In the conclusion of a two-part conversation, Costner discusses his role in the History Channel’s first scripted miniseries, Hatfields & McCoys, and his band’s companion CD. He also shares his experience of working with the late Whitney Houston and speaking at her funeral.
Actor-filmmaker Kevin Costner, Part 2
Tavis: Back now with part two of our conversation with Kevin Costner. Starting this Monday, May 28, you can catch his latest project, a three-night, six-hour miniseries for the History Channel. It’s called “Hatfields & McCoys.” Before we jump back into our conversation, here now another scene from “Hatfields & McCoys.”
Tavis: This is like a reunion for a few of you guys from the “Wyatt Earp” movie.
Kevin Costner: That’s right. Occasionally, you get to bump up against, you know, people that you work with along the line. But this was one of those kind of movies that has a cast, a lot of young actors, you know, people that you’ll probably see for a long time now.
After making that movie, you see they still want to be together and you don’t see that a lot. But occasionally, a movie will foster that kind of a relationship.
Tavis: I think a lot of Americans know this story, at least a part of it, because it’s become part of our lexicon now, the Hatfields and McCoys. But why don’t you top-line how this became the penultimate, quintessential example of family feud in this country.
Costner: You know, it came out of that awful Civil War that we have never quite recovered from. People don’t understand, you know, we have 7,000 guys and women who are gonna be killed in this Middle East thing once we draw it all up and, in the Civil War, we had 500,000 and the population was not what it is today. It was on the East Coast.
So this war touched everybody. You can see the people in the funny hats and the beards and the actions and the pipes and think, well, they’re maybe easy to make fun of, but these were serious people.
They had to make a serious choice and these people were right close to the Mason-Dixon Line. Some were going for the Union; some were fighting for the South. The feelings that ran so deep, you know, there were vengeance killings.
There’ll be vengeance killings in Libya, Serbia, Croatia, for the next 50 years and we had the exact same thing. Economics caused this. This wasn’t just people who thought of shooting across the fence. There were reasons why this was happening in America.
I really love going into that aspect of understanding that, you know, suddenly these families were expanding in these valleys. They had 13 children. If they all marry, suddenly I’m gonna have a valley of 80 relatives, right?
They need to go to the city and, when they don’t go to the city and economics start to drive down, what do they do? Young men go to town and they drink and, when they drink, there’s violence and there’s anger and there’s no employment.
You could replicate this same thing for young men around the world who can’t find their way and they use something like the Civil War for an excuse to fight. Well, you did something to my dad. You know what I mean? And there you go.
So these two patriarchs, they fought in the Civil War. It’s unlikely to me that they wanted to keep fighting, but when you have lives taken and you live in a very biblical way, you have an eye for an eye.
America was a place where you couldn’t always get at the law. You couldn’t always get at justice and you had to mete it out your way. So these were complicated times. They may seem simple, but they were complicated.
Tavis: What is it about – I’m gonna make the assumption that there’s something about these Westerns, for lack of a better word, that you like. But what is it about these kinds of timepieces that turn you on? The hats, the guns?
Costner: Well, you know, we live in societies now where, if you have a problem, chances are you’re gonna call your lawyer. You’re gonna call your agent, maybe your PR person. Back then, you had to arbitrate your own problems. There was a real reality.
Too many of the Westerns maybe we’re talking about aren’t good because it is the black hat, it is the white hat, and life is a lot grayer than that. But because there was nobody to arbitrate your problems back then, they became life and death situations. So you had to be incredibly resourceful about how you would protect your family.
I can often, in a well-written Western, throw myself into it and go, “Man, I don’t know how I would have reacted then.” When you don’t know how you would react, that’s a dilemma for me and, when you have a dilemma, you have drama because drama by definition is you don’t know what you would have done.
So if you can orchestrate a movie where you’re sitting in the dark and going, “Man, I don’t know what I would have done if I was that guy” as opposed to I would have been heroic or I would have been this, you know, how do you know you’d be heroic?
You create real dilemma, you think, wow, this is a complicated moment and that’s where drama exists in the moment where you don’t know what you would do.
Tavis: I take your point – or I took your point last night on this program when you said that the projects oftentimes call you. You didn’t go looking for a TV project. This turned out to be on the History Channel.
Since there are so many actors, A-list actors in fact, who are finding comfortable spaces on television to tell stories now, what is it about this particular miniseries that you think works well in this format that might not have worked so well as a movie?
Costner: Well, you can tell right away the length. It’s not just the Hatfields and McCoys. It’s my uncles, it’s my aunts, you know, it’s my children. So we were able to create a real community to try to understand how this thing actually happened.
