En español | "Are we doing this today?"
It's 8:30 a.m. under blue skies in Santa Barbara, California, and Kevin Costner is giving me a dog head tilt at his front door. Someone obviously missed a memo somewhere (OK, so I've arrived exactly 24 hours too soon for our interview), and the Academy Award winner is doing his Oscar best to play it cool.
You're not supposed to test a movie star's patience this way. But Costner isn't the temperamental sort. At moments like these, it's reassuring to recall that he got his start in show business lugging cable and pushing a broom at a Hollywood studio not far from where he grew up in working-class L.A. He's a problem solver, a make-do sort of guy.
"Well, hold on," he says, as his brow unfurls and that eternally boyish grin curves into place. Next thing I know, he's fitting me into his day.
With more than four dozen credits in film and television, Costner at 59 can act on his feet like that. It's not just accommodating the unexpected guest. Like his characters in Dances With Wolves, Bull Durham, The Bodyguard and, more recently, TV's Hatfields & McCoys, for which he won an Emmy, Costner shifts easily between charming reserve and "Let's do this thing!" And he's someone who's game to take the odd dare. He has toured as a roots musician, opened an interpretive center on the American bison and invested millions toward the development of centrifuge devices that clean up oil spills.
He's also Lego-deep in round two of being a dad. After seeing his first four children safely into the double digits, Costner took a breath and had three more with his wife of 10 years, Christine Baumgartner, 40, a model and handbag designer. He looks amused as we stroll through their Japanese-influenced home, passing an entertainment den with wired gizmos that clearly baffle him. "I have never played a video game, so I'm not on Xbox," Costner says. "But I teach the kids about hunting and fishing, and we fight." He knows that sounds wrong. "The kids want to be wrestled," he says of daughter Grace, 4, and sons Hayes, 5, and Cayden, 7. "They want to be physical. I'm really kind of basic."
That's a curious statement from a man whose movies have grossed more than $2 billion worldwide and who owns 17 acres of prime beachfront here and 160 acres more in Aspen, Colorado. But as he opens up during a long, candid conversation about parenting, love, work and aging, it's obvious Costner values simplicity and time with family over the fanfare of fame, and will risk whatever it takes to make good on the things he believes in.
His latest gamble is Black or White, a film due out in January, in which he plays a recently widowed prominent Los Angeles attorney. The lawyer's string of hard circumstances had begun when his daughter, entangled with a drug dealer, died seven years earlier. In the aftermath, he and his wife took on the task of raising their biracial granddaughter on their own.
The film is a deeply felt project about race relations that reteams Costner with his friend Mike Binder, the writer-director who helped spark a career revival for the actor with The Upside of Anger in 2005. "Nobody likes to talk about race, and everybody finds it difficult," Costner says. "This platform is a jumping-off point for having this discussion."
Even with Costner's clout, Black or White was a bear to get made. The script languished in development for years, and when the studios refused to finance it, Costner opted to put in half the production costs from his own pocket, essentially to fulfill a promise to Binder to bring a meaningful movie to screens. "Kevin doesn't follow the crowd," Binder says. "And he's a genuine guy. Whenever someone might think, 'Oh, he's just a big movie star, and this is just a business thing,' he does something that says, 'Hey, I'm your buddy.' "
Ivan Reitman agrees. He directed Costner in last spring's Draft Day with good results and appreciated not just his solid character work as an emotionally distracted pro football general manager, but also his personal integrity as production hit typical snags and setbacks: "I think Kevin is a highly moral individual, and I never felt that he was pulling any kind of star stuff with me. He was very direct, very real and very gracious all the time. And he didn't go back on his word, ever."
Costner is definitely a stick-to-it type. On Dances With Wolves, he dealt with budget overruns, miserable weather and untrainable animal costars. The film landed seven Oscars, including two for Costner, and revived the western as a box office institution.
Costner extended himself even further in Waterworld, the postapocalyptic sci-fi film that was among the most expensive movies ever made at the time. Despite years of critical drubbing over a $172 million-budget "flop," Waterworld eventually broke even and lives on today as a lucrative theme park attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood. Then there were Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Wyatt Earp, Swing Vote and Hatfields & McCoys. Costner battled uphill on each until the very last credits rolled up the screen.
"There's a certain joy that comes with a struggle," he says, a hint of excitement in his voice. "I think most people want the endgame. I've always liked the journey."
Born in January 1955 in L.A. County's workaday city of Lynwood, Kevin was the last of three children of Bill Costner, a ditchdigger who later serviced electric lines for Southern California Edison, and Sharon, a welfare worker. He migrated with his family up and down coastal California as his dad changed jobs, eventually enrolling at the Fullerton campus of the state university system.
