Kevin Costner – The Sunday Times

“Fame is not a cultural achievement. It’s just a sign of our times. If your movie doesn’t make an enormous amount of money, is it a failure? I have different criteria on what constitutes a success.” A defiant Kevin Costner defends his Hollywood legacy.

“Are you anxious to die?”

It’s a little after 3pm on a thick Tuesday afternoon in Los Angeles, and Kevin Costner and I have reached an odd moment in our interview. The sun beats against the window of a second-floor suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, but inside it’s freezing. Costner sits at the edge of a vast sofa wearing a black shirt, jeans, cowboy boots and a scowl that could stun a team of oxen.

“No,” I say, “I’m not anxious to die… You?”

In front of Costner is a glass of mineral water.

As he leans forward to take a sip, he reveals his highlighted, balding head and a parcel of flab around his midriff. At 53, with his goatee and deep tan, he looks like an ageing golf pro. It’s only when Costner cracks his wonky half-smile that he resembles a movie star, but, in the course of our time together, he has little cause to do so.

Outside, a gaggle of publicists are twittering away, comparing BlackBerrys. When the interview is over, they ask an obligatory question: “How did it go with Kevin?” I’m not sure what to say. Our conversation encompassed Costner’s views on death and failure. He became irritated. At one particularly frosty moment, he demanded: “What is with these questions?” He also called me “weird”. It was, I tell them, a mixed bag.

In Los Angeles, Costner is, like Bernard in Death of a Salesman, “liked, but not well liked”. He was, says the bellboy at my hotel, “famous, like, 20 years ago”, but that’s unfair. He was hot 20 years ago. Indeed, Costner’s gilded period between 1987 and 1992 – when The Untouchables, Dances with Wolves, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, JFK and The Bodyguard drew huge worldwide audiences – made him, briefly, untouchable. But nobody remembers the good times. When people mention Costner now, it’s the turkeys they talk about: Waterworld, The Postman, Wyatt Earp. They do so because it has become an accepted Hollywood narrative that Costner has fallen from grace. In this narrative, he gambled on the three-hour subtitled epic, Dances with Wolves, and, against the wisdom of the industry magi, it paid off, winning him two Oscars and bankable kudos. But, in the wake of his great moment, hubris marred all.

Professional failure accompanied personal strife. In 1994, his 16-year marriage to his college sweetheart, Cindy Silva, fell apart, amid allegations of extramarital affairs. Costner paid £40m in the divorce settlement. He then made Waterworld and The Postman, expensive, self-indulgent epics that were panned by the critics. Five years after The Bodyguard, Costner’s life had nose-dived. He became a cautionary tale.

Interviews with Costner in the post-glory years tend towards this theme. He is the embittered has-been, the dangerous single guy. In the aftermath of his divorce, he was reported to have dated a “string of famous beauties” – Naomi Campbell, Courteney Cox, Mira Sorvino – and we all know the barely concealed desperation this kind of behaviour implies (would that we were all so desperate). His three children became four when a fling with the socialite Bridget Rooney resulted in a son, Liam, and £7m in paternity payments. He also gambled and lost £20m when his environmental-technologies business failed.

What nobody seems to have noticed in this otherwise convincing Hollywood morality tale is that Costner has recently made some terrific movies. True, he can no longer open a film in the way that Jack Nicholson or Tom Cruise can, but so what. Thirteen Days, a drama about the Cuban missile crisis, was compelling. The western Open Range, which he starred in and directed, was a bleak and gripping story of friendship and corruption in the Old West. Costner was also superb as the murderous lead in Mr Brooks. And, while his personal life seems to be the litmus test of his professional and spiritual wellbeing, it should also be mentioned that he married the model Christine Baumgartner, four years ago. They had their first child, Cayden Wyatt Costner, last May.

