The award-winning actor, director and producer reflects on Silverado, Yellowstone, his new Netflix series The Highwaymen, and on acting and his love of the western.
Kevin Costner’s first feature Western after his multi-Academy Award-winning
Dances With Wolves (1990) was the 1994 epic Wyatt Earp, in which he
starred as the legendary title character.
|Back in 1989, when Life Magazine asked Hollywood
legends like James Stewart, Bette Davis and Olivia DeHavilland to pick
their favorite young stars of the day, Joel McCrea selected Kevin
Costner. He described the Field of Dreams star as “a little Clark Gable, a little Gary Cooper, a little Jimmy Cagney. A boy like that is ideal for a colorful Western." McCrea was
right, although at that time Costner had only played a supporting role
in Lawrence Kasdan’s very colorful Western epic, Silverado. The
similarity in McCrea’s stoic appeal and his own wasn’t lost on Costner,
who’d replied, “Joel and I are the kind of leading men who say, ‘Yup,’
and ‘Nope’ and ‘Where’s the horse?’"
Costner liked hearing McCrea’s words
again, three decades later. “I remember enjoying Joel McCrea a lot. He
was a really humble guy. Joel was constantly trying to give his roles
away to Jimmy and to Gary and to other people, saying that they’d be
just right for that. I’m pleased that he would say something like that
Does he still see himself as a “yup" and “nope" leading man?
Costner laughed. “Sometimes Westerns get
reduced to that. In fact, the Westerns that I depend on are really
dependent on the word, but the reality of the ‘yup, nope’ is there’s a
level of economy that comes with language that has weight. They’re very
literate. I mean, it’s our Shakespeare. Sometimes a couple lines can
leave no doubt as to what someone’s intention was. I like classic, so I
respond to a Liberty Valance, Searchers and certain things that occur in the [John Ford Cavalry] trilogy."
Of course, Costner entered the Western film in an era when the genre had been declared legally dead.
“There were a lot of Westerns that I
didn’t enjoy back then, and there were ones that stayed with me forever.
And it’s the same way now. A lot of times they missed the mark for me
personally, because they’re rushing to get to the gunfight. Whenever
Westerns start out with a big slaughter, and then one man has to go on
some vindictive hunt… I mean, that’s true, but I think it’s a convenient
and too easy way to start Westerns. In the right hands, something like
that can be dramatic, and in other hands, they miss the point."
Kevin Costner’s (second from the left) big break in both cinema and Western film
began in 1985 with Silverado, an ensemble Western produced, directed and
written by Costner’s mentor and colleague, Lawrence Kasdan.
What was it like to get Silverado, his first Western role?
“Imagine standing in the best spot in a
river on a really firm rock, and knowing you’re just going to fish there
all day. This is everything I need right here. It was a blessing."
Not that it wasn’t a challenge playing
Jake, a loud and rambunctious cowboy who is the antithesis of his more
familiar, thoughtful, soft-spoken heroes.
“Jake was just so full of juice that it
was difficult to figure out who he was relating to in the scene, because
he was talking at one pitch level. I remember thinking, I know exactly
how to play those other parts, but how am I going to play this guy? And I found a way: I basically tried to compete with the horizon,"
he said with a laugh, “the outdoors itself, and have a sense of fun. I
was really lucky to be able to play that part. It did a lot for me."
In 1990, Costner would become a producer
and director as well as star in the most Oscar-honored and financially
successful Western of all time, Dances With Wolves. It’s a wonderful film that helped rejuvenate the genre, and brought women back into the audience.
In 1990, Kevin Costner produced, directed and starred in the role of Lt. John Dunbar in
Dances with Wolves, a Western film that was as transformative to the star’s career
as it was to the genre itself. The first Western to win Best Picture and Best Director,
the film also won Oscars for Best Screenplay, Cinematography, Sound, Editing
and Music, and is considered a modern cinema classic.
“I was prepared for people to like the
movie because I liked it. I wouldn’t have put my money in, I wouldn’t
have put my time in, if I didn’t think that if I made it correctly,
people would relate to it. The surprise is that something can be a
runaway hit, that it catches that kind of air, that it has that level of
Nine years after Silverado, Costner would act again for director Lawrence Kasdan, as Wyatt Earp.
Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday, Linden Ashby as Morgan Earp, Kevin Costner as Wyatt Earp
and Michael Madsen as Virgil Earp recreated the famous walk-down on Fremont Street
to their fateful gunfight with the Clantons and McLaurys in the 1994 Lawrence
Kasdan-directed Western bio-pic epic Wyatt Earp.
“Larry’s a real thoughtful writer. Silverado was a matinee type of movie; Wyatt Earp was a darker look at a person’s life, and really thoughtful writers get
past the gunfight and understand the makeup of what kind of guy
actually survives, versus the kind of people that don’t survive. Even
capable people don’t survive because of the randomness of violence; the
wrong place at the wrong time. People that look carefully are always
interested in why the Wyatt Earps never got hit by a bullet."
