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Kevin Costner Charts His Own Course

The veteran actor tackles a comedy role that never strays from his career-long ambition: having fun and telling a good story.
David Giammarco
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, July/August 2008

As the sun slowly melts behind the mountains and a brilliant orange glow cascades across the New Mexico desert, a film crew busily prepares to shoot a key scene for Kevin Costner's political comedy Swing Vote. Amplifiers are being carted off trucks, guitar cases carefully unpacked, and hundreds of glammed-up extras are buzzing in anticipation. Costner will be performing live tonight, together with his band Modern West, for a rousing scene where his lovable loser character Bud Johnson and jailbird buddies prepare to rock the vote before a crowd of stuffy Washington politicos. The band also has a new recording contract and plans a summer tour.

Sitting outside his trailer, Costner strums his acoustic guitar and warms up with a melodic country-rock tune he cowrote for the film. It's a catchy number reminiscent of a long-lost Crosby, Stills & Nash or Eagles song. Though many will be surprised by Costner's musical chops, it's something those close to him have long known. In fact, Costner was singing long before his acting career, having performed in traveling choirs and musicals while still a kid. When early films such as Silverado (1985), The Untouchables (1987), No Way Out (1987) and Bull Durham (1988) suddenly skyrocketed Costner to worldwide film fame, he reluctantly placed his musical pursuits on hold.

"There's a real fun quotient that I adhere to in my life," Costner reflects on his rekindled passion. "It's fun to sing with my friends. And fun is a really important word in my life. Life needs to involve fun and games, because life boils down very quickly to huge responsibilities." Dressed in Bud's slacker wardrobe of ripped blue jeans, vintage T-shirt and backwards-turned baseball cap, Costner looks and sounds every bit the laid-back Southern California troubadour as he sings about lost innocence and carefree abandon. Though Modern West has quietly garnered rave reviews and thrilled fans in concerts across the United States, Canada and Europe, Costner winces at the thought of anyone pegging "rock star" to his résumé. "There are moments where I think, 'Why would I risk whatever reputation I have?'" he admits. "Because this is a big hill to climb, the 'actor-in-a-band' thing. And I'm not even sure what I'm doing, except I'm doing it as long as it feels good."

Costner always seems to have a new trick up his sleeve, which has not only contributed to his career longevity, but long ago certified many of his movies as true American classics: Dances with Wolves, Tin Cup, No Way Out, Bull Durham and Field of Dreams make up a partial list of his iconic hits. Just in the last few years alone, eclectic turns in films such as Mr. Brooks (2007), The Upside of Anger (2005) and Open Range (2003) have peeled back new layers on Costner's skills, both as an actor as well as an Oscar-winning director-producer.

"Hollywood has never been able to ignore Kevin, because he keeps reinventing himself," offers Costner's Swing Vote costar Dennis Hopper. "If they're not going to give him a project, he invents projects. He's not going to sit around and wait for them to make some decision for him. And his decisions are usually right on. He's a terrifically creative guy and I really admire what he's done. His career has definitely matched up to the most legendary in Hollywood."

The last few years have not only seen the bar raised for Costner professionally, but personally as well. In 2004, he married Christine Baumgartner, a demure and charmingly sophisticated Orange County, California, native with beautiful fresh-faced features, blonde hair and sparkling brown eyes. At their lavish weeklong wedding celebration at his 165-acre Aspen ranch, family and close friends were treated to scores of daily outdoor adventures around the sprawling Rocky Mountain retreat. Then last year, the couple had their first child, a baby boy they named Cayden Wyatt. After already raising a family from a previous marriage, Costner admits he wasn't yearning to become a father all over again at 52. "But I love my wife so much, I was willing to do that," he says. "And a lot of times, the things that you fear the most in your life turn out to be the things that save you."

That exact ethos has also brought Costner his most creatively satisfying screen rewards, which from the outset often flouted conventional Hollywood wisdom. In 1989, hot off his poignant baseball drama Field of Dreams, Costner decided to direct, produce and star in the three-hour-plus Western Dances with Wolves, which featured a third of the dialogue in the Lakota Sioux language. Costner was advised to "buy a gun and shoot myself—it was a cheaper way to commit suicide," he recalls with a grin. But the epic tale proved his naysayers wrong, earning more than $500 million worldwide and capturing seven Academy Awards, including a Best Picture and Best Director Oscar for the first-time filmmaker. Even 18 years later, the honors continue. In 2007, Dances with Wolves was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically and aesthetically significant." "I still pride myself on being a consumer, and don't think of myself as a filmmaker until I actually go out and make a film," explains Costner. "And though my films might not be appealing to the largest demographic, I'm appealing to a demographic that likes a story told the way I like it. The biggest thing is to feel relevant, and I don't know how relevant I am. But I need to feel relevant to myself. And that opening weekend that Hollywood prays to as a measure of yourself is something I've had to stare at and wonder how relevant I am. But I've never made films for the largest demographic that exists out there, the 18- to 25-year-olds. I think they can enjoy my films, but I don't cater to them."

So in a summer crowded with bloated comic book sequels and mindless action films, Swing Vote promises to deliver a breath of fresh air at theaters. If Costner's singing will surprise audiences, rest assured his comedic skills—on full display in Swing Vote—will make you wonder why he hasn't attempted the genre sooner. "They just don't really think to send me those kinds of scripts," shrugs Costner, "but I would certainly love to do more. Swing Vote director and cowriter Josh Stern admits to being bowled over by Costner's comedic flair. "I kept saying after the takes, 'Man, you are really, really funny'...and in such completely innocent awe," marvels Stern. "He would do this great physical comedy and deliver lines with such razor-sharp timing that was so funny on its own, but became doubly funny because it was coming from Kevin Costner, who isn't known for being wacky on-screen."

In the film, the U.S. president and a colorful cast of White House hopefuls swarm the tiny town of Texico, New Mexico, when the fate of the next presidential election falls unexpectedly into the hands of one man—the apathetic, beer-guzzling single dad Bud Johnson, who ekes out a meager living fronting a Willie Nelson tribute band. Leading the comedic hyperrealism is a stellar cast that includes Kelsey Grammer as the Republican incumbent, Dennis Hopper as the Democratic challenger, Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane as their respective campaign managers and George Lopez as the local TV station manager. Further propelling Bud and the one-horse town onto the political world stage is a pack of media celebrities, including Bill Maher, Larry King, Aaron Brown, Mary Hart, Arianna Huffington, Chris Matthews and Tucker Carlson.

You'd figure the timing of Swing Vote was somehow orchestrated. Given this year's nomination grappling and the scant margins of recent fights for the White House, the outrageous premise doesn't seem that far-fetched. "I'm watching all the polls and I literally had no concept that this year's presidential election would be so tight when I wrote the script," says Stern. "I mean, back in 2000 we had [more than 100] million people vote and it literally came down to…[537] votes in Florida. You couldn't have bet on those odds...those are lottery odds! So while this film is a little outlandish, it's not so crazy after all."

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