Swing Vote, his latest movie, released in the UK later this month, is not, it should be said, his best work – a fact reflected in the film’s abysmal showing at the US box office. Its premise, for one thing, is feeble. Bud (Costner), is a hard-drinking, apathetic factory worker who becomes, through the meddling of his precocious 12-year-old daughter and the convoluted machinations of the screenwriters, the deciding vote in a tied general election. His home town of Texico, New Mexico, is then besieged by reporters as the two rival candidates vie for his approval.

High jinks ensue.

It’s silly stuff, executed passably, and Costner’s performance tells you one crystalline truth about him: he can’t do comedy. It’s like watching Frankie Howerd do Hamlet. However, as the movie progresses, and Bud is forced to confront his past and his failings – as we move towards its teary, Capra-esque denouement – Costner comes into his own. When he plays the American everyman, pulling at the heartstrings of his mawkish nation, there is nobody better, and he knows it.

Back in the second-floor suite of the Four Seasons, the temperature has just dropped a degree. I am comforted by the advice of Armyan Bernstein, Costner’s friend and a producer of three of his films. “Kevin’s not really an aggressive guy,” he says. “He can get a little ornery, but really he’s like a big dog. He’ll make a lot of noise, but he ain’t going to bite you.”

Right now, Costner is barking. “What is your article about?” he asks. “You are getting so weird. You don’t even want to talk about Swing Vote. All you want to talk about is all this… other stuff.” “That’s because I saw Swing Vote.”

So we talk about why Hollywood doesn’t love him any more. “I think there’s a whole world that wants to laugh at someone who’s been successful, and had perceived failure,” he says. “It’s only a perceived failure. It doesn’t mean it’s so, but that’s the perception.” Isn’t his big problem that not enough of the paying public wish to perceive some of his movies? “Well, sure, sometimes failure in a public way is wrapped up in the following terms – is it popular?” he replies. “If it’s not popular, then it’s a failure. But you can be popular now, in this world, for getting cum on your dress. Okay? You can be popular for all kinds of things.

“Fame is not a cultural achievement. It’s just a sign of our times. And if you’re not famous, are you a failure? If your movie doesn’t make an enormous amount of money, is it a failure? What if it makes 10% on its investment? I think a stockbroker would go crazy if he knew he could make 10% on his investment. I have different criteria on what constitutes a success.”

Costner sees himself as a crusader, a frontiersman. He would never, he says, do a sequel (although he has talked frequently enough about making The Bodyguard: 2). He’d never do something just for the cash. He’s happy to cause a stink (and often does) when he thinks a good film is being sold short by executives. He wants to test himself. This assessment seems fair, when you look at the majority of his recent work. But it doesn’t sit well alongside the fact that Costner signed up for 3,000 Miles to Graceland, an Elvis caper that ranks alongside Dude, Where’s My Car? as one of the worst comedies ever made.

His pioneer spirit also attracts conflict. On several film sets he has run up against directors, because of his refusal to cede control. In 1995, on the set of Waterworld, for instance, he and the director, Kevin Reynolds, had the mother of all arguments. They had been great friends. Reynolds directed Costner’s break-out film, Fandango, in 1985, and his biggest commercial hit, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, as well as assisting on Dances with Wolves. But, on Waterworld, he could not stand Costner’s meddling, and, as he walked off set, leaving his ex-friend to finish the picture, he made the following observation: “Now Kevin gets to work with his favourite actor and director.” The Kevins have since patched up their differences. “We’re older and wiser now,” explains Reynolds. “We’ve realised life is too short. But it was difficult, no doubt about it. We had some serious arguments. There was so much pressure on the film itself, because at the time it was the most expensive ever made. The press were after us from early on, willing us to fail.”

What happened between Reynolds and Costner? “He asserted himself,” says the director. “We had discussions, then arguments, and then a falling out. It’s not something I want to go into in detail. But it took years for us to get over it.

I think Kevin’s more comfortable in his skin now.” What was Costner like back then?

