The accomplished actor and Academy Award-winning director discusses his latest film, Black or White.
Actor Kevin Costner
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with Academy Award, Golden Globe, and Emmy winner, Kevin Costner, star of the new film, “Black or White”, the story of a white man in a custody battle over who will raise his biracial granddaughter.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Kevin Costner coming up right now.
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Tavis: He was just honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Critics Choice Awards. Congratulations, sir. I’m pleased to welcome Kevin Costner back to this program. His new film is entitled “Black or White”. It costars Academy Award winner, Octavia Spencer, in the film. Kevin plays a white man–imagine that [laugh]…
Kevin Costner: Quite a stretch there.
Tavis: Quite a stretch, yeah…who has raised his biracial granddaughter since his own daughter died at childbirth. When he finds himself suddenly widowed, a custody battle ensues with the child’s African American grandmother over who will raise the grandchild. Before we start our conversation with Kevin Costner, first a look at a clip from the film, “Black or White”.
Tavis: Who is this little girl?
Costner: Jillian Estell, yeah. That was a kiss of a lifetime. That last little moment she popped in there, it was not scripted and it so startled me ’cause I was obviously thinking about my wife. But it’s that classic thing sometimes where sometimes little people know what big people need.
Tavis: She was good. She was awfully good in this project. I’d never seen her before, but I was very, very impressed with her, as I was with the film. And I’m glad we got you for the whole show ’cause there’s so much about this film that I want to talk about. It pushed a bunch of buttons, so I assume you accomplished your goal to push a bunch of buttons and make me think.
Let me start, though, because I have a bad habit of jumping into films that I really like without giving somebody a chance to set up the film for what it is. So why don’t you set it up first and then I’ll jump?
Costner: Well, you know, how do I set this film up? I mean, in my career, I’ve had to sit on a couch and read a movie and imagine if it could be a movie. More often than not, the scripts that I have read or just simply passes, but occasionally a “Dances With Wolves” shows up or “Field of Dreams”.
And obviously those don’t ring like they’re going to ring the bell out there, but I remember being startled on the couch at how original, even “Bull Durham”, like how American that was and how the writing really precise it was.
And this happened with “Black or White”. My friend had sent me four scripts that I said no to, same guy. You know, maybe a guy doesn’t send you any more after that and you couldn’t blame him.
But I read this thing and it was electric to me. I thought, my God, this script is starting to say things that I know a lot of people wish they could say. I know it was the same for Octavia and Anthony, that they felt like they’re not only talking for themselves, but for their generation. It really goes right to the bone.
So when I read about this man who has lost his wife and daughter and now the last connection to the two women that he loved the most is about to maybe go away, he starts to dig in.
And, of course, the family down in Compton–it’s based on a lot of true facts, this story. The movie was a miracle for me because, you know, I’ve got to make movies about sports, about westerns, about political thrillers, you know, love stories.
But sometimes you get to make a movie about the moments that you’re swimming in right now. I felt that this was a genuine, authentic look at where we’re at in this country with race today.
Tavis: I love your phrase that you get a chance every now and again to make a movie, you know, about where you’re swimming at that particular point in time. And I noted–I went back to look at this.
This was actually filmed before Michael Brown in Ferguson, before the Eric Garner case in New York, before Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old kid in Cleveland. What do you make of the fact that it’s coming out at a moment like this?
Costner: Well, obviously, we weren’t trying to anticipate or catch a wave of anything. You know, our problems didn’t start in August, you know. I’ve wanted to make a movie like this, but wasn’t smart enough to know how to make one.
Because, you know, for me to figure out a way to start the dialog, for me to also examine where I’m at when it comes to race, this was a document that allowed that discussion and set me up and made me feel better about myself, made me also feel good that this thing could be–you know, once that movie starts for two hours, you can’t stop those conversations that maybe you don’t want to have yourself.
That movie plays out right in front of you, the good and the bad of it. And I would suggest that, when you and I went to movies, one of the early things that we would identify with which was who’s the hero, who’s the bad guy, we’d think to ourselves as we grew up, I want to be the hero. So as adults, we think we’ve learned just about everything we think we’re going to learn.
