Actor-filmmaker Kevin Costner, Part 1

In part one of this two-night conversation, the two-time Oscar winner reflects on his body of work and the moment he fully committed to becoming a thespian and discloses the one thing he feels people would envy of him.

With some three decades of credits grossing a total of more than $1 billion at the North American box office, Kevin Costner has assured his spot on Hollywood's A-list. He's worked consistently since the 1980s in movies as varied as Silverado, The Bodyguard and Dances with Wolves, which earned the actor-turned-filmmaker a best director Oscar. The California native discovered his love of acting while in college. After graduation, he took a marketing job; but, following an accidental meeting with thespian Richard Burton on a flight, decided to pursue his passion. Costner is also the frontman for the country band Modern West.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Pleased to welcome Kevin Costner to this program. The two-time Oscar-winner has been one of Hollywood’s most recognizable and acclaimed artists over the past two decades for a string of memorable projects. Before we get to his latest, here now just a small sample of some of his outstanding work.

[Montage of film clips from Kevin Costner movies]

Tavis: So thankfully, your career is nowhere near being over, but if the “Hatfields and McCoys,” which we’ll talk about later, was the last project on top of that awesome body of work, you’d be happy with your corpus?

Kevin Costner: Yeah, I would, actually. I was surprised at how happy I was with “Hatfields and McCoys,” to be able to play this kind of quintessential American role. People, guns and fighting and vengeance and kind of the American fabric of how we moved across this continent.

If you were tough enough, if you were smart enough, if you were ruthless enough, you could maybe hold on to something you didn’t have in Europe. And you did it, and that was kind of a lot of our DNA.

Tavis: So here now, before we get too deep in this conversation, his next project he’s turned to TV for, the History Channel, to be exact. A three-part, six-hour miniseries called “Hatfields and McCoys,” beginning Monday, May 28th. Here’s a preview.

[Clip]

Tavis: I’m going to go back to that question I asked before we played that clip, and ask it a different way. Situate this miniseries in your overall body of work.

Costner: Well, I’m probably – when you boil me down, I’m quintessentially an American actor. I’m the baseball guy, right? I’m the cowboy guy. I’ve tried to do a lot of things with the “JFKs” and different movies and different kinds of things, but I guess I’m about as American as you can really get in terms of the films that I’ve done.

Tavis: I take that point and I think most of your fans, including yours truly, would agree with that. You are Americana personified in terms of theater. I guess the question is was that by choice or by chance?

Costner: (Laughs) Well, I feel really lucky about how everything’s come down for me. I was going down the road of a lot of young men of what am I going to do in my life, and I come from a blue collar background, and you go to school and you kind of get married and you do all that. By the time you’re 21, if you haven’t done some of that stuff, you were actually kind of old.

So I did that, I fell into that – that’s who I was. I came from a very conservative Baptist background, and it served me well, but I had to kind of open my eyes to actually see the world, and probably the hardest thing I had to do was kind of realize in a blue collar family, to say to my family, “I think that I’m a performer. I think that I can tell stories.

That’s kind of like if I was around all the guys with their lunch pails, they’d kind of snicker. It’s like, “Costner doesn’t want to grow up; he wants it to be recess.” I worked my whole life. I drove trucks, worked fishing boats and stuff, but in my heart I kind of knew I was a storyteller, and trying to make that decision, which by the way once you make the decision to be an actor, there’s no guarantee of success, right?

So that’s the bad news. Now you’ve got to try to do what you’re doing – “Dad, I’m going to interview, I’m going to get people to come on.” “Oh, really? How you going to do that? Nobody knows you.” You come up against those questions, against the people that love you the most, and usually the reason they’re like that is because they’re afraid. They don’t want you to fail.

But the reality was the pressure shifted from me knowing in my heart what I wanted to do. It immediately shifted to those who loved me the most, which is how is he going to do it?

Tavis: Speaking of those odd jobs, this is a long way from being a Hollywood tour guide.

