Kevin Costner is one of Hollywood’s great leading men, anchoring films like The Untouchables and Field of Dreams with his easy-going everyman charm. As an actor he has thrilled audiences in a variety of big movies such as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld, while also starring in political films such as JFK and Thirteen Days. As a director he has also brought the epic films Dances With Wolves, Open Range and The Postman to the screen during the course of his 30-year career.
Over the last few years Costner has shied away from acting to focus on his family, but now he’s back in a big way. Last summer saw him take on the role of Jonathan Kent in Man of Steel, while this year sees him in Three Days To Kill. Draft Day and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. I spoke with Costner on the set of the latest film to be based on Tom Clancy’s creation, where he discussed acting, directing and taking risks in Hollywood. Costner was gracious with the questions, exuding charm and wit in equal measure, showing that he’s just as interesting in person as he is on screen.
You did notice the sun just came out for you.
I tell ya, it’s one of those universal things sometimes, when it comes out everybody feels good. That’s one of the things, there’s like universal things with people, even like a dick in life, even a really bad guy, I always think that even a bad guy recognizes a good idea, they know it when they hear it, you know what I mean? A good idea is something like an emotion, you just can’t keep it in. “Hmm, that’s a good idea, I really like that!” And the guy who hates it, like the politician, goes, “That’s a really good idea. What am I gonna do about that?”
So what got you on the road to join the Jack Ryan family ?
I don’t really know what is going to happen with this thing. I have a tendency to make one movie at a time, I always have. I wanted to work with Kenneth [Branagh], I wasn’t thinking far down the road because about the time you get caught doing that, the franchise doesn’t work out or something like that. I tend to do one at a time and see if people like it, that’s really what you have to do. I think that’s what executives do, they look down the line, and I think you need to keep your eye on the ball and see what that can be.
You’ve been offered Jack Ryan, but are there any other famous roles that you were offered in the past?
There’s a couple things. I might have been offered Superman 25 years ago, not that I was! But you can tell 25 years have passed because then they offer you Superman’s dad. (Everyone laughs.) So, I was offered the Jack Ryan series back in the very beginning, and I couldn’t do it. I think it was Hunt for Red October was the first one. I couldn’t do it because I had already postponed Dances With Wolves for one year, and now I had a chance to do this Red October but I had already assembled this crew and I’d put my money into it, and then they offer me really a lot of money, more than I had ever seen to do Hunt for Red October, and I said, “You know, ‘No’ doesn’t mean more, it’s just no.” And it was like oh, that silly little Indian movie. And then I started to think it was this silly little Indian movie! But I went off and did that, and then never caught back up with the thing. It seemed like different people played Jack Ryan or something like that. I think Jack Ryan passed me. I have to be the guy who says, “You better hurry up, I mean it, she’s right behind you!”
When you signed on for this film, and maybe we’re wrong, we were discussing this before you sat down, that the idea was for the character you’re playing to be involved in these other movies. Can you explain that?
I’ve heard that. I really, sincerely did not go into that. Call it superstition, call it whatever you want, I have not sat down with anyone and gone, “How is this going to work? How would this work?” I’ve really tried to support Chris Pine in this one the very best that I can, I’m a bit of his handler, you know, you could use the word mentor, you could use whatever it is. As you know, he doesn’t start off carrying a gun, he’s a financial guy who has military experience, military background. And the deeper it goes, he has to come up with the right movie stuff, so to speak, the guy who can defend himself, and stuff like that. I think the idea is that there would be several agents under his purview that he is able to manage. And when I say, “I think,” that’s sincerely what I mean, I haven’t really talked to anybody about how that would play out. The part would have to continue to get more interesting and more interesting, more involved, more pro-active if you will.
Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura definitely downplayed the idea of you being a behind the desk in a chair mentor, he said you’re very physical in the field. Is that accurate?