And we can look at this movie, “Black or White”, and you kind of go who am I? Who am I here? And it’s like if the answer says I’m this and the answer comes back “But I don’t want to be that anymore”, that’s what this movie did for me. I don’t want to be that anymore.
Tavis: So I’m glad you said that. Because as I saw this, as I saw the film, it did not fit into that neat box which is interesting for me of hero–to use your phrase–hero and villain.
Dr. King put it this way. King always said there’s some evil in the best of us and some good in the worst of us. In a film like this, you see the white character isn’t all good, the black character isn’t all bad. It’s an interesting mix.
Costner: We want to see ourselves in movies.
Tavis: Of course, we do.
Costner: We just want to see ourselves and we want to understand because we can smell a rat when we’re watching something. But sometimes things get under the skin and this movie started to do that.
So if we would have fallen off, if we’d have played it safe, it wouldn’t have had any level of meaning when he left that child off in South Central with his heart breaking in a thousand pieces knowing that she was just as safe down there, just as loved as it could be.
And the truth is, he’s better off because of that family. And to me, that was like I went, okay, I got to make this movie.
Tavis: The flip side of playing it safe is that there might be some who will get hung up in the stereotype and miss the message of the film. You want to respond to that in advance?
Costner: Well, there’s no stereotype in here. I mean, if you want…
Tavis: I think there is. I think there is.
Costner: Well, there could be in your mind. But let me try to address it for a second.
Tavis: Unpack that for me.
Costner: Which is, you know, number one, this is based on true events. The reality is that my director’s wife’s sister passed away early, a bad blood transfusion, AIDS. She had a biracial child. They ended up raising that child along with the family in South Central.
The truth was, they got along perfectly. The father wasn’t going to be in its life at all. Just was not going to be there. So that’s the truest part of this particular story. But that’s not enough to put that particular character–maybe that’s the one you’re aiming at in terms of cliché.
I want you to think about the idea of your friends, my own life or whatever, two brothers, three sisters growing up in the same house, eating at the same table, living in the same bed, hearing the same advice. And one of them spins out and you go, that happens in America everywhere.
So if you want to say, well, why was it the black guy? Well, in this instance, it was true. But don’t forget that character also comes back in and saves me. There’s something in the DNA…
Tavis: Don’t give the film away, man.
Costner: What’s that?
Tavis: Don’t give the film away.
Costner: Yeah, that’s right.
Tavis: Spoiler alert! Spoiler alert [laugh]!
Costner: Boy, you got my attention.
Tavis: Spoiler alert [laugh]!
Costner: I mean, I try not to make movies with the idea of a cliché, but I don’t know. You know, a woman having a business in her garage, I didn’t find that to be any kind of–actually, I found it to be quite heroic myself. Tell me where you felt like there was a cliché.
Tavis: Glad you asked. That’s kind of you to even ask that. There’s a scene where Anthony Mackie’s character–plays a wonderful character–even says to the baby’s father–as we would call it the baby daddy. He even says to the baby daddy, “You are the stereotypical Black man that most Americans seem to think of us.” He says that. When I say there’s a stereotype, even Anthony says to him you are the stereotype.
Costner: And he’s saying at this point…
Tavis: At this point in your life…
Costner: At this point, you’re validating everything the white community thinks about us and he says, “Damn you, Reggie! You’re a little child’s father.” I was so proud that he said that and I’m glad that he did not back off that one. Octavia tells him what time it is in that driveway for the third time? I was proud of that.
And because I produced that movie, somebody might say, “Is that a little extreme going to that third slap?” I said, “Absolutely not. We need that third slap” because that was for everybody in the audience which is to get yourself together.
And my character equally is flawed. My character says to that guy, “Get yourself together” and I go about six feet and start going glug-glug-glug. The movie plays it very fair, I think. It’s very even and I think to call somebody out on being a cliché is what we need to do as parents.
Tavis: Fair enough.
Costner: What we need to do as friends.
Tavis: I saw that first slap coming. I didn’t see the second or third coming [laugh]. I didn’t see the second or third one coming.
