Niki Caro calls it fate.
The “McFarland, USA” director was having a difficult time finding the right seven actors to play the cross country runners in her sports film. Her commitment to authenticity meant not having someone star in the movie who looked like his longest bit of exercise was going from the snack bar back to his trailer.
She found what she needed in Kern County residents Ramiro Rodriguez and Sergio Avelar, from McFarland, and Michael Aguero, who attended Bakersfield’s East High School. The fact none of them had ever acted in a movie meant Caro was placing the fate of a big-studio movie on inexperienced actors.
Caro tried to find actors with experience, looking at thousands to play the young men who split their time between working in the fields and competing on the high school team.
“It doesn’t surprise me that in the end, three of them were right under our noses. Where better to find the kids than on the ground, in the place?” Caro says.
It took some convincing to get Rodriguez to agree to be in the movie. He hadn’t originally planned to audition but ended up at the open call with his cousin.
Caro had a particularly hard time finding the right actor to play McFarland runner Danny Diaz. When Rodriguez arrived at the auditions, Caro got a call from the producer saying the right person had just walked in the door.
“I told him, ‘Do not let him leave.’ I was on a bus on my way to McFarland to spend the day. I told them to do whatever it takes but do not let him leave,” Caro says. “He was so captivating and we all loved him, but we had to talk him into it because he didn’t want to lose his two shifts at the Pizza Hut.
“We had to sit him down and say, ‘Ramiro, being in a Hollywood movie is actually going to pay you more than your two shifts at Pizza Hut and offer you potentially more in your career.’ ”
Rodriguez got help with the role from the real Danny Diaz, who after attending Bakersfield Junior College and Fresno State became a teacher and counselor at McFarland High School.
“It was just amazing, like knowing him and like having conversations with him when I got in trouble. It really helped me portray him and everything. It was nice,” Rodriguez says.
Many members of that original McFarland cross county team came back to McFarland to work.
Danny Diaz’s brothers, Damacio (played by Michael Aguero) and David Diaz (played by Rafael Martinz) attended College of the Sequoias and Fresno State. Damacio Diaz is a member of the Bakersfield Police Department; David Diaz is a vice principal at Kern Valley State Prison.
Avelar got the opportunity to portray Victor Puentes after his mother got a call from his cousin about the open casting call in Bakersfield.
“I never took drama classes or anything like that. I thought of it as a joke. They’re not gonna get guys from the locals. They’re gonna try to get the guys that can act,” Avelar says. “When I got it, I just jumped up and down. I ran inside the job that I had, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I got the movie! I got the movie!’ And everyone was congratulating me.”
Avelar soon found himself running the same roads he had been down while a student. This time it was actor Kevin Costner, as coach Jim White, prodding him along.
Costner says the casting of Avelar is an example of the commitment director Caro brought to the production.
“It’s not lost on anybody that she trusts the members of this community to be able to work in the movie. It’s the DNA of how she works,” Costner says. “She is very willing to go with someone who grew up on those streets, who had their own dreams, and then to make that phone call. That phone call changes lives. There’s a hundred hearts that broke, and there’s like eight hearts that their lives get a chance to change.”
The film is bringing new attention to McFarland, but it was the work of runners that put McFarland on top in high school athletics — winning 25 section titles since 1987. Many members of that original team still come out to run with today’s student athletes, which is captured for the closing scene in the movie.
“We ran because it was a lifestyle for us,” says Danny Diaz. “We never expected anything like this, and 20 years later, to see this coming to fruition, it’s such a humbling, yet very exciting thing to be happening for us.”
When Damacio Diaz saw the movie, he was happy that while it was about a championship team, it showed the human side of their story.
“We’re working in the fields, and I’m glad that the whole world is gonna be able to see that. Because so many Latino families, Hispanic families, that’s our life. We work in our fields, and that’s gonna be our life,” Damacio Diaz says. “Obviously my parents instilled in us that education was the door out, and for us it really was. We hated working in the fields and sought how things really were.”
David Diaz is proud the movie shows there’s a champion in everyone.
“We live in a very minuscule type of community, but it doesn’t matter where you come from, what you do,” Danny Diaz says. “All of us can be, if we choose to be, a champion at whatever you choose. And ours happened to be running.”