Always a star jock even at a runty 5 feet 2 in his teens, Costner excelled at baseball in high school. But in college, as he sat bored in an accounting class, he thought of acting. He saw an ad in the student newspaper offering auditions for Rumpelstiltskin. "I remember thinking, 'Well, there's got to be a prince in it. I'll just be the prince.' I made that leap." He didn't get the part, "but that only increased my desire to find out about this profession," he says.
Graduating with a business degree and a young wife, college sweetheart Cindy Silva, Costner took behind-the-scenes jobs in Hollywood. Although corporate America might have been OK for his classmates, "I kept thinking, 'I need a little more adventure,' " he says.
His first effort in movies was dead on arrival. Though Costner was cast among the soon-to-be-superstars of The Big Chill in 1983, his scenes were entirely excised by director Lawrence Kasdan. Well, not entirely. Costner's corpse is the one being laid to rest in the film's opening sequence. Two years later, Kasdan deployed the actor's raffish charisma in Silverado. From there, beefier roles led to The Untouchables in 1987, Bull Durham and then his career explosion moment with Dances With Wolves in 1990. By then established as a hyphenate actor-director-producer and all-American Everyman, he proceeded up the industry A-list. Along the way, he raised three children with Cindy (they divorced in 1994), and another son from a postmarital relationship with Pittsburgh Steelers football heiress Bridget Rooney.
Costner's Rules for Living
Know thyself. I wasn't good at academics, but when I hit on acting, everything changed. I started to study. I was on fire. I had found my place. I wasn't guessing anymore at what it was.
Play tough. People think things are easy for me. They're not. I thought Black or White was worth making, just like Dances and Bull Durham. I think it only increased my desire because they were hard.
Try, try again. We don't have to get to the ending, but if we think we're on the right trail, we're kind of OK. I wait for the big "No" to hit me, and when it doesn't, I keep going.
Remain curious. If you can stay interested in what you're doing, it will keep you younger. Being engaged in what you do will sustain you.
Honor your commitments. People need to stick with their word. If you tell someone you're going to do something, their heart's going to be broken if you don't.
David Royal/Monterey Herald/Zuma Press
Today, with his three younger kids giggling and goofing around in the main house, Costner leads me to the sanctuary of a sort of fort he has made for them. Actually, it's more like a rustic tree house built on a grassy terrace overlooking the sea. As we sit with knees high and wide on miniature chairs planted before a toy tea set, it's clear that Costner is as pleased with this hideout as anyone.
He admits he has a heightened appreciation for how good life is these days. "I'm really grateful that so many of the things I hoped I would be I got to be," is how he puts it. That includes getting another chance as a husband and father. He first met Baumgartner, then barely in her 20s, while on a ranch vacation with his kids shortly after his split from Silva. Six years later, when the two re-met at a party, their relationship bloomed for real. "And it just grew, and it grew, and it grew," Costner says, still sounding smitten. "We got married, and we have an incredible family together. And while our life isn't perfect, it's perfect for us. And she's perfect for me."
On the eve of turning 60, Costner is conscious of the passage of time. When fear of his mortality comes calling, "I get on the floor with my kids and play harder," he says. He adds, "I'd love to live forever. That's how much I love life." Asked what's on his bucket list, Costner lets out a chortle. "A lot of times you get a question like, 'Hey, would you go to outer space if you had the chance?' Maybe eight out of 10 people would say, 'I'd get on that rocket in a second.' You ask me? No. I'm staying here. I like it on Earth. I want to have as much time on this Earth as I can."
At the moment, this planet is keeping him plenty busy. He has been shooting scenes for Criminal, a CIA thriller, in London. "I play the criminal," he says with a chuckle. Costner would rather stick closer to home — he takes pleasure driving his kids to their activities — but the treadmill keeps rolling. In February he'll be seen in McFarland USA, about a track coach who turns an underprivileged high school running squad into champions.
Costner being Costner, there's also a suite of western yarns he hopes to direct if he can find a major investor. Plus, he's helping launch a series of books about a band of roving adventurers. Once again, he believes in the project enough to have dropped a million or so in development funds. "People say, 'Man, this should be the moment in time where you're pulling back and catching some waves,' " he says. "I don't think they're wrong. But it's not my way."
The sun is shining over the ocean, and Costner looks content in its light. Despite all he's juggling, he seems to be handling it with a calm acceptance — and maybe a bit of pride, too.
As we emerge from the clubhouse, Costner's youngest, Grace, outfitted princess-style in a tiara and blue satin gown, dances over and flings up her arms. Costner takes her wrists and whirls her in a wide, loping circle until, giggling, she plops to the ground and squeals to a visiting girlfriend: "Look what my daddy does!" Costner's expression is one of sheer bliss, his head flung back, laughing in fatherly transport. And then, of course, they do it again.
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