What most people don’t know, West Virginia and Kentucky were ready to go to war over these two families.
Tavis: The governors got involved. That’s how serious it is, yeah.
Costner: The Hatfields were in West Virginia and said you cannot just arbitrarily come over here and try to hunt our people. So here we just come out of one war and now we’re gonna have a whole other one.
So this was more than people kind of that din-de-de-din and people’s guns going off, if you know what I mean. You know, there is a cliché and I think there’s probably a notion of is this a real story or is this folklore?
Tavis: When I went back and reread this thing, to your point, it was mind-boggling for me to consider or to be reminded in a second reading that two states were about to go at war over two families.
Costner: That’s right.
Tavis: That’s a serious thing, man.
Costner: That’s right. Well, we’re taught in this country that we’ll go to war over one person, you know, if a wrong has been committed. Now that’s theory because we see wrong committed every day and we go, “Well, where are you, America? Where are you?” You know, you see what’s going on here, but in principle that’s who we are.
Tavis: What’s your sense of the role that we are playing in the world, whether you want to call it the world’s policemen or whether you want to call it picking and choosing our battles and not being consistent in our foreign policy?
You frame it how you want to frame it, but give me your sense of our foreign policy, as it were, these days.
Costner: Obviously, a really big question. You know, when the world comes in our house, when it comes through our TV, it’s hard to ignore. Meaning when we see something happening somewhere where we think that has to righted and it’s right in our living room and we think but why are we not righting this thing?
Where I’m going with this is it’s hard to know what to do. It’s hard to know how to be. America’s like this big lumbering giant. It’s like, if you need the light bulb, the big guy will go put the light bulb on.
That’s us. That’s your job, America. You go do that. For a long time, we were this big kind of thing and we can fix this and we can fix that and you need to sit down. You know what I mean? People would look to us and it’s very complicated now.
Our problems are and the reason I think that we can’t get at the truth of what we should do is because we’ve complicated it because we have businesses in these countries. We have commerce and so sometimes our aim is not completely true. We’re actually protecting our interests as opposed to being guided by our own moral code.
You know, we have industry in this country. We can’t afford to lose that. We’ve got oil here. We can’t afford to lose that. I think the fingerprints of that have clouded our ability. It’s called a conflict of interest.
Tavis: I was about to ask you.
Costner: We hear that word all the time. It was created. We see it in legal terms. It’s like conflict of interest. You can’t make a moral decision when you feel like maybe the thing that you need is what’s gonna guide that.
You know, we have not done a good job of separating those ideas, so our decisions at lot of times seem arbitrary. I’m proud of America in so many ways and I also understand that our fingerprints are in a lot of places where we’ve created difficulty.
Tavis: I didn’t mean to cut you off. I was about to ask when you used that phrase of moral code, whether or not we even know what our moral code is anymore. I mean, I wrestle with that myself.
Costner: Listen, it’s hard to govern. We have senators and we have congressmen. You know, you become president and you think you can govern and it’s hard to govern in America.
It’s hard to move America to the right place. You know, we think that magically a president can do that and then you run up against ego and ego is probably our biggest problem.
You know, ego has slipped into our politics and it hasn’t served us well because public service is just that. I think you should go into public service and, by the time you get out, you should be so tired that you don’t ever want to run again.
Basically, somebody says, “No, no, you have to run again.” “Why do I have to run again?” “Because you’re really good at this. Joe Blow who ran, he was pretty good for four years. He was on fire, but he should go. He went in for a specific reason, you know, and there’s something that brought him into public service, but you’re actually good at it. You should stay in it.”
I think what happens is, too many go into public service and they stay there. They should be exhausted doing the public’s work. “Well, I got to do it this way because, if I don’t do it this way, I won’t get elected and, if I get elected another term, then I can fix it.”
That’s the story we tell ourselves. That’s the lie we tell ourselves. What happens is, politics slip into our moral code. They just do, so our ego, I think, has not served us well.
Tavis: We talked last night about your growing up in this conservative Baptist family. How much of those values, those mores, still impact your decision-making today? Has Hollywood corrupted you?
Costner: Yeah, they do. You know, I’m not a rube and I’m excited by things I see. My eyes have been opened. I’ve seen a lot of stuff, so I love the vastness of the things I’ve seen in the world and to be able to travel the world. You know, it has grounded me in a lot of ways. I haven’t been able to live a perfect life, but I understand the rights and wrongs. I get it.