You know, some guys are born for management, and some guys can straddle it, can go back and forth. Some guys were never meant to be out in the field at all. And I think he’s a person that can straddle, that can go in and sometimes there’s places where you just have get information, you have to know how to do it. I think that he straddles that line.
Would your character be sort of what Jack Ryan becomes or are you a totally different beast?Will he become more like your character as the series progresses?
I don’t know. I don’t know how Chris’s character will evolve. The hope is that he’ll be involved in a good story that’s exciting and that maybe you can relate your life to whatever circumstances they put in front of us.
How much do you have the Clancy books in your head when you’re playing a role like this?
I don’t have the Clancy books in my head. I have the script in my head. You know, I could say it four different ways but I really have not invested yet in what would come after this. I have some things I would like to direct, I have more cowboy movies I’d like to make some day. I spent the last five years really writing a lot and acquiring material. I have three babies under five and so I’m going to start to work right now, I haven’t worked that much. I’m coming out with Hatfields and Man of Steel and now I’m going to start working a little bit. I’m going to Paris after this and work and then hopefully I’ll be directing this summer something that I’ve written.
A lot of times with these franchise-type movies, the studio asks you to sign like a three-picture deal or a five-picture deal. I would imagine they asked you to sign something like that to be involved. Were you a little apprehensive about signing something that was for multiple pictures, or did you not do that?
Well, really, I think that the second one depends on the first one, so I’m not really that apprehensive. I think they’re not going to want to make one if it’s not good, and I’m not going to want to make a second one if the first one’s not good. So I won’t be tied to something that’s not working, that won’t happen. If it’s not working, why would any of us want to do it?
Working with Kenneth was one of the attractions, you said?
It is! It’s really good, he’s very thoughtful. He makes a point like a coach sometimes. Maybe even if you’re not very good he says, “You were really good!” as opposed to directors who just go, “Jesus!” And you walk home and think, “Aren’t you going to say something about today?” You know, Kenneth makes a real point to say, “It was good,” he writes you a little note. It’s nice, actually, it’s kind of thoughtful if you get down to it. He’ll say, “It was very smart today, it had a good crackle to it,” or something like that. And I look at him and I’m thinking, “Really?” I just love that he’s that way, and I like a director who’s enthused, and then when he turns around and looks at somebody he says, “I’m going to have to fix it with scissors.”
You have something in common with him in that you’re both actor/directors who have done movies where you’re also acting. As a director he kind of shies away from acting in his own movies but he’s doing that again. Have you had scenes with him so far?
No, no, and I won’t, either. I mean, we met each other when we were both very young, when he had just had his big success with him and Emma [Thompson] when they did that big movie, it’s slipping my mind for a second. He came to Los Angeles, I had him over to my house, and so we’ve been very familiar with each other but not pen pals, not phone calls or anything like that. He asked me two or three years later to do Dead Again, Andy Garcia ended up doing it actually. I said at that point that it didn’t speak to me at all, but I’ve always been fond of watching what he’s up to because he’s really a classic actor and that was probably the single biggest reason why I did this.
So did this film speak to you more than that film?
Actually, not really, it was Kenneth! I thought he has his mind on how this is going to work so I thought well, let’s just see.
You mentioned that you sort of took some time away and didn’t act as much and now you’re getting back into that world. What sort of roles are attracting you, what sort of things are drawing your attention now?
Well, I’ve submitted a lot of things during that same time, but I tell you the roles that I’m really attracted to are the ones that I write for myself and develop. Once in a while something that somebody else does, you know, will speak out loud to you. Luc Besson has a movie that I’m going to go do called 3 Days to Kill. I don’t know why we call it 3 Days to Kill because it’s not three days to kill! I’m going to talk to him about that! That character really speaks out loud to me so I really want to do that, but I would really like to get back to the things that I’ve developed because I kind of know how they are, I know when they start and when they end and I know all the scenes that I like and I’m not making up any pages on the day.
