Kevin Costner—Swing Vote, JFK—7/18/08

A bona fide movie star, Kevin Costner has headlined films such as The Untouchables, No Way Out, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, JFK, The Bodyguard, A Perfect World, Wyatt Earp, The War, Waterworld, Tin Cup, For the Love of the Game, Thirteen Days, The Upside of Anger, The Guardian, and Mr. Brooks, among many others. As a director, producer and actor, he birthed Dances with Wolves, The Postman, and Open Range. Costner frequently serves as producer, as he does on his latest acting effort Swing Vote (for the record, he insists he's not a producer on Swing Vote but a "financier"). Costner proved an engaging advocate for the film, as well as a relaxed and generous interview subject, allowing double the time I had been promised and then hanging around afterwards to tell another anecdote about how his kids negotiated with him for a viewing (with judicious eye-covering) of the violent A Perfect World. Our chat took place at San Francisco's Ritz Carlton Hotel.

Kevin Costner: Kevin Costner. How are you...?

Groucho: Hi. Peter Canavese.

KC: Hi...

G: The film is ultimately hopeful regarding the role of the American electorate, but on the other hand it also acknowledges that America is for sale to some degree.

KC: Yeah.

G: So I wonder, politically speaking, if you see the glass as half-full or half-empty.

KC: Well, it's kind of three things you said there. The first thing you said was "hopeful." And there's always hope in a democracy that's protected itself. There's hope why? Because we can still vote. It hasn't been taken away from us. Whether we choose to show up or not is our own laziness, our own unwillingness to think that we do matter. But the truth is there's hope, there should be, because we can still vote, you know? They can't run over us if we really want to stand up. So as long as we have our vote, we have some hope. Okay? You lose that—the reality of what will happen is people will run over us, 'cause that's human nature. And human nature is what you were addressing in your second thing, which is: two powerful, maybe even great men, if they're vying for the biggest job on the planet, and they feel like their base has reduced itself to one, human nature tells us they would be tempted to alter their position. Even if it's for a more glorified idea, "Let's just "FUCK IT! Let's just do this. I know this is wrong, but when I'm get there I'll fix it. Just leave me alone!" It's not unrealistic to think, "That's us." That's us. And so that's real. To do it any other way would have been, I think, disingenuous. What we truly hope, when it is a candidate—and that's why Bud's line—even though it's not what an intellectual would say, but an intellectual would understand it perfectly—"We need a giant. We need a giant to help us." What he's saying there is that a giant would catch themself. A giant would be vulnerable to saying, "I'll do anything to get there," but also a giant would go, "Wait a second. This is wrong." We saw Kelsey start to have that moment. We saw Dennis have that moment. Now keep in mind this isn't Thirteen Days or JFK. This is a comedy. So we could invest completely in that reality, but it was nice to show there was a turn. Now I'm moving to your "half glass full, and half"—I don't give a shit about your question. (Pause for laugh.)

G: Now you're being honest!

KC: No, I don't—I'm—I would imagine I'm you. I get a little cynical. I get a little tired. I'm a little fatigued, you know? I can't make good judgements about men because even when I see the men in the same room, in front of me on television, saying, "I said this," and the guy says, "No you didn't, you said that. "Yes I did, I said this." "You said it would cause—" I can't even settle that between my children. They have to go to separate rooms, right? So the American public—you, by virtue of being journalists, bring us information. And are we getting good information? I mean, I'm not Solomon. I couldn't tell between these two guys. Well, who's lying here?! Or you know, not that they're even lying, but that guy just said, "No you didn't. I never said that." And you go, "But you just said you just said that." I mean you go—that's the American public. We're so dependent on good information. And you know, do we get it? Do you get it? You're going to have to vote. You know, it's like—how can I?—I can only vote based on a felling. I can't vote based on being right about either one of these two guys. And that's going to seem really weak to somebody. "You're voting based on a feeling? Well, no wonder you're from Hollywood—you can't—" You know, "Why don't you read the issues? Why don't you bone up on the stuff, and then you won't be just going by your feeling." But in truth I think that's all we're going to be able to go by. I can't speak for you. At the end of the day, given all of the information—because if this one guy says, "I'm going to do this," and I think that's really good, and then the other guy goes, "That's going to ruin us!" And then somebody says, "I'm going to do this," and the guy goes, "That's going to ruin us!" Holy shit! You got a feeling about it? Are you going to look at his voting record? Is that going to make a difference? I'm confused about this! I am. (Smiles.) I don't know half-full, half-empty! But I ultimately have hope because I can make movies with hope, y'know. And I can make a movie about a guy who doesn't say, "You should vote," but says, "I should have fucking voted." That's really what Bud's saying. "And I'm embarrassed. In front of my daughter. And if I'm forced to look at this now as the world's looking at me, I realize what an awful position: two guys vested in being the leader of our country have to have me, an average guy, choose them. This seems shitty." And I think that's right. I think that's honest...I don't see any place in either party where I make sense completely. Because, look, I'm a hunter. I'm a fisherman, right? And I have bird dogs. But I think there should be gun laws. So where does that fit for me? I absolutely don't want to give up my guns, and I want to go hunting, and I do that, and it's like God forbid—yeah, I even skin animals, okay? Protect me on how you say it, but [what] I'm just saying if I'm an outdoorsman, but I think guns—there's too many guns. You know, and I think that we should look at that differently. And I think the NRA should, too. Well, I would be suddenly run out of town by them. Which I don't really give a shit. So I know I don't fit there, but I want to protect my guns too. There seems to be something [that] could happen! There's gotta—it seems like smart men and women could say, "This isn't right and this isn't his, or this—" And maybe I don't see it clearly. But I'm saying that's how I feel. You know, I believe in a woman's right to choose...I don't fit. I don't fit. I'm a mixed bag, so where do I fit? You know, I don't think bad of any of them, but I don't feel like I fit. So I have to choose ultimately between two men who we're thinking are the cream of the crop. We're thinking we have to—the world is—whether they're laughing at us, whether they're doing everything, the assumption is the cream is now at the top. Right? These are the two best guys in America. That's what our system is telling us. And I have to choose between 'em, and I'm telling you it's probably going to be a feeling...