I don’t know. I think religion is a funny thing because, when you see somebody who can really break it down, sometimes it feels foolish what you believe. You know, science can break it down. You know, I mention my friend, Bill Maher, a couple of times and maybe he’s thinking, “Would you quit mentioning me?”
But he has a very interesting take on things. The truth is, when I listen to him, I get it. I get what he’s saying. So how is it that I can really get what he’s saying or what somebody else is saying and still have this kind of “silly” belief?
Tavis: Don’t tell Bill that. Cut this out. Do not let Bill Maher see this [laugh].
Costner: But I do say it, but I do believe it because I believe that I don’t know why my life has turned out the way it has, but it’s been good. It hasn’t been perfect, but it’s been great.
You know, I’ve been bruised, but I’ve been able to walk the walk on this world and around the world. I can’t think it’s this because I’m just lucky. I know I’ve worked.
You know, I know a lot, so I feel like there is something guiding my life. Somebody sitting at the TV and going, “There he goes again, this goofy faith.” Maybe that’s true, but I feel like it’s protected me in some ways.
Tavis: Bill and I have had these conversations, as anyone who’s on this show a thousand times, and you’re a personal friend.
Costner: Bill’s been on?
Tavis: Oh, yeah, a thousand times. We’ve had these conversations and, you know, the older I get, the more comfortable – not less comfortable, the more comfortable I get believing that these two things can situate themselves beside each other.
Tavis: I don’t think that science means that God doesn’t exist. I don’t think that God’s existence means that science isn’t real. I think that things can be complementary. It’s not an either/or proposition. It’s in both hands.
Costner: Well, I love peoples’ point of view. I’ve never like kind of driven crazy, like “No, no, you have to listen.” I think, yeah, that makes really a lot of sense. It does seem a little silly. But, you know, you believe and you believe that there’s something guiding your life.
Tavis: What kind of stuff do you read?
Costner: Well, the last book – I don’t read as much as I’d like. The last book I read was “Devil in the White City.” I really enjoyed that. I’ve been writing a lot. I’ve been doing a lot of music, but I don’t read as much as I should. I just don’t.
Tavis: Speaking of music, I have in my little hands – a little birdie gave me a copy of this. Tell me about this CD inspired, I suspect, by “Hatfields & McCoys.” But this is you and your band, 19 tracks on this.
Costner: Yeah, yeah. It is a concept record. I got deeper into this than I ever thought that I would and I came out of it, you know, with my band and wrote the theme to the movie, “I Know These Hills,” then just kept writing music.
My daughter sings on it, writes on it, and it’s called “Famous for Killing Each Other.” So when I say concept, I’m just simply saying that every song on there is about that experience, about those people.
Tavis: Kevin Costner’s band, for those who don’t know – I know a lot of you do, it’s called Kevin Costner and Modern West. How’d you come up with that one, Modern West?
Costner: That was the worst part of this whole musical thing for me coming back into music. There’s one moment where we’re playing and they wanted to pay us a little money to play – quite a bit of money actually. Finally, they said, “Well, you need a name.” I thought, “A what?” “You need a name.”
Tavis: A band has to have a name, man [laugh].
Costner: There I was as an adult with my friends trying to think of a name for this band. It was probably one of the low points in my life. There was a big long list of names. It was like we finally came up with Modern West.
I actually don’t even like it, but that’s what they call it. So I came up with Modern West and the band came up with Kevin Costner and Modern West. They said, please, it’s got to be Kevin Costner and Modern West.
I said, “Man, I feel like my head is so far out there to be chopped off.” So there it is. That was not a pleasant experience, coming up with a name.
Tavis: Since we’re talking about it, we talked earlier about how your faith has informed your life. How has music informed your life?
Costner: Music was the first thing that came because my grandmother played the piano. I was made to play the piano. I was a wise guy and all that – well, wise man even when I was seven years old and the Christmas things and the thing’s coming across your ear and face and you don’t know where the North Star is.
“Hark, it’s over there,” and my mom’s going, “You have to pay attention. You have to pay attention. It’s like we practiced this.” I got my staff and it doesn’t comfort me and it’s all kinds of crazy stuff.
But music was first and then I sang in choirs and did musicals and moved away from music into acting and then came back to music. I play piano. It was just something I was really happy about and suddenly we play it all around the world.
Tavis: Let me switch gears. I didn’t think, even with a two-night show, I was gonna go here and I didn’t think I was gonna go here because I know that you have talked about this and you spoke at Whitney’s funeral. I just figured that he’s probably had enough of that and I’m not even gonna traverse that.
Costner: We can talk about it.
Tavis: I wasn’t gonna traverse this territory until last night when we played that wonderful opening clip of your body of work and we got to the scenes with you and Whitney Houston.
