Kevin Costner's landline is ringing.
"I haven't heard that phone in a century,” he says, chuckling. “I didn't even know there was a phone in this room."
Costner, 65, has squirreled himself away in a home office for our call, carving out private space as best he can from his wife, Christine Baumgartner, and their three kids — Cayden, 13; Hayes, 11; and Grace, 10 — all of whom are quarantining at their home in Santa Barbara, California. Along with the retro trill of the ghost phone, the ambient laughter and chatter of a lively family fill the background air, accompanied by the persistent bark of at least one dog.
So it is during COVID-19, where work from home often means working around real life. Not that Oscar and Emmy winner Costner minds. Both as a creative artist and a family man, he prefers the messy unpredictability of reality.
"Listen, the hallmark of a real conversation is how straight can we talk with each other,” he says bluntly, cutting through any formalities. Costner considers platitudes and chitchat tiresome at best. He dislikes empty nonsense in his life, avoids it in his profession. Now more than ever, Costner prefers getting to the root, believing honesty to be the thing that makes “a thing worth doing."
Costner broke out as an actor in the 1980s after bringing surprising pathos to a string of leading-man roles in The Untouchables, Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. The streak continued with his epic, Dances with Wolves, a love letter to integrity that he directed and starred in — netting him Academy Awards for best picture and best director. Ever since, Costner has made a habit of gravitating toward authenticity, injecting his particular brand of accessible masculinity into the pop-culture bloodstream.
"I have a tendency to go down rabbit holes,” he says of his creative choices. That embrace of spontaneity and nuance — and, more critically, his faith in the audience's intelligence and curiosity — is why Costner's work, at its best, transcends cliché — even in the cliché-laden genres of westerns and sentimental sports narratives. His films linger in the public consciousness; his unfussy performances prick like the spines on a cucumber vine, unnoticed until they pierce your skin and lodge there. (Only Costner could steal a scene that included a vicious put-down of Susan Sontag's novels, as he did in Bull Durham.)
As a working-class kid growing up on the margins of L.A., Costner understood intimately the difference between fakery and truth, between pretense and character, between being seen and not. He never forgot. His entrance into acting, years later, was steered not by a longing for fame so much as a hope for connection. Early in his career Costner said no more than yes, argued over dialogue that rang false to his ear — ballsy moves that would have sunk lesser talents. He wasn't worried. He was either going to succeed as he saw fit, or not at all. Accountability is bedrock for Costner. There's a reason he has played so many decent men.
Any actor will tell you that embodying the good guy is far harder than depicting the villain. Yet Costner has made hay where the sun shines, giving us both believable men and men to believe in.
"It's not important for me to reinvent history or to set the record straight,” he says of his approach. Only for people to witness the full spectrum of humanity — good, bad and every shade between — and to find themselves within it. “I want people to think, That could have been me really easy. And if it were me, what would I have done?"
Costner relishes a moral quandary. This summer, he's returning to the screen as John Dutton, the patriarch of a ranching family fighting corruption and land-grab development in the third season of Paramount TV's hit series Yellowstone. And in the fall, he'll play George Blackledge, a retired Montana sheriff faced with an impossible choice in the elegiac western noir, Let Him Go (opposite an ever radiant Diane Lane). In each part, Costner embodies a deeply ethical man who, for better or worse, lives resolutely in the pocket of who he is. Much like the actor himself.
Q: We're talking during a pandemic that makes everything feel important and pointless at the same time. What's the biggest lesson you think we should take away from this time?
Government has to be anticipatory. Anticipating problems is the key to being a leader. I know that sounds like a simple word, anticipation, but that's what we expect. Thoughtful leadership that does not involve ego, does not involve career extension, any of that. If you're in public service, you can't put yourself first. If you do that, that's wrong.
How we're talking to our own citizenry, the message that that sends. It's disturbing to me. When you feel like you've bruised people, you need to rush to fix that on behalf of all of America and on behalf of future generations. We take care of people in need. That's not an argument. It's what we do. I know what's right and when I see what's wrong, you know?
Q: Do these concerns weigh on you as a parent?
