Kevin Costner knows how to play the studio game as well as anyone, from directing 1991 Best Picture winner “Dances with Wolves” and his streak as a major movie star in such hits as “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “Bull Durham,” “Tin Cup,” “Field of Dreams” “JFK” and “The Bodyguard,” not to mention the infamous “Waterworld,” which made a lot more money and is a better film than anyone remembers. (Watch the official trailer for “Black or White” after the Q & A, below.)
What a career! He doesn’t lack for confidence, and has always had a maverick streak–he loves his westerns, from “Open Range” to TV’s “Hatfields and McCoys.” Heading toward 60, Costner takes on character roles in “Superman: Man of Steel” and carried the recent football drama “Draft Day.” But the guy has always been a maverick, and when director Mike Binder kept plying him with roles to follow up “Upside with Anger,” it was “Black or White” that caught his fancy.
You can see why. Last week Kevin Costner and Binder dropped by Sneak Previews with the crowdpleaser “Black or White,” which debuted in Toronto (to better reviews from audiences than critics). It gives Costner a juicy role as the grandfather of a biracial girl (Jillian Estell) torn between two households, one black, one white. (Relativity is releasing it on December 3.) When the studios passed, Costner paid for the film himself –based on Binder’s own experience with a biracial family member–recognizing the kind of timely family drama that just doesn’t get made these days. Octavia Spencer holds her own with him as the girl’s powerful grandmother. This is one of those ‘tweeners that plays for adult audiences but is neither art film nor home run awards contender.
Anne Thompson: Kevin, Mike Binder wrote you an incredible part. What spoke to you?
Kevin Costner: Well, I paid to play it. [Audience laughs] Actors want really good parts; I don’t know how the business is involved where you’ve got to pay for one now.
So you invested in this movie?
Costner: No, I paid for it — I didn’t invest in it. [Audience laughs] No, the whole enchilada… I watched “To Kill A Mockingbird” and I thought, “Wow, that’s quite a guy.” I saw Spencer Tracy do “Inherit the Wind,” and I thought, “You know, a lot of people want to save the world and get the girl and be the hero, and movies do that. We do it really, really well.” We always wanted to do that. I always wanted a speech like the one in “Inherit the Wind,” and I got it in “JFK” and I got one from Mike, here, in “Black or White.” So, thank you. [Audience applauds]
You talk about Sidney Lumet as an inspiration for what you were doing here. What does he mean to you?
Binder: I just love the way he tells really simple stories. I love “The Verdict.” We watched “The Verdict” before we made this, and I showed the whole crew. There were a lot of young people who hadn’t seen it. You’re not making a movie with me if you haven’t seen “The Verdict.”
And you have a courtroom scene. That’s the monologue you were talking about at the beginning. Did that frighten you, or did you relish sinking your teeth into it?
Costner: Well, I knew how good it was, so I also knew the person who could screw it up was me. It was a level of pressure that I put on myself, but it was something that I wanted and it was something that I worked for. When the day came, I was ready. But I also didn’t know that emotion was going to bubble up in that speech, right there at the end. It’s not a couple of lines that you would think would be the land mines of emotion, but it boiled down to his voice breaking, and I didn’t plan on that happening. When he said: “You never apologized to me and my wife about the loss of our child.” As an actor, if you embrace those lines, sometimes you don’t know where they’re going to lead you, but you need to embrace them. You need to go for them and commit to them completely, and sometimes they inform you in ways that you would never, ever know.
My line, “It’s not my first thought that counts; it’s my second, third, and fourth that will define if I’m a racist,” I thought was pure genius. The same way, as in “Field of Dreams,” when James Earl Jones stands up and gives us a speech about baseball, which we all know: we all know it’s America’s pastime, but, for a lot of us, we don’t really know why anymore. Willie Mays couldn’t have told us; neither could Ted Williams. It took this out-of-touch author, in the voice of James Earl Jones, that gave us the magic.
And I thought putting it into the mouth of someone we might think is a drunk, to a grandfather who is maybe losing his child, and it came bubbling out, was just magic. Again, thank you. [Audience applauds]
So, Mike, why this subject? What made you want to write this?
