Kevin Costner is in the midst of something of a career resurgence, which is a very good thing, if you’re a fan of the actor’s work. It all started with History and A&E‘s miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys,” a smash hit that earned Costner both Emmy and Golden Globe awards for his leading turn. Since then, he’s diversified, taking small, memorable roles in giant franchise movies like “Man of Steel” and “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” while anchoring smaller, wide ranging efforts like Ivan Reitman‘s sports drama “Draft Day” and the Luc Besson-produced thriller “3 Days to Kill.” For his next, Costner takes a leading role in “Black & White,” a tense racial drama set to premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. We got a chance to chat with him about what drew him to the project, what it was like re-teaming with his “Upside of Anger” director Mike Binder and what his role as a producer entailed.
In “Black & White” Costner plays Elliot Anderson, a Los Angeles lawyer whose wife (Jennifer Ehle) recently died in a car accident, leaving Costner’s half-black granddaughter in his custody. (His daughter died during childbirth and the boyfriend has shown little interest.) When the girl’s other grandmother (Octavia Spencer) files for custody of the little girl, Costner is forced to face the his own prejudices—and the possibility of a life completely free of the women he loved so dearly.
Costner said that he and Binder, who collaborated on the 2009 drama “Upside of Anger,” kept in touch in the years since. “Well he wrote four other screenplays for me, which I had to say no to,” Costner said matter-of-factly. “Not because they weren’t good, but because they didn’t speak to me in the way that this one did. And that’s what I needed it to do. It’s hard when a friend sends you stuff. It’s a very personal thing to write a screenplay and it feels like a very personal thing when you reject it too.” This, of course, changed when Binder sent him the new script.
His reaction to the work was immediate and profound. “It was emotional from the very first page. I was hooked,” Costner explained. “And it kept its fine line and it kept being unpredictable – every time I thought it was going to do something, it managed to do something else. I thought it was incredibly even-handed, back-and-forth.” Ultimately, the movie boils down to a “seminal moment.” Costner said, “something we wall struggle with.” The moment is “when somebody calls us a racist because we say something like, ‘Hey, I don’t like you.’ And they say, ‘That’s because you’re a racist.’ And you say, ‘No, that’s because I don’t like you.'”
In the movie, the back-and-forth legal wrangling ultimately results in a moment when Costner’s character defends himself and his actions, which include getting into a violent verbal altercation with his granddaughter’s father. This is what, in Costner’s mind, turns the script into “a great American screenplay.” It’s a moment that finds Costner’s Elliot clearly and distinctly defining the difference between personal dislike and preudice, and the actor had a visceral reaction to his monologue. “The minute you heard that speech you thought, ‘Fuck, I wish I had written that,'” he stated.
This time around, Costner was Binder’s producer in addition to his star, saying that, “Our relationship grew. There was a change in our dynamic but not fundamentally.” Costner’s role as a producer, though, was somewhat unexpected, in the sense that he ended up paying for the movie (which he describes as “a little movie with a big implication”) himself. “I knew I would produce it right away when I read it but I didn’t think I would have to pay for it,” he said, still sounding a little bit baffled. “I thought that other production companies and studios would see the value of this movie – and the entertainment value.”
Marveling at the fact that many of Costner’s biggest or most important movies—mid-budget thrillers or dramas aimed squarely at adults, like “Revenge” or “JFK“—probably wouldn’t be made today because cinema is targeted so specifically at children, Costner said, “They’re very difficult to make and when you start having to pay for them you know things have really hit a low.”
Still, Costner found the experience of making “Black & White” rewarding, both as an actor and as a producer. “There are a lot of things I can do and I thought that this was something that I felt like I needed to do,” Costner said, sounding not only like an actor choosing projects carefully, but an influential producer who could throw his weight (and money) behind certain movies. “I’m proud of the screenplay, I’m proud of Mike, I’m proud of the performances.”
When we asked whether or not Binder will still be sending him screenplays after Costner rejected the four that came before “Black & White,” Costner said yes, and summed up Binder’s character. “He’ll still send me things. He’s dogged that way. He has to write. And he’s a really beautiful writer.”
“Black & White” premieres at TIFF on Saturday, September 6th.