Costner: That’s right. (Laughter) Yeah, I did.

Tavis: It’s a long way.

Costner: I was a stage manager down here for $3.50 at Raleigh Studios out of college. I wasn’t exactly moving up the pay sale. I wasn’t headed towards my first car or my first house. But I was really happy. I was really happy, because somehow I’d got on my own path, and I think biblically speaking, deep down, I think that’s – I have sons and I think the thing you worry about the most is are they going to find their way.

You worry about them even more so than your daughters, on some level. So my father had that about me, but I felt like man, the fact that I knew what I wanted to do was the only break I really needed in life, to actually know what I wanted to do.

Tavis: You said three things I got to go back and get right quick before we go on. In no particular order, why greater concern for your sons than your daughters, since we’re approaching Father’s Day here.

Costner: Exactly, exactly. That’s not to diminish that you’re so protective of your daughters, but there’s something about knowing – because men are – I know it sounds really, what’s the word. People look and go, God, he’s so male-oriented.

I’m not. I covet my daughters. But I guess in the world that I grew up in, the idea that you’re going to have to be a provider. It’s not that women aren’t incredibly – maybe better at it than ourselves, but I want my sons to have that satisfaction of that they’re not in my shadow. That they find their place in the world and they’re able to do it gracefully and successfully.

That doesn’t eliminate my daughter, so it sounds like I just eliminated – I challenge my son to make sure my daughters are, that he takes care of his sisters, and they’re probably smarter than all of us, the girls.

Tavis: How do you ward against being an A-list celebrity, an A-list actor in this town, and knowing that you want your kids to get outside of that shadow? That’s a lot easier said than done.

Costner: Yeah, well, it happened for me. I have to say my children have never embarrassed me in the sense that I never had to go stop what I was doing somewhere because they had behaved in such a way that now it’s like, “What did you do?

They were normal kids for sure, and probably as things develop over time they’ll tell me some things that I don’t know about. But they have been the architects of their own life, and I wanted that. I didn’t care what they’ve done, what they’ll do in life as much as what kind of people they are.

I can tell who they are in this world by the friends that are around them. I’ve been really – you talk about are people going to be jealous of you, envy you for something? If they would, it would be these children, in my mind.

Tavis: So how did this conservative Baptist family that you were raised in here in Lynwood, California, take to you telling them that you wanted to go into this liberal bastion called Hollywood and make your way? How did they take that?

Costner: Well, I know my mom was worried about it. She thought those people have so much trouble. (Laughter) You can always tell, you know what I mean? “Those people.” Those people, and that Richard Burton and that Liz Taylor, they can’t make up their mind if they’re in love, out of love, whatever. (Laughter) You know what I mean? So they weren’t invested at all in Hollywood.

It’s interesting to know, I actually didn’t actually know that was a job. I’m not a rube, but I want to let you know that early on I thought that people that were on the screen were kind of born on the screen. I didn’t kind of translate it ever into that was a job.

Tavis: You mentioned Richard Burton. There’s a great story in your past about being on a plane with Richard Burton that I read some time ago.

Costner: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: You remember this story?

Costner: Yeah. It wasn’t so – probably more has been made of it than what – but I was in a moment in time where I was in a moment in time where I was really struggling internally, not telling anybody that I thought that I wanted to be an actor, and there he was, sitting on a plane.

He’d actually bought three or four seats, so he bought – I’d never heard of this in my life, right? (Laughter) I only had one pair of tennis shoes, this guy brought – and those were the ones you played basketball in.

This guy had bought, like, four seats so nobody could sit next to him or talk to him. (Laughter) But I’m thinking, “I still need to talk to him.” So I walked up to him and everybody that was on the plane did this. They couldn’t believe it. It was like church. Everybody got up at the same time. (Laughter) Like, to see what was going to happen.