I’m pretty anal about my own approach. I don’t start a movie until the script is done and completed, I don’t leave room for pages to start changing, for studios to start sliding notes under the door, whatever, I really like to know what I’m doing. I like to rehearse, and so even the movies that I do I carve out almost a week and a half to two weeks for rehearsal, which is really not part of the budgets anymore these days. But I like my actors to do that because I don’t like to rehearse on the day, because I think all that is blocking to me, I really like them to be comfortable, and I like to put them under pressure early so that when the day comes they’re more at ease. So on the day of rehearsal they say, “Well I’m not really ready.” And I say, “Well, you should be ready!” And then they drive home that night and go, “Oh, shit, I wasn’t ready!” But what happens is that three or four days or a week later, they’re really ready. So that really is the process of acting is rehearsal and somewhere along the line film, I think for the most part, doesn’t feel like they have to do that. People do not value that process anymore.
Speaking of acting, what, in your opinion, is Chris Pine bringing to the role of Jack Ryan?
Well he fits that long prototype of a guy — you know we’ve had guys like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson who were really cool tough guys but they weren’t classically handsome men, they were just powerhouses. You know, Spencer Tracy, just powerful people. Chris fits that classic — look, I played that role in No Way Out. There’s that thing in America where you’re like six-feet, you know, you’re white or something like that, and you get to play these roles. And he is stepping into that time-honored spot and it’s not an easy one. Everybody thinks it’s easy, it’s not so easy to carry a movie, it’s really not so easy. In fact, it’s the evolution of your stature in Hollywood because — I remember I played Silverado and everyone was like, “Wow, that guy is really flashy, that’s really cool!” And then it’s like “Well, he can’t carry a film!” So it’s always these things that you gotta get over, and Chris is in that moment because he fits the way a lot of these stories read for a traditional lead, and so it’s not boring and it shouldn’t be underestimated how good you have to be to actually be able to do that. Other people get to come into a movie and do accents and do little funny things and be incredible character actors and you just have to be boring lead! Not that it’s boring but you just have to be that guy, you cannot be concerned if somebody starts to steal the movie, you know what I mean? You actually have to be smart enough as a lead actor to want that to happen, you want somebody to come in and be very flashy, you know, that makes for a better movie. So he fits in that category.
Are you stealing his spotlight in this movie?
No, it’s not that, but in order for this to even work, whenever Keira Knightley opens her mouth, or I open my mouth, or the bad guy opens his mouth, whatever, we have to feel like it’s advancing the plot. If everybody’s just there to serve the lead actor, it can fall flatter.
So is your relationship with him like your relationship in the film as a kind of mentor?
Yeah, but he doesn’t lean over to me and ask for advice. He’ll want to lean over and ask about someone like Gene Hackman or something. “Have you met him?” So those will be the kind of sidebars just before we’re acting and I’ll think, “Hmm, I’m glad he wants to know about who these people are.” You knew him, you met him, you’ve worked with him, and then maybe a little story will come out. I can see that he appreciates the history of movies and the people in them.
Having been in that role yourself, the role he’s in now, do you prefer to kind of being the support, to not having as much of the weight on your shoulders?
Well, it’s nice in a sense, but I like to take people through a story so I don’t — you know, it’s nice to have days off, to see the sun come out! But I will continue to be leads, but I’m not afraid to play a supporting part, I don’t feel like that diminishes me, I don’t feel like “Oh, that’s a sign of the times now,” you know what I mean? I still get the girl! If it’s written!
Where has most of your filming been? Have you been shooting mostly in the New York scenes or the offices?
We were in New York a minimal amount of time, two or three days, and then we came and shot here in London. I mean, I did a movie here called Upside of Anger and that movie is flat-out supposed to be shot in Detroit. There was only one shot of the Detroit skyline and we never went there. We did it all here, so London has proved pretty resourceful.
Have you been able to have creative input on your character?
