The Costner art: make it look natural

August 01, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun movie critic

The late director Sydney Pollack said the ability to relax in front of the camera is a key to great film acting. Nobody chills out for the lens better than Kevin Costner, especially when he's playing a character he calls "the American rascal," in movies like Bull Durham and Tin Cup, The Upside of Anger and the new political comedy-drama Swing Vote.

When Costner fleshes out a confused man like Swing Vote's Bud Johnson - who finds himself, after a lifetime of apathy, casting the deciding vote in a presidential election - he doesn't exaggerate his awkwardness.

"If I wear a mullet, people might notice and say 'yeah, that's some terrific choice' - but it would probably draw too much attention to itself," he says over the phone while promoting Swing Vote. Instead, as a working-class lazybones, he turns getting up in the morning into an essay on sloth, dashed hope and self-amusement.

Performing the act of sleeping (or waking) for the camera must be as difficult as that other thespian challenge: acting drunk. How does Costner do it so effortlessly? Is he just Mr. Natural?

"No, it doesn't come naturally," he says, "because there's nothing natural about it, with people so close."

Costner says he got his first lesson in on-screen relaxation when he was making his hit thriller No Way Out. "They just put the camera with me and a girl in the back seat of a limo and had me undress her all in one shot. I was trying to be careful with her while pulling off garter belts and everything that was supposed to come off, and it was an uncomfortable moment. ...

"I had forgotten the reality of the situation I was in; the limo driver would obviously have been watching me. So I turned and looked off-camera left - I had all the camera people wondering what I was doing - and asked, 'Would you mind putting up the shade?' Two months later we went back and shot a limo driver responding to me, and it was a big laugh in the movie. When I relaxed, I realized I could put all these elements in play. And that's the truth. You relax, and you actually sense more."

Swing Vote required him to conjure a different kind of intimacy: a genuine father-daughter bond between Costner and Madeline Carroll as Molly, Bud's 12-year-old daughter. "The script may say Molly wakes Bud up, but it doesn't say smack him really hard on the back! We were able to trust each other, and that was crucial, because she's my daughter - I have to be able to kiss the top of her head, pull her hair, pat her bottom, do everything that speaks of a relationship that's very familiar."

Neither a left-wing nor a right-wing diatribe, but a comic outcry against public complacency and political manipulation, Swing Vote was a hard project to launch because studios considered it too American to play well overseas. So Costner decided, "I would finance it myself. Halfway through, Disney agreed to distribute it."

Reluctantly pulled into the public eye, Bud can be as naive as Peter Sellers' Chance in Being There. When asked if he's "pro-life," he doesn't realize that the phrase refers to the abortion debate; he wonders how anyone could be anti-life. When co-workers at the egg factory complain of "in-sourcing" - they fear highly motivated Mexican workers taking their jobs - Bud thinks it's a sharp phrase and uses it himself without pondering its racist overtones.

Bud's lack of social awareness marks him as an all-American escapist. But it also provides Costner with a fresh point of attack on the debasement of our social and political life. Costner asks, "Is Bud the enemy just because he drinks beer and is illiterate? There are people who work at great jobs and don't vote. He says we need 'giants,' and that's a very profound word, even if it comes from Bud."

Costner finds it amusing that reporters interviewing him want to know how Bud will vote - and how Costner will vote in the real election. What's important to Costner is that Bud decides to educate himself and vote intelligently. The star himself refuses to be categorized. When right-wingers labeled his left-wing Bull Durham co-stars Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon unpatriotic for questioning the Iraq War, Costner stood up for them. "That was just bullying. I think it's cheap, and I think it's easy, and people who keep hacking them are really missing the point."

After the shootings at Virginia Tech, he spoke out for stricter gun laws. "I'm a fisherman and a hunter; I hunt with a bird dog, I skin my animals. But I think there should be gun laws, OK? And then I offend all these people on the right. And I believe a woman has the right to choose. What happens is you just can't exercise any kind of judgment without alienating groups of people. How could I possibly be in one party or the other when it's like that? My views about things are just mixed."

His movies are hard to predict, too. "I think it's typical of my career: Do something to see if it can work. Doing the same movie over and over again might be good business, but it's not part of my DNA. I'm sure I'll do another American rascal, very much like Bud, but it won't be the same movie - it won't be Swing Vote or Bull Durham or Tin Cup. That's a good character for me to revisit: An American that's hard to tame."

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