Of course, I’m sure at any moment in time he could have taken my head off, but I looked and I said, “Look, I see you’re reading a book,” and he was reading Gore Vidal’s “Lincoln.” I said, “When you’re reading this, I’d like to ask you a bit of advice,” and he looked at me and went, “Okay.”

I thought, wow. I went back, so now all the people sit back down, and I sat down there, and my wife at the time was going, “What’s that all about?” I go, “It’s just something in my head.” I think it’s too much about this story, but ultimately I watched him and I watched him like a hawk reading that book.

Finally he closed the book and I’m thinking, “This is my moment.” He closed the book, put it down. He kind of laid back and closed his eyes like this, and went to sleep. I thought, oh, man.

But he did a little cat nap, and about 10 minutes later he opened his eyes and he turned and he waved to me to come forward. I sat in that seat, and again, everybody in the plane went like this. (Laughter)

We talked for a little bit, which is not really important, what he said to me, but it was – he was gentle, and I think he could have been rough, because he did want his privacy, and what I’ve learned in this life of celebrity, if one person comes forward, then the whole plane thinks they can come forward, and I could have really violated his space.

So I’ve thought about him in a lot of ways, and so regrets, we all have a few, and in my hundred, maybe, I would love to have been able to talk to him later, and that opportunity never happened.

Tavis: I don’t know if there is an answer to this or what the answer would be, so I’m going to ask anyway, but given that you were at best uneven about whether or not you really wanted to be an actor at a particular time.

Given now that you are, as we said earlier, your career is really Americana on screen, are there persons, were there persons that you started to pay attention to? Since we’re talking about Richard Burton, were there Americana actors that you wanted to model?

Costner: Yeah.

Tavis: Who? Who?

Costner: Well, I would say McQueen and Newman. I’ve watched “Sand Pebbles” and Newman in “Hombre” and a lot of the different movies. But I love the character actors. I love Ward Vaughn and these guys, and I like movies in general, and I think one of the things that dawned on me, because I wasn’t a terribly good student, but when I actually watch movies, something that started to strike me was I kind of started to understand where the moments were.

It was like there was a lot of stuff I didn’t understand that was like – I was usually on the left-hand side of the bell graph, and trying to sit next to the one who was on this side of it. But the idea about film made sense to me.

Tavis: You weren’t a good student, but you were a pretty good athlete, though.

Costner: I was okay. I could play a little bit. But with the idea of movies, it was the first time I understand that I could be a good student. I went to UCLA while I was stage managing. I took classes, and I remember reading the entire book before the first class.

Now, I didn’t read the entire book when I was in college, and like most people I’ve pulled an all-nighter before finals. So I suddenly became that person that was maybe harder to compete with in the class. I showed up the first day, the book was read.

I wanted to know if we could move on from the book. The teacher was like, “Whoa, wait.” And I go, “No, I have waited a long time. I want to know what you know.” I would say academically, I was on fire.

Tavis: When did you fully commit yourself to being a thespian?

Costner: I don’t think anybody’s ever asked me that. There was this moment in time when I knew that I had, so I can’t isolate it, but it was early on. I think I took a job in industry for 30 days. Only reason I stayed 30 days was because I got it through a headhunter, and he wouldn’t have got his commission if I had left.

I felt like I wanted to stay there long enough so that would happen for him. I remember I came home on that 30th day and I told my wife, I said, “I’m going to be an actor,” and that was it.

So I was probably 22 years old, and it was like, “Well, how?” I said, “I don’t know how, but the same way that everything else is going to happen in life. You’re going to work for it.” So that was it.

It was a real switch, but like I said, the pressure switched from me, I felt really at ease at that moment.

Tavis: So fast-forward a couple-few years, and you know the project I’m talking about, of course, when you get that first big break in movies and it ends up on the cutting room floor.

Costner: Yeah.

Tavis: Did you rethink this?

Costner: No, because I was really – so many things marked me on that particular movie. I knew when I got the -

Tavis: We should tell the audience the movie.

Costner: We’re talking about “The Big Chill.”

