Kevin Costner has made a movie about a presidential election with a finish so close that one man, one single citizen, will decide the entire race. "Swing Vote," which opens Aug. 1 and was directed by Joshua Michael Stern, stars Costner as that man, who becomes the center of a national media circus. He begins as an embarrassment and ends on a heroic note, with a simple, direct, patriotic speech that we can actually believe would come from his flawed character.
It's the sort of American theme Costner is easily identified with, as an everyman who can embody fundamental values within a range of roles. But he might never had become an actor if he hadn't met one who was never, ever, considered to be an everyman. The way it happened, Kevin Costner was coming back from his honeymoon, flying home from Mexico, and Richard Burton was on the same plane. "He had bought the seats all around him so no one could sit with him," Costner recalled. Costner had been taking acting classes. He screwed up his courage to ask the great man for some advice. "When I finish my book," Burton told him. Costner went back to his seat and watched Burton like a hawk. Burton finished the book, and then he put his head back and went to sleep for 10 minutes. "I hadn't even told my wife how much I was thinking about wanting to be an actor," he said, "and I was on the edge of my seat." Finally Burton glanced back to Costner and gestured for him to approach. "I've always kinda kept it private what the conversation was," Costner said. "I told him, 'I was hoping to become an actor, and, well, you're a celebrated actor, but you're a brawler, you've had a lot of marriages, a lot of things ... I just want to know, does that kind of life follow an actor? I want to have a life that's not filled with drama.' "And Burton looked at me and he said, 'You have green eyes. I have green eyes.' And he goes, 'I think you'll be fine.' "Now we've landed, we get our bags, and my wife and I set on our bags out on the street because we had an $8 bus ride to Anaheim where our parents were gonna pick us up. And this limousine comes by, and it stops and the window comes down, and it's Richard, and he goes, 'Good luck.' And the window went up and he went out of my life, and I never had the chance to ever talk to him about the fact that in a way, because of him, I had a life in the movies. Of course, I've been bruised in this world, but I've tried to hold on to my normalcy, my life, my children and stuff." Kevin Costner became, in fact, as big a star as Burton, and avoided the brawls and tumult. In "Swing Vote," he plays an alcoholic who lives in a mobile home with his bright young daughter Molly and works at a chicken ranch, grading eggs. A presidential election is at hand, and his daughter is determined that he will cast his ballot. "If you mess this up," she tells him, "I'm leaving you." He intends, he really does intend, to cast his vote. But he gets laid off and gets drunk and leaves Molly waiting at the polling place as the 7 p.m. deadline approaches. Finally, in frustration, Molly slips inside. The precinct clerk is asleep in his chair. She steals her father's ballot, inserts it in the machine and is about to vote when the electricity goes off. She tears off the receipt anyway, just as a gesture, and leaves the ballot in the machine. It is such a close election that it all comes down to one uncounted ballot in one state. And that is how it comes to pass that Costner's character, Bud Johnson, holds the future of the republic in his hands. Because he holds the receipt, and Molly insists he voted, and since his vote was not counted because the machine failed, he is asked to vote again. For 10 days, the eyes of the nation are focused on him, both presidential candidates set up shop in his small New Mexico town, and democracy is put to a test. Standing sturdily at the center of this maelstrom is Molly, and it is an engaging, plucky performance by young Madeline Carroll. "She was our X-factor," Costner told me. "Where was she going to come from? We found this very natural talent, and when you take a natural talent and you put it in a script with an IQ, even though it's a zany little comedy, that's the perfect blend. You have the words written, but you need someone who can inhabit those words, because being cute is not enough. Something else has to happen." His rapport with Molly didn't happen by accident. "I rehearse my movies," he aid. "We rehearsed for two weeks. It was very important for us because we needed to interact as a father and daughter would. I needed to be able to kiss the top of her head; I needed to be able to kick a beer can at her, and she needed to consequently be able to hit me. And there's some mechanics involved with that. With a father like your character, I wondered, how did Molly get to be so grown up and intelligent? "Well, she has my DNA, so she had to be a survivor. And what was her alternative? OK, maybe she's living in a trailer, maybe he doesn't get her to school on time, maybe he's not a homework dad, but he's providing a roof, and a lot of love exists between those two. You can see it. Her disappointment in him just continues to ramp up, though, as we watch the movie." The two dueling presidential candidates are played by Kelsey Grammer, as the Republican, and Dennis Hopper, as the Democrat. I asked Costner if he would be able to imagine Grammer as the Democrat and Hopper as the Republican. He smiled. "No. I can't. I think the screen will not let you get away with things. It's interesting, you know, you have people who are chameleons. Then you have other people, maybe like myself, who work off of an essence, a presence. And I think there are some physical rules that the American cinema has; there are some things you best not trifle with. They're not written anywhere, but I think you have to listen to them." The movie suggests that both candidates would do anything or say anything to win his vote. "Absolutely. Both candidates would possess the desire to win so badly that they might begin to alter themselves, absolutely. But in the deepest, darkest recesses of the audience's mind, do we hope that these men at some point catch themselves? Absolutely. We hope that they catch themselves and one's wife tells him what time it is, and he begins to understand, and so I liked that little arc that they had." I said most people have the idea that Costner is a Republican, but he says he's an independent. "I grew up in a Republican household, and I heard [my] father go, 'Damn that Kennedy,' and when you're 12 years old, you're probably thinking, if you love your father, yeah, damn that Kennedy. My family was very staunchly Republican. I had to evolve and that took time for myself. I moved very quickly as a 20-year-old. I have very conservative roots, but my evolution allowed me to make "JFK" (1991) and "Thirteen Days" (2001) and those kinds of movies. I've always felt too limited by both parties." We were talking in a suite in the new Trump International Hotel, while the Trump Tower was still under construction 50 stories above our heads. Costner was in Chicago for a live musical performance at the House of Blues. The beginning of a second career? "Music has always been a really big part of my life," he said. "I hated that I was afraid to express that side of myself, and I decided to blow right through it. Not knowing that I was actually gonna perform on stages like the House of Blues. But I decided I would begin to write music again and to play it, and it's led me here. So just my own desire to perform has resulted in playing now around the world. You have to be your own critic. If I'm gonna put it out in front of people, it has to measure up to something. I can't judge how I'll be received, but I'm very confident about what will happen Friday night. Someone might judge that it was no good or whatever, but I'm confident what will happen Friday night will be an organic and original experience both for the audience and myself." As for the rest, he said, "I continue to push the rock up the hill. I won't make movies I don't believe in. I'll never make a sequel. I'm going to direct three or four more. And I hope you like them."