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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

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However, despite the film's political scheming and scamming, the real heart of Swing Vote belongs to the unique relationship between Bud and his precocious 12-year-old daughter Molly (played by Madeline Carroll), who not only cares for her father, but mischievously ignites the whole chain of events that catapults Bud to political prominence. It's those nostalgic, Capra-esque flourishes that initially attracted Costner to the role, as well as signing on as producer. "I knew it was a good comedy, but there was a real honesty to the material, and to the relationship between the father and daughter that I really responded when it's funny, it's honestly funny," explains Costner, who viewed the political message as secondary, but no less important. "I mean, whether it comes down to one vote, or whether it comes down to 10 delegates, you're going to see these candidates shift and squirm and maneuver. And as the base reduces itself, forget a single vote in about five votes make the difference in superdelegates? Wait till you see what that is going to look like!" Still, Costner remains optimistic about what is shaping up to be one of America's tightest presidential races. "I hope the stakes get raised for us, not the rhetoric gets raised; not the insults or smears get larger," he says. "I hope the ideas get bigger...

"Because I'm alarmed about what seems to steal focus," he continues, "and it's pretty apparent to me and to many, many people what a lot of our problems are. For starters, we shouldn't be running for office for over two years. That kind of money shouldn't be thrown at an election campaign." It's part of what Costner sees as America's need "for a golden age of politics," he muses. "And what that probably means realistically is that people would serve only one term. They'll be discounted because they pissed off so many people doing the right thing or taking America where it doesn't have a collective will. But perhaps what happens is four years later after they've been out of office, the American public say, 'Wait a second, we want to go back to someone who was honest.' So that person could possibly have a chance to serve eight years, but it just might not be consecutive, ya know?"

There's a definite Mr. Smith Goes to Washington flavor in the Swing Vote mix. A lot of talk about politics—albeit with a practical, homespun twist—floats around the set. New Mexico has traditionally been the largest swing state in the Southwest (in 2000, Al Gore won the state by just 366 votes), so debate wages and ideas fly between takes among the cast and crew. "Swing Vote is a political comedy that is sometimes too serious to laugh at," admits counterculture icon Dennis Hopper, dressed smartly in a black tuxedo for the film's pivotal fund-raiser scene. The charity ball—held inside Texico's local bingo hall—has been transformed into a gala celebrity affair by Democratic nominee Donald Greenleaf, all in a desperate attempt to influence Bud's tie-breaking vote. It's clear that Hopper is relishing the more devious side of his character. "Greenleaf wants to be president so badly that he keeps taking different positions," chuckles Hopper. "Both mine and Kelsey's policies keep changing because we think it's what Bud wants. But in reality, we don't have a clue what he really wants. Our research just doesn't pan out and we turn everything topsy-turvy."

Playing the president of the United States may rate as one of the secret desires for most actors, but Kelsey Grammer disagrees. "I think one of our secret desires is to actually be the president," laughs Grammer, who plans on joining John McCain's campaign trail this summer. "Actors do tend to be really sound thinkers, but we seem to have an inherent tendency to run away from responsibility...that's not a good quality in the White House. "But yes, I will admit, the fun of this film has been getting to play the guy with all the power in the world," he adds with a devilish grin. "It's a complete trip. And, of course, getting to play with Kevin has been a real riot. He's not only a terrific actor, but he's really fun-loving. And that really comes through in this movie—there's a real warmth and a kindness to it, and a real love for America."

You could probably best liken Costner's body of work to a great American novel, with each cinematic chapter unspooling a unique slice of wistful Americana through the eyes—sometimes quirky, often romantic, invariably roguish—of noble, yet often flawed protagonists clinging to the dissipating values of a bygone era. Whether in The Untouchables (1987), Wyatt Earp (1994), Thirteen Days (2000), or Open Range (2003), Costner's heroes embody a stoicism and gravitas rarely seen in cinema since the days of Gary Cooper and Steve McQueen. Playing a role like embattled New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison in Oliver Stone's JFK (1991) was a pivotal choice for Costner. Cautioned to avoid such a politically sensitive controversy, Costner felt it was too grave an issue to simply ignore. Many now regard that landmark film as far closer to the truth of the conspiracy involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy than the government's "official" Warren Commission version.

"Oliver [Stone] was a lot more careful about that film than those political pundits ever gave him credit for," reflects Costner. "If ever there was a fact we couldn't corroborate or prove, we always prefaced it with 'Let us suppose' in the film. As long as you're fair in how you frame it, it's OK to fill in some of the missing gaps when reconstructing something and you don't have all the answers." Costner remains an admirer of the late Garrison's bravery in trying to prove the case against such insurmountable odds. "At the time of his investigation in the mid-'60s, Garrison was seen by some as someone who was chasing windmills, but if you uncovered a lot of hidden information, what choice would you make?" asks Costner.

"The American public never had the opportunity or the resources to get to that classified information," he continues. "How could we as Americans have made an informed decision when we got such blatantly conflicting stories put right in front of our faces? I believe a number of key people knew [the assassination] was going to go down. And those who could have warned or could've stopped it basically turned their backs on what was happening. This country can accept the truth, just like we can accept our past, and we stand to learn more from knowing it then burying it."

Yet despite his many films that have become seminal classics, Costner remains equally philosophical about those considered disappointments. He cites Message in a Bottle (1999), 3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) and Dragonfly (2002) as films "that were great on paper, but then by the end of the process had gotten flattened and their edges softened. If something seemed uncomfortable or too edgy, it was eliminated. And yet, those oddities or uncomfortable bits were the very things that attracted me to those films in the first place. I mean, most stories are pretty derivative of each other in whatever genre you're in, but your obligation is to try and make something original out of it and turn it on its ear." Which is exactly what Costner did when he ventured into the horror genre as an unusually dichotomous serial killer in last summer's Mr. Brooks. It was a critically lauded film that unfortunately got lost in the shuffle when it was released at the wrong time of the year. "And that was the only thing that we couldn't control," laments Costner, "and it became the worst decision that happened to that film."

Ironically, Costner's proudest moment in cinema remains the film that has been called his biggest misfire: Waterworld. Why? "Because I stuck with it when there was every reason to abandon it and wanting to desperately," Costner confesses about the financially troubled 1995 apocalyptic epic. "But I still went around the world and I stood with it. And what's funny is that so many people always come up to me and will kinda sheepishly tell me that it's their favorite movie. So that period was a highlight really, in terms of not being afraid to stand tall with it." Despite the erroneous mythology that's surrounded the film ever since, Waterworld was actually a box office hit, grossing well over $400 million worldwide. And those tabloid reports about family man Costner cheating on his then wife, Cindy Silva, during the Waterworld shoot were also incorrect. "The real story is that within three days of landing in Hawaii, my wife served me through her lawyer," Costner explains. "So I was effectively divorced for the four months I was over there shooting. And when I finally did have an interaction with somebody, it was five months after I had been effectively divorced from my wife. But the press have always made it seem like I was still married at the time. See, I didn't want to fall into a 'back-and-forth' with them, so I remained quiet about my divorce and didn't engage. And the press never really corrected the record."

Dennis Hopper, who costarred with Costner in Waterworld, says it was inevitable that Hollywood's Golden Boy would be turned into the media's whipping boy. "I always see fame as like an air pocket that comes up from the bottom, forms this beautiful bubble that everyone marvels at and wants to bask in its beauty…and then they immediately want to pop it," he explains. "It seems to happen in all sorts of fame on any kind of level. It certainly happened to Kevin and it happened to me and it happens to most people who have any kind of real talent. It's an unfortunate human trait...

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