Yeah, and because I’ve made movies, I have to understand that this is not the Thomas Harper movie, this is the Jack Ryan movie, so — (publicist interrupts) — I came a long way to talk to these people. Were you saying one more question? No, we can talk a little more—You have to understand what you’re doing. That’s what this is and that’s being set-up. If we think a couple of lines explains this better, Kenneth has allowed that input and he knows that I’ve stayed inside the lines of the movie that he wants to make, so there have been little moments. There’s going to be that, especially if there’s no rehearsal, because if you don’t have rehearsals, you haven’t tested the movie in a way. As an actor, you haven’t tested it. So, when somebody says to you, ‘here’s the script’ and you go, ‘I think it needs a couple of things here’ – you either have somebody who is willing to hear that or not willing to hear that.
A lot of times you’ve done your work with a script, like when I do my work with a script – if I’m doing Open Range, I can hear Annette Bening talking. I know as an actress she can get from here to here with those lines, and if she can’t then I’m going to make the lines so she can. So, when Annette Bening gets a script she’s not telling me she can’t get there. I already know she can’t get there – you know what I mean? If Duvall’s there, I already know he can’t make that thing unless we do this thing. So, I try and sand the script before the actors get there because actors are usually panicked. They’re going, ‘isn’t this the Tom Harper story?’, or ‘isn’t this Catherine Muller story?’ Actors all think that it’s their story and you go ‘no, this is the story. This is how you fit, this is how you succeed’. So, it’s important with the small parts that there’s a moment that their mom’s going to like them in the role.
With Hatfields and McCoys you guys took an apparently major risk that paid off in a big way and it proved to people that something they said couldn’t be done could be done. Has this opened any doors for things that people were skeptical about?
Oh yeah. We’re a whole business of perception. Now that suddenly works, we can all do it. There was no risk in doing Hatfields and McCoys. The risk was when I told them that I would not do it unless they did the whole story. What it was going to be was two nights, and that wasn’t the story. I could tell in my mind it was three nights – it was six hours, five and a half – whatever it is. And so, if I was going to be involved then they were going to have to do that. That forced them out of the conventions that they seem to think works, which is two nights. This was like, ‘whoooaaa! They don’t work anymore. They haven’t worked since Roots’. (Laughter). They didn’t really say that, I thought, ‘Gee, isn’t this the story that you want the other actors to do?’ I said, ‘I can look at this and you can’t get it into two nights’.
So, the risk for me was to do something which would have fallen into conventional wisdom. I didn’t want to have the fight later – I had it right then, sitting right as close as you are to me, with the head of that channel. I said, ‘I’ll do this if you promise to do the whole story. Now, I’m not making you do that, but I’m not doing it unless that. So what do you want to do?’ We made our agreement across the table and she lived up to it. That doesn’t make me a genius, that only makes me certain of what I believe is a complete story. I was certain that if they made it two nights – that would have been the risk. The risk was thinking you have a great story, then figuring out what you are going to lose. That’s the risk. You know, there’s a lot of actors in this town that were in that movie that would have not made the final cut.
I’m curious about your process as an actor and as a director. Some people prefer two takes, the way Clint Eastwood does it, while some people prefer 50 takes like David Fincher. As an actor I’m curious what you prefer and as a director I’m curious what you prefer?
David does 50 takes?
Of a scene?
He did 100 takes of the opening of The Social Network.
Or 99 takes.
That’s Kubrick (laughs). Well he’s a very talented guy. You know, I go until I think I have it.
As an actor or as a director?