Mike Binder: It was something in my head for a long time. Years ago, my wife’s sister died very young — at 32. She had a little seven-year-old boy, a biracial boy. His father wasn’t in his life at all. My wife and her family and his family down in South Central — and I was involved, too — we raised him as a group. He’s still very much in our life, and it was a real, great chance for us to see two worlds. We’d drop him down there and he would come up here for holidays, and it was two completely different worlds.
As soon as we got past that, we were just people trying to show our little boy nothing but love, and I always thought… he never saw himself as black or white. He was just a little boy. People always said, “Oh, he’s half-black! He’s half-white!” It’s like, “Which half am I? I’m just a kid. Leave me alone.” I always thought that would be a great story to tell, in some way. Of course I concocted the custody battle because we never had that. It was something in my head. I wrote it, and I love Kevin.
You’ve worked together before.
Binder: We worked together on “The Upside of Anger,” but, even more than that, he was always my favorite actor. I love “Field of Dreams.” I love “Bull Durham.” I met him by a total accident: he came up and said hello to me and introduced himself, and we became friendly. After “The Upside of Anger,” I sent him a lot of screenplays that he turned down. [Audience laughs] In a very elegant way.
I heard that Kevin can be picky.
Binder: He’s picky, but also because we’re friends. He wouldn’t sugarcoat it. “Yeah, this one doesn’t work for me. Yeah, no, sorry.” Then he’d start talking about sports or something. “Can we talk about why it didn’t —“ “No, no, we’re off that.” So I just kept writing and I kept sending him stuff, because I’d say the biggest compliment I can give Kevin is that whenever I’m making a movie with him, as soon as I’m done, I want to get back into the boat — I want to figure out another way to make a movie with him.
It’s a juicy part: you’re an alcoholic, grieving. You get to deal with this child in a real way.
Costner: Well, I’m not a fool. I knew it was a great part, because I start with the whole. “Does this movie work?” There’s no good being head flea on a dead dog. [Audience laughs] “Oh, I have a great part but the movie sucked.” I want to be a part of something, and when we define movies now based on how they do on the weekend. We live in a society of “thumbs up, thumbs down.” We live in a society of “Who wore it best? Who’s in, who’s out?” And it’s really not appropriate, and true movies will never be measured by how much they make — they’ll be measured by how they make you feel. And if you’re willing to, five years from now, take that movie off the shelf and show it to somebody. If it’s fifty years from now and it still has the same value, that’s a movie.
It’s hard, because our egos want to be #1. I want to be #1. That’s our ego. But when we really break ourselves down, that’s when we realize that’s not important, and that’s why we have colleagues. Because, when we’re down, we look at our colleagues and go, “No, you’re doing the right thing. That’s what you should be doing.” But you sometimes feel depressed at a certain point, so when I saw this movie, I knew this movie had a chance to live.
What made it so difficult to get this movie financed and distributed? This movie plays.
Binder: Kevin and our producers tried to set up. I know the race thing scares a lot of people. It’s very hard to do a movie with white and black characters, because you feel like you might lose two audiences.
Well, you were very brave here. You were working with your own knowledge. It’s authentic.
Binder: To a fault, that’s probably why I haven’t made bigger movies. I don’t write movies thinking, “This is what the audience wants. This is what the market’s looking for.” I just write what story comes out of the machine of my head. Everybody in this movie plays the race card when they get in trouble, but they never believe it.
I think that’s the truth of what’s going on in American society today. When people play the race card and everybody plays it from both angles… when you play it, you don’t believe it. I just don’t think the people that are playing it know that it’s a tool. When the lawyers do it, they’re just saying, “This is going to be an easier path to home for us.” That’s what the character says: “You want to win this thing? He’s got a problem with black people.”
It plays around with our assumptions — what we don’t even realize. What we’re raised to believe, what assumptions we make. There are a lot of unconscious things inside of us.
Binder: It’s time for forward thinking. We’ve seen “12 Years a Slave,” which was amazing, but where do we go for the future? While we were making this, the George Zimmerman thing came out, and what President Obama said at the White House, why he’s optimistic about racial relations, is that his kids are better than he and Michelle. My kids are better at accepting people for who they are, not what they are. I’m a lot better than my father was. That’s why I ended on the freeze frame of the little girl, because she’s the answer.
You’re dealing with real issues. It’s a relationship movie. Octavia Spencer stands up to you. She gives you something to play against.