G: I think your hallmark as an actor has always been very innately naturalistic performances—you have a seeming ease on screen. And I wonder—as a director you obviously have to come to the set meticulously prepared. As an actor, what do you like to do to assure that, when you report to duty you're ready to go?

KC: I come off-book. Off-book means you're—

G: Memorized.

KC: It's really a Broadway—it's a, really, theatrical play [term] for knowing all my lines. That seems pretty obvious, but a lot of people don't. I'm a slow study, so I have to come to rehearsal—and I insist on rehearsal in film. A lot of films don't have rehearsal. So as a producer I insisted on two weeks of rehearsal. And tried to show the director what I thought. Because not all directors even know how to rehearse, to be honest. They don't know—"Can you do that around a table? Can you do that?" You go, "Yeah, this is how we can do it." So I come off-book. I come with a real point of view, and then I'm able to listen. And I learn everybody's lines: the whole thing. 'Cause I need to know what's being said to me.

G: And during the process of shooting, what do you like to get from a director, having been on both sides of the camera, that really helps you to do the work?

KC: Yeah, I like—I think if a director's watching, I love it if they can show me a new opportunity. You know, "Hey, if you pick up that candy bar, and just start unwrapping it while you talk, you might find that that really loosens you up," or something like that. Sometimes it's just little things like that. Or somebody'd say, "Look, you can go farther with that," you know? Or like when I hit my head on the "VOTE" sign, instead of staggering over there, I just crawled. (Messily grabs at the table in imitation.) I just crawled as fast as I could to get to the voting thing. And he just finally got tired. (Slowing down:) Couldn't get the key in. Couldn't get it in. Couldn't get it in. And you kind of find those things...

G: I was going to say about Bud that he starts the film so removed from his own life. I mean he's drifting through it, but he's not participating in his life, really. And he's got, you know, the daughter right there, wanting so much for him to do that. For you was that—in developing the character, were you thinking that's really the result of his failed marriage, or was there more to it?

KC: Well, there was a debate about putting Mare Winningham in the movie [Ed.: as Bud's ex]. You know, it's what happens with movies. "God! It's such a sweet movie, and so—when we see Mare Winningham, this movie changes a little bit. It changes a little bit, Kevin. Maybe we, maybe we don't need that tone change." So I listened. I listened to that, you know. 'Cause I know it's different. I said, "But, you know, I'm going to keep it in. I want the director to keep it in. I want you to trust that you wrote it. There was a reason why you wrote it. And I think there's a reason why it should be in. Just because Bud is not a soccer dad, and not a PTA dad. When we see Mare Winningham, we realize that that was that child's option. And Bud elected to not have his daughter be under that roof. Okay? I'm not so great? And we never, by the way—and that's why we need a discerning watcher—we never say, "Honey, that's why I didn't put you there." We don't have that scene, or some other character going, "Now do you see your dad's a good guy?" He doesn't say shit about it. You know. But you realize, if you look at it closely, that's the option. And he didn't badmouth his wife. Even at the river when he was fishing instead of, you know, [saying,] "She doesn't want to," [he says,] "No it can't be. She can't be." You know, Bud's not perfect. And he knows it. He likes to go to strip clubs. You know. But he doesn't think bad about the girls. But he realizes that his daughter knows too much. She's having to do too much...

G: You mentioned JFK earlier, and I wanted to ask, with some distance on it, if you could talk about Oliver Stone's direction of you. He has a reputation for being hard on actors, or unpleasant—

KC: Right.

G: To work with as an actor.

