Battered by critics, Kevin Costner defends his role in movies and his movie roles

November 06, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

His kid co-stars rate him "cool, real cool" and "very natural -- he doesn't have a big head."

His director likens him to Gary Cooper and calls him the "archetypal decent man."

Kevin Costner himself says he's nearing meltdown, that he's physically and spiritually drained, having done four films back-to-back in 1 1/2 years, including "The War," which opened Friday, and the now-in-production and over-budget "Waterworld" (price tag: a record $140 million).

Before you can ask, "What makes Kevin run?" he poses the question himself: "What's driving me? It's self-imposed pressure. have to do well. Movies aren't the most important thing in the world, but when I'm there, on the day, they have to matter. And that takes a toll. You feel like you miss out on things. It's hard on whomever you're with."

The "things" to which Mr. Costner refers: marriage, responsibilities as a father of three (ranging in age from 6 to 10), downtime to reflect on what the accolades (two Oscars for "Dances With Wolves") and huge monetary rewards mean.

It was inevitable that something had to give. What gave was his marriage of 16 years to college sweetheart Cindy Silva. (They filed for divorce two weeks ago.) Which is why the actor would rather be just about anywhere than where he is this morning, facing the media, selling "The War," a modest Vietnam allegory in which he plays Elijah Wood's war-vet father.

"It's a beautiful day," he says, nodding toward the streaming sunlight. "That's where I'd like to be, not in this room."

Mr. Costner looks disheveled, worn down. He's wearing faded jeans and a T-shirt. His light-brown hair is shoulder length, stringy and unkempt. It's his " 'Waterworld' look," he says. He's ,, playing a loner, a drifter, in the adventure set 400 years in the future, when the ice caps have melted and mankind clings to floating cities that resemble scrap heaps.

"My character is one step ahead on the evolutionary chain -- or behind. However one wants to look at it."

He's cornered, then, like a rat on a sinking ship?

Mr. Costner, 39, appreciates the simile. He has been staring long and hard into the briny of late.

"A Perfect World," his film with Clint Eastwood, brought respectable notices but failed to find an audience. His $100-million "Wyatt Earp" did the exact opposite business of "Dances with Wolves." Industry analysts ("mean-spirited" so-and-sos, according to the star) believe it could replace "Heaven's Gate" as the biggest money-loser ever. His company's South Seas-set "Rapa Nui" (directed by frequent collaborator Kevin Reynolds) received spotty distribution and some of the year's worst reviews.

And now comes the negative publicity for "Waterworld," which Mr. Costner is also producing. Still a good five months from release, the actor's first all-out action adventure in the Schwarzenegger-Stallone mold has been called "trouble-plagued," "bloated" and, by People magazine, "Costner's Waterloo."

Such unsubstantiated digs make his blood boil, says Mr. Costner.

"It's like football games. We review them at halftime. We review them before they even start. We're obsessed with judging things before we ever see them."

Mr. Costner's description of "Waterworld" sounds eerily familiar. He could be describing his personal life. "Mankind is on its last legs. Everything is falling apart. The world is in a very desperate strait."

It's not his kind of picture, Mr. Costner admits. He signed on to make good on a contractual obligation (to Universal Pictures) and then took over as producer when the script needed drastic revisions. He toned down the violence. Before, it was about his character and a female sidekick (Jeanne Tripplehorn) battling an army of "eco-pigs." Nemesis Dennis Hopper has likened the action to "Mad Max on the water."

"I've tried to infuse some story into it," Mr. Costner says. "In Hollywood movies, when someone asks, 'How do we get rid of these 50 bad guys in front of us?' the answer is: 'You shoot 'em.' "

Mr. Costner made sure his water-logged hero wouldn't come off as another stone-cold killer. He armed him with a spear gun. "Now he has to be a little more resourceful."

As for those insider reports of skyrocketing costs, they're fairly accurate, he says. "I don't know -- it could cost $140 million."

Does that worry him?

"It would if the money was mine," he says, laughing. "Actually, some of it is mine."

For now, Mr. Costner just has to concentrate on surviving a shoot in Hawaii that has been, in his own words, "very problematic" (production was halted for a tidal-wave warning in September).

"I feel like Quasimodo on this picture. I've got to just put my head down and work. I've got no choice."

He agreed to a beefed-up supporting role in "The War," he says, because he believed in what the film had to say about territoriality and the lessons of Vietnam. He insisted upon second billing to the film's real star, 13-year-old Elijah Wood. "I didn't think it appropriate that they use me to sell the film. Why did I agree to a smaller role? Because I'm a script-oriented actor. When I see something great, I don't start counting the pages."

Segueing from a small character part in "The War" to a popcorn hero in "Waterworld" is all part of the actor's game plan.

"For better or worse, I've decided to make movies a part of my life," he says. "Sure, I'd like to have time off. But we're not talking Vietnam here. It's a pretty good life."

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