Costner: She’s supposed to! And she kissed me really hard, twice. Once for the movie, once for her. But, yeah, we needed her to be good, just like we needed everybody. Our movie was dependent on a child, but Octavia came in and sometimes, we have the actors’ roles reversed. We call lead actors “lead actors” and people who come in smaller roles “supporting actors.” I’ve always thought that we had that backwards, somehow. I always thought the leading actor should be the best supporting actor, because you’re the only person that can help every other actor on the set.
This person’s in here; this person’s struggling for one day. They’re nervous. That’s your job, as a lead actor, and Octavia really took command of her role in the days when she was on the set, and it was just her kind of leading everyone. She was a true screen partner, and there’s something interesting about Octavia: she came to the set every day that she didn’t work. She wanted to watch the acting. We made this movie in 26 days.
Binder: I love Octavia. It’s so much fun working with her. We were staying in a hotel, and my two kids worked on the movie, so were all in a room, and she was in the room next to us. When we weren’t working, we were all going out, getting fried chicken and eating. It was fun. Even when she wasn’t working, she’d come to the set every day. She just is a great force. She’s got a great spirit. She understood that that woman was a little bigger than life. That woman really had a full life and had all that love around her. I always felt at the end of the movie, why Kevin’s so sad is because he realizes, he’s one guy in a big, empty house up in Brentwood. There’s so much love here, but he realizes what a good job Octavia has done building a world for herself.
You’re taking us along this path and not telling us what to think. You’re showing us all these characters, and that’s tricky.
Binder: That was our goal. We want you to not really know where… just like a judge wouldn’t know.
And we don’t know how distorted by grief your character is, or how drunk. Talk about calibrating those qualities. Was he an alcoholic, or just medicating himself?
Costner: Well, Mike was incredibly even-handed with this movie, and I thought, a lot of times, we look at race and we have a tendency to want to go back in time and look at history. Mike has presented an authentic, contemporary look at where we’re at in this country with race. You have to deal with the facts of the script. People ask, “What did you bring to the role?” And I said, “I started by reading it.” There are facts in there. A movie’s script tells you how much it’s going to cost. It tells you how many people are going to be there on any certain day. And it also tells you about this character. Then it’s up to you, at the end, to fill that in.
But I understood: this is a man who had lost the two closest women in his life. His wife. He feels so shitty. That’s an interesting word to start a movie off with: “I feel so shitty.” It’s a simple word, and it’s a vulgar word, but at that moment, we all understood the depth to this man. And he lost his daughter. The last vestige I have of the two women I love most in my life is this little, itty bitty girl that I now feel like I have to fight for. When fighting for her, when people think they’re losing, they play the race card. We’ve got to get away from that.
As for the alcohol, I thought Mike did a really good job. I did have a problem; I was drinking too much. But Mike framed it for us with my lawyer friend, who just says, “Maybe this guy isn’t just a drunk.” Because when I go looking for the alcohol in that kitchen, I have an open bar in the room. I didn’t have to look in such an agitated, desperate way. But he looked at his housekeeper and just said, “I just drink one thing.” It’s the one thing that gives him peace of mind, so I will never say he didn’t have a drinking problem — he did. But the another character tells us out loud, “Maybe he’s just an angry”… you know what I say there. By the way, that particular word almost thrust us into an R.
I heard there was a battle, and you won. You appealed, right?
Costner: I did appeal. I was proud that the ratings board saw this as a movie that didn’t have to be categorized with films where that word is used 100 times. I didn’t know that was in the job description of an actor when I started so long ago. There were actually two individuals in here who helped train me as an actor. Greg and Richard, if you’re in here, would you stand up for a second? [Audience applauds] This is worth saying: sometimes we don’t know what we’re going to do in our life. When I hit on acting, I was like Cortés — I burned my ships. That’s what I was going to do. The first time I actually understood something, I wasn’t necessarily good at it, but I knew I would be better at it tomorrow.
But I got great inspiration and I got great director from both of these men. Greg was the first teacher I ever really had that showed me a level of passion, and I really appreciate that, Greg. A lot of technique. Richard I met when I came to Hollywood, and Richard took an interest in me. That’s what we need sometimes, people who take an interest in us. So I’m glad that you came to see this work. I was in my ‘20s when I met you, and I’m going to be 60 in January. So I’ve had a life, and if I never made another movie, I would be happy to say this was my last movie.
