Going against the tide
“NOT out here -- I don’t stand talking in the wind.” That’s noted western aficionado Kevin Costner easing us toward a quiet corner of his beachfront home outside Santa Barbara. Except that he’s quoting John Wayne from “The Searchers,” when he first encounters the Indian chief Scar. Whether this is a test of movie lore or the harbinger of a showdown yet to come is not immediately clear.
We sit beneath a giant Peter Beard triptych of African lions, a late-model Gibson acoustic guitar within arm’s reach of the couch, binoculars on the credenza for whale spotting. Despite the stunning ocean view, this is actually just a starter home, while the Costners’ new house is being readied on the 17-acre horse ranch just up the beach from this gated community. Dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, his two golden labs lazing nearby, Costner seems every bit the laconic everyman he has played for two decades on screen.
In fact, it’s only the “Cedars-Sinai Guide to a Happy Baby” open on the coffee table (“A baby will usually nurse between 10 to 20 minutes on each breast”) and the occasional muted offstage cry that indicate that Costner, 52, and his wife, Christine, 32, welcomed their first child -- Cayden Wyatt Costner, his fifth and her first -- a scant seven days before. Mother and son are resting somewhere out of sight.
“Well, you’re either an observer or a participant,” says Costner, grinning, of this late-second-act wrinkle. He is clearly not intimidated by a challenge -- as the biography of a Compton-born, Cal State Fullerton-educated actor-director-producer who makes up to $15 million a picture might suggest. Especially one who grew nine inches in college. After a series of midcareer setbacks and a recent critical and commercial reawakening, Costner is frank and combative about the reputation he has garnered along the way, and most intent on controlling his destiny.
Costner goes on display in “Mr. Brooks,” a modest thriller in which he and William Hurt (a friend since “The Big Chill,” from which Costner had the misfortune to be almost completely excised) portray dueling personalities of a reluctant serial killer -- an id and ego that drive around aimlessly together, engaging in amusing banter, eluding detective Demi Moore.
In its conception, “Mr. Brooks” seems like a remnant of the “Silence of the Lambs"-era’s charming psychopath cycle run through the conceit of addiction and recovery -- the film opens with the Serenity Prayer -- and retooled for the current horror craze. (Director Bruce A. Evans and co-writer Raynold Gideon wrote the ‘80s films “Stand by Me,” “Starman,” “Made in Heaven” and the 1992 Christian Slater vehicle “Kuffs” -- Evans’ only other directing credit -- as well as the more recent “Jungle 2 Jungle” starring Tim Allen.)
It is also being billed as a departure for its star and producer. Instead, it features Costner at his most affable -- a continuation of recent roles in “The Upside of Anger” and “Rumor Has It ...” but with a considerably darker thread of humor running throughout and a little more fun at the expense of his nice-guy persona.
Yet the image of Costner as a split personality is not altogether a foreign one. Early successes with “Silverado,” “The Untouchables” and the baseball double-header “Bull Durham” and “Field of Dreams” culminated in 1990 best picture and best director Oscars for his directorial debut, “Dances With Wolves” (roles in “JFK” and “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” followed).
But soon afterward, his “Jimmy Stewart, aw-shucks persona,” as Madonna once described it, began to collide in the press with images of profligacy (cost overruns on the $175-million “Waterworld”), egomania (locking his directors out of the editing room on “Robin Hood” and “The Bodyguard”) and intransigence (refusing to comply with studio cuts on his pictures). He stubbornly clung to what were considered outmoded genres (baseball films, westerns, post-apocalyptic epics). His films routinely topped the two-hour mark, and his directorial follow-up, 1997’s post-apocalyptic epic western “The Postman,” was ridiculed on its release.
Of course, to be fair, “Waterworld” went on to earn $265 million worldwide, putting it safely in the black, and “Robin Hood” and “The Bodyguard” made roughly $400 million apiece. Not even 20 years after “Wolves” and westerns are back in vogue (“Deadwood,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming “There Will Be Blood,” Costner’s own 2003 surprise hit “Open Range”), as is post-apocalypse (Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” Jim Crace’s “The Pesthouse,” Matthew Sharpe’s “Jamestown”). “The Postman” may well be due for reconsideration, now that nostalgia for benign government is in the ascendant. And before you begin to doubt the degree of Costner’s commitment to his work, consider that in “Waterworld,” the man drank his own urine.
“Most of the people who write [about my films] don’t forensically know exactly what went on,” says Costner. “If they did, they’d have a different opinion of me. What happens sometimes is that people get confused when they think you want to keep a scene because of vanity. A lot of times what I’m arguing for is a script that can’t speak for itself. But more importantly, I’m arguing for the commerce of the movie. The success of a movie is: Will you take it off a shelf five years from now, 10 years from now? Will you revisit it with a sweetheart, a son or daughter, or because that was the movie where you got your first kiss in the theater? So those decisions you’re making are for its lifetime, not its opening weekend. And when they fall into the conventional wisdom of pace and timing, ratings even, that’s when the films suffer.”
‘A writer-driven actor’
SINCE “Dances With Wolves,” Costner has produced roughly half the films he has starred in. And although he won’t say which ones they are, out of deference to the directors, he does claim to have a clear idea of where his underachievers have gone awry.
