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Kevin Costner on the hard work of 'Hatfields & McCoys'

August 09, 2012|By Amy Dawes, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Kevin Costner has been nominated for his work in "Hatfields & McCoys" on History.
Kevin Costner has been nominated for his work in "Hatfields &… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)

"Harden your hearts," Devil Anse Hatfield orders his male kinfolk as they raise their rifles for the point-blank killing of some young McCoy boys they've tied to a tree. Kevin Costner, who plays the weathered, pipe-smoking Hatfield patriarch, says achieving that "almost biblical level of hardness" was the key to his performance. "Bill Paxton's character [Randall McCoy] asks me three times to spare the lives of his sons, and I turn away and say, 'I don't think so,'" Costner says. "There's a level of hardness a character like that would have to have. Those killings were hard justice — they felt a lot like murder — but I was comfortable with my character doing that because I understood the world he was living in."

That world — the raw, vengeance-prone post-Civil War Appalachia in which the real-world bloody feud played out — was evoked powerfully enough that the History miniseries "Hatfields & McCoys" has landed 16 Emmy nominations, including four for acting. In addition to Costner, costars Paxton, Tom Berenger and Mare Winningham were recognized for their work. "You can only set a tone with how you behave," Costner says about any influence he may have had on the ensemble. "But I believe a lot in rehearsal, and even though the budget didn't provide for that, we found a way to get together, at night or on our off days, and work on scenes ahead of time."

Having done a number of roles from that period, including "Wyatt Earp" and as Civil War Lt. John Dunbar in the Oscar-winning "Dances With Wolves," Costner notes, "A lot of people think my acting comes naturally, particularly in this genre, but it doesn't. I have to work really hard on it — it takes a real investment of working with the language and nomenclature of the time, and on the words that are being said, to make it smooth."

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This project, the actor's first foray into television, appealed to him, he says, because "I like history the way a lot of people like it — when it comes alive, and you feel like you're experiencing it the way it probably happened. I knew this wasn't the kind of story that was in vogue, on its surface, but I felt it had really high entertainment value. And I think we all understand about the spiral of violence and what happens when you can't let go. These were men who, 30 years into it with this huge body count, maybe wished they could have stopped it at the beginning."

As one of the project's credited producers, Costner brought aboard director Kevin Reynolds, with whom he'd worked on the epic movie "Waterworld." "I wanted it to be cinematic and bold in its vision," the actor says. Costner, who next appears as Clark Kent's father in December's Superman reboot, "Man of Steel," also wrote and performed music for the soundtrack with his band Modern West.

Speaking by phone, Costner had just returned to his ocean-front ranch near Santa Barbara the night before, after a series of concert dates with the band (he sings lead vocals). While Modern West was touring Europe more than a year earlier, Costner says, he was studying his part for "Hatfields & McCoys" on the bus one night when he began to hum and sing the words "I know these hills." "I Know These Hills" became the lead song on a Modern West concept album of 19 tunes that express what Costner calls "a musical soul centered in the hills of Appalachia."

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More typically, the band plays heartland rock 'n' roll, but Costner says that, in recent shows, "I slow it down at a certain point and say, 'I just did this miniseries called "Hatfields & McCoys,"' and a big roar goes up. A lot of people seem to have seen it." He then plays four songs from the album, which is titled "Famous for Killing Each Other." Asked if he mentioned the show's Emmy nominations onstage after the news broke, Costner laughs and says, "No, I didn't do that. But I'm privately really, really happy."

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