Costner: I was reading it too, Tavis. I was reading it and I didn’t see the third coming. I said, well, I’m going to deal with that on the set. But I thought it was right because the words that tumbled after that where somebody said, “We can’t mess around now. We’re on our way to court. Pull yourself together.”
Tavis: Did I read somewhere that this originally was called “Black and White”?
Tavis: There is a difference, obviously, for those of us who are English majors. “Black and White”, “Black or White”, why the change?
Costner: Not much of a story there really. What happened is a studio at Paramount already had that title, didn’t want to give it up at the end of the day. We had to move over to another title at that point. Another studio, you know, said, well, that title’s too close to our next movie.
I had at the end of the day to go to the very top, to Ron Meyer at Universal and Thomas Tull over at Legendary and both guys, when I explained what was going on–’cause this little movie was going to be dead 50 times and this was about one more nail in its coffin.
And both those guys said, “What’s the problem, Kevin?” I explained to them and they both said, “This is stupid. Take the title.” So I was proud of them. That represented, you know, 20 years in the business where I could make that call.
Tavis: Why was the movie on life support so many times?
Costner: Well, I don’t know. You know, I mean, at first I thought actually that a lot of people would run to make this movie. It didn’t happen and I will say this. That’s not the first movie that’s ever happened to me before, and for a lot of people. But this movie, I thought surprisingly, was very mainstream even in it’s playing it to the bone.
I think at the end, it’s about the welfare of this child. There’s a lot of love in this movie, certainly a lot of humor. And I thought this is a perfect movie, but I have been guilty of that before. This is the perfect movie and nobody…
Tavis: You think it was too real?
Costner: I don’t know what it was. It didn’t fit the model. But the problem was not them. The problem was me because I could not fall out of love with it. And in my life, I can’t just–the conventional wisdom of something, I have broke with it sometimes. And sometimes it has served me well and sometimes, you know, just like, man, just lay down, Kevin, like Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke”, just lay down.
But I couldn’t lay down with this movie. I felt that it was speaking too loudly to me on a lot of different ways. Not absolutely in a message way, but I went, yes, I want to say that. You know, if you’re an actor, you want to be Spencer Tracy in “Inherit the Wind”.
You know, I’ve had some speeches in my life, “JFK”, “Bull Durham”, other speeches. And this was a speech of a lifetime in that courtroom to play it. I mean, the message is really clear, and audiences that watch the movie end up clapping at the end.
Tavis: Speaking of “JFK”, your closing speech in “JFK”, it doesn’t get any better than that for my money. That speech in “JFK”, sometimes when I see that movie, I will just fast forward to the end just to get to that speech ’cause you were just so powerful in that speech, man.
Costner: Well, I felt that way here because this was, you know, maybe not the same circumstances, maybe not the weight of John Kennedy, but certainly the weight of a child is something that is like unbelievable and a grandfather, myself, drinking a little too much, backed into a corner, angry, kind of lets it all hang out.
Tavis: How do you do a movie that has so many messages in it, messages that we need to wrestle with, but not proselytize because it is a piece of art?
Costner: Well, when I read it, I didn’t see any of that word you just used. That’s a big word for me. It didn’t do that. I felt if we were honest with it, didn’t wink at it and didn’t make it as a message, just made it as real life, when you love something, you love something, and both families loved this child. That’s what was really at the core of this movie was the welfare of this child. Nobody put that child in danger. And maybe if I wasn’t–you know, I was just burying my wife.
And maybe if those phone calls didn’t come too soon, I would have maybe been a little more. But when people are pushing you, you dig in. And I saw all those things in this script that created this environment for race to become an issue. And when it did, it raised its head and we have a really clear view.
Like I say, people can’t run out of the theater and go–you know, ’cause that’s what happens sometimes when people can’t have this conversation. They stop, they run away, they bring something else up, the conversation breaks down. This movie, you stare at it and you see it for what it is.
Tavis: Tell me about the casting. And I ask this not–this is not a kiss-up to you, but there are too many films where all the characters are not believable and that’s always hard for us in the audience to go see a movie and you don’t really buy the characters. In this film, I bought everybody who played the key roles. Tell me about the casting on this.
