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A Conversation with Kevin Costner on “McFarland, USA,” Privilege and Life

I met Kevin Costner at a hotel in Hollywood. He was there to see everyone and I was there, on behalf of Fandango, to see him. His movie, McFarland, USA, a film based on a true story about cross-country and crossing cultures in a rural farming community, would open soon. I had already seen a screening with my 11-year-old son, a kid that is all heart and running shoes. Costner was as gracious and engaging as you would hope him to be, and we spoke about the movie as protocol dictated, but we were fast off script, something that started by sharing the insight of my son and then built quickly upon the fact that when Kevin Costner has a conversation with someone he is actively involved and invested in taking it forward, not retreating into the safety of Disney-approved rote, which is refreshing.

This is not the entire interview, as it has been edited and condensed. You can read more from our conversation about McFarland, USA and Costner’s interesting take on it at Fandango. Note: Both articles contain spoilers.

McFarland, USA is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.


McFarland, USA bridge scene

Kevin Costner: You took your son? He understood everything?

Whit Honea: Yeah. He’s a pretty sharp kid. In fact, it really resonated with him, with both of us, that McFarland, USA, is based not just on a true story, but a fairly current true story. He wondered what that must be like for the people portrayed in the film. That’s their life that they are still living, and the hard work that they are still doing. Meanwhile we’re eating popcorn on a Tuesday night.

KC: Right. It’s hard for them. It’s not easy. It’s not easy on the parents, and you can see that, but that’s the job of a parent, to make a difference for the child, and it will always be that way. There is something incredibly noble about it, and what we don’t realize is how dangerous, the pesticides they work in, and the kids work in—it’s an everyday thing, and it’s not a job that other people want to do.

WH: I wanted to ask you about the mentoring side of coaching [Costner portrayed Coach Jim White in the film]. I don’t think a lot of people, unless they’ve played a sport or had kids play a sport, understand that there is a lot more, the impact on a life, not just the Xs and Os they see on the field. Right? So, Coach White, that’s huge. Take that scene on the bridge for instance (above), or my favorite line which I’ll paraphrase, “I used to coach soft kids to make them tough” that just kind of hangs there. The implications of that being that these kids were already tough, and they didn’t need that from him.

KC: Yes. Right. And you know, yeah, the other thing, if you break down that scene, when he finds him out on that bridge, you know, he’s traveled a distance, he’s come far enough that he can actually have that talk with that kid. He’s been consistent enough that he can have that talk with him. Also, he’s there because he messed up at home. So he’s wandering around because he doesn’t have a place to stay either, and so, you know, everybody is a little bit broken.

Part of the success of the movie is that Jim, he’s not perfect, and he can forget things that are vitally important. You know, whenever you get on to something that you really like in your life you find that you spend an inordinate amount of time on it at first, and there are some people that take the hit for that.

WH: The closest.

KC: Right, and in this sense, it’s like, why are we working so hard to make it here if we don’t like it here? “I hope you get fired from here!” (laughs) Right? That could have come out of her, out of his wife’s mouth, really easy. But it didn’t. And some people in America aren’t about more and bigger. You take this job and you get a bigger job, and you take this job and you get a bigger house, and a “better” community, and you get closer to the water. You know what I mean? And not everybody is like that.

You know, a great line in Field of Dreams, when Burt Lancaster says “Once a place takes hold of you, you breathe it like it’s your child.” Do you remember that speech?

WH: Oh yeah.

KC: It’s like your child. You can’t leave it. And when we watch this movie we don’t want him to take that job. I don’t know if you had a sense of drama at that moment, was he going to take it or not take it?

WH: After the meet? Definitely.

KC: Everybody wanted him to take it, but at the end, there’s a lot of people watching this movie, the same people that were giving him advice that said, “No, you’ve found something in this community.”

WH: I felt in my gut that he was going to stay, and I was hoping that I, my investment in the story, wouldn’t be betrayed.

KC: Right! Now Jim betrays us because he wants something more. But we project on him, “No, stay that heroic thing.”

WH: Exactly, and it is a projection because that’s what we all want to think, that it is what we would do. But I’m not in that situation . . .

KC: No.

WH: If somebody comes to me and says you can have this or you can have THIS, it’s hard to walk away from THIS.

KC: It is. And in the culture we’ve been raised it’s very hard.

WH: Speaking of culture, like I said, I took my son there thinking we would bond over the running aspect—it’s something he has a keen interest in and, man, I’m trying—but what we really talked about on the way home was privilege. You know, here I am trying to talk to my kid, driving through L.A. late at night, trying to lead the conversation toward cross-country, and suddenly I’m talking to him about white privilege . . .

KC: Well, I made a movie about that called Black or White.

WH: Which I haven’t seen, but I want to.

KC: You should go see it this weekend. If you are aware of that, you need to see it, because it says it out loud. It says stuff you wish you had said in your life.

WH: I’m sure. Talking to my son about that, I’ve lived in California a long time. You grew up here, or lived here a long time. Not a lot has changed since 1987.

KC: No.

WH: And it’s easy, living where we do, my family . . . and just the difference between our realities, or how we perceive reality, it’s night and day.

KC: It is. That’s right.

WH: That was the conversation we had on the way home.

KC: I love that.

WH: Well, good, because that’s going to be the gist of my article. I’m glad you like it.

KC: No, I really love that. That’s life, you know. Kids just need a chance.

And then our time was up. I was the last interview of the day, and we both stood from the long, white couch that we had been sprawled upon, each of us at ease in our respective corner, our legs loose in blue jeans and our feet perched on clean, pressed ottomans. We shook hands and made a bit of small talk, and then we took a crappy photo:

Kevin Costner and Whit Honea

The elevator was as quiet as only an elevator can be and we rode down together, Costner to a gathering crowd and a big car waiting, me to a long wait on the sidewalk and hoping I had enough cash to tip the valet. I thought of something, as we stood there waiting for the cold, metal doors to find their sealed embrace and drop us the few stories to the ground below—it was the stories that did it.

“You know,” I said. “Maybe things do change. I grew up in a small farming town. It was both McFarland and a world of Archie Bunker mentality, but each generation progresses. Obviously there is still way too much of it out there. It’s still everywhere, but where I grew up with it as a daily reality, older relatives that preached ignorance that I had to sift through, my boys know it as an evil that must be stopped. They know which side is right and they are getting a different conversation around the dinner table. I hope that’s progress.”

He stepped out of the elevator and looked at me with something like a smile. I couldn’t tell, the hallway was lit in the shadows of Hollywood and there were people between us. I figured that was it and I had a lonely sidewalk to get to, but when I turned he was standing there, waiting for a moment if not for me, and he took it when it presented itself.

“Our children are better than us,” he said. And then he walked into the promise of a sunset, or the cornfields that must surely grow somewhere in the distance—wherever it is that Kevin Costner goes as his words hang there, shining warm and bright in a hotel lobby.

The man can make an exit.

McFarland, USA cross-country

“McFarland, USA” photos provided by Disney. The crappy picture of Kevin Costner and Whit Honea is from the latter’s Instagram account.

Whit HoneaWhit Honea is the co-founder of Dads 4 Change, the Social Media Director and Community Manager of Dad 2.0 Summit as well as a Senior Account Executive at the conference’s parent company: XY Media Group. Deemed “the activist dad” by UpWorthy (and one of the “funniest dads on Twitter” by Mashable), he is a regular contributor to The Modern Dads Podcast and the author of The Parents’ Phrase Book—a family guide to empathy.

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