LOS ANGELES -- Kevin Costner was so quiet and relaxed, so soft-spoken, it took a little while for me to realize how angry he was. Not angry at anyone or anything in particular, but just unhappy about having to get up every morning and deal with things that wear away at him. He didn't come out and say so. It was only later, looking over my notes, that I began to notice the same note being struck in different ways. If I could paraphrase his complaint, it would be that he means well and works hard and keeps plugging away, and the world is too careless with his pains.
It's an easy complaint to identify with. Listen to him here. I asked him what really frustrated him the most about Hollywood. Maybe I was leading him a little. I said he had won the big Oscars and was at the point where he could initiate projects on his own. He was one of the most powerful actors in town. Was there something that still got him mad?
"There is. The opening weekend is a hard one for me. Especially when you take a lot of time with a movie."
Costner was using shorthand that everyone in Hollywood would understand. The term 'opening weekend' is a two-word synonym for a movie's fate. The studio buys the big ads and the publicity machine rolls, and the critics write their reviews, and then the future of the movie is turned over to the public. And by surprisingly early on Friday --by 4 p.m. in Los Angeles, which is 7 p.m. outside the movie theaters on the East Coast, the verdict is in. The movie "opened," or it didn't. And these days, if a movie doesn't open strong, it doesn't always get a chance to gradually find and build an audience. It disappears to make room for the next contender. So an actor-producer like Costner can work for two years on a movie, and have its future decreed in two hours on a Friday afternoon.
"I don't know how it is with other people's movies," he was saying. "It's like, you don't know how other people make love because you've only made love yourself and so unless you've watched them, how do you know if you're doing it right? I know how I try to make a movie; I know how I lose sleep over it; I know how I deliberate for hours over the difference between saying She went over there or saying She's gone. And people will ask say, 'What's the difference, Kevin?' Well, it's a big difference to me, to find that exactly right line. And when you work hard on things like that, it's frustrating to me that a movie can be dismissed so easily.
"These movies for me are like the same kind of pictures my Mom put up on the refrigerator. I'm really proud of them and if they get dismissed, and even though you're not eight years old anymore, it hurts."
For "Wyatt Earp," Costner's new picture, Friday afternoon comes on June 24 this year. The movie is an epic with the ambition of "Dances with Wolves" (1990), the Academy Award-winning epic that Costner directed and starred in. It also has the length, at more than three hours. Costner assigned the screenplay, took a co-producing role, invested some of his own money, plays the title role, and teamed up again with director Lawrence Kasdan; they made "Silverado" (1985), the first entry of the current Western revival, together.
The movie is not simply a retelling of the American legend of the gunfight at the OK Corral. Although it covers the same ground as the powerful "Tombstone" (1993) and the many other movies inspired by the Earp brothers and their friend Doc Holliday, this is more of a biography. It begins when Wyatt Earp is a little boy who wants to run away from home, and it ends many years after the Tombstone days, when the old man takes a cruise to Alaska with his wife.
It is an ambitious picture, painstakingly mounted in period style, that uses Freudian shorthand to explain some of Earp's life. He was raised by a father (played by Gene Hackman) who repeated over and over, "Family is everything." So he placed family first. Family would have included his first wife, but when she died during her first pregnancy, he somehow lost faith in women, and for many years could really trust no one except his brothers (and certainly not their wives).
Costner obviously believes "Wyatt Earp" is a good film. The reviews were not yet in as we talked a week ago in Los Angeles, but a Century City preview audience seemed agreed on one word that producers do not much like to hear: The movie was "long."
"It frustrates me," he said, "when I know that someone's made a really good movie and then there is this instant response. It's frustrating for me when people don't pay attention to detail; it's a hard thing and I wish I could cut that part of my brain out but I can't. There's certain parts of it that are hard for me. I'm a little tired right now of movies. I just want to step back away. I've got one more movie yet to do in this run right now and then I'm going to stop for a while. I just want to rethink it a little bit."
Not make any movies for awhile?
"If I said I would chuck it all to have my anonymity back, there's probably not anybody on the other side of the camera that would believe me but I would tell you that it's true."