Kevin, you were at the top of the Hollywood food chain for a while. You had a run that was incredible, unbelievable. But the studios are no longer as giving — no longer as open, supportive of, and giving to films like this, ones they used to make every year. What do you do in that situation, and how can it be fixed?
Costner: They have their own way of looking at things, and I try to just not shout at the wind. Maybe no one wants to hear it. We still have to seek out our stories. We’re still storytellers at our heart. I don’t have the great answer about why they behave the way they do. I just know what my own journey is about story, and I don’t care if they’re big or small — I like them all. I don’t care if they’re political thrillers. I don’t care if they’re sports movies. I make cowboy movies because I like them. But they all have to add up to something, and studios want everything to add up. I said, with this little movie, “Don’t be so sure it doesn’t work. Don’t be so sure this isn’t exactly what you’re looking for.”
It’s hard, and I try not to get caught up in that. What I don’t do when I see a movie, even if no one wants to make it — and it’s been a problem in my life — I don’t fall out of love. Movies are my own UFO, and they drive me crazy until I can make them — and, by hook or crook, I would. When no one would make this movie, I was surprised, I was a little bit hurt, and I was also in a bit of a pickle, because I promised Mike we were going to make it. My word means something to me — it always has. And I had to walk down the hall and tell my wife, “We’re going to pay for this movie.” [Audience laughs] Like a really good actress, she said, “What?” And we did. I can’t speak for him; I can only speak for us.
You’re working on a Western now?
Costner: I’ve been working on it forever. It’s coming, and it’s going to be, like, ten hours long.
You always like long!
Costner: I think “long” is good. Where are you going once you hit here?
Audience member:How old was the child? How did you find her?
Binder: She was seven. Not only is she a great actress and not only did she win that part, but you can’t believe she’s eight. She acts like she’s twenty. She’s so sharp. Sharon Bialy, the casting director I’ve worked with forever. She’s amazing, and she put together a great cast. She looked at well over 1,000 girls from all over the country. She had lived in Texas and had been in one part of the movie, and she really went out and did battle for the role.
Audience member: One little thing at the end of the credits says “In Memory of J.J. Harris.” I’m wondering who J.J. Harris is.
Costner: J.J. Harris was the first person I met in terms of the business. I’d gone in to see an agent at William Morris, because his wife saw me do a reading for the movie. I didn’t get the part, but her husband was an agent at William Morris. She said, “I think you really need to see this guy.” I suddenly had this chance of maybe getting an agent. I went to William Morris and just watched the clock for four days, because that’s what we do as actors. I went, and he was late. He, surprisingly, wasn’t going to be able to be at the meeting because something ran over. This little, blonde secretary said, “I’m so sorry, but do you have your résumé? Can I look at it?” And I had a résumé that had things that I hadn’t really done, and she said, “Oh, this is great! You’ve done all this!” She said, “You’ve done really, really good. He really wanted to see you.”
He was my agent for about a year-and-a-half, and then he went on to run TriStar. There was a feeling that my career was gaining traction really, really quickly, and there was a bit of a power struggle at William Morris of who in the larger agents was going to handle my career. I looked at this little, blonde secretary and said, “Would you be my agent?” And so she was my longest friend in Hollywood. I let her be my manager, and she passed away last year, just suddenly. She was an authentic woman, and, to Mike’s credit, he knew how much she meant to me, and he did that without any problem. So I thank you for that. [Audience applauds]
Binder: As I said, I sent him a lot of scripts and I kind of got tired of getting shut down. That one I sent to J.J. and said, “Just read it and tell me if you think Kevin will do it.” She sent it right to him, and he called me two days later. She was a champion of this thing from the very beginning. The last time I saw her, she was down on the set. She said, “This movie’s going to be great.” She died very unexpectedly.
Audience member: How did you shoot in L.A. for 26 days? It must have been hard.
Binder: Well, especially because we were in New Orleans. [Audience laughs] No, we actually shot a lot of second-unit stuff here, and we shot most of the movie in New Orleans. This is the reality: if you want affordable filmmaking, you need that tax credit, especially when everybody’s splitting the dough.
Costner: I just want to say something: this story is based on true events, and it has a lot of roots even in my own past. I was born in Compton, California, so that’s why we used that name, to juxtapose these two communities of Brentwood, Beverly Hills against Compton, California. This whole movie was just something I’m really glad we made.