“I’d known him since I was at film school and he came to audition for a part in my student film,” says Reynolds. “I actually gave the part to someone else, but when I told him he hadn’t got it, he was incredibly gracious. Two years later he came to read for a part in Fandango, and just nailed it. We became friends then.

“It’s hard not to change when you become the biggest movie star in the world,” he continues. “You see someone’s confidence grow when they have hit after hit. They are surrounded by people who tell them what they want to hear. Kevin found himself in a rarefied atmosphere.” However, David Valdes, who also worked with Costner at the back-end of his A-list period as a producer on the 1993 Clint Eastwood movie, A Perfect World, did not notice an oversized ego. “There wasn’t much sign of a guy who was then demanding $20m a movie,” says Valdes. “Although he was much more than a hired gun. Normally actors turn up, do their thing, then you see them months later for publicity. Kevin gives you much more. He’s part of the movie from start to finish.”

Does that mean he muscled in on Eastwood’s patch? “No!” laughs Valdes. “But then you don’t when there’s an 800lb gorilla for a director. I’ve done 17 films with Clint, and no one gets in the editing suite with him except the editor, and sometimes, me. Kevin was very respectful.”

The second time Costner and Valdes worked together was 10 years later on Open Range, which Costner also directed. “It was an interesting time, because Kevin’s career had taken a bit of a dive. And everyone said the western was dead. Very few people apart from Kevin would have taken that shot. But he did. He dismissed the Hollywood logic, set a great example by working for union rates, and we made a great movie.”

The golf pro cracks a smile. His high dudgeon has subsided. I can see why many in Hollywood mention Gary Cooper in the same breath as Costner. Not only is the western home territory for both of them, but they have that implacable (some might say wooden) surface, which, just occasionally, breaks to show the tumult beneath. Right now, Costner is having a Cooper moment.

Another name is mentioned, too, when Costner is discussed – Will Rogers, the Oklahoma cowboy-impresario of the 1920s and ’30s, and, for a time, America’s everyman hero. This comparison is much more convincing, if only because of Costner’s deep wish to appear uncomplicated, a man of the heartland. Several times in the interview he asks me to repeat words, to rephrase, to “help him out”. His answers are polished enough, but Costner would rather appear to be a rough diamond.

Costner tells me about his upbringing. He was raised in California – first in the poor, inner-city area of Compton, and then in more rural spots around the state: Santa Paula, Ventura, Visalia. These were, he says, “the ideal places to grow up. I used to go up into the mountains and the hills. As soon as I got back from school I was playing – I was out with guns, and trapping animals, and skinning them. I was an outdoor kid. Wasn’t real academic”. He was also, he says, a late developer. At 16, he was 5ft 2in and weighed 93lb. Was he ever bullied? “Not really,” he says. “The first time I ever thought about it was when I got my driving licence, and right there on the card it has your weight and height as a description. Well, I was pretty proud of my licence, but when I used to show it to girls, they would giggle. After showing it about five times, I quit showing it.

“As a kid I was pretty athletic, but I was small and I wanted to be a basketball player. The coaches asked me if I wanted to be on the Varsity wrestling team [the school first team], but I said I wanted to be a Varsity basketball player. They said, ‘but you’ll be on the lowest team,’ and I said ‘not for ever’. Of course, one day, I was a Varsity basketball player. And, in a way, it’s marked me ever since. I didn’t do the easy thing, which was to be a wrestler. I did what I wanted to do.”

This story is important to Costner for one reason: it’s a movie script. This is his fable, establishing him as a gutsy outsider, a part he likes to play in his dealings with the mainstream film industry. It also cements his all-American credentials, the Will Rogers genes. What could be more apple pie than the little guy fighting for a place on the Varsity basketball team, against all the odds, and succeeding?

