The upside of being a Hollywood maverick

Special to The Times

Say what you like about Kevin Costner (and people have said all sorts of things), but he's a man who follows his heart -- even at the expense of so-called industry wisdom.

Any actor other than Costner, who's basking in the glow of the generally warm reception from audiences and critics for his latest film, "Open Range," might have been expected to milk his success, to curry a little favor with the powers that be in Hollywood.

"Oooh, you mean strike while that iron's hot," said Costner. "So am I missing out on that?" He laughed. "Yeah, probably."

"Almost certainly" is nearer the mark. Instead, Costner, renowned for going his own way, is over here shooting a low-profile, low-budget film that as yet doesn't even have U.S. distribution. What's more, he's in a supporting role.

Titled "The Upside of Anger," it's written and directed by Mike Binder, best known for his canceled HBO series, "Mind of a Married Man." Binder wrote the film for Joan Allen, who emphatically has the lead role playing a woman with four headstrong teenage daughters (Evan Rachel Wood, Erika Christensen, Keri Russell and Alicia Witt) whose husband has apparently deserted his family for his secretary. Binder's previous films have been low-budget affairs, as is this one. (The entire budget for "Upside" is around $10 million, $5 million less than Costner's reported rate for studio films.)

"Well, it's not out of sorts for me to do a small film," Costner remarked. "I did a part in 'The War.' And '3,000 Miles From Graceland' really should have been lower budget than it turned out to be."

He reflected on this one evening recently in his trailer on the grounds of Kenwood House, a stately home in Hampstead, an affluent suburb in northern London. Costner, 48, arrived fresh and enthusiastic for a long night shoot and talked casually about his current project and the vagaries of his career.

"I just like the writing," he said of "The Upside of Anger." "I read this and thought it was terribly insightful and personal. Mike's a really original voice. He's a person that talks about things we flinch at.

"So I'm here making a good movie with a friend. If it seems odd, that's what makes it more probable that I'd do it."

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A new kind of Costner role

Binder has written a part for Costner unlike anything the actor has done before. He plays Denny, a former baseball star, now about 50, whose life is something of an anticlimax. He hosts a drive-time radio show but irritates listeners because he refuses to discuss the one subject they want to hear about: baseball. He is a neighbor and drinking buddy of Allen's character, Terry, and was of her husband too before he departed. Now that she is alone, he finds reasons to come around more often.

"This guy's like a Saint Bernard, he wanders the neighborhood," mused Costner. "He's a stoner, and he's a bit of a drunk. He comes into this home and he gets put down quite a bit."

Binder admitted he wrote the role of Denny with Costner in mind. "I'm such a fan of this guy," he enthused. "To tell you the truth, having him on board helped me get the movie financed." (Two production companies, MDP Worldwide and VIP Media, bankrolled "The Upside of Anger"). Binder agreed to delay production to accommodate Costner.

"I told Mike I'd do it, but only if I could start after Labor Day," Costner said. "I wanted to spend time with my family, my kids, and not have it cut in half. I was tired after 'Open Range.' I'd put a lot into that movie. [Costner directed and co-produced the western.]

Having received respectful reviews and positive word of mouth, "Open Range" enjoyed a five-week run in the box office Top 10 and has grossed close to $60 million.

"It was a small movie by my standards, and under the radar," Costner noted. "I just finished the movie, edited it and took it around to try and throw light on this genre, the western, that was deemed dead.

"But what you do is support and follow your instincts about entertaining people. That's always in my mind: Is this a piece of entertainment? Is it worth the drive? Is it worth the baby-sitter? You try not to lose yourself, even though maybe what you're doing isn't in vogue."

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Bucking the system

Of course, Costner has plowed his own furrow regardless of vogue for some time now, with a single-mindedness that has brought him unexpected triumphs, major setbacks and a reputation for stubborn willfulness. Never content just to be a star, Costner has strong views about moviemaking and the state of Hollywood, which he isn't afraid to express.

"No one wanted to make 'Dances With Wolves,' " he recalled. "It was a difficult sale. So was 'Bull Durham.' 'No Way Out' was a movie in turnaround. It wasn't going to be made by anybody. Those movies, no one was banking on them doing anything.

" 'Dances' was called 'Kevin's Gate.' I think it was because I was offered an enormous amount of money to do 'Hunt for Red October' and turned it down. But I'd already given my word I'd do 'Dances With Wolves,' so how could you do the other film if you've given your word? So why the negativity? What could that be about?"

In the end, of course, he was thoroughly vindicated; "Dances With Wolves" was a worldwide hit and won seven Oscars. Some of Costner's later big gambles, notably "Waterworld" and "The Postman," did not pay off so handsomely.

Costner has long championed the western in such films as "Dances," "Wyatt Earp" and "Silverado," although it has not been a fashionable genre for a long time. Now, with the good reaction to "Open Range," he says, "I'll probably do a couple more before it's all done, because it's a genre I'd like to continue to present. I developed [another] western side by side with 'Open Range' and made a calculated decision. I looked at both, one was more outwardly commercial than the other, and I decided I'd do the less commercial one.

"The other isn't a sequel. I'd like to do it next year. But it's so hard to do them. I know for it to have the voice I want, I'll have to direct it. The idea of getting up every morning and shepherding it, I know what that's about. I'm like a kid who doesn't want to go out and cut the lawn."

Costner being Costner, he has already turned down a far more obvious western: "The Holy Road," based on the novel by Michael Blake, who also wrote "Dances With Wolves." Lt. John Dunbar, the character Costner played in "Dances," also appears in "The Holy Road."

"It was logical they came to me [for 'The Holy Road']," said Costner. "But I think I'm not best served doing that movie. There's lots of reasons to consider. One, you're associated with it, and two, there's a great deal of money going to go with that. Those are reasons, but not reasons to do it.

"In this weird climate of what passes for a movie is [judging it on] how well it does at the box office," he brooded. "It's even diminished by critics too if it doesn't do well. We equate movies with how much they earn, not how they make us feel."

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