Monday, February 23 2015 08:00

Building a Team: The Seven Young Actors from McFARLAND, USA - #McFarlandUSAEvent

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McFarland, USAThis past weekend, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures released McFARLAND, USA - Niki Caro's latest film, inspired-by-the-true-story of Jim White and his 1987 McFarland Cougars Cross-Country Team. The film led the pack for new films in theaters this weekend, coming out ahead of THE DUFF and HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2 to finish fourth at the box office overall - a successful debut that found McFARLAND, USA pulling in over $1.3M more than expectations led by positive reviews and great word-of-mouth. While I've covered the film extensively here on THE ROCK FATHER this month, there's one group we've yet to hear from, and one that appropriately closes out my reports from the #McFarlandUSAEvent - the seven young actors who play the runners on-screen - led by the coaching of Kevin Costner as Jim White. During the recent press days for McFARLAND, USA, I had a chance to join a group of fellow writers in meeting with actors Michael Aguero (Damacio Diaz), Sergio Avelar (Victor Puentes), Hector Duran (Johnny Sameniego), Rafael Martinez (David Diaz), Johnny Ortiz (Jose Cardenas), Carlos Pratts (Thomas Valles) and Ramiro Rodriguez (Danny Diaz).

Assembling an on-screen team took some time, with casting calls held in several locations, but in the end, three of the young actors ended up being chosen from the McFarland, California area. Sergio Avelar has been running since 2001 and is a member of the McFarland Track Club. One of his middle school coaches was Thomas Valles (played here by Carlos Pratts).  Michael Aguero and Ramiro Rodriguez were the other two, with Rodriguez' former High School counselor being Danny Diaz - the same individual who he'd ended up playing on-screen.

"I've actually encountered them [the real-life men who inspired the film] like throughout my whole life," explained Rodriguez. "[With Danny], it was amazing, the first time I went to go see him [during filming] 'cause I had my wig on and everything. [LAUGHS] Also, Johnny Sameniego was my 8th grade P.E. teacher, so I knew him too."


Even those who were not from the area in real-life found themselves quickly embraced by the families that live there.

"During the whole period of us filming in McFarland, I got the opportunity to spend time with the real Johnny Sameniego, who is the character I play," recalls Hector Duran. "He's really a great guy. He invited me to dinner, gave me a tour of the city -- and really reflects the people of the community."

#McFarlandUSAEventFor Sergio, his McFarland story runs deep...

"My story's kind of like Ramiro's because I'm actually from McFarland as well," added Avelar. "Thomas Valles, who Carlos plays - he was actually my running coach since I was a little kid -, since I was in elementary school. This guy is just so humble. He always took time off of his job and he would go travel with his runners to places like Oregon - just anywhere around the Nation, just to go see them run. And the Diaz brothers, they still live there, too. To see all the support that they still have for the community is just amazing." 

Beyond community and the real-life training that the seven actors had to endure to pull-off the appearance of a cross-country force, one of the biggest questions asked of the group tends to involve their co-star, Kevin Costner. In fact, they've been asked so much about him that Carlos Pratts offered up an answer without even being asked a question...

"I want to tell you guys a story real quick. This is about Kevin, because we get this all this time. 'What is Kevin like?' And unless you know Kevin, you can't really make an opinion. And you hear things prior to working with Kevin. You hear, it's gonna be amazing, or it's gonna be like someone unleashed the Kraken. And it's--it's so much better than amazing, and just the person that Kevin is. I have a 9-year-old little brother and these guys have all got the chance to meet my family because we are family now, you know?

We bring each other in,  and my little brother comes on set and Kevin takes a real liking to him. A 9-year old, as we all know, there's no flood gate - it is what it is. It's just kind of [SNAPS FINGERS], you know, just get it out there. So Kevin says, 'I want you to see this,' 'cause it's a, it's November, like right after Thanksgiving. We're about to go to Christmas, so everyone's really excited about the holidays, and he's got this DVD of 'Christmas at Kevin's.'  It's like George Lucas and Spielberg said 'let's make our own holiday.'

There's camels, there's presents. They have blocks and blocks and blocks and blocks of huge things about the size of this room, where they make snow for the kids, and it's a beautiful thing. Well, my little brother looks at it, and he said 'Kevin, how much money do you have?' [LAUGHING.] And Kevin responds - he just looks to him and he says 'it's not how much money I have, it's about the fact that I just share with everyone else.'"

McFARLAND, USA is in theaters now. Get tickets via Fandango.


James Zahn

James Zahn is best-known as The Rock Father™, a media personality, commentator, adventurer and raconteur. He is the Owner, Publisher, and Editor-in-Chief of THE ROCK FATHER™ Magazine. In January, 2019, after nearly a decade of publishing The Rock Father™ Magazine, he joined Adventure Media and Events as Senior Editor of The Toy Book—the leading trade publication for the toy industry since 1984, as well as The Pop Insider — a destination for all things pop culture, and The Toy Insider — the leading consumer guide for toys and games. He is also editor of The Toy Report, a weekly newsletter published by The Toy Book each Thursday. Zahn has over 27 years of experience in the entertainment, retail and publishing industries.

He regularly serves as a Brand Ambassador and spokesperson for several Globally-recognized pop culture and lifestyle brands in addition to consulting for a number of toy manufacturers. 

Creatively, James has directed/edited music videos, lyric videos, and album trailers for bands such as FEAR FACTORY, has appeared as an actor in feature films and commercials, written comic books, and performed in bands. He currently serves as an artist manager and video director for PRODUCT OF HATE, whose debut album was released by Napalm Records in 2016, distributed by ADA/Warner Music in the U.S. with Universal Music handling global. A new album has been completed and is set for release this year.

Zahn and/or his work have been featured in/on CNN, NBC, ABC, WGN, CBS, GCTN, G4, The Chicago Tribune, Forbes, MarketWatch, Reuters, BusinessWire, Fangoria, Starlog and more. He's appeared as a music expert on CNN's AC360 alongside Anderson Cooper, and has been interviewed by Larry King. In the past he served as a writer for the Netflix Stream Team,  Fandango Family and PBS KIDS, penned articles for Sprout and PopSugar, and was a contributor to Chicago Parent.

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