As a director. As an actor you have to throw yourself on. Somebody goes, ‘I’ve got it’, so if it was two takes then, or three takes then and they want to move on, it doesn’t I think that we’ve got it. I have to trust them, or I fight for one more. When I’m directing, I’m calling the shots. I have a tendency to short-change myself. I don’t short-change other actors, but I have a tendency, when I’m directing myself to go, ‘okay, I got it’. And once in a while somebody close to me will go, ‘why don’t you do another take? Why are you rushing yourself? Cause you’re always rushing to help the other actors and then you go, ‘I’ve got it’. So, no Kevin take some time with your performance. Just take some more time.’ You know what? It’s good advice. I’ve seen takes where the camera is back here and I’m talking to you, the actor and I’m thinking, “that’s good” and I finally look back at the dailies and I go, “why the fuck am I going ‘that’s good’?” Somebody tells me I’m on camera. “So that really good take’s not good anymore?” and they go, “yeah.” It’s true though. Do you guys have children?
[He gets one response.]
What the fuck?
We’re online, that’s why. (laughter)
Well I have seven. If you ever have a child sometimes you go to their little school, or maybe you’ve had the experience with your own parents. When they’re singing a song and you go, (sings) “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer” like we practiced at home. You’re helping them. You do that as a director – you love your actors – you want them to be great. I’m watching Michael Gambon and he is great and I’m thinking, “I can’t direct this fucker. He’s good! He’s just really good. Like a Cadillac, how did he just get in there. He just got out of there.” He’s really good and you’re just thinking, “I’ve just directed Michael!”
You’ve been talking about having more westerns in you. What is it about the genre which keeps you coming back for more?
You could say the same thing about people who do space, or do CIA movies – it’s like, don’t put me in a box. I like to visit it because when they’re done right, I think they’re really beautiful pieces of film. They highlight how difficult it was for your ancestors who found their way to America to make a life for themselves. If you do them really right, you actually create these really interesting dilemmas where you go, “Wow, I don’t know if I was that tough.” I’m not talking about Spaghetti Westerns where you kill a lot of people – and people like those. I’m talking about one that orchestrates it down to how do you protect your wife from two or three guys who say they want water but might take whatever they want. The west was very scary. This town is like one of our ancient civilizations, but in terms of modern, America had nothing until 200 years ago. And the shit we built 200 years ago, we don’t even have. It got replaced by modern stuff. It was like the Garden of Eden there for 800 years.
Their stories are of people who made their way out west, had to wait for seven, eight days for just the buffalo to pass in front of them because – we’re talking about over a million. They were afraid, so the wagon train just waited. You don’t conceive of that, you can’t conceive of that – and that’s real. If you make a really good western, it’s not just about the shoot-out, it’s not. It’s about, ‘how did I get in such a bad spot here? How did it come down to me against these guys?’ If you do it thoughtfully, it’s our Shakespeare. If you do it crappy, it sets the genre back. I like to revisit it, I hope when I do it each time I’m advancing it in some way. I just like it, I like the idea of a guy, who all the possessions he owns are on his back. There’s something kind of cool about that. Look at the shit we have. Some guy, just free to go wherever he wants and makes-up his own life.
Franchises are becoming better at trying to work character beats into stories; it’s not just about the action. It sounds like that is what you guys are trying to do here?
There’s actually a big difference between story and character. A great story doesn’t make a great movie. A great script, which defines its moments and characters can become a great movie. You can make a movie that makes a lot of money and it may or may not have great story or great characters. Sometimes they succeed in spite of what the building blocks are storytelling.
You’ve always taken risks when you could have made The Bodyguard 2 or Robin Hood 2. What is it that keeps you wanting to move forward and try different things?
I always feel like I’m done with those movies. They stood a chance to be remade and I missed the era of remaking all those. I think that frustrated people, that I wouldn’t go ahead and do that. I did however, on The Bodyguard, I was going to make that for a moment. Princess Diana was being really considered for that part. You know, people have asked me to make Tin Cup, Bull Durham, Dances, you know those things. I was just always interested in what I could do next. I would have made any one of those had the script been really good, so I’m not above the idea.
Is it just really tough getting the script in place?
For me the guys writing those are one-off guys too. Lawrence Kasdan, Ron Shelton, they move on in their lives. They’re very individual. It’s clearly the smart move to create something like this or that. I get that it’s a very good career move to do that.
