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A version of this story appears in the The Hollywood Reporter’s January awards issue.
Kevin Costner, who has been one of Hollywood’s most popular leading men for the past 30 years — from Silverado, The Untouchables, Bull Durham and Field of Dreams to Dances with Wolves, JFK and The Bodyguard — will turn 60 in January, if you can believe it. But don’t for a second think that he’s slowing down: In addition to passion projects that range from financing and designing a machine to clean up oil spills to financing and co-authoring a series of family-friendly books, he has just completed a controversial new film, which he also bankrolled when others shied away from it.
Black or White, which Relativity Media will release in select theaters on Jan. 30, reunites Costner with his Upside of Anger writer-director Mike Binder and had its world premiere at September’s Toronto International Film Festival. In it, Costner plays a grandfather whose daughter dies in childbirth and wife passes away soon after, leaving him as the sole caretaker of his young mixed-race granddaughter. Sole caretaker, that is, until the young girl’s father’s side of the family raises a custody challenge, which leads to all sorts of discussions and debates about many of the racial tensions that exist in America. From little things like taking care of his granddaughter around the house to a show-stopping courtroom speech that anyone who sees it won’t soon forget, Costner gives one of his best and most complex performances, which he discussed with THR in December at his home near Santa Barbara.
Read Toronto: ‘Black or White’ Could Propel Kevin Costner Into Oscar Race
You were famously cut out of The Big Chill, which would have been your first big movie, but director Lawrence Kasdan, who liked you and wanted to make it up to you, then cast you in Silverado two years later. That’s the one that really put you on the map, right?
That was a very important moment and a very big thing for me. That really was a star turn for me because it was a flashy role. In Hollywood, people always ask, “Well, can he carry a movie? Can he do that?” And those questions all began to be answered. Then No Way Out was a really big thing for me in that I actually found that movie — we pulled it out of turnaround, and even though that movie was done before The Untouchables, they decided to let the publicity machine that would drive Untouchables push No Way Out. So those were some of these things that were happening. Things didn’t happen for me until I was 28 years old. It didn’t happen to me at 20 or 21, so you know, I didn’t have my head out of the car doing cocaine off the hood. I was really interested. I had been stage-managing at Raleigh Studios for three years, so I had been thinking about directing. Those six years from the point that I decided I wanted to be an actor, from 22 to 28, I really began studying a lot of things. So when Orion came to me about doing a movie, and they didn’t have one, I had one: Dances with Wolves.
How would you describe the way you approach acting?
I consider myself kind of an emotional detective. So what are the facts, and then, how do you act with those facts, right? You know, Elliot has facts in Black or White that inform everything that I do. I missed out on all the great things that I could’ve maybe perhaps learned at Juilliard or somewhere else. I didn’t have that, so I had to really try to fill up my bag with tricks. Also, my dad came out of the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma and his thing was, “Don’t let anybody outwork you. And if you want to get ahead, you need to be proactive in your thinking.” I know it sounds so basic, but it informs me. I don’t want the opportunity of a lifetime to come along and not be ready for it, you know what I mean?
Most actors who have been stars for as long as you have a “screen persona,” a sort of character that the public associates with them, even if they sometimes deviate from it. For you, it’s the strong, quiet, all-American guy, not unlike Gary Cooper, isn’t it?
Range is important to me — I mean, I’m not a person that just goes out and gets rid of dialogue to be the strong, silent type. I embraced dialogue with the JFK speech or Inherent the Wind. But no one mistakes me for anything other than an American actor, that’s for sure. That hasn’t limited me in the kinds of movies that I do or will do, but I am quintessentially American, without a doubt, and it doesn’t really matter how far I try to run from it. All you have to do is look at the roles. I couldn’t have had two more American roles than Crash Davis [in Bull Durham] and Roy McAvoy [in Tin Cup]. I mean, Ron Shelton gave me quintessentially two of the greatest American cinema characters that you could have, you know? Even in Black or White, I’m a grandpa — albeit I’m drinking a lot!
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You’ve been a part of great successes — starring in best picture Oscar nominees in three consecutive years with Field of Dreams, Dances with Wolves (which won) and JFK — and you’ve also been a part of films that took a lot of flak, namely Waterworld and The Postman within a two-year span. How did you handle the way that those films were received?