Tavis: My hearing is still pretty good and I could swear I saw you look away from the screen and utter these words, “What happened there?” Did I hear you say that?
Costner: I did, actually. I said “What happened there?”
Tavis: I heard you whisper to yourself, “What happened there?” Do you have an answer to that question?
Costner: Well, I don’t. I think I was looking at it with you and I thought she looked so pretty and so alive and so real and such a big thing could come outside of that little body of hers to sing.
It’s weird when the world talks about someone and you have a level of intimate knowledge about them. I remember when it happened, I was watching on television and I was watching all the programs that were suddenly talking about her.
I’m sitting in the dark and I’m thinking about my own life, like how did I come to the point where I actually knew famous people? It’s an odd thing to look at and to know that you had some kind of intimate relationship with her, a professional one, now the world’s talking about this person.
That wasn’t my first instinct to come on your show or come on Piers’ show or anybody’s show. I just simply didn’t do it and finally Dionne reached out to me, Dionne Warwick, so would you come speak? I said that I would.
Tavis: Had you done that before for another famous person? That is, give a tribute at a funeral?
Tavis: That’s your first time doing it?
Tavis: So how did you prepare for that?
Costner: I’ve talked about some famous people. I made a speech about Muhammad Ali. Actually, it was supposed to be about myself, but I thought how stupid. I know myself.
It was his fight night and they give you an award and your name brings people in, so you’re gonna talk about your career. I thought, no, I think I’ll talk about this guy.
Tavis: How’d you prepare for the Whitney thing, though?
Costner: Well, I panicked [laugh].
Tavis: Yeah, that’s a good start.
Costner: Yeah, yeah. I could hear how broken Dionne sounded on the phone. I’d spoken at one other funeral before and I didn’t even know how to do it. I didn’t feel like I’d done it right and I thought, “Oh, my, why is somebody asking me?” I told my daughter I was gonna be writing this, so I started.
I just started and all the way on the plane to New York I was writing, all that night. The night light was on, my wife turned over and I’m like writing and I’m writing all the way to the church and now we’re at the church an hour early because of that conservative background, I’m always there early.
I said, “Ride around the block.” I went around the block and I still kept crossing out things. The hardest thing was to know what the when to end was. How do you start talking about this little songbird?
It was interesting that it was the idea that we had more in common than people might think and that’s what allowed me in. We had this thing, this thing where church was your community, where you ran around and you got in trouble.
I can remember my mom says, “If you play in your church clothes…” I’d come back and there’d be a hole in it, now I’m gonna get a whipping. You know, church was like a good thing and a bad thing [laugh], you know.
I don’t like wearing suits to this day because I remember how I felt at the end of the day. My shirt’s out and my tie’s off. That’s the way I feel right now. That’s why I like cowboy movies and don’t like to do courtroom dramas.
Tavis: [Laugh] ‘Cause you don’t want to get a whupping for messing up your clothes [laugh].
Costner: I just don’t want to put on a tie, but we did. What happened there, you know, I think that’s a question and we all feel like we think we know, but she had a big voice and she was a friend to me and we weren’t pen pals.
We weren’t anything. We didn’t enter into each other lives. A couple times during the course of her life, some friends thought things weren’t exactly right for her and said, “Would you write her?”
I always wondered why, you know, why it was me. So the idea that I would speak at her thing was an interesting moment too which was I didn’t realize that the world has connected us so much.
I just thought Whitney was a beautiful woman. The first woman I ever thought was beautiful was Diana Ross, so it was never a shock to me when I asked Whitney to be in “The Bodyguard.” She was statuesque to me.
Tavis: And we have you to thank for “And I Will Always Love You.” We got you to thank for that.
Costner: Well, I told the audience it was gonna be “Broken Heart” and then when we couldn’t do that and Jim Wilson and myself, we started looking for a song and it whittled its way down to three songs. I said, “That’s the song.”
That must have put on shockwaves, this little country song, for Whitney, but it was right and it was electric. She’s a part of a lot of our lives because of that simple thing: her voice.
Tavis: Well, you were marvelous at the service.
Costner: Thank you.
Tavis: You were marvelous, as you are in “Hatfields & McCoys” coming to the History Channel May 28 starring one Kevin Costner.
Wonderful cast, great project and there is a CD out as well of music by Kevin Costner and Modern West, “Famous for Killing Each Other,” a wonderful concept project. Kevin, I’ve delighted in this for two nights.
Costner: Thank you.
Tavis: Thank you so much, man. I appreciate it. That’s our show for tonight.
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