At one point, there was no bigger movie star in the world than Kevin Costner. On top of starring in memorable films such as Field Of Dreams, Bull Durham, The Untouchables, JFK and so many others, he went on to win two Oscars for directing and producing Dances With Wolves in 1990. Since then he has made consistently interesting choices. This year he has come roaring back in such disparate films as Draft Day and what is perhaps his finest performance to date, as a man fighting for custody of his mixed-race granddaughter—against Octavia Spencer—in the searing racial and family drama Black or White, a movie he believed in so wholeheartedly that he put his own money on the line. In this wide-ranging interview I found out why.
Black or White is an extraordinary movie. With all that’s going on in the world, it’s very timely. Was that the intention?
Well, we obviously didn’t plan that. I make the movies that speak out loud to me. When I read Black or White, I thought it was a real, authentic look at where we are in this country when it comes to race. And I thought that writer-director Mike (Binder) went at this in such an unusual way. It is based on some true events and his own life. My experience with a movie is on the couch, on paper, and so when I read Field of Dreams, I stood up and I said, “This is a little magical movie. If we can hold the line, if we can be unafraid to make this little movie, I got a big secret in my pocket and people are going to see this.” So I felt that this movie was of its time and I think that it will stand the test of time. We have movies nowadays that we measure by how they do on the opening weekend and that seems to be the measure of the movie, but it’s not. The measure of the movie is your ability to share Inherit the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird and to perhaps one day share Black or White. So every decision that went into Black or White was to not compromise. There was the thought that maybe we might change some of the language. I said, “Absolutely not.”
They say in film it’s dangerous to work with kids and animals, but your rapport with your onscreen daughter really pops off the screen. What’s her name and how did you find her?
Our movie depended on how a seven-year-old would act and I thought Jillian Estell did such a beautiful job. It was something in her. This little girl—starting with 1,000 little girls trying to read for this part—got her way down to 100 or something like that. And then three came to my room with Michael and I always say that two hearts broke and one heart and one little girl was changed in that she had a chance to be in a major motion picture. She was absolutely beautiful.
I’ve talked to a number of big stars who are having the hardest time getting their movies made. The business has changed in a lot of ways in the last 20 years. You had to go independent to do this and you were a producer on this film.
Yeah. My wife and I paid so that you could see Black or White. I thought that the world would just rush to it—that they would say, “Yes, this is a little piece of gold.” And I was so surprised that no one did. It just didn’t match up with the profile of movies that needed to be made. My problem was I opened my big mouth and promised Michael that we would make it. (My wife) looked at me and said, “My God. I feel like I’m Annie in Field of Dreams and you want to build a cornfield. We’re going to put money in this film?” And I said, “I’d like to,” and she said, “Okay. If you believe in it that much and you gave (Michael) your word, then that’s what we’ll do.” I’m glad that Black or White exists. I’m glad it’s here.
When I saw the film originally, it was called Black and White. Now it’s called Black or White and I find both titles intriguing in the scheme of the story.
I’d like to think of a movie sometimes as a salmon headed upstream. There’s just so many things trying to kill it. There were a lot of things that were going to bring this movie to a halt and one of them was the title. It’s not the only thing that wanted to knock this down, but you know what? It’s here and you’re here and it’s a really good feeling.
What was your process in creating your character, who’s a drunk, for this film?
Well, I believe in the script and so what I didn’t want to do is change anything. I wanted to embrace what Mike wrote. If something seemed edgy, all the better. I’m a slow study. I would have a very difficult time in serious television. It takes me a long time (to memorize lines), so when I come to work, I’m off book. I know everybody else’s lines so I come and I’m ready to work and I need to rehearse. It’s a lost moment in our industry. For as much as things are changing, a thing that’s shrinking is rehearsal. It’s really an important process in acting and it’s somehow being diminished. You can get caught playing really easy and I’m not what you call a drinker. You won’t see me having a glass of wine. You’ll see me having a big glass of cold milk. I’m a fifth grader. It’s okay. But I trusted my director. I went at it as hard as I could, (and knew) that he would protect me. We always hear, “Brando was really small.” It’s not true. He was big about things. It just seemed right. What happens in acting sometimes is that you go big, you really go for it and then pull back and then you find that right place where you’re at. And I love the part. I think I understood it. I know what loss is, to lose somebody you love. I think all actors should end up with a part like Elliott.
Kevin Costner photographed by Mark Mann