<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Kevin Costner sits at an outdoor table at the Four Seasons hotel and decides to play movie star. He slips on a pair of dark glasses and breaks into a wide grin.

“Wait,” he says, laughing. “I want these people to notice me.”

Despite the effort, no one looks twice.

“I must be doing something right,” he says with some irony, and laughs again.

At 32, Costner is a study in contrasts. While he can’t get strangers to give him a second glance, he’s establishing himself as one of Hollywood’s top leading men, getting good notices for “No Way Out,” the spy thriller released Friday.

“The movie . . . benefits from the performances of an expert cast headed by Kevin Costner,” said Vincent Canby of the New York Times. “ ‘No Way Out’s’ greatest prize is Costner,” wrote the L.A. Times’ Sheila Benson, “a leading man at last: fiercely good, intelligent, appreciatively sensual in a performance balanced perfectly between action and introspection.”


He received mixed reviews for his role as Eliot Ness in Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables,” some critics commending his restrained performance, others condemning him for a hollow, colorless portrayal of the famed Chicago fed. But the film was a smash with audiences, and Costner was no longer Kevin who ?

Fame has finally found him, after he built a career on small roles in big films (“Silverado”), big roles in small films (“Fandango,” “American Flyers”) and no role in a major hit (his part as the dead friend Alex was axed from “The Big Chill”).

Yet he rejects the tag of “movie star.”

“You want to see a movie star, go talk to Sean Connery or Robert De Niro or Gene Hackman,” he says. “I’m not a movie star. I’m an actor. There’s no dividing line, it’s just the difference between looking at a girl and a woman. ‘Movie star’ is not my label. I think I want to be successful. I want things to be how they are right now, getting offers. But those are, like, high-class problems. I think maybe as you get older you realize what success is. It certainly couldn’t be this--this is comfort. I mean, coming to interview Kevin Costner, big deal. There’s got to be more.”

Costner hardly looks the part of movie star, dressed in a putty-colored polo shirt, his hair skirting his shoulders. He refuses to budge from his old neighborhood near Pasadena where he’s building a bigger house for his family--wife Cindy and their two young children, Annie and Lili. He likes being near his friends, likes being able to hack around Magic Mountain with his daughter looking for fast rides. His image offscreen is every bit the Regular Guy--that is, until he fixes his blue-gray eyes on something, narrows them a bit and lets the intensity of his on-screen persona shoot through.

But he’s intrigued when someone introduces the notion of Kevin Costner as one of us who cracked Hollywood and became boffo at the box office.

“He’s one of us, he’s one of us,” he mumbles, rolling the idea around in his mind. “I actually kind of like that. I don’t like a lot of posturing, I don’t like a lot of intrigue. It’s tiring and it’s hurtful. If I wanted someone to say something, that’s kind of an interesting thing. It’s not very eccentric, it’s pretty even-steven down the road. I guess, maybe, that’s my deal.”

“No Way Out” director Roger Donaldson has high praise for Costner, although he noted that on a recent flight from Washington, D.C., “not one person recognized him. He’s not Paul Newman--but he could be. I think he has the ability to be a movie star. . . . There aren’t that many guys in that age group who have the ability to act and look good. Kevin’s really a fine actor. He’s ambitious and he works hard. He’s my sort of actor. I like someone who feels committed to the material. If the audience wants to create a movie star out of Kevin, they’ve got good material.”


Costner resolved his feelings about his interpretation of Ness even before the critics knocked him. “I knew going in what people’s problems would be with my character,” he says. “The reason I did ‘Untouchables’ was that I thought the movie had a chance to be a fresh, original movie. The notion that a traditional American hero doesn’t have all the answers and asks for help confuses us. We’d rather have Rambo who kills a hundred people for us and does all our thinking for us. It bothers us to watch a movie where the guy who is supposed to be in charge doesn’t know what’s going on. It wasn’t the most charismatic role, and that’s unusual for a lead in a movie.”

Not only does Costner get to play more of “a guy’s guy,” as he puts it, in “No Way Out,” but he also gets the girl--Sean Young--in a steamy encounter in the back of a limo.

He laughs when he’s reminded of the scene, tipping his tall, lanky frame back in his chair. “Yeah, I’ve never done that before,” he says. “But that’s the nature of having a young career. There are a lot of hats I can wear in the movies, a lot of hats I will wear.”

Costner is pleased with the reaction so far to “No Way Out,” even though Orion held it, pending a good reaction to “The Untouchables.”

“It’s a business and they have to make the moves that they think are right and correct,” he observes matter-of-factly. “It’s just a movie. The important thing is that they release it.”

“No Way Out” (based on Kenneth Fearing’s novel “The Big Clock”) “wasn’t going to be made by anybody,” according to Costner. “Orion wanted to make a picture with me and I wouldn’t make anything they had at that point. I had read the script and I thought it was kind of interesting; it didn’t smack of a mega-hit but it did remind me of why I like movies. They read it and said OK.”


Born in Compton, Costner grew up in various California towns, attended four different high schools and was graduated from Cal State Fullerton. It wasn’t until he reached the age of 22 that he decided to take up acting. “I was on my way to a business career,” he recalls, “and I literally had to catch myself because I thought I was running a little late on the program. There’s a notion that people know what they’re supposed to do by the time they get out of college. And I bought into that system. But I started listening to my inner voice and said, ‘You better do it, man.’ The one voice says, ‘Grow up’; the other says, ‘Do the most ridiculous thing possible.’ ”

After years of doing experimental theater and taking parts in small films, Costner finally landed a role in “The Big Chill.” Although his entire role ended up in the outtakes pile, he recalls, “I felt comfortable with my career.

“It doesn’t matter (that the part was cut),” he says. “I knew I was with the right circle of people. I felt an inherent trust (with director Lawrence Kasdan) based on an article I’d read two years earlier. It said, ‘Director hot but has no credits.’ I guess that could have been me. Kevin’s hot but has no films.”

Costner, who describes himself as “more of a plodder,” admits he hasn’t worked since November. But doing a film just for the sake of having his image on screen isn’t his idea of working. He’s involved in several projects, including a new Kasdan film; a movie about Native Americans set in the 1860s, and another film based on a short story set in Mexico. “It’s about men and women and why they tangle,” he says, a sly smile creeping across his face.

“There’s nothing so refreshing as being around some solid idea. I know what attracts me, and that’s clarity. That’s sexy--wisdom and clarity. That’s stuff, man, that’s juice, that’s medicine.”