The crowd-pleasing “” might be based on a true story in an unknown chapter of American history, but not every detail was drawn from real life. The film follows a trio of NASA mathematicians and engineers during the early sixties “Space Race” era, including Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughn and Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson, but it also required the invention of at least one crucial character.
To create the fictional role of Space Task group director Al Harrison, screenwriter Allison Schroeder used three different NASA past chiefs – including two of Johnson’s own bosses – to round out the character. She gave special attention to the inclusion of personality traits from John Stack, a lauded NASA aeronautical engineer who Schroeder billed as “kind of this perfect chauvinist feminist,” a forward thinker who was compelled by finding the best person for the job, no matter their race or gender.
But Schroeder’s trio of NASA chiefs aren’t the only men who shaped the kind of character that Al Harrison eventually became – director Melfi (who has has a co-screenwriting credit on the film) also worked closely with eventual star Kevin Costner to turn Al into the sort of unexpected ally who adds both gravitas and great to the final feature.
And Costner almost didn’t do it.
“The truth of it is, I didn’t see this coming,” the actor recently told IndieWire. “I thought it was a nice movie, but I wasn’t going to do it, because I didn’t think my part was where it was at.”
Costner is no stranger to the awards arena, thanks to two Oscars for his 1990 directorial debut, the Western epic “Dances With Wolves,” which garnered him both a Best Picture and a Best Director win at the 1991 ceremony, but he’s mostly stayed away from Oscar-leaning fare in the nearly three decades since he made that film (both of his directorial followups – the much-maligned “The Postman” and the overlooked “Open Range” – failed to generate much traction).
As an actor, Costner has worked consistently since “Wolves” put him on the map and “Waterworld” almost sank him, recently showing up in a wide range of features, including blockbusters like “Man of Steel” and “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.” Still, he has managed to lead more niche offerings like “Black or White” (in which he acted alongside his “Hidden Figures” co-star Spencer) and the feel-good sports film “McFarland, USA.” Over the years, Costner’s seeming lack of predictability when picking his roles has made him increasingly hard to box in, though his presence on screen has remained welcome to a generation of film lovers who have only ever considered him a movie star.
In 2013, Costner unexpectedly got back on the campaign trail, thanks to his turn in the History Channel miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys,” which landed him both a Golden Globe and an Emmy for Best Actor. No one was as surprised as Costner, who admitted that he made him suddenly remember why he kind of likes the mayhem of the awards circuit. “It’s not old hat to me,” he promised.
Through working with Melfi, however, Costner came around to the possibilities of Al Harrison, as well as the promise that the film could open up for an audience eager to learn about American history through the lens of a largely unknown story. He used that idea as his motivation.
“My focus was exactly what it was supposed to be and it always has been, which is, ‘How do we make this movie the best? How do we not expand Al’s part, but how do we make it feel important, that people can relate to it, that serves this idea, underscores bigger issues?,'” he said.
Just a teenager during the events depicted in “Hidden Figures,” Costner admitted he wasn’t too high on the events of the Space Race, even as his fellow Americans were glued to their televisions to see what would happen with astronaut heroes like John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. Working on “Hidden Figures” changed that.
“What I came to kind of appreciate about the space program, was the building blocks that scientists and engineers had to get to,” he said.
He added with a laugh, “I started to see it as more than Tang and microwaves.”
With Schroeder’s script as their starting point, Costner and Melfi sought to make Al, an amalgamation of the highest order, feel consistent enough to function as his own character. For the duo, honing in on Al’s own struggles with his job and his employees made all the difference. Costner put himself in Al’s shoes, a man driven by the expectations of not just his employer, but the entire country, and facing all kinds of setbacks along the way.
“I’m having struggles with my own people, not letting the cream get to the top,” Costner explained. “We’re losing because the best idea isn’t winning. Maybe our best mathematician is being ostracized.”
Costner and Melfi made sure to build in a scene that hinges on Al asking his team – including Katherine – to work later hours with no overtime, a way to ground a truly out-of-this-world story. “By putting wages and salaries and things like that [on the line], hopefully we humanized it a little bit,” Costner said.
Costner is not credited for his screenwriting work on the film and doesn’t seem concerned about it, instead opting to discuss the character collaboration with Melfi, something that appears to be indicative to the overall spirit of the feature’s production.
Costner’s co-star Janelle Monae has also spoken highly of the collaborative environment on set. She recently told IndieWire that Melfi was “very vocal” about allowing his actors to bring their own ideas to their characters, even her own Mary Jackson. Adding personal touches made the script sing.
Schroeder eagerly admitted that the “character evolved a lot” in Melfi and Costner’s hands, though her initial aim to keep him from falling into cliché stayed strong throughout the process.
“He’s not an outright villain,” she said of Al. “He’s just oblivious. He’s got one goal – get up into space – and everything and everyone else kind of falls to the wayside. Through the course of the movie and working with Katherine, he starts to wake up. He starts to realize the problems and then he starts to act on them.”
After hashing out who Al was on a personal level, Costner felt free to explore the bigger parts of his character – including the emblematic nature of a man who serves as the very face of NASA throughout the course of the film.
“I felt that I needed to stand for NASA,” he said. “Traditionally, if you make a movie like this, every time you go back to NASA, you show the sign at NASA. I thought if, every time we came back to my face, we could understand that I am NASA in this particular story, that it’s grounded.”
He added, “We wanted to make him a presence, not just a manager.”
Costner’s Al Harrison is a steady combination of both Schroeder’s desires and his and Melfi’s close character work – not just a manager, but his own presence, not a villain, but someone with plenty to learn along the way.
Despite its crowd-pleasing nature, “Hidden Figures” doesn’t get schmaltzy when it comes to its portrayal of the fraught race relations that informed American life in the fifties and sixties, though it still finds the room for Al to literally knock down racist barricades, from a sign indicating that a restroom is just for colored women to the single coffee pot that Katherine is expected to use, alone, while working the the Space Task Group. Those sorts of scenes are to be expected in a film like “Hidden Figures,” but Costner pulls them off without resorting to stage-y mannerisms, delivering them with a stiff upper lip and the minimum of affectation.
Another actor might hope to use those scenes – he’s literally knocking down a racist signifier – to turn in an awards highlight reel performance. Costner doesn’t do that, instead serving up something all the more satisfying and real (and, yes, awards-worthy to boot). While “Hidden Figures” is admirably invested in depicting its central trio as striving for their own advancement, even their notable brand of hard work and big talent needs a helping hand from above. Al Harrison provides that hand to Katherine Johnson, not because he has to, but because she’s the best person for the job.
Costner, it’s clear, was the best person for this particular job.
It’s perhaps that side of Al that spoke the most to Costner, a guy doing his job and trying to find the right people along the way to help him get it done. It’s also where he found something that sets the film apart from its awards-aiming brethren: Heart.
“What happens is, when you have people with extraordinary abilities, what also gets revealed is that they have tremendous insecurities,” Costner said. “I call it very human.”
Thanks to Costner, Al Harrison, for all of his fiction, is human, too.
“Hidden Figures” is currently in theaters everywhere.