Kevin Costner talks Hatfields, McCoys, loving Diana Ross and making westerns in Romania
He responds to a compliment about his recent, spellbinding eulogy for pop star Whitney Houston with a chuckle, noting he was born a stone's throw from South Central Los Angeles -- long before it became the world's gangsta rap capital, to be sure -- and found R&B diva Diana Ross to be his first big crush in life.
Kevin Costner knows that, despite many years building his rep as a hardnosed western star in films such as Open Range, Wyatt Earp, Silverado and Dances with Wolves, looks can sometimes be deceiving.
That's why he doesn't fret much over the notion that he's slumming in TV, uncorking an epic western on the History channel, Hatfields & McCoys, at an age when many leading men are trying to squeak out that last Indiana Jones or Men in Black sequel.
"I don't do sequels . . . so I think you ought to give me a break here that once in a while I go into our American psyche," said Costner, 57, who plays patriarch William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield, a scowling authority figure grounding the four-hour-plus TV miniseries. "I think, hopefully, why I do a lot of Westerns is because people like 'em and they remember them."
Costner's instincts were confirmed by ratings showing Monday's debut of the miniseries set a record for advertising-supported cable channels, drawing 13.9-million viewers; the most of any non-news, non-sports show in the cable world.
Before the show aired, I spent time interviewing Costner and Bill Paxton, who plays McCoy patriarch Randle "Ole Ran'l" McCoy as a disillusioned ex-Confederate soldier whose faith in God is shattered by the brutal deaths his family endured through the feud.
"These things become an obsession, and obsessions are dangerous," said Paxton, also 57. "It starts eating at you like a cancer. And pretty soon, it can just eat you out."
Paxton, 57, drawn in by working with Costner and Reynolds, hesitated over one detail: The piously religious man is a character he already played for five seasons on HBO's Big Love, starring as polygamous patriarch Bill Henrickson.
"Kevin said, 'Hey, but we're going to be wearing beards,' " Paxton said, laughing. "After being the guy on Big Love I want to be the guy just killing and a total psychopath . . . just get my Nicholson on."
Costner understood Paxton's hesitancy. "I did two baseball movies in a row — Bull Durham and Field of Dreams — and I know (Paxton) worried about this religious thing," he said. "So it was a very courageous choice."
As it turns out, Paxton and Costner are pitch-perfect. Costner plays Hatfield as a laconic family man who is ruthless in protecting his interests, while Paxton's McCoy believes God will advance his family's righteous cause — until a Hatfield attack on his home leaves two daughters dead and his wife beaten.
The story flounders a bit when plotlines turn to the younger characters, particularly a Hatfield boy who falls in love with one McCoy girl, impregnates her, tolerates his family kicking her out of their house and then marries another McCoy relative.
Paxton said some ideas came from reading letters by his own great-great-grandfather, Elisha Franklin Paxton, a brigadier general in the Confederacy whose missives from the battlefield were collected into a book published in the early 1900s.
The Texas native brought a copy of that book, held within his family, to the miniseries' set in Transylvania, where co-stars Costner, Powers Boothe and Tom Berenger looked it over. "He talked about how people at home are profiting off the misery of his men, and how much Christian duty and honor (means)," Paxton said. "They don't even have shoes . . . I think the war breaks this guy in half."
And yes, this sprawling American epic actually was filmed in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania, in Romania.
"When we're losing jobs in America, that's the question: Why are we here (in eastern Europe)?" said Costner, who notes tax breaks and incentives helped keep production costs down. "We could not have effectively shot this quintessential American story in America."
Read my full feature on the story from Sunday's newspaper here. The final installment of the miniseries airs at 9 tonight on History.