Kevin Costner: Hollywood Icon

Kevin Costner is on an epic adventure.

By Sondra Barr

Where once it was considered the sign of a dwindling career for a big time movie actor to appear on the small screen, times have changed. These days, it’s de rigueur for marquee stars to plunge into Netflix’s streaming waters of success. So, while it comes as no surprise that 64-year-old iconic actor/filmmaker Kevin Costner took to the trend, it’s the ideal venue to showcase the skills of this consummate storyteller.

Costner likes to take his time and get to the meat of a story. He’s been described as a stick-to-it-type, a problem solver, with the sort of gritty middle-America patience often lacking in Hollywood. With over 40 credits in film and television, obviously the work ethic is there but it goes beyond the ability to get it done, he does it well and he does it his way, against the odds.

On a Journey

“There’s a certain joy that comes with a struggle,” Costner explained to AARP’s Fred Schruers. “I think most people want the endgame. I’ve always liked the journey.”

This is readily apparent in his most recent small-screen roles, The Highwaymen and Yellowstone. In The Highwaymen, a Netflix long-form film, Costner co-stars opposite Woody Harrelson as one of two lawmen tasked with bringing down Bonnie and Clyde, Depression-era bank robber/killers. In Yellowstone, which just finished up its second season on the Paramount Network, Costner plays the role of hardened ranching patriarch John Dutton. Both roles require the sort of character development and fraught journeys that Costner enjoys.

“And that’s all I want in life, a high understanding of why somebody does what they do,” explained Costner to Rolling Stone writer Erik Hedegaard.

In an interview with Michael Buckner to discuss the two shows, Costner explained streaming’s appeal. “Well, it certainly lends itself to that material that I gravitate toward: an epic kind of high adventure, that’s steeped in character, and that takes a long while to lay out.”

Enjoying the Process

It’s this process of creation that inspires Costner and served as the impetus for his 1990 Oscar-winning directorial debut, Dance with Wolves, his epic vision of the American frontier as seen through the eyes of a U.S. Cavalry officer. The subject matter and length were initially criticized and Costner grappled with an out-of-control budget, weather complications, and other headaches to get the film produced. The movie went on to earn seven Oscars, including two for Costner.

“I still don’t know limitations. I think you are limited only if you don’t have a great story. If you do, it’s like you’ve got this great secret in your pocket; a twist or an ending where you just feel, they’re going to love this. I’ve directed three films: The Postman, Open Range, and Dances, and I don’t feel more equipped,” explained Costner to Deadline’s Mike Fleming Jr. “I didn’t make that movie (Dances with Wolves) because I wanted it to be long. It’s just that it was the story of a long journey.”

On Childhood

To earn the clout to develop the films and characters he cares most about, first Costner had to become the biggest movie star around, a journey that started off with a childhood spent always trying to fit in. Costner’s dad Bill worked for Southern California Edison and his mom Sharon was a welfare worker. The Costner brood traveled wherever jobs took its patriarch.

Costner told Rolling Stone’s Hedegaard, “I was a rascal, because I was adventurous 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.’”

According to Hedegaard, Costner knew how to have fun and just in general keep his “dungarees well muddied up.” He also loved movies. One in particular, the first one he watched, How the West was Won, an epic western that, no doubt, helped foster his admiration for grand tales. 

Sports were also an outlet for Costner and a way for the new kid to fit in. Although only 5 feet 2 during high school, he excelled at baseball before attending Cal State, Fullerton, studying business. It’s been reported that while bored in an accounting class, he saw an ad in the school paper advertising auditions for a play. It sparked his interest and he auditioned for a part in Rumpelstiltskin. He didn’t get the role but the audition sparked an inner dialogue.

An Internal Talk

“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 sh*t 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,” he told Hedegaard.

Much like many of the characters Costner plays, he took the road less worn. Rather than head to corporate America with his business degree, he gravitated towards the bustle of Hollywood where he spent years doing odd jobs and nabbing small parts before landing career-changing roles in Bull Durham (1988), Field of Dreams (1989), and The Untouchables (1987), before directing and starring in the acclaimed Dances with Wolves.

No Limitations

Now in his 60s, Costner seems unfazed about the limitations age imposes. “Well, I think when I played Superman’s dad (in Man of Steel), I thought, Well, there’s probably a moment when I could have played Superman. But I just couldn’t get the curl right on my forehead, and I didn’t want to go lift weights. When I was going to play Jonathan Kent, I realized that phase was over. And I’ve been very comfortable with that,” he said in an interview with Cowboys & Indians.

Apparently Costner feels strongly about avoiding the gym. He told AARP, “I hate the gym. The worst thing in my life is to pick up lead weights. Who would want to? Everybody’s dressed cool, and I don’t have any cool clothes, and there’s a mirror that makes you look silly and remind you that it’s all wrong.”

Thankfully that doesn’t mean he plans on letting himself go. As he explained to AARP, “I’m doing exactly what I want to do, being a part of great stories. I like being a storyteller, and that just doesn’t fade. It’s not a job where you’re looking to retire.”