Even though Madonna gagged over his squareness; even though Pauline Kael wrote that in Dances with Wolves, he had "feathers in his hair, and feathers in his head;" even though the dreadfulness of his British accent in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is second only to Dick Van Dyke's in Mary Poppins; even though Waterworld sank and The Postman didn't deliver, I've always liked watching Kevin Costner on screen. His range is narrow, but when he's in it, you can't beat him for relaxed naturalism. I like the way he sits on a horse, swings a golf club, throws a baseball. In 1987's No Way Out, one of his breakout roles, I was happy just watching him change into a clean shirt. There's something so straight-up American about him, and specifically Californian: affable, affluent, lucky.
"No one's ever mistaken me for anything other than American, it's true," Costner said last September, in exactly the right self-deprecating tone. We were in a Toronto hotel room that was empty of furniture except for the two chairs we sat on, yet full of handlers and hangers-on who stood around us staring intently into their phones. It felt like some sort of art installation. (We also did a second interview by phone in January, three days after Costner's 60th birthday.) He was wearing boots, jeans, a vest, dark sunglasses and a full beard. He's distressed that his hair is marching backwards off his scalp, but he's keeping it groomed and letting it happen.
"As an actor, you have to get used to a lot of rejection, and sometimes cruel rejection," he went on. "But at the end of the day, it's the chances you take that inform your life and lift it up. Anything I've ever done that mattered to me, I knew I was taking a chance, and I knew that the likelihood of failing was greater than that of succeeding. But that didn't bother me."
Maybe it's turning 60, maybe it's that he's begun playing grandpas on screen – first in the 2012 miniseries Hatfields & McCoys, for which he won an Emmy; and now in the new dramatic feature Black or White, playing in select cities – but Costner is in a reflective mood. Last month, accepting a lifetime-achievement honour at the Critics' Choice Awards, he delivered a heartfelt speech, thanking the many people who'd made his career happen, right down to the crew members who moved heat lamps closer to him on cold film shoots.
"I've always been grateful," Costner tells me. "I didn't become a star in my 20s and feel like I inherited the Earth. Stardom came to me late, when I had two children." (He's currently married to his second wife, the handbag designer Christine Baumgartner, and has seven children ranging in age from 30 to four.)
"I'd worked construction. I'd been a commercial fisherman," he continues. "I appreciate all the big hotel rooms, because until I became an actor I'd never even stayed in a motel. I haven't had to suddenly get reflective and go, 'Wow, I didn't make this happen all by myself?'" He laughs. "That number, 60 – I understand that I'm playing the second half of my life out, but I feel 20 in my heart. I'm lucky in that I can still play the lead in American movies, but I'll also take small parts. If I see a movie that I want, it's like, I can fall in love with a waitress, it doesn't have to be a model. What I want is to feel relevant."
Black or White, which takes a hard look at the issue of race in the United States, is certainly timely. Costner's character, a wealthy lawyer, goes into battle with Octavia Spencer's, a striver in Compton, Calif., for custody of their biracial granddaughter; in one painful scene, he drops the N-bomb. (It's written and directed by Mike Binder, who also directed Costner in The Upside of Anger, and who helped raise his own biracial nephew after his sister died.)
Costner himself lived in Compton until he was seven. He heard all the racial epithets, and said them himself. "It was never malicious," he says. "It was vulgar, but it was how people talked in the sixties." So when it came time to say it on camera, he didn't flinch: "I'm not nervous about stuff like that. We need to look at this subject. Mike gave me a speech where I get to say something I'd never heard before: It's not your first thought that defines you. Your first thought might be about someone's race. But it's your second or third thought that matters more. If you're an actor, you live for speeches like that."
Here's how much Costner believed in Black or White: Because it couldn't land financing elsewhere, he put his own money into it, $7-million. "I wish that I hadn't had to," he says. "That's a lot of cash. But the way I've constructed my life, when I want to do something and I tell someone I believe in it, that means I have to follow through. Unfortunately." (On that last word, he grins his trademark Costner grin. The wattage of that hasn't dimmed, I assure you.)
Interestingly, Costner's next film, McFarland, due out Feb. 20, is also about race. It's a true story, set in the titular California town, about a high school cross-country coach whose teams, largely made up of Hispanic migrant workers, were among the winningest in history. (It works hard to make you cry, and it succeeds.) While in high school, Costner lived in a town called Visalia and played baseball against McFarland. "So I knew that world, too," he says. "I understood it."
Doing two race-themed movies in a row is "an absolute coincidence," he insists. "I made [baseball movies] Field of Dreams and Bull Durham back to back, and no one thought that was a wise idea, but I did them because they were the best scripts I had read. The same is true here. This isn't my Blue period, or my Thoughtful period, or my 'Ooh, I'm Reconciling My Age' period."
He's just living his life, the way he always has. He has four scripts he wants to direct, all waiting for financing. He picks his younger kids up at school, and takes them fishing at his 165-acre ranch outside Aspen, Colo. He once made a canoe and travelled Lewis and Clark's route in it. He built an interactive museum, the Tatanka Interpretive Center, outside Deadwood, S.D., and commissioned the 17 life-size bronze statues that stand nearby: three Sioux riders on horseback chasing buffalo toward a jump. (Tatanka, as you may recall from Dances with Wolves, is the Lakota word for buffalo.) "I rode with buffalo in a way that hadn't been done for 100 years, and I was taken by it," he explains, shrugging. Oh, and he's co-written a novel, The Explorer's Guild: Volume One, with the writer Jon Baird – an 800-page adventure "in the vein of Kipling or Jules Verne," for Simon & Schuster. Writing it was so incredible, he says, that he doesn't see it as work.
"I've taken big bites out of life, and life has taken some big ones out of me," Costner sums up. "My divorce, for example – that's hard, and it was hard on my children. But I travel the world, I have friends I'm willing to go on vacation with." (Another grin.) "I'm still observing. I hope I'm still evolving. It's not like I haven't been bruised or broken, but I've had it really good."