There are few present-day actors who are as beloved and as worthy of all-time icon status as Kevin Costner. After all, in one incredible stretch between 1987 and 1992, he gave the world this string of hits that have stood the test of time: “The Untouchables,” “No Way Out,” “Bull Durham,” “Field of Dreams,” “Dances with Wolves,” “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “JFK” and “The Bodyguard.”
Yet the following two decades were rough, as he stumbled with midsized hits like “Tin Cup” and “Open Range” only barely offsetting costly misfires like “Wyatt Earp,” “Waterworld” and “The Postman.” But in 2012, he dug deep and made the bold move stepping off the big screen and taking on the role of “Devil” Anse Hatfield in the History Channel’s epic miniseries “Hatfields and McCoys,” winning himself an Emmy while scoring one of the biggest audiences in cable TV history.
That risky decision’s results meant that Costner had his mojo back, with carte blanche to make movies that mattered to him again. And in the past month, he’s stepped up to the plate with two fine films that have much to say about the state of race relations in America.
“Black or White” opened Jan. 30 and is a riveting tale about a white grandfather and black grandmother fighting for custody of their biracial granddaughter. But it’s “McFarland USA” that stands a real chance of joining his earliest hits as a genuine classic, and one that families can enjoy together.
The film details the true story of high school coach Jim White, an Anglo coach, who in 1987 clashed cultures in his new job at the all-Latino (and highly Catholic, as witnessed by their active prayer lives and icon-filled homes) high school in McFarland, Calif., before inspiring students to become cross-country running champions.
“I was moved by the material more than politics, but I think about those things, I fret about them,” says Costner, when asked about the new movies’ focus on race. “I was born in Compton and lived there until I was 6 or 7, and then my family moved to Visalia, which is all agricultural and we played sports against McFarland teams.
“So I always understood race and have always been around a lot of cultural differences,” adds Costner. “When I read ‘Black or White,’ it was brutally honest in a really cool way and says things I think most people wish they had been saying. This world of farm workers we see as we’re driving down these highways, it’s real, and I’d read about it 15 years ago in Sports Illustrated and so it was a weird circle that it would come all the way back to me.”
For Costner, the appeal of telling the “McFarland” story lies in seeing racial tensions through a human lens rather than a politicized one. It also appealed to him as much more than a sports story, instead offering a tribute to the power teachers can have to shape lives for the better.
“Jim White gave them something to shoot for and they succeed wildly and became champions, and it’s not made up,” says Costner. “This happens all over America, believe it or not. People give kids a chance, motivate them in some way, give them something to work for, and they’re different. It can come in the form of creative writing or music. Teachers have the chance to impact, but they have an equal chance to damage.”
Despite the fact that he spent three weeks filming “McFarland” in the actual dusty, weather-beaten town, Costner didn’t feel a culture shock, since he grew up nearby. As he jokes, “all I need is my Stingray and a great ditch to go swimming in. That’s how you cool off there, because my parents couldn’t afford a pool.”
He credits the movie’s female director, New Zealander Niki Caro (“Whale Rider,” “North Country”), and the script by Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois, for honing a complicated story into an entertaining 128-minute film. Caro strived to hire as many genuine, non-actor local kids as possible to portray the athletes and surrounding townspeople.
She and the writing duo also found a way to address gritty subject matter like domestic violence, a near-suicide attempt, unexpected pregnancy and gang violence in a way that respects adult viewers’ intelligence while handling the issues subtly enough to not scare or confuse children. It’s a delicate balancing act that is quite impressive, and gives the film extra punch when it needs it.
“What are the seminal moments, what do you drill down on, and that’s the art form actually,” says Costner, before pointing at this reporter. “How do you write a 1,000-word story? I don’t know, but you would. There’s an art form to it. So for her, I give credit to Niki because she was willing to cast out of the area, right there, has a lot of confidence in locals when dealing with the fabric of a community. That’s something she’s known for and I saw it in action.”
Aside from Westerns, which Costner mastered in his Best Picture and Best Director-winning classic “Dances with Wolves” and again with “Open Range,” he is best known for sports movies. He handled baseball in “Bull Durham” and “Field of Dreams,” golf in “Tin Cup,” and football in last year’s underrated dramedy “Draft Day,” and now segues from football to track when he depicts Jim White’s demotion from assistant football coach to physical education teacher.
“I found that ‘Bull Durham’ was poetic in its own peculiar way, and every scene I believed in and I loved it,” says Costner. “It wasn’t about him making it to the big leagues. He wasn’t gonna make it. And in American movies, we want him to make it, so there was something cool that he wasn’t gonna get there.
“In ‘Tin Cup’ it’s like he doesn’t win that tournament, he falls really flat, he has a 12 but you know what? It’s the greatest 12 in history,” referring to that movie’s utterly amazing climactic scene, in which his golfer character takes 12 shots at one hole just to prove that he can make magic happen with one of them. “There’s a poetry in finding the antihero if you will, and so I don’t go looking for those stories and I’m not jonesing to do sports movies, but this came along and it was a story I knew a little bit about.”
Despite the fact that people remember him for playing noble heroes in the classics listed above, Costner is also quick to note that he’s played a couple of memorable bad guys — including a serial killer in “Mr. Brooks” and an escaped convict in “A Perfect World.” He also wants to set the record straight that his characters are not always the strong, silent type.
“When I did ‘Mr. Brooks,’ I played a serial killer, but I found it was written really smart and was intelligent,” Costner recalls. “When I did ‘A Perfect World,’ I thought there’s a guy in prison and he is what he was. I can play the strong silent type, but I go after movies that are very deep in dialogue too. ‘JFK’ had a 22-page monologue, and the monologue I have in ‘Black or White’ was a really great one in the courtroom, and of course the ‘Bull Durham’ monologue and in ‘Swing Vote’ I actually make a speech to the candidates.
“I’m not afraid of language, though a lot of times with the strong silent type, they don’t want to say anything and start to cut the dialogue out. I think the things you remember most in life are things that you said. So I move back and forth from the strong silent type to the rascal to the unreadable, and I try to build a career just out of the individual movie. I try to make a movie that will last forever. I don’t always achieve that, but it’s what I try to do.”
Costner turned 60 in January, yet his deep tan and lanky build make him look nearly the same as in his “Bull Durham” leading-man heyday from 1988. As he himself is surprised to note in his plainspoken tones, he has managed to work all over the world while retaining his love for small towns and a desire to do his work well while trying to avoid embarrassing attention from paparazzi.
“You have to navigate fame, and I don’t have a perfect record,” says Costner, who is in a happy second marriage but lost ownership of the former Pasadena restaurant Twin Palms to his first wife in their divorce. “I’ve had the press go after me. I had a divorce in my life and that became a real subject of discussion at the time. My life is bigger than the movies. That’s what I’m known for, but it’s the tip of the iceberg and I understand that.
“I’m not overly impressed with what I do, I just take what I do seriously but when I’m done I’m also done with it,” Costner continues. “I enjoy the work of movies much more than I do the red carpet moments. I have an ego, I want films to do well, it’s nice that people treat me well and I put my hands in cement but that stuff, I never thought that was on the boards for me.”
“McFarland USA” is playing in theatres nationwide.