Work can be stressful when you’re doing something physical for a role, as well. We were running for however long and then going back and doing it again at night, so it was nice to have other people to get through it all together with. Our relationships definitely helped me get through it. 

Do you have any funny memories or embarrassing stories of you messing up on set during filming? 

There was one time, I can’t remember which race it is in the movie, but I’m supposed to break through two guys. As I went to break through, I tripped on a rock and went flying into the ground. So watching that in the video village, which is where we watch what we’ve shot, was pretty awesome. And also, just playing pranks with the guys. While we were training and before we started filming, we did this thing to newcomers. At the time we had three. David Diaz and Danny Diaz were the last two additions added to the team, so every time someone new would join, when they were using the bathroom we’d record us scaring them, as kind of a first day welcome to the team. 

So not only was it tough to train for this role physically, but your character had some very emotional scenes, too. How did you prepare for those? 

I did my homework. As far as all that, [director] NikiCaro is incredible. It’s one of those things where it felt like we were playing chess and I was just the piece on the board. So she knows everything she’s doing as far as the emotion, and everyone I was involved with brought emotion, too. So it just made it easier for me. 

What was it like working with Kevin Costner so closely? 

Kevin is awesome. He taught me so much. I’ve been able to work with a lot of people who are at another level [in their careers], and Kevin has continued that trend. I’d say the most important thing he reminded me of was that everyone is equal around you, no matter what role you play. Whether you’re the PA (the production assistant) all the way to the executives, everyone worked really hard to be where they are and everyone deserves the same respect. It was great to see that from people at that level. 

There are a ton of fantastic sports movies. This one made me think of Coach Carter a little bit. I was wondering where this movie ranks in terms of sports movies for you?  

That’s a hard question. As far as where it ranks, I cant really say. But I believe that in my heart, this is probably the one that I see people relating to on a different level. I have so many favorite movies – from Cool Runnings to Remember the Titans – they all inspire you in different ways. I’m not going to say it ranks above anything else, but I will say it achieves the same level of greatness as the ones that came before. 

What do you hope this inspires in the kids that see it? 

I want to give a shout out on that one to my little brother, Louis Pratts. He’s 9. And it’s one of those things where I hope it inspires kids, no matter what they’re going through, or if they think there’s a limit to what they can do, there’s not. I hope every child or college student, or parent, whatever they’re going through and if they think this is as good as it’s going to get that, it’s not. There’s always something better out there. You just have to work for it.

Photos: Disney 2015

mcfarland usa carlos pratts
mcfarland usa carlos pratts