"I would. Because I love what I do and I'm grateful that I get to do it. But that personal experience in your life, that wonderment, that sense of seeing things and not being seen, is gone. I'm an observer in life. Now the freedom to observe has gone away, and how do you measure things like that? Is privacy freedom? I don't know. I think maybe so."
And so all of the attention and publicity and violation of privacy that goes along with being a movie star is beginning to get to you?
"I'm not moping about it, but it's very real. I hate it that people can make money off your privacy. That bugs me; that really, really bugs me, and I swear, I would like to deal with the whole unauthorized biography thing at some point. I think somebody should really challenge that. If I lost everything I had and I had one chip left to play for my family, from a financial standpoint, I'd say, 'I'm going to open my life to the public, guys...' Maybe I'm projecting a sad story, but isn't that my right, to tell my story? But for somebody else to make money off your privacy, it's like they're playing your chit. It is theft and it's taking away an asset that you may want to play some day. "
He paused. "If it was in the old west," he said, "it would never happen. Maybe that explains my fondness for the west. Because things got arbitrated very quickly that way."
I had the feeling, as he was speaking, that Costner was pretty sure how Wyatt Earp would have dealt with the author of an unauthorized biography. He has always lived, he said, under the shadow of the legend of the old west.
"I guess my first real impact in a movie theater was with 'How the West Was Won.' I actually went to the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard and watched it. I went with a little birthday party. I lived two hours outside of Los Angeles and they brought all of us kids there. The impression for me, hearing Spencer Tracy and watching CinemaScope and seeing Jimmy Stewart in that canoe was so strong that it got into my nostrils. I actually went ahead and built three canoes in my life; I traveled the rivers of Lewis and Clark when I was out of high school. And then later I saw 'Red River' and 'The Searchers.' I could always lodge myself in that time. It appeals to me; it's not as simple as I think people make it out to be."
As he warmed to his theme, Costner's word choices even began to fall into the cadences of the old Western classics he was discussing. "I remember when I commissioned this screenplay, the notion was to make it complicated, to make it have layers. To find an original way to get into Wyatt Earp's life. To recognize that the OK Corral was a seminal moment in his life but also to ask, 'What kind of boy turned into a man that could walk down that street in that fierce and really special time in our country?' "
In a lot of your roles, I said, you embody the kind of American icon in a way that Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper did. Is that image really part of you?
"Probably part of me. Some of the greatest lessons in life, other than from my mother and father talking to me, have been how I've watched movie characters reacting in great dilemmas. I would hope in my mind that that's the way I would react--with honor, with bravery, with a certain dignity, taking my lumps...to never explain and never blame."
Yet there's no real connection, I said, between your roles in "JFK," "A Perfect World," "Field of Dreams," "Robin Hood" and this film. It looks to me as if there are many different kinds of characters there. Do they all have something in common?
"The language. They all have interesting language for me. I always find passages that I hope I can say. That I want desperately to say. I'm doing a movie right now called 'The War.' It's a supporting part. There are words in there that I really wish I had invented. I want to say them and I don't want to let anybody else say them, because I have a reverence for them. Or, in 'Wyatt Earp,' when he's told he has quite a reputation, and he replies, 'Reputations are tricky things.' Just the way he says that. It speaks volumes to me. I'd love to have said some of the things that the great characters in movies have said. "But the language, that's the only connecting link in my roles. You go through a thing in your acting life where you want to rebel against what people think you are. You want to go do some crazy thing to prove you can act. I've resisted that. I kind of know what my job is. If I was seven feet tall, it's logical that I'd be the center on the basketball team. I can't change that.
"And as an actor, I want to have my acting taken seriously but I know the parts I generally have to play. I usually have to take people right down the middle of the road. My style of acting is not dependent on accents or lisps or limps. I try to be fairly seamless and not try to draw a lot of attention. I generally pick roles where there's great roles around me. I do that because I know great actors will want to be in those roles and they get to do the dance. I've had a chance to do the dance in movies in 'Silverado' and even, for that matter, in 'A Perfect World.' So I know what I can do, but I generally know what my job is to do, and if people think, 'He's kind of flat,' or 'We see him doing the same kinds of things.' well, that's what I can do best."