Unbeknownst to just about everybody, Kevin Costner could not have become Kevin Costner — that is to say, the biggest movie star around for a 10-year run starting in the late 1980s, with him swinging bats at balls in Bull Durham (1988) and Field of Dreams (1989), flashing badges at bad guys in The Untouchables (1987), and fast-racking the lever on his polished brass-frame Henry 1860 rifle in Dances With Wolves (1990); in the process becoming dominantly noted for his “tall, rangy good looks” and what Hollywood types like to call “flesh impact;” usually choosing to play characters who are self-sworn to operate on the upstanding, outstanding right side of any given moral equation, hence all the early comparisons to Gregory Peck and Jimmy Stewart; surviving outsized movie-making disasters like Waterworld (1995) that inevitably turned into cult favorites (rightfully so); and, at the age of 64, arriving most recently in long-form TV shows like The Highwaymen, costarring Woody Harrelson, about the two lawmen responsible for bringing down Depression-era bank-robber/killers Bonnie and Clyde, on Netflix, and Yellowstone, playing a hard-bitten patriarch and rancher beset on all sides by modern times and ancient grievances, on the Paramount Network, now entering its second season — without smoking a bunch of dope along the way, 40 years of it, before stopping a few years back, for the most part (see: Woody Harrelson), without anyone ever taking much notice of it.
Today, he’s unsaddled himself inside a Los Angeles hotel room, looking out a window on a tall stand of bamboo shoots that were planted, in his estimation, “not to be appreciated but to block views” and saying, “Yeah, for 40 years I had a really good time smoking. A really good fucking time. I mean, I never smoked when I woke up. And I never smoked habitually. I did it to have a good time when I felt like I was going to have a good time. But about five years ago, I wasn’t having a good time anymore, so I just stopped. Which is kind of my motto. If I’m not having a good time doing something, stop doing it.”
Actually, he’s like that in many different ways. One variant has to do with why he wears what he’s got on today, nothing fancy: a sweater, Levi’s and cowboy boots.
“They’re kind of my own uniform, if you will,” he says. “And the boots, they’re from Yellowstone. I’m thinking, ‘When I wear them in the show, they feel pretty good, and I normally wear boots, so, well, I’ll just continue to wear these.’ There’s certain things that I don’t think too much about — when it comes to clothes, I don’t even know what to do except how to wear them — and there’s other things that I can’t stop thinking about, because I don’t like to go through life unthinking, if you will.”
And that’s another thing about Costner. He’s perfectly happy using a phrase like “if you will” more than any other human being might find seemly. It’s just one more example of him doing what he wants. And they keep right on coming. “I don’t drink alcohol with food,” he says at one point. “I don’t like it. I know that’s really unfashionable, but if I’m going to have a drink, it’s just going to be by itself. So when everybody’s ordering wine, I’m going, ‘Oh, fuck.’ But I’ve come up with a really good posture. When I look at the wine list, I do a couple of chin boogies and then pass it over to somebody else.” He chuckles and says, “Listen. That was part of the pact I made with myself, no more playing. I’ll do the little dance just so that nobody else is embarrassed. But then, ‘You fucking order the wine, I don’t care.’”
It’s all pretty interesting, not just this kind of mulish insistence on being himself, no matter what, which is how lots of people operate, for better or worse, but also the way he talks about it, openly, laughing and snorting as he goes, which takes the edge off what could almost be considered sharp-angled arrogance. It’s an appealing combo. It makes him fun to hang around, to sit back and listen to.
“I’m a six-foot white guy who fucking makes cowboy movies and baseball movies and gets to play the hero, and no one mistakes me for anything but America,” he’s saying now. “I’m in a really good category, if you will. But I’m also going to make Mr. Brooks and I’m going to direct and I’m going to make music if I want to, and I’m not going to worry about the people who are willing to cut my head off and watch it roll down the street.”