Costner: Well, they came onboard. Plus, we were going to put a lot of this movie on the back of a nine-year-old child. If she doesn’t work, that’s not good for us. But one of the things I try to do for me as a producer now is I try to put leading men and women in supporting roles ’cause they command the screen.
You can go to the classic character actor. You can go to the Irish cop or you can go get Sean Connery to play the Irish cop in “Untouchables”. Look at the difference.
So for me, historically, if I know a part really is good in a supporting part, I will always try to go find a leading actor. And that’s what happened with Anthony Mackie. It’s what happened with Octavia Spencer, both people who can carry a movie.
And, of course, Bill Burr who is blowing up as a comedian as a kind of a shuffle-around lawyer, you know, who I obviously brought up through the ranks and were able to touch. You know, kind of almost whatever. I mean, it worked out really well. Paula Newsome played that judge very well.
Tavis: She was very believable.
Costner: You know, held that courtroom in check and two powerful women staring at each other, you know. For a while there, there’s a little stereotype with that staring back and forth, but guess what breaks the tie? The gavel. And I thought the movie was a miracle because it kept doing that.
Tavis: So I’m sitting there watching this. The first 10 minutes goes by, the second 10 minutes goes by. I’m looking at my watch. I’m enjoying the movie, but I’m looking at my watch and I’m trying to see how long before what I think is going to happen does in fact happen. And before too long, it shows up. Street nigger–the word pops up and it comes out of your mouth.
Tavis: And I’m like, “Okay, let me see where this goes, why he chose to use that phrase.” I mean, you’re on the stand. I don’t want to give the movie away. When you’re on the stand, you explain how that worked its way into the story line, but…
Costner: But we don’t apologize for it. It comes out in a real organic way.
Tavis: When you read the script, you were okay with that?
Costner: I was really okay with that because I don’t think we’d have a movie without it. And I think that–and I’m glad that I produced it because, at that point, that was not up for debate for me. I knew I was going to have to take it on the chin for saying it, but it was right to say.
I’ve said that word in my life, in my early life growing up in Compton in ’55, like ’63. Those words were tossed around in jokes, never to a person’s face. But I heard people talk that way and I don’t talk that way now. There was a time when that went away and, surprisingly, that’s how people did talk.
So to me, when I look at this thing, I said–even a director began to second-guess himself. Maybe we shouldn’t say that word. I said, “We’re saying it.” Because we don’t have a movie because if we dance around this issue, what good are we? What good are we?
And to me, everybody’s better off if you just keep going and you make this thing as real as possible. And I think how he handled things was beautifully and I was there to say, “We’re not backing off this because this movie will have no meaning to anyone if we do the dance.” We can’t afford the dance.
Tavis: I’m sitting here watching this and a lot of things are going through my head. One of the things that pops into my head is “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, Sidney Poitier’s, you know, brilliant portrayal in that movie where he’s dating a white woman.
Tavis: So I’m looking at your film and I’m flashing back to that. I’m thinking about this movie in 2015 where your white daughter has dated this Black guy, had a baby by him, she dies at childbirth.
And I thought about how this generation is so different because there are so many families now that are mixed. Relationships in this country now are so very different…
Costner: It’s a fact of life.
Tavis: Yeah, exactly.
Costner: That little girl is a product of biracial marriage, white mother and black father. Like let’s get over it. Let’s figure out a way to celebrate. Let’s figure out a way–you know, my children are better at all this than I am. They don’t know anything about that.
You know, if you think about “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, you know, sometimes you’re making it, but when you’re making “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, you’re saying you understand something.
People 50 years from now are going to be watching “Guess Who Comes to Dinner” and that’s always uppermost in my mind. So anybody that compromised anywhere in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, we’re paying the price. We could have seen it go deeper if we could have. I loved that movie.
So for me, “Black or White”, I want this movie to be relevant. I want it to be a fair characterization of where we are at in race today. And I think that we were hugely successful in that, you know.