Costner’s sporting dreams were replaced by acting dreams as he progressed through college, gaining a degree in business. After graduating, he took a series of odd jobs – working on fishing boats, building sets – that would allow him time for auditions. He won a couple of small parts, including one role, in The Big Chill, that was completely cut from the final edit. This invisible role turned out to be his break. Costner had befriended the director Lawrence Kasdan, who offered him a part in a future movie. That movie was Silverado, a marquee role for Costner that came six months after his cult coming-of-age film, Fandango. The Untouchables and Field of Dreams came next. You know the rest.

I ask Costner to name the films he is most proud of. He lists almost all of them (The Postman, unsurprisingly, is omitted). It’s an indication that, where Costner is concerned, movies are not a peripheral activity. They are at the centre of his being. Several areas of the casino he built in South Dakota are, for instance, named after characters he played in Silverado. When he checks into hotels, he does so as characters from his most successful films. Frank Farmer, from The Bodyguard, is a favourite.

I am not the first one to notice how Costner’s life intersects with his movies. “Kevin is like the parts he plays in films,” says Bernstein. “Pick your favourite five Costner films and he’s that guy.” The man himself is candid about how he views the world through film. “You can learn a lot about the way you want to be by the movies you watch,” he says. “I’ve been able to look at movies and decide who I wish I was. I’m not as brave as some of the people I’ve played. I’m not as smart as some of the people I’ve played. But I wish I was.

“These things are highly personal, movies. That’s why they’re worth fighting for.” Why are they so personal? “I think all actors want to be immortalised on screen. You have your choice of movies. Your best chance to be remembered is to do great work. I could go out every day and work for money. But you want to be involved with things that are appreciated for a long time.”

Costner’s concern for a legacy is interesting. What’s he so afraid of: being dead or being missed when he’s dead? It’s a question worth asking, if only because last year, when Baumgartner gave birth to Cayden Wyatt (spot the film), the new father made a telling comment. “My fundamental fear,” he said, “is that I will die and someone else will have to raise my baby.” He was 52 then, hardly geriatric. It is, I suggest, an odd thing to worry about. “I don’t think so,” he says. “I think to myself, am I going to see him go to college? Am I going to see him graduate? You start doing the math. You begin to look at things that way. You know, I don’t worry about it every day, but I was asked the question, so I just articulated the answer the best way I could… Are you anxious to die?”

Kevin Costner is not anxious to die. He wants to live and live and live. He wants to play heroes, and be like the heroes he plays. He wants to be the figurehead for old-fashioned American values. It’s why he made Swing Vote – for that lump-in-the-throat moment at the end of the movie when Bud realises what a terrible American citizen he has become. What he seems unwilling to do is laugh at himself, or have others laugh at him. The reviews for Swing Vote must be killing him.

Still, the future is bright. Several industry players say Costner is Eastwood’s natural heir as the grand old man of the western. The man himself is confident. “The western is our Shakespeare,” says Costner. “I’m comfortable in the genre. I know where the drama is.”

“You know, there was a time, when John Wayne died, when I had a conversation with Clint Eastwood,” adds Valdes. “I asked him if he was going to step into the Duke’s boots. I think we could have the same conversation with Kevin now. I can’t see anyone else doing it.”

Reynolds thinks, westerns or not, his old sparring partner is one role away from enjoying a revival. “In Hollywood, you go through these peaks and troughs in your career,” he says. “But perception can change quickly. Look at Marlon Brando. He was out of favour for a long time and then he does The Godfather, and suddenly he’s back on track. It can happen for Kevin.”

One thing is for sure: Costner will never stop dreaming. He once invested and lost £20m in an environmental-technologies business that failed. He once married his college sweetheart and paid her £40m in a divorce settlement. He once made The Postman. But he never stops believing he is only one step away from greatness. In this regard, he is peculiarly American. And if he fails, ultimately, to return to the highest echelons of Hollywood, it will not be because he gave up. That would be a denial of the script.

“At the end of the day,” he says, with the flicker of a poignant smile on his lips, and those swimming-pool eyes widening a fraction, “I operate with hope.” Cue music and credits.