Tavis: Exactly.

Costner: I knew when I got that movie I was around the right guy. I was around the director, Lawrence Kasdan. I was around the right cast. All that did was it confirmed to me all the things that I really felt, which was it was about rehearsal.

I really felt strongly that the movie would work. It was my own sensibility. I really did.

When it did, I wasn’t surprised. The reality of being cut out feels like it could probably deflate most people, but I’ll just tell you honestly it didn’t me. I would have liked to have been in the movie, but in my mind, if I was a person that was living in a state and this movie came in, “The Big Chill,” and now I had a little scene and now the scene was cut out, I might be disheartened because that might have been my only chance.

But in my mind, I don’t always go to the end game. I know when I’m picking up momentum. I just know it. I just know when I’m around the right people, that things are going to start to work for me.

So the moment I got the part I knew that that was my big break. Not being on screen. Somebody looked at that in retrospect, yeah, how did you really know that, oh sure. But that’s the truth. That’s the truth. I knew that I was changed at that moment. I knew that I would be able to parlay all this.

In fact, there was a big problem with a lot of people saying, “Why aren’t you doing press? You weren’t in this movie. You need to let people know you’re in this movie.” I just intuitively did not want to do it.

In fact, somebody back East in one of the big papers actually said, “I’ve tried to track this actor down, I’ve heard he was in this movie,” and they went through a step-by-step thing for a week about how they’re trying to get a hold of me, and said, “It’s clear nothing’s ever going to happen for this guy.”

Well, I don’t feel victorious over that little comment, but the point was in my life you don’t take credit for things that you aren’t in. You just don’t do it that way. In truth, when things actually did start to happen, that story had so much more power, that I was in “The Big Chill,” and suddenly I’m in “Trivial Pursuits.” I’m in a lot of stuff. The kind of mythology of that movie is a part of my story.

Tavis: I love the way you phrased, because I feel similarly – it’s important, no matter what you do in life, to be able to sense when you’re gaining momentum, whatever your calling is in life. It’s good to know when you’re gaining momentum.

The flipside of that is knowing when to pump your brakes, and I raise this because just like you’ve had many successes, you’ve had some failures. Everybody in this business does.

Costner: Right.

Tavis: So if you can sense the momentum, how do you sense when this isn’t working, or this isn’t going to work as a project?

Costner: Right. Well, what happens, I think where the problem comes into it is you have to have a force of will, which is you won’t accept that you’re going to wake up tomorrow and you’re going to think about something differently.

I’m not somebody that pounds my head against something. I wake up differently and go, “If I really believe in this thing and it’s not working, tomorrow I’m going to think differently about this. Maybe I’m not thinking this thing through clearly.

Sometimes, just driving things to make them happen maybe hasn’t served me well in certain instances, where you just go, “We’re going to solve this. I’m going to make this happen.” So it’s like did I read the tea leaves right? I don’t know.

But I accept that idea, and I really can’t change that DNA about me, but I probably can learn to if something is stalling a little bit, maybe you’ve just got to step back from it.

Tavis: So in this business, even when you’re a major box office star, as you have been, when you hit rock bottom on a project, that is, when it just goes south on you and the critics just eat you alive, how do you navigate through that?

There are folk who suggested after “Waterworld” that your career was drowned, that you weren’t going to come back. It wasn’t just the film that drowned; you drowned with it.

You’re back, obviously, and you’ve been back for a while, but how do you navigate through those dark periods?

Costner: Well, you have to know what you believe yourself, and if you believe that’s a good movie and a beloved movie around the world, that’s the truth. So you have to know what you believe.

You can spend your life trying to be popular, and that’s a tricky business. You can just try to be true to yourself. It didn’t feel like rock bottom. For me, there was a lot about that moment that was a high mark in my career. When people were running for the exits, I didn’t. I stood with the movie.

I didn’t start the movie not having a third act. I suggested we shouldn’t start it not having a third act. But these movies, they have a life of their own, so at the end of the day I stood with that movie, and stand for it.

