Kevin Costner in San Francisco last Friday (July 19).  He stars in "Swing Vote", which opens in the U.S. and Canada on August 1.  The film is released by Touchstone Pictures.  (Photo: Omar P.L. Moore/

He's Got The Whole U.S. Election In His Hands, He's Got The . . .

Kevin Costner's finger is on the vote-casting trigger in the new film "Swing Vote"

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

July 21, 2008


Imagine having the U.S. presidential election this November determined by your vote.  Not by a state, or a county, a city, a precinct, but by you -- your single vote alone.

Could you handle that kind of pressure? 

Next month, Ernest "Bud" Johnson does his best to be unflappable under fire -- or at least Kevin Costner, who plays him, does -- in "Swing Vote", which opens on the big screen across the U.S. and Canada on August 1.  The Touchstone Pictures film, directed by Joshua Michael Stern, also stars newcomer Madeline Carroll as Molly, Bud's take-charge 12-year-old daughter, who has a large say in Bud's predicament.  Bud's home town of Texico, New Mexico, and the rest of the country, is depending on Bud.

And this past Friday here at the Ritz Carlton Kevin Costner arrived, having flown in earlier in the day.  As he enters a boardroom suite he is in great spirits and very talkative.  An easy going smile flashes across his face as he introduces himself to a quartet of Northern California journalists who have waited patiently for him.  And as the saying goes, good things come to those who wait, and, by definition, good news.

"Well, sales are down," Mr. Costner says.  "One of you will be leaving," he continues to joke as his questioners laugh.

Mr. Costner, 53, is fit and trim, and every bit of his six feet-plus in height.  

"We've all played the game very well," he adds.  Then he smiles as he offers the following aside: "It just makes my pits sweat to think that I'd be on a show like that," said the actor and director of such films as "Dances With Wolves", "The Postman" and "Open Range".

Many of the questions asked of Mr. Costner are politically-themed -- an unavoidable necessity given the premise of "Swing Vote": a dead heat between two presidential candidates in New Mexico and its electoral votes going to the winner, a machine malfunction cancels out the recording of one vote.  For the presidency to be decided, the vote has to be recast.

The vote has to be recast, but, as one journalist asked Mr. Costner, could it be cast with a hopeful outlook?

"There's always hope in a democracy that's protected itself.  There's hope -- why?  Because we can still vote," the actor said.  "It hasn't been taken away from us.  Whether we choose to vote is our own laziness, our own unwillingness to think that we do matter.  But the truth is there's hope, and there should be because we can still vote, you know?  They can't run over us if we really want to stand up.  So as long as we have our vote we have some hope, okay?  You lose that?  There's the reality of what will happen is people will run over us because that's human nature."

While the manipulation of voting machines has occurred for years in American politics and notably over the last eight years or more, "Swing Vote" doesn't spend much if any time on the subject.  The film is about Mr. Costner's Bud Johnson, an under-educated regular Joe who has long turned his back on the idea of engagement in the American political process.  In the here and now though, Mr. Costner turns his thoughts to November 4, 2008 and the respective party presumptive nominees John McCain and Barack Obama and deciding which of them is best suited to be the next leader of the free world.

"The American public -- you, by virtue of being journalists -- bring us information.  Are we getting good information?  I mean, I'm not Solomon.  I couldn't tell between these two guys.  Well who's lying here?  Not that they're even lying, but how could you say, 'no you didn't, I never said that,' and you go, 'no you did, you just said that'?  That's the American public.  We're just so dependent on good information."