I just had to handle it. You know, you pick what you think is an original movie, and you want to bring it to the screen, and that’s what you do. I like both of those movies. There’s so much about The Postman that I love. I probably made a mistake with Postman: I should’ve started it with, “Once upon a time,” because it’s a modern-day fairytale. I liked it very much. And I understand forensically exactly what went on with Waterworld [but I don’t regret it]. It would have been very friendly to a studio to make Bull Durham 2 and The Bodyguard 3 and 4 — a very good way to sustain your career — but it’s not how I count things. It’s not my math. I’ve conducted my career pretty much on my own terms.
Almost a decade before Black or White, you worked with writer-director Mike Binder on another excellent indie, The Upside of Anger. At the time, you said, “He’s a person who talks about things we flinch at.” That’s also very true of Black or White, which raises some uncomfortable conversations that we don’t often have. What drew you to it?
After I did Upside of Anger with Mike, he sent me four or five screenplays, and I said “no” to all of them — that’s hard on the psyche of a writer. But then he sent me Black or White, and it reminded me of everything that I like about screenplays. It was very similar to Field of Dreams, it was very similar to Silverado — it was quality, just quality writing.
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The potential for controversy didn’t deter you from JFK; did it give you any pause about doing Black or White?
No, it didn’t give me any pause. I was worried that other people would change it. Mike is so good at writing this stuff, but he could also second-guess himself — because he’s smart, you have to kind of second-guess yourself — but you need to also have somebody say, “No, we’re in great shape, Mike. We’re not changing this.” That was me.
You’ve invested a lot of your own money in everything from a machine to clean up oil spills to an upcoming series of books to some of your movies — $3 million of the $16 million budget of Dances with Wolves, and now $9 million for Black or White when other financing didn’t avail itself. Spending your own money on movies is something people generally advise against…
I do so many things entrepreneurially in my life, and I stare up at the ceiling sometimes wondering how far out on a limb I’ve put my family and myself. But I am really in love with the “What if?” I put over $20 million into an oil-water separator business, another $15 in another one. It doesn’t mean anybody around the world is buying it, but I know for a fact that it works. I’m easy to dismiss because I’m a Hollywood personality, but I stay the course and I have the science and the engineering to back it up.
What does it say about Hollywood today that a movie like Black or White, which film festival audiences and critics have so embraced, couldn’t find any major studio to finance or distribute it? I can’t imagine that one would make Dances with Wolves today either…
No. And Bull Durham had a terrible time getting made — it was just not going to get made, and it was only made for about $6 million. It’s not new to me. The studios are making the kinds of movies they want to make. They understand their business, but I have to equally understand my business of what I choose to do, and this has as much value as anything that I could imagine doing. I couldn’t minimize it, and I wouldn’t allow it to be minimized. The studios didn’t fail; I would have failed if I didn’t toughen up and just figure out how to do it. I think it would’ve been a sad thing if people didn’t get to see this movie. That’s how much I actually believed in it. It helped inform me a little bit about how to conduct myself in the current state of affairs where race is concerned in this country.
What’s next for you?
I play music all over the world. I have a band, and I had no idea where this band was going to take me; I just wanted to play music wherever I was making a movie for two or three months, and it just developed into something else, you know, and look, I’ve played the Kremlin! I have another Western that’s about 10 hours long. What am I supposed to f—ing do with that? You know, but I have an idea about what to do with it. You know, if I had my druthers, it would be a true serial thing. It would be like come out on Memorial Day, come out on Thanksgiving, come out on Fourth of July, and then come out on Christmas, four, within an 18-month period. And I think that would be a very interesting way. And if I was really doing it right, after each one, I’d play the first two right in front of it, you know, like on a Wednesday, a Thursday, and then [have] it come out on Friday. [Also] I’m involved with making maybe one of the great novels of this century. That’s what I’d like it to be. Will it be? I don’t know, but that’s what I want it to be. Two guys and I have a novel coming out in 2015, The Explorer’s Guild, Volume One, about mercenaries who go around the world — it’s set in 1915 and, in this volume, they’re chasing this mythical Shambhala. I’m not the main writer — I’m one of the minor writers, and I financed the whole thing, put about a million dollars into that — but we’ve worked on it for four and a half years. I just stick with shit. Story is a thing that excites me.
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