KC: Mine was really, really positive. Oliver and I talked really early on about stuff, and a variety of things, including maybe styles. But one thing that was really important to me in the making of that movie was I said, "Look, Oliver, if we run up to these points where I can't get confirmation what you're saying, or whatever—it's like, you know, "Is that true?" or whatever. I said, "Allow me to say, as an actor, "Let us suppose that a man walked in and had two rifles? Wouldn't that seem odd?" Or use a couple prefaces that were not like "This is what happened," but a thinking man would say, "If this happened, why would this not have happened?" 'Cause that's what Garrison was having to do, which was fill in the blanks. But not like wholesale statements that are "This is what happened." (Going into Garrison's cadence:) "Let us suppose that happened. Wouldn't you think that's odd?" Now I could convince a jury with that. Because I would be leaning on behavior. (In character:) "Do we think he went up there without a gun? Let me ask you how nervous you get. You like football? Do you like football?"

G: Yeah.

KC: "Okay. Do you bet on football?"

G: No.

KC: "I don't either...have you ever watched a last-minute field goal on a team that you wanted your team to win? You get a little nervous?"

G: Yeah.

KC: "A little nervous. Isn't that amazing? You're watching TV. Imagine some son of a bitch sitting up in a window waiting to kill the President of the United States. You think some nerves might've been on that guy, to make a great fucking shot?" You know, it's like—I'm not saying right or wrong, but I'm saying if you take behavior—and Oliver was cool with that. So for people who think he just jammed a lot of things that weren't exactly right, at least with me he didn't. He said, "Okay, I get it. You're out front. You're saying these things, and we don't know. Let's say it like that." So I found that to be very encouraging. And he wasn't, y'know—we had one real rub on something. And, uh, it was um—I told—and I'll tell you this story because you['ve] been whatever. We scheduled three days for the final courtroom scene. Three days to film that. And so we came in to film it, and I sat down, and I did the whole scene. And Oliver said, (quietly) "You just did the whole scene." I said, "Yeah, I'm ready to go." And he goes, "You want to take an hour, and let me put up four more cameras?" And I said, "Yeah. Fine." And so he put up the four cameras, I came back in and we did five takes, and we were done by one o'clock. We now had picked up two and a half days on the schedule. Oliver said—no, but that's not the sory. I was feeling really fuckin' great about that. Right? Everybody's feeling really great about that. We had another scene that was to take place at that courthouse: the ending scene where I'm walking out. And I told Oliver before we ever started filming that—I said, "I can't have scenes just jumped on me. I don't—I can have problems with that. You know, I have—" And it was a scene that was being rewritten or whatever. And I didn't have it committed. I wasn't off-book. I said, "I've gotta know three or four days going in if we're going to do something because that's how I work." I couldn't have been clearer. 'Cause the same way I talked about "Let us suppose," I'm a very clear, anally clear guy about shit. So Oliver says, "Hey, Kev! This is fucking fantastic, man. We did great. You did great." Everybody was, like, up. And then he goes, "I got this great idea." I said, "What is it?" I thought it was like, you know, "Let's go to Tipitino's and play music or something. Goes, "Let's shoot the other scene. We're right here, we got all these extras." I said, "I can't do it." He goes, "C'mon! We got all the extras." I said, "Oliver, I really can't." He goes, "Look, I got a Steadicam, I'm going to do it in one shot." Which was making me even sweat because I knew I didn't have a grasp of this scene. And I'd had a grasp of the whole movie, and I just had a great up feeling for having just—I'd never had a better feeling, right? Having done that whole thing. Goes, "C'mon, just try, and if it's no good, we'll dump it." And that was like the kiss of death: "if it's no good." So, I tried. About twelve takes in, I was starting to be humiliated, because I couldn't get all my lines. I just—I wasn't acting well, I couldn't do it. And we would walk. And I would go up. He'd go, "Cut." And we'd go back up, and now we'd come down. And I could see that he was getting a little like "Jesus! Just get the lines right." And I'd just done an eleven-minute thing. And so it's not about the lines; it's just about whatever. And I can't get it, I can't get it. Finally, I'm pissed. And I say—now I'm embarrassed in front of these extras. 'Cause their memory of me is going to be, "Yeah, I acted with him once. He didn't even know his lines!" You know what I mean? It was—all this stuff was playing. And I was humiliated, I was a lot of things. And we walked off the set, and it got very heated between us. We were in this little cloakroom, 'cause we were in this, like—and he goes, "Jesus, you are a self-fulfilling prophecy!" I said, "I fuckin' told you that I don't know how to"—you know, I said, "I tried to protect myself. And I go—I did everything to protect myself, and you didn't let me."

G: And the actor's always the most vulnerable one on the set.

KC: So that's what happened on that thing. But you know, that's reality. In the scheme of things, what you're talking about, he was a good director for me. He was very supportive of me. And did not abuse anybody on the set in front of me.

(Photo by Omar P.L. Moore/  7/18/08)

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