In Mr. Brooks (2007), he plays a family-man serial killer, 100 percent against type, to such great effect that the New Yorker called it his “best performance in years.” He’s directed three movies, the post-apocalyptic oater the Postman (1997), which was universally scorned at the time, though not now; Open Range (2003), another of his great Westerns; and, of course, Dances With Wolves, which earned him best-director and best-picture Oscars. And he does play music, guitar and twangy vocals, in his band Kevin Costner & Modern West. As for those willing to cut off his head, back in the day, they were legion, not just because of some of his movies but also just because. In the 1991 Madonna documentary Truth or Dare, Costner meets the singer backstage after one of her shows. “Thanks for coming,” she says. “I thought it was neat,” he says, most earnestly, adjusting his glasses, before blowing her a kiss and wandering off, leaving her to swivel around and make a gagging gesture, finger in mouth, tongue stuck out. “Neat?” she says. “Anybody who says my show is neat has to go.” In hindsight, maybe the only one who ought to go is her. She’s been mistaken for America, too — brash, taunting, weaselly, a version of America that sadly seems more current and permanent than Costner’s.
In the 1930s, after deep plowing on the Great Plains stripped the topsoil of all its lodged-in grasses, and the wind came up, and the dust reached a thickness where you couldn’t see three feet forward, tens of thousands of families were forced to abandon their farms and start over elsewhere, among them Costner’s part-Cherokee grandparents, who trudged west, with his dad eventually settling in Compton, a lesser part of Los Angeles, where he worked for Southern California Edison, starting off as a lineman and moving his family wherever the job took him, which meant that Kevin, along with his older brother Dan, had to move, too.
He was always the new kid in school, four different ones during his high-school years, always trying to find a way to fit in. He knew how to have fun, spent his days hunting rabbits and squirrels, building tree houses, bouncing around in go-carts, just in general keeping his dungarees well muddied up. “I was a rascal, because I was adventurous,” he says, “but I didn’t have a rebellious nature. I grew up in a conservative household. Those different schools, my parents were like, ‘Toughen up,’ and my mom said, ‘Look, we do what’s right for your father.’ I had a brother in Vietnam in the Sixties, so the last thing I wanted to do was cause them problems.” He also wrote poetry, sang in a Baptist choir, and loved going to the movies. He was especially bowled over by the first one he saw, the epic 1962 western How the West Was Won, filmed in Cinerama, with three projectors sprawling the action across a massive curved screen, quite something special back then. It “formed” his childhood, he once said.
At the same time, he was beset by insecurities. For one thing, while he excelled in athletics, he wasn’t much of a student, primarily when it came to math. He was bothered to a massive degree by numbers that were less than zero. “That particular Rubik’s Cube of bullshit actually affected me in a real negative way, not being able to understand that,” he says, still sounding upset. “And yet, so much weight was attached to those type of things. And so, you know, I was caught in a kind of storm of thinking, ‘Well, I must be a fucking dumbbell.’ I mean, I just don’t do well at that kind of thing.”
To make matters worse, he was a 5′-2” nugget even unto his senior year in high school and tortured by it. “I didn’t date. I went to the backward dance, that Sadie Hawkins thing where the girl asks you. But you inevitably don’t go with who you want to go with. The girl you’re kind of ogling at, she picked somebody else. It wasn’t a moment for me to shine. That’s not what you’d call a score. And when I got my driver’s license, after about the fourth girl told me, ‘Oh, that’s so cute,’ I thought to myself, ‘I’m never showing this thing to anybody again.’”
He pauses. He goes on, “I never quite got over that one. And along the way, I kind of lost what my own real identity was. Like, ‘Well, who am I? Just some guy who goes to a new school and, God, wants to just have a couple of friends?’ And then college wasn’t actually a place for me” — he attended Cal State, Fullerton, studying business — “and as I approached my senior year, I had a real talk with myself about what I wanted to do and whether I just wanted to please other people. And it was at that moment that I actually said to myself, ‘I’m interested in storytelling.’”