Yes. I'm up earlier than everybody else in the house, trying to look into a crystal ball that simply doesn't exist. I worry about all the things that go with being a provider, the things you worry about intuitively for your family. I go down the list. What if this doesn't happen? What if this does happen? I'm a bit of a survivalist, if you will. I'm not a prepper, I'm not a hoarder, but it's important to me to anticipate things going wrong and what is the move for my family, for my children, for my extended family and friends. I take that all on. Sometimes what you think you can protect is a bit of an illusion. There's a lot of problems that could be solved with common sense. About 20 percent of our problems are more difficult than that — they may not have a solution. So, if you realize that 80 percent of our problems are manageable and we just haven't managed them, that's a problem.
Q: You have seven children. [Three with first wife Cindy Silva, one with former girlfriend Bridget Rooney and three with Baumgartner.] What do you want most to teach them?
I want my children to know I'm a resource to them, that I have been across the river a lot of times. I can tell them the rocks that move and the rocks that don't. As a father, you don't give yourself a badge or a medal for any of the things you do. In fact, your kids will probably be the first ones to tell you the things you haven't done. And as far as that's concerned, good for them. If they recognize that, that's a bucket that they don't have to step in themselves. It's not easy being a parent because you're having to say no to people you want to say yes to. I want to see what kind of people my kids become. I don't care what they do; I want to see who they are.
That's right. I think about Lincoln on that train ride to Gettysburg, penning his address and listening to that a--hole before him speak for over an hour and a half, who was just drubbing him. And then Lincoln sitting there, looking at his puny 270 words or whatever they were and thinking, Oh man, I've miscalculated here. And it stands forever. Forever. And that blowhard is not even a moment. He is only connected because Lincoln was so great.
Q: What drew you to make Let Him Go, a dark western gothic set in 1951? You play a grieving father who finds himself headed for trouble.
It felt honest. Men sometimes have to follow their women. [My character] George knows his wife is right, but he knows exactly where this leads. The western is not based on one person's story. It's based on something that probably happened thousands of times. The first western I did, Silverado, wasn't history, it was good matinee fun. Later on I did Wyatt Earp, which was more biographical. My western Open Range was based on a novel, yet the conflict it showed between free grazers and the people who were fencing in land with barbed wire could have played out a thousand times. I don't think because something is fiction doesn't mean you can't find yourself.
Costner's career on the range
A 30-year-old Costner plays Jake, a misfit cowboy, who joins his brother on a journey to a troubled town.
Dances with Wolves (1990)
Costner stars as a Civil War lieutenant who develops a bond with a tribe of Lakota. He also directed the film and won the Academy Award for best director.
Wyatt Earp (1994)
In the title role, Costner portrays the legendary lawman torn between his live-by-the-code career and loyalty to his family.
Open Range (2003)
Playing a cowhand, Costner helps drive a herd of cattle across Montana. When one of his fellow cowboys is attacked, vengeance ensues, resulting in a long shootout finale.
As the patriarch of a powerful ranching family, Costner must defend his land against developers, an Indian reservation and the first U.S. national park in this neo-Western TV series.
Let Him Go (2020)
Costner stars as the retired sheriff who, with his wife (Diane Lane), leaves his Montana ranch to rescue his young grandson from a nefarious family. Coming this fall. —Emily Paulin
Q: Your new film explores what it means to protect those you love, the sacrifices parents make. Did you have a good relationship with your folks?
My dad was pretty tough. My mom was the one that let me know things were possible. I was a bit of a rascal, a dreamer. I was Tom Sawyer, I was Huck Finn, on my way down the Mississippi. I remember stealing a piece of candy one time at the store. I was 6 or 7 years old. It was grandma candy wrapped in colorful cellophane, twisted on both sides. If you're a kid and you walk by, the color of that cellophane is really pretty. Sometimes the candy stuck out through the cracks of where it was boxed, and I thought, Maybe I'll just pull it all the way out. Before we left the store, my dad said, “I think you need to put that candy back. Why did you take it?” I said, “I was hungry.” And he said, “It's not yours, so the correct title is, you stole it.” His point was, you can justify anything. But if you put the correct title on it, it will help guide your decisions in life.
Q: You're working on a big multi-film project.