That was important to me ’cause these movies do travel through time. You told me before we went on air that you just visited “Bull Durham” for a second. You know, we need to remind ourselves. And a lot of times, movies are made by committee. So we might have gone through “Black or White”, taken out some of these things we’re talking about.
There’s some other deeper–you know, him going after her. You know, it all stayed because it’s okay. I mean, sometimes the truth is just as entertaining as the lie. You know, in an action movie and your gun only shoots six times, it’s okay to reload ’cause most of us, when we play, the gun never ends.
You know, you go, no, let’s reload because guess what? Some drama can exist in reloading. That means somebody can be coming after you. That’s a weird analogy, but I’m just saying the truth is just as entertaining as the lie. So why not put it out there?
Tavis: Apart from this film, “Black or White”, what is your sense of where we are with race in America in 2015?
Costner: You know, I’m not going to be very good at that. We have a Black president and people want to minimize that or not kind of see how big a step that is in America. Then they’re being foolish in my mind. That’s huge. And there are so many thoughtful people about this, so I know that we’re improving.
It’s just the problem is, if you’re Black or Hispanic and you have been marginalized and you’re scared–you know, a woman walks by a construction site and she gets whistled at, she can see it coming. The only question is, how ugly is it going to get?
You know, to be Black in America in certain places, you can have days every day like that. It’s like I’m going to walk by something. What is it going to be? I kind of know that, but I never know what’s it’s like to be that.
Tavis: But there’s many angry–if you read the polls, certainly the post election polls, there are as many angry white men in America now as there are angry Black men.
Costner: Well, it’s really true. So you can see I’m already going into quicksand here.
Tavis: No, I’m not. You’re not in quicksand. I was just making a point [laugh].
Costner: No, no, no. You’re not trying to trap me. What I am as a filmmaker and what I hopefully have in my life is a high level of empathy. I bring a level of experience. I’m 60 years old. I’ve seen a lot. Like I said, I was born there and I understand stuff, you know.
Anthony tells an interesting story. He went to a Halloween party. He said his child wanted to be Captain America, so he said absolutely. He’s eight years old, he can be Captain America. He goes to the little party. He meets the families. The families said we wanted our children to dress up to be The Falcon, but of course, they can’t.
That in itself is tame, but it’s also a very thin veil of racism not in its meanest, ugliest way, but it’s like it doesn’t let us see the possibility that, yes, of course, the children could be The Falcon. And when he said it, I remember being stunned.
So where do I want to get in my life? I want to still be able to be stunned by the truth and let that advance me as a person. Because I’m ready to be advanced. I’m ready to be wrong about a lot of stuff.
Tavis: See, that wasn’t quicksand, man. You ended up on a mountaintop [laugh]. You ended up on the mountaintop. I got a minute to go. Speaking of you turning 60, which you have done since I last saw you, and you got this big Lifetime Achievement Award the other night, how you feeling about this? You feeling accomplished?
Costner: Yeah. Look, I don’t know what it is. I always take these things way too serious, meaning I didn’t want to get it in the first place. But when I did, I didn’t want to go up there and be too glib.
So how do I look at my life? I look backwards at it the way a lifetime is a little bit, you know. And I understand that my life is so much more than the movies.
But in that moment in time, being in the movies has afforded me the chance to travel this world. It’s given me more than I ever would have dreamed of. I didn’t think I would have a life of wealth on any level and that wealth I hopefully have transferred into the security of my own family and friends.
And I have swung for the fences with that and outside endeavors. So I’ve had a life, you know, and it hasn’t been a perfect life, but it’s been a perfect life in a way.
Tavis: I like that. He swung for the fences with this one. It’s called “Black or White” and I think you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. I can guarantee, when you come out, you’ll be–go see it with somebody ’cause you’re going to want to talk to somebody when you get done seeing this [laugh].
Costner: You know what Anthony said? Anthony says, “Go see this movie with somebody that don’t look like you.”
Tavis: I was about to say the same thing!
Costner: And then you come out and you go have a meal together and you will have a conversation.
Tavis: Couldn’t have said it better myself. Anthony Mackie, thank you for that. Kevin, always good to have you on the program.
Tavis: Great film. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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