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Playback: Kevin Costner on ‘Hidden Figures,’ ‘Dances’ Memories and More

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

In this week’s episode, the last of 2016, Jenelle Riley and I are tapped out. So we toss it out to the listeners for a few questions. How will the guilds change the conversation this Oscar season? What Golden Globe surprises are lurking around the corner? Is it time for an ensemble category at the Oscars, and in a year full of so many great cast accomplishments, what is truly the best of them?

A little bit later (16:40) I’m talking to the star of one of those ensembles, the great Kevin Costner. He plays a composite character in the film, the head of a group tasked with the problem-solving of putting astronauts into space. That meant there wasn’t a single person he could talk to and mold his performance around, but that simply allowed him and director Theodore Melfi to make the character stand for something in a larger thematic context.

Listen to this week’s episode of “Playback” below. New episodes air every Thursday.

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“We didn’t have the rights to that character, and there was like three of them that Ted Melfi was drawing off of,” Costner says. “I didn’t sit with them because it was going to be a combination. We understood the personalities of the three men, but we couldn’t turn them into one guy. What we tried to understand is this movie is set against a couple of big backdrops. Civil rights was going through a revolutionary period right at that moment, and then you’ve got women’s rights and women in the workplace and this terrible racism that bleeds over into a corporate structure, with a lot on the line. We were behind. And were we going let these issues keep us from getting where we needed to be? It’s like a sports team, ‘Oh, you’re going to keep your best player on the bench? Really?'”

Beyond “Hidden Figures,” I try my best to skip a stone across Costner’s illustrious career. It’s a big one to fit into a half and hour but we give it a go, hitting highlights like one of his first gigs, a Steven Spielberg-directed episode of the anthology series “Amazing Stories,” as well as highlights like “JFK,” “A Perfect World,” “The Postman,” even “Tin Cup” and a personal favorite, “Open Range.”

“Dances with Wolves” will be the one that looms above them all for Costner long after he’s gone, however. A massive, bold directorial debut that won seven Academy Awards, including best picture and best director, it’s a movie that catches snarky flack for deigning to beat “Goodfellas” at the Oscars, but it’s pretty close to a masterpiece in its own right. And it was, for Costner, a trial by fire.

“There was an undertone out there that was ugly,” Costner recalls of the production. “It was ‘Kevin’s Gate,’ like, ‘What’s he doing out there? This movie is a disaster.’ I didn’t know where that had come from. I know this: I had to turn down ‘The Hunt for Red October’ because I had promised I would do ‘Dances,’ and some people thought me saying no to ‘Hunt for Red October’ was that I needed more money. It wasn’t more money. I had already postponed ‘Dances’ for a year and I wasn’t going to do it now. I had all my things in place. In fact, if anything, it caused me a lot of pain because there was more money offered on ‘Hunt for Red October’ than I had ever seen in my life. So I was doing the dumb thing. I was putting up my money and leaving behind the biggest check I had ever seen.”

It worked out. John Barry’s music played seven times on Oscar night and Costner was the toast of the town. But he remembers that night in much simpler terms.

“For me,” he says, “it was like, ‘I got my money back! I got my house back!'”

And speaking of simplicity, there’s something about the western genre and a sense of complexity in its modest strokes that makes it, continually, a rich genre to explore. Costner has done so a number of times, from “Silverado” to “Wyatt Earp” to a truly underrated gem, his own 2003 effort “Open Range.” Costner shares an enthusiasm for that cinematic world.

“It comes in the language. Everyone’s looking for the shootout in a western, but the strength of them is what gets said leading up to things,” he says. “There is an oddity about how people talk, yet it’s our Shakespeare, the American west.”

Not to be greedy, but is there a chance we could get one more oater out of him before he hangs up his saddle?

“I have one,” he says. “I’ve been working on it. It’s about 10 hours long, how about that? Maybe I’ll make three features out of it. There’s a fourth one, too, so it’s truly a saga. I could do TV, or I could also make it like every six months, have a big western that’s tied together like ‘Jean de Florette’ and ‘Manon of the Spring.’ I think those are fun to watch.”

Uhhh…yes please.

For all of that and a whole lot more, listen to this week’s podcast via the streaming link above. And have a Happy New Year.

Subscribe to “Playback” at iTunes.

Kevin Costner photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback podcast
Dan Doperalski for Variety

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