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COSTNER TAKES A STAND : He's Made a Western. It's Three Hours Long. It Has Subtitles. And He Likes It Like That.

November 04, 1990|Elaine Dutka | Elaine Dutka covers the film industry for The Times.

Actually, says Costner, Day 1 was his most profound test. "Everyone told me to make sure I knew where to put the camera so the crew would feel I was in charge," he says with a smile. "I'd set up the first two shots weeks in advance, but two minutes into things, I knew that the geography was working against me, that my calculations were wrong. Instead of locking in, I proceeded to move the camera to another spot. That was the moment I knew I could do it, that I wouldn't be constrained by any insecurity."

COSTNER'S FRIENDS describe him as "street smart," an outgrowth, no doubt, of his early years. Because his father, an executive with Pacific Bell, was frequently transferred, Kevin attended four different high schools around the state and felt perpetually on the periphery. "The fact that I was 5-2 as a sophomore didn't help," he says. "I'm 6-1 now but still relate to those feelings. I didn't date in high school and didn't get my growth until college. I never got over being short."

Always what he terms "performance-oriented," Costner sang in an all-boys choir. "That's when I first realized I could manipulate audiences," he says. "Music has always made me very happy. You get an immediate response from people." Sports, too, were an ego boost for Costner, who earned varsity letters in baseball and basketball. "I did feel special as a kid," he says. "Not better, but special. . . . And there's no crime in that."

After graduating from Villa Park High School in Orange County, Costner enrolled at Cal State Fullerton, arbitrarily choosing marketing as his major. Pledging Delta Chi, he met Cindy Silva at a fraternity party. She was the first woman, he says, that he "really dated." The two of them became inseparable and were married 2 1/2 years later, while they were still in college.

Costner didn't consider acting until his senior year. Fighting sleep in an accounting class, he picked up a copy of the college newspaper, saw a casting-call notice and decided to try out for "Rumpelstiltskin." "I had grown a bit, so I knew I couldn't play the dwarf," he deadpans. "But I knew there had to be a prince. I lost the audition because I had no tools. Good looks didn't help me at all, which is why I never counted on them. I knew right then, though, that I wanted to be an actor more than anything, to be behind that door. There seemed to be something magical there."

He headed for the South Coast Actors Coop once, then twice, then five times a week. In his first serious effort--Arthur Laurents' "Invitation to a March" at the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse--"I was horrible," he says. "But in acting, you reserve the right to improve--and I've always gotten fueled by my disasters."

Costner took a job in a family construction business--a position he disliked immediately and abandoned after 30 days. While Cindy stayed in Orange County to finish school, he headed for Hollywood, attending a film-budgeting class at UCLA and sleeping in the back of a truck in a parking lot at Sunset and La Brea. Cindy soon followed--albeit with trepidation. "The vows say 'for better and for worse, richer or poorer,' " he says. "She probably thought it was 'worse' and 'poorer' from the outset."

Costner became a stage manager at Raleigh Studios, an independent, all-purpose production facility that makes commercials, features and videos, where he coordinated the equipment for each production. Answering ads in Drama-Logue, he lined up bit parts in two low-budget, lower-caliber films. The experience was a turning point, of sorts. "They started with the lowest common denominator--and settled for less than that," he says. "There was a noticeable lack of invention. From that point on, I resolved to hold out for only the best. It's easy to have convictions when you're powerful, much less so when you're a nobody, which is when it counts."

Costner started saying no early on. Hired to pose as a young Luther Adler for a photograph to be used in the 1982 film "Frances," he was ultimately offered a small walk-on role. His one line--"Good night, Frances," delivered to Jessica Lange--would have earned him a Screen Actors Guild card, a prerequisite for union auditions that had eluded him for six years. When it came to delivering the line, however, Costner balked. "Frances had all these autograph hounds around her, and I didn't want to interrupt. I didn't know how to make the line work. It drove everyone crazy. 'Just say it,' they yelled--and finally I did. But so quietly that the sound guy shook his head."

Later, Costner passed on a chance to read for the Tom Berenger role in "Platoon" for fear of offending his brother, a decorated Vietnam War vet. He also turned down the role of J. Robert Oppenheimer in "Fat Man and Little Boy" because he doubted that anyone would believe he had an I.Q. of 160. "Like Steve McQueen, with whom we both share an infatuation," says director Kasdan, "Kevin has always had a clear sense of his abilities and what was right for him."

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