Is it a perfect movie? No. Is it a beloved movie? It actually is. So I accept that as a part of who I am.

Tavis: I’m fortunate to have you on this program for 2 nights, and so tomorrow night we’ll start our conversation talking specifically about the “Hatfields and McCoys,” but in the minute that I have left here, tell me why now is a good time for you to return to television for this particular miniseries.

Costner: Well, it’s like love, you don’t choose – you might have an idea of a girl you want to think’s going to walk in the room, and then you’re having a hamburger and there goes the waitress. (Laughter) So your idea of the model or the whatever, and you’re just – you have – I conduct my career about what speaks to me out loud, and I made two baseball movies in a row, “Bull Durham” and “Field of Dreams.”

One was not even what you’d call great strategy – baseball movies don’t work, or whatever. Now all of a sudden I do two in a row. But I was real confident what I read, that they separated themselves, that this is what I should be doing. Did I want to go out and do some other thing? Yeah, but “Field of Dreams,” there it was.

Did I want to do something else? No, but “Bull Durham,” there it was. So I’m really confident in storytelling, and I feel like I’ve just lost the question, almost.

Tavis: No, you had it right, you answered it.

Costner: But we were moving to yet another movie. You said it was – we were talking about “Field of Dreams,” but I circled it back to “Field of Dreams.”

Tavis: You got it. I wanted to just figure out why television. You answered it, though.

Costner: Okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tavis: It called you. You didn’t – yeah.

Costner: Yeah, and it spoke out loud to me. Do I think that the world wants to see the “Hatfields and McCoys?” No. But when I read the story I thought I wanted to tell the story, and thought perhaps the world would find it interesting once they see it.

Tavis: Well, tomorrow night we will talk about the “Hatfields and McCoys” and what you are about to see on the History Channel, starring one Kevin Costner. We’ll pick up on this very note tomorrow night on this program.

Costner: Boy, did I confuse everybody there, but we did get to the end.

Tavis: No. (Laughter) No, this is not the end. It’s just the end for tonight. We got another beginning tomorrow night, and we’ll see you then.

Costner: Yeah.

Tavis: Until then, thanks for watching and keep the faith.

[Film clip from "Bull Durham"]

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  • acassandra

    Over the years, the stories that Kevin Costner has chosen to tell, and/or be part of, have contributed to western culture on a number of levels. Some of the most precious moments in film, have been ones that he brought to life as an actor and/or Director – Producer. Characters and personalities that he has brought to life in film, have blazed a light across North America, a light that raised the consciousness of viewers. And I appreciated the opportunity to hear Kevin Costner, talk about aspects of his work and life, within the relaxed and yet informative environment, that Tavis Smiley provides within his interviews.

    There seems to be a spiritual energy within kevin Costner, as the main guiding factor in the choices that he makes in life. One can see hints of a transendent perspective in some of his films, as in the case of Field of Dreams and Dragonfly. And yet at the same time, he seems to be someone who is more firmly grounded in the here and now, than most people. And he seems to be someone who is firmly centored in his own skin, as a very thoughtful, reflective, and emotional human being. All in all a very unusual individual and an American icon.

    Hopefully Kevin Costner continues to bring story telling experiences to life in film and TV for decades to come.

  • Cathy chapman

    Have to thanx every and anybody involved in Tavis’ rise, this is one trustworthy individual. Love his swagger (class). Kevin costner is a true gift, makes actors seem like class acts, intelligent, and gods.

  • KCFan

    I enjoyed this interview but there is suppose to be a part 2 to this, so can you all please post that portion of the interview. Thanks!

  • Carla Amurao

    Hi there, the second segment of this interview is now up at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/tavissmiley/interviews/actor-director-kevin-costner-part-2/?show=13900. Enjoy!

    -Tavis Smiley Staff

Last modified: June 11, 2012 at 1:18 pm