“I wasn’t surprised when they weren’t received well,” says Costner. “I’m not a guy that gets surprised on Saturday morning. I feel like I could tell you three months before where we lost our way. But I will tell you this: When the final movie is closest to the [original] script, those have been most successful. And that doesn’t necessarily mean rewrites, either. People chicken out and leave out scene after scene. I’m a writer-driven actor. The way I started, down in the L.A. River in a chemical plant with all my friends, making our own acting classes, doing it for free -- that was the one rule: ‘If the writer did it, let’s do it how it’s written.’ ”
That same makeshift acting group produced many of those who have continued in Costner’s professional orbit for two decades. He currently plays in a band with John Coinman, who served as music supervisor on “Dances With Wolves” and played guitar in “The Postman.” (And based on two songs -- the Springsteen-like post-Katrina rocker “Just Five Minutes From America” and Mellencamp-style ballad “Every Intention” -- the band sounds surprisingly good.) Michael Blake wrote the script for “Dances With Wolves” based on his novel. Jim Wilson, despite at least one high-profile falling out, is still his producing partner (including on “Mr. Brooks” and the upcoming “Swing Vote,” a winsome comedy in the vein of Garson Kanin’s “The Great Man Votes” that Costner will finance).
According to Costner, he and “Waterworld” director Kevin Reynolds remain close too and it was Reynolds who sent him the script for “Mr. Brooks.” “I think he’s one of the great directors,” states Costner unequivocally. “I think if someone wanted to break with the urban legend that’s out there, they’d realize that Kevin and I made two movies together that weren’t sequels that made about $800 or $900 million -- ‘Robin Hood’ and ‘Waterworld’ -- and made ‘Fandango,’ which I’ll rank with any coming-of-age movie out there.”
But this loyalty extends as well to a kind of inchoate classicism -- one forged in the crucible of watching “How the West Was Won,” the ultimate Cinerama spectacle, at the Cinerama Dome as a rapt 7-year-old. It incorporates epic scope, lush romanticism and the kind of enduring verities easily encapsulated in the western, but that probably expand to include all of history as it’s preserved in Hollywood movies -- the same ones that would have sustained his Depression-era Okie forebears on their long journey to the promised land of California. As no less an authority than John Cassavetes once observed, “Maybe there never was an America in the ‘30s. Maybe it was all Frank Capra.”
“What I know is that things don’t fall out of favor with me,” says Costner. “If I like something, then I like it. It has a shelf life with me. Of all the things I’ve developed, I’ve actually made about 90% of them. When you talk about westerns, I’m probably more Ford than Peckinpah. The issues in the Old West were issues over land. If we think the sheriff is corrupt, look at our own circumstance. Money is always trying to influence the rule of law. There were plenty of psychopaths out there who found the ability to reinvent themselves every 30 miles.”
He cites the penultimate scene from “Giant” as a model of dramatic economy, where the newly enlightened cattle baron played by Rock Hudson squares off against Sarge, the owner of the local diner, to defend a Mexican family’s right to service, and goes down swinging. But he might as well be talking about the studio moguls who take the easy score every time.
“It’s so corny now for most people, that score of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas,’ ” says Costner. “And then to lose the fight. But when this tough-as-nails Korean vet puts that sign [‘We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone,’ taken off the wall and tossed onto the recumbent Hudson’s chest] over him: ‘OK, you want to fight for this? You earned it.’ There’s something heroic in that.
“There’s some kind of bad DNA in me. It’s like the West: I won’t abide it. In my mind, I can be pushed about 99 yards. But when you get to that final yard of mine, it’s a really big mistake: You’ve crossed so many boundaries with me already that I don’t hesitate at that moment.”
As Robert Duvall says in “Open Range”: “Cattle is one thing. One man telling another man where he can go in this country is something else.”
The Madonna incident
BUT sometimes -- in real life, if rarely in the movies -- the brewing storm gives way to something else, what legitimately might be termed a form of grace. In the 1991 Madonna documentary “Truth or Dare,” while greeting the singer backstage in Los Angeles on her “Blond Ambition” tour, a hapless Costner describes her concert as “neat,” causing Madonna to bristle noticeably and, unseen by him, feign shoving her finger down her throat. “Anybody who says my show is ‘neat’ has to go,” she says after he beats a hasty retreat.
Asked how the incident affected his life, right at the moment his star was riding the highest, with the wolves circling somewhere out beyond the fire, Costner doesn’t give the answer that’s expected.
“Yeah, I was embarrassed by it and kind of hurt by it,” he says. “I just went back there because I was asked to go back. And I found the best word that I could. I never called her on it or whatever.
“But she did a really beautiful thing. She was performing [in L.A.] about three or four years ago, so I decided to take my daughters to see her. I just thought this is somebody they should see. I didn’t call anybody for tickets, I just got tickets and we went down....
“And about the third song in, the lights were down, and she said, ‘I want to apologize to someone.’ And all of a sudden my face starts to get hot.... And she says, ‘I want to apologize to Kevin Costner.’ She just said it very simply. Ninety-eight percent of that audience didn’t know what she was talking about. But I really respected that, and it showed me the power of just keeping your own counsel for a long time.... Whatever possessed her, whatever was inside her, she came to her own decision. And a bigger thing came out of some kind of humiliation.
“I never wrote her to say thank you, but I appreciate it from the bottom of my heart, and that meant more to me than you could ever know.”