Do you notice any difference between working with British actors or American actors? Is there a different process?
Here’s the thing – the accent is cool. I know that sounds what it is. It’s like a girl with big breasts – they get your attention first. I remember really early on in acting class and I saw a couple of British actors who were beginning too. They were beginning, they were beginners and they just thought that they would like to do this and they would read the same scene as other beginning actors, but the accent was hypnotic. They weren’t better actors, but easier to listen to. They sounded more elegant. I thought, “Fuck, he’s really good. Is it his accent, or what is it?” Every British actor I’ve worked with has been very disciplined. I think they understand the notion of rehearsal, actually appreciate it more appropriately, a little more than American actors do. I think it’s probably because of their training. That’s a general statement. I know American actors who like rehearsal the way I do, but all in all people are like, “hey, just tell me where to stand.” You go, “Really? Go right out there it’s about 40 degrees. When you come back in you should know your lines’.
When you’re approaching a character, especially this one, where you find the access point and start developing into that person?
Being a lead you actually don’t have the chance to climb into the role. You don’t. You have to take people through the story. That’s where we started with, that basic question. Chris can’t start suddenly doing a lisp and a limp and everything – because it would be a really good choice, wouldn’t it? Yeah, but not for a lead. You have to have the confidence to know when you’re just supposed to tell the story. In Hatfields and McCoys I had to play pretty straight. What you do is find your emotion in that and try to become, what I call ‘everyman’. Everyman who watches this goes, ‘I’m that guy’, I’m not depending on him to dazzle. People like McQueen and Paul Newman and all those guys took you through the story. When I see a character that I can really do, it’s actually easier because, you put on his clothes. Sometimes standing there and delivering lines feels really naked and that’s why a lot of people have more trouble doing it than they think. They think, “I can be Gary Cooper” Really? Try it. “I could be Spencer Tracy” Then why aren’t there more Spencer Tracys? Cause it’s hard to just stand there and deliver.
We’re in like the Golden period of TV. Could you see any of the things you’ve been developing being produced on TV?
Or playing the same character over a number of seasons?
No, and I’ll tell you why. I can’t do a part once a week. I need to sit with my lines almost a month before I do them. I don’t think I would do well on a series week-by-week, I don’t perform very well that way. Even when I tell people that they go, “Oh no you’ll be fine,” and I go, “No I won’t!” But I have three things that I am going to bring to television I believe and I’m hopefully gonna be making a deal next week to bring three things to television, things that I have developed and in certain instances written. They’re long. I have this thing called Explorers Guild that Simon & Schuster, the publisher, just bought that I hope can be the first novel that the world reads together electronically.
What I mean by that is I’m gonna do animation, I hope, and if I’m right it’ll be about 200 or 300 hours because each book is gonna be about 600 or 700 pages long. It’s very much like Jules Verne and Arabian Nights, it’s in the greatest form of storytelling. And so my idea would be you’re sitting on the bench and you go, “I’m gonna catch up with Explorers Guild,” you hit your pad and you watch 22 minutes of animation so you’re basically reading the novel together. There’s no source material so you won’t read it until I put it out, and so actually you follow this book and it’s not something that suddenly becomes popular and turns inward on itself and you go, “Oh God how do we keep this thing going?” It is a book, it’s just you don’t know it yet. It’s being written right now and there’ll be five volumes and it’s called Explorers Guild.
Have I been successful getting anybody to do it yet? No (laughs). Because that’s the way it is in this business, the things that are a little different they’re hesitant. But I keep pounding; I’m a guy who pushes the rock uphill. And I have an 8-hour Western that I’d like to bring to television, and then the last two hours, the ninth and tenth, would be a feature so you’d watch the eight hours of TV and go see the feature. It all deals with the mythology of how towns came to be in the west.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit opens in the US on January 17 and in the UK on January 24.