I'm pushing the rock uphill. It's epic in that it's four movies, all the same story, and it takes you to a place that you think you know, but you don't. I have it in my pocket as a great big secret that someday I will let people in on, and hopefully it will be something they never forget. It's poetic, it's violent, people acting on their worst instincts, acting on their best. It's raw. It's what I love about the West, the drama of it. It's not just about black hat or white hat.
Q: Why is fighting for creative integrity so important to you?
I have been tested in a lot of different ways. There have been very critical moments where I had to listen to myself and act and not be afraid of the outcome. I always put the audience on my shoulder. And I will say to Hollywood people, “Don't be too sure they don't want to see that.” And that's what the fight is about. I haven't always been really successful in certain movies. But I still love it.
Q: You and your country-rock band, Modern West, have recorded an album inspired by your show Yellowstone, called Tales From Yellowstone.
I grew up singing and playing music in the church, so that was my first love. The first band I was in, I was in my 20s and it was called Roving Boy. I was emerging as an actor and I got a terrible review, and it really shocked me. I'm not used to pulling back on any level, but I thought to myself, Do I need this kind of scrutiny? You know, the actor playing music. So I stepped away. I can't ever remember doing that, ever, but I stepped away.
Q: What brought you back from the musical winter?
My second wife discovered that early music and asked me, “Why don't you do this?” And I said, “Oh, no, no.” For two years, I backed away from it, like a kid who wouldn't eat his vegetables. She said, “Let me ask you something, are you happy when you're doing it?” And I said, “Yeah.” And she goes, “Do you think the people in front of you are happy?” And I said, “Yeah.” And she just looked at me and said, “Well what could be wrong with that?” So I called up two members of that original band, we're talking about 25 years later, and said, “I'm thinking of wanting to do music again.” And we started. We've been playing together for the last 16 years, around the world — South America, the Kremlin, the Grand Ole Opry three times. If it was just all up to me, the band wouldn't be very good. I play a really average guitar. I was trained on the piano, but I gave that up for sports. My mom said I'd be real sorry that I did that, and I was.
Q: You recently posted a song called “The Sun Will Rise Again."
I recorded that song live about two years ago in Ventura. We had these terrible fires and flooding where lives were lost in Santa Barbara from the boulders coming down the mountains. And that song just speaks to the hardship of things. And now with COVID-19, the whole world is feeling like this.
Q: How is performing as a singer different than as an actor?
Being with an audience and feeling like you have something to share makes me comfortable. Being in front of an audience posing makes me really uncomfortable. I don't want to be anywhere near that moment. I'm not saying I don't get nervous when I sing onstage, but I don't try to charm them to death. Unless you're just a narcissistic jerk, you love everybody's music more than your own. [Laughs.] When I listen to something, I think to myself, I have to do better.
Q: You write songs, screenplays. Have you written poems or fiction?
Yeah, but I look at it and it's not very good. I'm certainly not going to share that with anyone. I coauthored an illustrated novel called The Explorers Guild. You might like it. It's a bit of a slog. It's 800 pages, so ...
Q: You're really selling it. If you could be anywhere, where would that be?
I love what we've created, the homes that my wife and I have, but maybe Bora Bora. If I get dreamy, I like the idea of the Caribbean, of Polynesia. I dive on historical ships. I like the drama of what must have happened in that moment it went down, what people might have been thinking about when they don't have time to rearrange themselves. It's just part of the onion that's me.
Q: Who knows you best?
Q: What do you wish that you were better at?
Getting it right.
Q: It seems like you're getting a lot right.
Yeah, but those things you don't, they can really foul you up. [Laughs.] I plan to play out the second half of my career with really big movies that take you somewhere, that have a level of poetry. There's a perception out there that I can do whatever I want, that things get easier for me professionally with age. It's simply not true. They don't. It's just as hard to make things now as it was when I was trying to make Dances. But I should do whatever I want. I'm at that spot in my life, artistically. I should be doing what pleases me.
Are we still talking about making movies?
Watching a movie, it's just something for us to grasp in the dark, just watching and going, Hmm, I didn't expect that. I'm glad I saw that. And then you've got to move on to the rest of your difficult day. But I want to be a part of that particular moment. What we yearn for, we all yearn for. I know that in my heart.