The “Black or White” Interview
with Kam Williams
Oscar-Winner Reflects on Life, Career and His Latest Film
Kevin Michael Costner was born in Lynwood, California on January 18, 1955. After landing a breakout role in Silverado in 1985, he enjoyed a meteoric rise in such hit pictures as The Untouchables, No Way Out, Bull Durham and Field of Dreams en route to winning a couple of Academy Awards for Dancing with Wolves.
Other films on his impressive resume include JFK, The Bodyguard, Message in a Bottle and Draft Day, to name a few. Here, he discusses his latest film, Black or White, a courtroom drama where he plays a grandfather caught up in a legal fight for custody of his biracial granddaughter with the black side of her family.
Kam Williams: Hi Kevin, thanks for the interview. I’m honored to have this opportunity.
Kevin Costner: You can call me Kevin, Kam.
KW: Thanks! I told my readers I’d be interviewing you, so I have a lot of questions for you from fans. Children’s book author Irene Smalls asks: What attracted you to this project, and do you think the plot is relevant, given the evolution of race relations in America?
KC: That’s what attracted me to the project. It reminded me of one of the things I like about movies. I remember how, after I read the script for Dances with Wolves, I just knew that I had to make it, when not everybody else wanted to. But I did end up making it. Similarly, Bull Durham and Fields of Dreams, didn’t strike people as giant movies, but I think the hallmark of all three of those pictures is that they have traveled through time and become classics. And when I read Black or White, I had the exact same feeling. I said, “Oh my God! This is about the moment that we’re living in right now. And this was before Ferguson, and all this stuff. You know, our problems didn’t just start in August. I’ve been living with this my entire life. But I thought there was a level of genius in the writing that I thought would make everybody rush to make this movie also. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and so the journey of this project has been very much like the journey of others that I’ve had to push uphill. But I didn’t think Black or White had any less value, so I decided I would pay for it, and make this movie because I just thought it had a chance to be a classic, and because it said some things I think a lot of people need to hear and would even perhaps say themselves, if they could string the words together.
KW: Sangeetha Subramanian says: Black or White looks like a great movie, Kevin. Did you give your on-screen granddaughter, Jillian Estell, any acting advice on the set?
KC: No I didn’t. I just tried to lead by example by the way I behaved on the set, and she understood. She’s a little girl, and I always had to keep that in mind. But she gave us the performance that we really needed. This movie depended on her being really good, which she was!
KW: Harriet Pakula-Teweles says: Field of Dreams’ message was, “If you build it, he will come.” What’s the takeaway built into Black or White?
KC: I guess the message of Field of Dreams, ultimately, was about things that go unsaid between people who really love each other, and about how it’s important that you try to say those things while you’re still alive, so that they have that level of meaning, that level of value, that you can carry with you for the rest of your life.
Field of Dreams, to me, was always about things that go unsaid that need to be talked about. I don’t know what the takeaway for Black or White is, but I do know that if you’re going to make a movie, and it’s going to deal with race, you have to make it authentic, and not pull any punches. You have to use the language that’s appropriate. And I thought this movie was a miracle because writer/director Mike Binder was able to just be authentic in dealing with race. These were things that wanted to be said, so I knew that I would have a kind of a role of a lifetime in Elliot Anderson.
KW: Director Larry Greenberg says: Black or White touches on how alcoholism and addiction impact parenting. Is this an issue that you feel needs more attention?
KC: Well, obviously, you were able to see the movie, Larry, and for that I’m grateful. The hope is that, if the movie
did touch you, you’ll continue to tell other people about it. But alcohol, used in any excess, is always going to put a veil over how we behave… clouding our judgment… and affecting our ability to love and to be responsible. And certainly, in this instance, it’s pretty clear that what was driving the drinking was the loss of the love of his life, his wife, and the loss of his child seven years earlier. The discussion of alcohol, and where he is in terms of it, is pretty unique in this film, because at one point he suggests that maybe he isn’t an alcoholic, but just an angry person. And that clouds his judgment when he’s backed into a corner. Also, the movie deals with addictions on both sides, which makes it very balanced and enjoyable to watch.
KW: Sherry Gillam says: Happy Belated Birthday! [January 18th] I saw your picture on the cover of AARP Magazine a couple of months ago. You’re still just as handsome as ever.
KC: [Laughs heartily] Thank Sherry a lot. I have no choice, but that was really a high compliment. It’s been a pleasure making movies for people of my generation. I try to make films that will stand the test of time, so that the younger generations will be inclined to catch up to them. That’s what I tried to do with Black or White. It’s relevant to us now, but I’m hopeful that someone watching it twenty years from now will understand what’s at stake when you’re dealing with the welfare of a child, and of the problem that might come when you overlay it with race.
KW: Sherry did have a question, too. She asks: What makes you smile on the inside?
KC: [Laughs again] A good idea makes me smile. My children succeeding makes me smile. My wife looking at me and saying she’s proud of me makes me smile. Even just being surprised makes me smile.
KW: Professor/director/author Hisani Dubose says: You have such a broad range of movies, which I think is great. What attracts you to a script? Is there a unifying factor?
