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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."

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 to...so 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 America...how 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...

"But I guess we always need something to fight against in life," Hopper adds with a laugh.

As a result of the problem-plagued Waterworld shoot, Costner originally turned down what would become one of his most endearing roles: that of the washed-up golf maverick in Ron Shelton's Tin Cup. "After just coming out of the divorce and the whole Waterworld thing, I just didn't feel like working again," recalls Costner. "I wasn't in a good frame of mind. And so I said to Ron, 'I really like the script, but could you just give me some time?' He would have given me that time, but he had to start shooting right away. So I had to pass. And then a couple people said to me, 'You know, Kevin, this film is exactly what you need to do right now.' I was feeling so beat up and exhausted at that point. But ultimately I was glad I listened to them, because I'm so happy I was able to have that experience."

It's now early May, and Kevin and Christine have decided to take a vacation to the Florida Keys, staying at the palatial beachfront estate of friend John Morris, the founder and CEO of the sporting goods empire Bass Pro Shops. The couple have invited some close friends to share their sun-drenched sojourn under the tropical palms. It's a languid, yet lively week full of water skiing, swimming, sailing, fishing, golf and a few aerial trips around the Keys scouting available properties—courtesy of local hotshot pilot Jon Dahm's Flying Dog Helicopters. Spend any time with Costner and you'll understand how he thoroughly embraces life, with an almost childlike enthusiasm. "I guess I've had a kind of life where if I could dream it, I could do it," says Costner, kicking back on the beach with one-year-old Cayden in his arms. "But in life, things go way past a dream, though. I've always been cognizant of a work that would be involved with everything I do. You just don't land on the red carpet, or you don't just end up in front of 15,000 people with a guitar just because you dream it. You really have to work at it.

"And I guess the thing for me is I've always liked the work part much more," he continues. "I've always liked rehearsal. I've always liked writing on movies. I've always liked being in the editing room. I've always liked writing a song, and the practice. I don't immediately go to that spotlight. That's not the endgame for me."

Much like a modern-day Tom Sawyer, Costner's life has always been a path of never-ending adventures—most of them away from the public eye. For instance, his trip to Havana for a showing of his Cuban Missile Crisis drama Thirteen Days resulted in a fascinating two-day tête-à-tête with Fidel Castro. "I'll never forget it," he says, shaking his head. "We talked about a lot of things…and there was a certain honesty in how we spoke with each other, away from the glare of any cameras. But I remember one time I asked him if there was anyone in the span of his career, whom he may have once viewed as a competitor or an enemy on the world stage, that he came around to having an almost begrudging admiration for. And I framed the question, I thought, very beautifully. And he just looked at me and said, 'No, nobody. They were all liars!'" Costner lets out a big laugh. "You have to understand how painstakingly I framed this long question to him and I was completely floored by his response. Other times, he would really extrapolate on things I asked him. But I was just so surprised that there was nobody he begrudgingly respected—Americans, Russians and whoever else he was dealing with." Costner recalls sitting beside Castro during the Thirteen Days screening and breathing a sigh of relief when the final credits rolled, the lights came up and Castro expressed his approval of the film and praising its honesty. "I've never been so cognizant about every single word said in a movie," relates Costner. "I was very proud of the decisions we made on that film. I never once had to turn to him and say, 'Oh, we took a dramatic license here' or 'We needed to change that part.'"

It's now mid-May, and back at Costner's Santa Barbara beach home, there's electricity in the air. A major record deal with Universal has just been signed for Modern West's debut disc and plans are being finalized for a concert tour to take place this summer and early fall. But this isn't just another actor's vanity project. "It couldn't be, otherwise I'd get caught doing that," he states. "Vanity is just about dressing up. There are people who dress up every day and put on their jewels and they're actually the most unhappy people in the world. Vanity is about showing up at a dinner party because they know the who's who are going to be there. It doesn't mean they're having fun. But I feel I've learned what is fun in my life versus what's not fun. So the music is not out of step for me; it's actually just the opposite."

Costner compares his music foray to the leap in pursuing an acting career after earning a degree in business administration from California State University. "I had to make a big decision to become an actor, and when you decide to become an actor, there's a huge amount of doubt about what it means to those around you. Stuff like, 'How's he going to do that?' and 'What makes him think he can do that?' But I think doubt is not a bad thing to have, because it means you keep asking yourself questions. And if you're going to ask yourself questions, you have to come out swinging harder. You push harder. And everything that's happened to me in acting has been a fundamental of work and being associated with really good people."

Says John Coinman, one of Costner's original bandmates back in the early '80s and now guitarist-songwriter with Modern West: "As the head of the band, Kevin has this remarkable ability to speak to audiences and to pull them in. So many actors just can't transfer their sort of acting ability on-screen to music, where they're talking to people, telling these musical stories and making people feel comfortable. But Kevin can just deliver nonstop and in a very genuine and heartfelt way." Costner insists he's just as committed to this burgeoning music career as he is to filmmaking. "But if it ever stops being fun," he chuckles, "I'll be just as happy playing guitar and singing in my living room."

On the big screen, Costner will be seen next year in a chilling supernatural thriller called The New Daughter, and then a 1940s-era Western called Little War of Our Own in which he plans to direct and star. The latter boasts a unique script and Costner's enthusiasm for the project is quite contagious. In fact, he gets downright giddy when talk turns to his penchant for Western epics, which as a storyteller he prefers over contemporary settings. "I've always believed that true drama comes out of dilemmas, and so I think the Western really sets itself up beautifully for that. Like when you see a stranger, there's inherent drama because you don't know if he wants your horse, wants your gun or wants your water. And the West was filled with people who you had no way of really knowing who they really were because they could reinvent themselves in the next town 200 miles away.

"I mean, that can't happen in today's technologically advanced society, but back then word couldn't travel very far," continues Costner. "And America, which had just come out of the very violent Civil War, was wide open for people who had tainted records in the Wild West. It was a very dangerous place, and highly unpredictable. And when you have that, it makes for very compelling storytelling."

When it comes to creating richly textured characters, Costner says nothing beats a good cigar. "They're probably the greatest acting prop ever invented...way better than cigarettes," he says with a laugh. "You can say so much in a scene when a character is smoking a cigar or holding it in his hand. "Also, the fatter the cigar, the better it is on-screen," he adds. "But they should always be half burned down to really work well on camera. If it's too long, it looks like you're having a baby!"

As the sun sets into the Pacific Ocean, and a warm breeze blows across the shore, Costner inhales the refreshing sea air and reflects upon his film legacy. He remains proud of the many risks he's taken. And he remains proud that when the going got tough, he was able to pick himself up, dust himself off and saddle up with the same dogged determination and stoicism as the Western screen heroes he idolized as a child.

"The fact that I have about eight or nine movies that people will always come up to me and tell me are their favorite films," he says, "is what's most rewarding to me. And these days, it's not just adults, but kids that come up to tell me that too. I feel really good about that. I really feel good that my movies have had so many touchstones with different people, and have attracted a whole new generation of fans... "That's what movies are really all about," Costner says with a smile.

David Giammarco is a leading print and broadcast journalist based in Toronto and Los Angeles.

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