In 2003, Costner directed his second classic, Open Range, which starts with a look at the day-to-day hazardous life of four cattle drovers.
Kevin Costner’s creative passion for the Western is on great display in Open Range,
a 2003 Western that the multi-talented actor again produced, directed and starred in.
Filmed on location in Alberta, Canada, the film also featured Robert Duvall,
Annette Bening and James Russo.
“The plot is simply: a storm came, and it
sunk their wagon, it scattered their cattle. To go on, they have to
re-provision and gather their cattle. So they almost escaped danger.
That danger was always there, in the town. But the moment it rained on
them, they were stuck. I love that plots can come out of that. The idea
of friends knowing each other a long time and not communicating intimate
information amused people, but we both know it to be true. People were
very guarded, [going] back to the Civil War. People fished for
information because some carry these grudges, these vendettas for the
next 50 years. You’ll see that as a theme in all my work."
To put it mildly, grudges and vendettas were a theme of his next Western project, 2012’s Hatfields & McCoys, for which Costner’s performance as Devil Anse Hatfield won him an Emmy and Golden Globe for Best Actor.
Did Costner mind that, while clearly the protagonist, he wasn’t a hero?
For the first time since 2012, when he starred in the Netflix series Hatfields & McCoys,
Kevin Costner returned to television in 2018-’19 as the star of the modern Western
dramatic series, Yellowstone, for Paramount Television.
“I’ve played a lot of things; I played serial killers. But those characters [in Hatfields]
that survived out there, in this case, are authentic, real. They are
dark; they’re hard. They’re men of their time period. And I enjoy that. I
don’t flinch from any of it."
In 2018 and 2019, Costner has done a pair
of contemporary Westerns back-to-back. Last summer, for Paramount
Television he starred in the series Yellowstone, which will
return for season two next summer. Costner’s character, John Dutton,
runs the largest family-owned ranch in America, bumping up against
Yellowstone National Park, and is besieged by the government, an
adjacent Indian reservation and land developers.
Would Costner call rancher John Dutton a man out of his time?
“Well, a man out of his time, and time catching up with a
way of life. He’s having to act like a current day CEO, but he’s mired
in the way that he would hope that it could be. It’s a critical moment
in his life, as a lot of different forces are coming for the property.
And the biggest blow to this character is that the family’s really
dysfunctional as he faces all these things coming at them. So it’s a
boiling pot when you come in, when we start the series."
While Dutton is a strong character, he’s also vulnerable, even frail at times.
“Well, as you play somebody that’s at
that particular age, those things are always looming. We don’t know when
they’re gonna come. I think that you see how he actually deals with
those issues in a very straight-up way."
In April 2019 Costner will star for Netflix in the movie The Highwaymen, in which he and Woody Harrelson play real-life Texas Rangers Frank
Hamer and Maney Gault, who came out of retirement to track down Bonnie
and Clyde. The truth was much different from the Warren Beatty film
Woody Harrelson (above, left) as Maney Gault and Kevin Costner (above, right) as
Frank Hamer, co-star as two former Texas Rangers on the trail of outlaws Bonnie
and Clyde in Netflix’s The Highwaymen, which debuted in theaters March 29, 2019.
“Hamer’s wife sued for defamation, said,
‘My husband’s a hero. You have no business creating him out of two
characters.’ And knowing that she was in two shootouts with him, Warner
What attracted him to the project?
“It’s always the writing. I thought it
captured this guy and that time, and it was interesting to try to
understand the men that were chasing these legendary bandits. It was
just a whole other side of it, to see the man-hunters without radios,
without cooperation state-to-state. You know, Rangers were almost like
Spartans—they’d send a single Ranger to towns to take ahold of the
situation. Seeing the Rangers evolve from on horse to automobile,
knowing they’re filling out expense reports, going to chase somebody
down and they have their own way of doing it…I just I thought to myself,
this was a moment, this was a man that I could play."
Woody Harrelson and Kevin Costner in The Highwaymen.
Was Frank Hamer a hero in the Wyatt Earp mold?
“Well, I think that they had a unique way
of dealing with situations. You can look at whatever their background
is and question their techniques and what they had to do in their times.
But whenever we do that, and we don’t put ourselves back in that time,
we do ourselves a disservice as well as them."
Kevin Costner in The Highwaymen.
Would he like to make another Western?
“I have a Western that I really want to
make; I just can’t find the rich guys that want to make it—an epic
Western. I want to shoot three movies, all about the same story, at the
same time, three separate movies coming out like every four months. And
probably lead to the fourth one, which was the one that spawned the
first one. So it would be four movies. Now, will I get to do it? I don’t
know, but that’s where my heart is. So if anybody wants that same
thing, they can come make that movie with me."
Henry C. Parke, Western films editor for True West, writes Henry’s Western Round-up online. His screenplay credits include Speedtrap (1977) and Double Cross (1994), and he’s done audio commentary on a fistful of Spaghetti Westerns.
|by Henry C. Parke at True West Magazine
| click on the image for a larger version
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