He pauses again. He goes on again, “If you want to look at a high point in my life, it wasn’t a movie, it wasn’t Dances, it wasn’t Bull Durham. It was that internal talk I had with myself, where I said, ‘I don’t give a shit what anybody says, this is what I want to do, and I’m burning my ships like Cortes, and I am going to go where my heart wants to go. And I’m never again going to not do that in my life, and I’m not going to be caught up in trends and what’s popular.”
For the next eight years, he odd-job bounced around Hollywood, got married to his college sweetheart, cranked out the kids (three with her during their 16-year marriage; he got remarried in 2004; he has seven children altogether); had a tiny part in the 1981 T&A flick Sizzle Beach; got left on the cutting room floor in Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 film The Big Chill, which Kasdan made up for two years later by giving him the break-out part of a smartypants gunslinger in Silverado. Next big stop: playing Eliot Ness in Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables, which didn’t give him much to work with, unlike No Way Out, released the same year. In that movie, the Washington Post called him “forceful and energetic… with a steely-eyed intensity that gives dimension to his football-captain good looks.” And then, a year later, in 1988, came Bull Durham. And so it went, his way and no one else’s.
Pretty soon, he’ll be leaving L.A. and returning to his Santa Barbara home, where he’s lived for the past 15 years and where, if he wants to, he can strip down, suit up, and go lobstering in the Pacific — “working my way down to the bottom by holding onto the kelp and then you work your way back. I just love that, when I go down and under like that. It just feels great.”
But, for the moment, he’s still on the surface and plumping for Yellowstone. His John Dutton rancher character isn’t exactly square in the heroic Costner mold. He’s not as horrible as his Mr. Brooks serial killer, who was, he says, “not a character I normally would even want to do, but I found an incredible amount of empathy, the way it was drawn and the way I was drawn to it, so much so that I actually prepared to make a second and third installment of that particular character.” Even so, Dutton does some bad stuff, gets some people killed, uses his family to get some people killed, with Costner’s traditional lopsided grin, lank frame and half-Oakie twang still being put to good, constructive use. Even at his worst, he’s never less than mostly likable. Or at least understandable. “And that’s all I want in life,” he says, “a high understanding of why somebody does what they do.”
Which kind of leads back to why he stopped smoking pot and what it did for him in the first place.
“I don’t know if it’s because it’s so powerful now, I’m not sure what it was, but the thing that I used to hear my fellow tokers say is, ‘It makes me paranoid,’ and I was always thinking to myself, ‘Fuck, I’m glad this doesn’t make me paranoid because I really like it.’ But then I started feeling what some of the others felt and I thought, ‘Well, I’m not going to keep doing this.’ I gave it about eight more tries but I was pretty certain something was wrong, so I quit doing it.”
But what about during the making of The Highwaymen? How could he resist smoking with Harrelson, one of greatest, most well-known smokers of all modern times?
“Yeah, we had our own conversation,” he says, “and it was fine, good that way. And there was always a chance that maybe I wasn’t going to get paranoid. But, you know.”
Plus, the life-changing aspects of his 40-year romance with weed were well in the past. They took place some time after his Sadie Hawkins dance days and the negative-numbers horror show and all the girls saying how cute he looked on his driver’s license and him just wanting to fit in and have a few friends. He was in college, still thinking about his business studies, unhappily, a long way from becoming the chin-boogier who’s always going to let somebody else order the fucking wine and makes only the kinds of movies and TV shows he wants to make.
“I told you I was raised in a very conservative way,” he says, “but I remember when I started smoking, I have to tell you honestly, I started thinking differently.”
Here he pauses, takes a step back from what he’s saying, then leans forward into it again.
“All of a sudden,” he goes on, “the conservative thing flew right out the window. I saw things in a different way. And I think it actually helped me come to that decision internally, which is, ‘Who are you?’ You know, ‘Who are you?'”
And so that’s how Kevin Costner became Kevin Costner, if you will. And if anyone will, it’s him.