More risks means more rewards - and bruises. As he tackles an against-type role, Kevin Costner tells Susan Griffin about living without fear
Kevin Costner is having trouble hearing.
“I play a lot of rock and roll. You’ll have to speak up,” explains the California-native in what can only be described as a cowboy twang.
The Hollywood veteran, who sings and plays lead guitar the country rock band Kevin Costner & Modern West, might be a little hard of hearing but he’s looking well, easily 10 years younger than his 61 years, in jeans and grey shirt, a tuft of facial hair beneath his lower lip.
Since his breakthrough role in 1987 gangster movie The Untouchables, he’s carved a reputation for playing all-American guys - such as Crash Davis in Bull Durham and Ray Kinsella in Field Of Dreams - and heroic figures with the likes of Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, and Frank Farmer in The Bodyguard.
But for his latest movie Criminal, Costner’s finally been cast against type, as the psychopathic prison inmate Jericho Stewart.
He admits he was shocked when first approached about the role, and initially declined the offer.
“I kept looking in the mirror, questioning, ‘Why me?’ I’m a cowboy, I play baseball.”
But as director Ariel Vromen, who also helmed The Iceman, explains, “We’re so used to Kevin playing lovable, charming characters. No one will ever have seen Kevin play a role like this before, and that’s exciting.”
With his gruff voice, shaved head and violent demeanour (you won’t look at a car door handle in the same way), Costner is indeed unrecognisable in the film.
“I showed up in London with long hair and a beard. I was thinking we were going to start the movie in the prison but they didn’t. So I had to go into the make-up trailer and create that really severe look,” recalls the actor.
“Slowly but surely. Jericho came crawling out. They put the holes and the stitches in the back of my head and I started feeling a little bit like Frankenstein,” he adds. (Costner’s character undergoes groundbreaking brain surgery.)
It’s little wonder people didn’t recognise him. “Even my director wasn’t sure. I think people have an impression of who I am, and that was not like anything they’d ever seen.”
The story begins when CIA agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) is killed in the middle of a top-secret mission. He’d been tracking a hacker known as The Dutchman (played by Michael Pitt) who, while navigating the lawless Dark Web.
With Pope’s death, it’s assumed that every vital piece of information he’s uncovered is wiped out forever. But the CIA’s London chief Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman) insists there’s still hope, by enlisting maverick surgeon Dr Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) to implant Pope’s DNA directly into the synapses of another man’s brain - and Jericho’s the perfect candidate.
“Jericho’s spent most of his life in prison. An injury he suffered as a child rendered him a sociopath, so he has no understanding that the things he does are wrong. He just reacts, sometimes violently, sometimes humorously,” explains Costner.
“But after his operation, Jericho starts going back and forth between who he was and who Bill Pope is. He’s very mixed and suddenly he’s comprehending things and having sensations that he’s never experienced before, on every level. That’s what I had to figure out how to play.”
The movie marks a reunion for Costner, Oldman and Jones, who worked together on Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie JFK.
“We had some very complicated scenes without a lot of time to figure it out, not what you’d call rehearsal,” explains Costner.
“That scene where I wake up in the hospital is a really cool scene,” he adds. “I could measure that against any scene I’ve ever done.”
Memory transfer might sound like the stuff of science-fiction, but the film’s writers, Douglas Cook and David Weisberg, were inspired by real cutting-edge scientific research in neurobiology, brain architecture and artificial intelligence, which suggests the processes that make up our innermost minds might soon be mappable and, as a result, consciousness itself might become transferable.
“It doesn’t terrify me and I’m not surprised by it,” states Costner, who’s fathered seven children. “I tell you, I would want it, if I thought I was going to lose track of someone I loved, if I couldn’t remember my children’s names...
“The problem with some science is that it always gets aborted into something that’s evil; where’s the line?
“It’d be nice to alter some people in this world that are like, off,” he adds, citing “some of these people who are running countries” as the ‘off’ people he’s referring to.
Costner has never shied away political conversation, and only recently shared his thoughts on the US presidential campaigns, saying he doesn’t find it “entertaining” but “embarrassing”.
“It’s important who the president is and it’s important it be someone that has a vision and has a knowledge of the world, an empathy for the world,” he remarks. “Anybody who doesn’t show that really, in my mind, can’t be president. I look for someone who’s evolved.”
On his own evolution, he reflects that he’s “lived a life that’s not fearful”.
“And because I’ve stretched in my life, because I’ve risked things. I’ve had some really great successes and I’ve had things that have bruised me too,” explains the actor, whose directorial debut, 1990’s Dances With Wolves, earned 12 Oscar nominations, winning seven. He’s also experienced worldwide derision - for 1995’s Waterworld and his second directorial effort, 1997’s The Postman.
Is there anything else he wishes he’d done?
“I can’t think of anything. Life doesn’t scare me, and the idea of not being successful isn’t something that paralyses me,” he reasons.
In recent years, Costner has focused on acting, starring in the TV series Hatfields & McCoys, Kenneth Branagh’s 2014 action-thriller Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, NFL drama Draft Day and as Clark Kent’s dad in the new Superman movies, but he’s keen to get back behind the camera too.
“I’d like to play the second half of my career out directing. There’s a Western I want to do, and some English people I’d like to come after,” Costner reveals, although he declines to name names.
“Europeans populated the West, and I hope when I approach some English actors they’ll say, ‘Yes’, and come play cowboy with me.”
Criminal is released on Friday, April 15.