Kevin Costner on 'Black and White,' race, and great movie speeches

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When we first meet Kevin Costner’s character, Elliott, in Black and White, he’s alone at the hospital after a car accident has killed his wife (Jennifer Ehle). Shattered, he finally says, “I feel so sh-tty,” before going home and crawling inside a bottle of booze. The themes of loss and alcohol will evoke memories of the last time Costner worked with writer/director Mike Binder, 2005′s The Upside of Anger. In that film, Costner got to play a lighter soul, with Joan Allen’s abandoned wife shouldering the darker demons. In Black and White, however, Costner is put through the emotional wringer, and the ambitious film adds a much more complicated issue: race.

Elliott’s life has already been marked by tragedy. His teenage daughter died during childbirth, and Elliott and his wife have raised their mixed-race grandchild (Jillian Estell) in their white-collar neighborhood. But when he’s left alone to raise her—while juggling his L.A. legal practice and a mushrooming drinking problem—her paternal grandmother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer), decides the child would be better off with her family in Compton. She takes Elliott to court, cleaning up her ne’er-do-well son, Reggie (Andre Holland), in order to win custody.

In an exclusive scene from the film, which debuts Sept. 6 at the Toronto Film Festival, Elliott and Rowena passive-aggressively make nice at the funeral and plot the course for the conflict that follows. Costner, who financed the film himself, talked to EW about working with Binder, the delicate issue of race in film, and his affinity for a good speech.

EW: Black and White is an unusual combination of rip-your-heart-out drama and laugh-out-loud comedy, which is just dropped in there at the most vulnerable moments. How did it read on paper when you first looked at it?
KEVIN COSTNER: Those things were there. I think nothing in life suffers from a sense of humor. I think when you try to inject a sense of humor into something where it’s not appropriate or you can’t buy that it exists, then it spins you out of a movie. But we know under stressful situations, a lot of times really weird sh-t happens. And I think that’s the genius of Mike Binder’s screenplay. I think he wrote a great American screenplay, along the lines of Bull Durham or Field of Dreams. It’s such an American look at things. There’s a sense of humor that you don’t see coming. There’s also an evenhandedness to the movie. It’s very evenhanded, I think.

There are moments where I found myself nodding at both characters’ perspectives, like, “Exactly, I’ve felt that way.” I suspect others in the audience, whether they be black, white, or Latino, might experience the same thing.
I’ve seen that first-hand, too. We’ve screened it at exclusively black communities and then white communities, and surprisingly, even in the black community, when I finished that final summation, people clapped. They clapped. They get it. Because they do feel that it was evenhanded.

Obviously, you and Mike are both white, and we see the story through Elliott’s perspective. Were you leery of tackling the race issue so directly?
No. I wasn’t. I don’t know why, but I wasn’t. I thought it was honest and truthful, and those things don’t scare me. We didn’t sensationalize things. They want to call [Elliott] a racist? I go to downtown Compton, I walk in that house. Do those people treat me cold? No, they come up and hug me. Say they miss my wife. On both sides, the race card was brought out, in order to win [the court case]. That’s the genius of what Mike wrote: He used that moment [in the courtroom] to say, “F-ck you, that’s not right. I’m not a racist. Just because I don’t f-cking like you doesn’t make me a racist.” And he brought it out of the mouth of an angry grandfather who thinks he’s going to lose. It’s an amazing tap dance that Michael Binder’s done here.

Talking about race very directly, you can’t get more direct than using the n-word, and especially the way that your character uses it. That’s not a word that we’re supposed to say, ever, and certainly not today.
Not anymore. It’s changed. And we’re better off because of it.

Putting that word in the mouth of your character, is it more difficult to play?
No, it’s not more difficult. It’s difficult to watch. It’s not difficult to perform.

So you wince a little when you watch?
It’s tough. It’s ugly. It’s all those things that go with it. But Mike salvaged it in a way that was so unpredictable that even on the witness stand, [Elliott] goes, “It’s the word [Reggie] used to describe himself.” And [Reggie] ratted me out, if you think about it. I just think Mike did an amazing job. Even having Octavia slap Reggie… three times. Really important, the third slap. She says, “Pull yourself together.”

You produced this film.
I paid for this movie too. I didn’t just produce it. I financed it. So the next question is, “Why is that?”

That’s true. I’m always interested in the disappearing middle class, specific to film. These movies don’t really get made anymore unless someone like yourself writes a check because the studios want stars in capes or they want it done for dimes and nickels. What was your experience?
Well, I really thought that people were going to feel the way I felt about the script. So I told Michael we’re going to make this movie. I couldn’t make it with any of the usual suspects, meaning the studios, because they said, “That’s not the type of movie were making now,” “That’s not a Paramount movie,” “We don’t have a slot for this movie.” I heard all the reasons why. And then the independents, the same. And I had promised Mike we were going to make it, so I had to follow through and write the check myself.

And I’m guessing that check was much more than the one for $25,000 that Elliott writes for Reggie to go away in the movie.
Yeah, it was a little bit more than that. I would’ve actually written a $25,000 check just to have the movie go away [laughs], but it was stuck in my heart, and I couldn’t make it go away. So I had to go for it.

Does your relationship with Mike precede The Upside of Anger?
Yeah, but after that movie, Mike wrote about four screenplays and asked me to be in all of them. But I didn’t feel the same way that I felt about Upside of Anger. And then Black and White came along, and I was really glad that he didn’t take it so personally that he’d never let me see another piece of his work, which he had every right to do with me saying no to the others. Thank goodness he’s a thick-skinned guy, because I just saw Black and White and I went, Let’s make this. I just didn’t realize we would have to do it by ourselves.

Between this film and The Upside of Anger, I feel as if Mike likes to put a drink in your hand.
Yeah, he does. I don’t drink, so I had to kind of find my way through that. Alcohol is not something that I have with meals ever. I don’t drink beer on the side. I just never have.

Even Crash Davis, he’s such a charming guy with a drink in his hand.
Well, you buy these characters in their world, doing that. This guy, Elliott, aptly pointed out by Bill Burr’s character, who says maybe you’re not an alcoholic. Maybe you’re just an angry motherf–ker. Because he had a whole bar full of booze [in his house] when he goes looking for that booze. He didn’t have to go looking for booze; he wanted a specific kind. There’s an anger. So again, maybe this guy isn’t an alcoholic, maybe he’s just in a lot of pain.

You know, Paul Newman was about your age when he did The Verdict, which was the pivot in his career when he first took advantage of all his on-screen mileage. He was more naked that he’d even been before.
That was a really good one, and he played it so wonderfully. I felt the same when I saw this one. I thought, “I’m going to go for this.” I’ve had some really great speeches in Bull Durham. I had great speeches in JFK. And I’ve got a great speech in this one, that we earned, and it was a privilege to do it. I really feel like it creates some talking points for a subject that’s been so delicate and so many people dance around. I think that the genius of what Mike wrote, which is: it’s not my first thought that counts [when it comes to race], it’s my second, third, and fourth. That’s what defines who I am.

The film is dedicated to your longtime manager, J.J. Harris, who died last summer. Why was that important to you?
You lose somebody suddenly, you lose them too soon and don’t have a chance to say goodbye, you don’t have a chance to say how much you love them, and they meant something to you. The movies meant something [to her], and she loved Black and White. She was such a part of my life and this movie is everything I can possibly put into a movie. I really just dedicated so much of it to her.

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