KC: Sometimes, it’s the chance to say something I want to say for myself. Other times, it’s having an opportunity to say something that I feel everyone in the world would like to say. And Black or White really matches up with that. There are some things said in this movie that I know people have wanted to say for a long time. I was given the speech of a lifetime in the courtroom, and I’m gratified to hear that audiences have been clapping when I’m done. A lot of people would never think that’s possible, given the movie, but I’ve seen it in theaters night after night. That’s been very pleasing to me.
KW: Documentary filmmaker Kevin Williams says: Thank you for making so many great, enjoyable films. When you look back upon your career, how do you remember your magical rise from Silverado to winning a couple of Oscars for Dances with Wolves?
KC: The truth is that I can remember it, I understand, yet I never thought my career would ever have that kind of success. Listen, I’ve had such good luck. I didn’t know it could ever be as wonderful as it has been, although it has had a measure of stress and pain. Still, it’s been an incredible ride. I appreciate my good luck and my good fortune, and I have loved every minute of it. Silverado, Fandango, No Way Out, The Untouchables, Open Range, Hatfields & McCoys, all these movies that I look back on, and now Black or White. Listen, I’ve had good luck, and I get that. I just hope the second half of my life plays out in a way that I am able to continue to make movies that are relevant not only to me but to people who like to go to the theater.
KW: My favorite of your films, one which I’ve watched over a dozen times, is No Way Out.
KC: [Chuckles] That was a movie that wasn’t going to get made, either. It was sitting at Warner Brothers in a state of limbo known as turnaround. It just wasn’t on the minds of anybody. Orion Pictures wanted to do a picture with me, but they didn’t have anything in mind. They asked me what I was interested in, and I told them that there was this picture over at Warner Brothers I really loved called Finished with Engines. I brought the script to them and they decided they would do it, but they changed the title to No Way Out.
KW: Environmental activist Grace Sinden asks: What do you enjoy the most about the moviemaking process?
KC: I really love rehearsal. I love being with people and working on something when no one else is looking. Another aspect I enjoy is having a job where you have breakfast, lunch and dinner with the people you work with. You always get to know people a lot better when you’re actually able to have meals with them. So, I was really perfectly suited for the movie business. I don’t know how I got so lucky, but I thank God for it every day.
KW: Attorney Bernadette Beekman asks: Do you think this film will initiate a debate about interracial adoption?
KC: I think that if you see this movie with someone who doesn’t look like you, you’re going to have an incredible conversation afterwards. I believe Black or White will really foster conversation whether you see it with friends or with your sweetheart, and that you will be a little different when you come out of the theater.
KW: David Roth says: In Black or White, your character, Elliot, is raising a black granddaughter, sheltering her from her junkie dad and the perceived instability of her black relatives. Does this picture pander to “white knight coming to the rescue of a person of color” stereotype avoided by Selma director Ava DuVernay in her downplaying President LBJ’s role in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
KC: Audiences coming out of the theater say how refreshing Black or White is because of its evenhandedness in that regard. We know that humans are sometimes willing to fight unfairly, and what makes this picture great is that it feels very, very authentic. We’re not dealing with the same issue that David has with Selma. No one likes to go to a movie and fell like they’ve been manipulated. You smell a rat when you’re being manipulated. The truth is just as entertaining as a lie, so why not shoot the truth?
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
KC: I see a full life. And I’m raising young children, and my desire to stay healthy and to remain relevant is uppermost in my mind.
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
KC: I remember everything from about 2½ or 3 years-old on. I remember my father coming home and unlacing his work boots… I remember my mom cooking in the kitchen… I remember the curtains… the couches… the smell of the linoleum. I even remember some of my dreams from back then.
KW: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that powerful eulogy you delivered for Whitney Houston. There were a lot of great eulogies that day, but yours eclipsed them all.
KC: Thank you. Well, Whitney and I had a unique relationship. I wasn’t even sure that I should be up there talking, but it seemed like the world demanded that because of our make believe relationship in The Bodyguard. The world has linked us together because of that movie. So when I was asked to speak, I could only talk about what it was I knew.
KW: Harriet also asks: With so many classic films being redone, is there a remake you’d like to star in?
KC: I don’t really think about that very much. There are a couple that I might redo, but I still just love breaking new ground on an individual movie. I appreciate great classics, and perhaps I’ll make one someday, but I have six or seven lined up, and not one of them is a remake or a sequel.
KW: Are any of your kids interested in following in your footsteps?
KC: No, they’ve all charted their own paths. None of them has pivoted off my name. They’re all doing their own thing. That’s what I love about them. My daughter [Lily] sings in Black or White. That’s her singing in the funeral scene. She’s 28, and an amazing singer/songwriter.
KW: Lastly, what’s in your wallet?
KC: [LOL] What’s in my wallet? Well, at the premiere a few days ago, this Chinese fellow came up to me, handed me his card, and said, “I want to make movies with you.” I haven’t called him yet, but we’ll see if he really means it.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Kevin, and best of luck with the film.
KC: I’m glad you liked the movie, Kam, and thanks for writing about it.