Mr. Costner was born in California into a Republican-voting household and had fashioned his politics accordingly before beginning to shape his worldview and politics on his own terms with independent thought.  His politics, he said, evolved, and over the years he has adopted a more moderate stance, and today tends to be slightly left of center in his political outlook, although he said that "I don't see any place in either party where I make sense, you know, completely.  Because look, I'm a hunter, I'm a fisherman, right?  And I have bird dogs.  But I think there should be gun laws.  So where does that fit for me?  And I absolutely don't want to give up my guns and I want to go hunting and I do that . . . [and] I'm saying that I'm an outdoorsman, but I think guns -- there's too many guns, you know?  And I think that we -- we should look at that differently.  And I think that the NRA should do it.  Well I would be suddenly, you know, run out of town by them -- which I don't really give a shit.  So I know I don't fit there but I want to protect my guns too . . . and maybe I don't see it clearly, but I'm saying that's how I feel.  And I believe in a woman's right to choose."

Where his beliefs are concerned Mr. Costner says that he's a "mixed bag, so where do I fit?".   When it comes to choosing between Senator McCain and Senator Obama Mr. Costner declared that "I don't think bad about any of them but I don't feel like I fit.  So I have to choose ultimately between two men who we're thinking are the cream of the crop.  The world is -- whether they're laughing or whether they're doing anything -- the assumption is that the cream is now at the top.  Right?  These are the two best guys in America.  That's what our system is telling us.  And I have to choose between them, and I'm telling you that it's probably going to be a feeling."

Due to what he would later agree was information "overload" Mr. Costner conjectured that he would decide to cast his vote for the next U.S. president based on intuition.  He expounds further on this.  "I can only vote based on a feeling.  I can't vote based on being right about either one of these two guys!  And that's gonna seem really weak to somebody.  'You're voting based on a feeling?  Well no wonder you're from Hollywood.  You can't -- why don't you read the issues?  Why don't you bone up on your stuff, and then you won't be going on your 'feeling'?", mused Mr. Costner, who himself seemed to epitomize the very definition of undecided voter. 

Lately, and after the 2004 presidential election in America some of the domestic mainstream media's punditry suggested that youth of Generation Y were slackers, supposedly not showing up in large numbers to vote (which later turned out to be untrue.)  With Senator Obama credited with cultivating a renewed youth interest in U.S. politics for this November's presidential election, and with many teenagers of voting age flocking this past weekend to theaters to "The Dark Knight", Mr. Costner and Touchstone Pictures no doubt hope that those same teens see "Swing Vote" when it opens on August 1.  The youth play a significant role in "Swing Vote" and are a constituency that Mr. Costner presumably agrees will play a huge part in the electoral process.  He laughs as the word "slacker" is thrown out.  For the actor-director getting the attention of short-attention span youth is straightforward.

"When it comes to youth I think you just have to talk to them.  And then they have to see that you went and voted.  Or that you care about politics and that will carry forth.  But . . . I don't know that it's being taught with any depth at all in early school what your civic responsibilities are, why you should (vote).  You know, let's face it, voting's kind of hard, too.  They don't make it easy.  I've got to go in a neighborhood that I've never been?  That I don't know how to get to exactly?"  The director wonders whether elections should be less of a hassle.  "It just, it all seems like it should be easier.  It shouldn't be that we should be running for two years for the job.  There's something wrong with that," said Mr. Costner, who produced "Swing Vote" along with long-time producing partner Jim Wilson.

Undecided and disengaged: Kevin Costner as Bud Johnson and newcomer Madeline Carroll as Molly Johnson in "Swing Vote", directed by Joshua Michael Stern.  The film opens on August 1 in the U.S. and Canada.  (Photo: Ben Glass/Touchstone Pictures)

"Swing Vote" had not been intended as a coincidence in its release in proximity to November's presidential election.  "I'd tried to get it made for six months before . . . when I couldn't make it for six months I decided to finance it myself.  I knew it'd come out in the election year," said Mr. Costner, who wore a dark navy blue shirt with a tiny white dotted pattern and sported blue jeans.  "There's a lot of drama right now . . . there's a lot of people that's saying, 'it tastes great, less filling, tastes great, less filling'.  There's a big rift right now about who should be the president . . . so there's a lot of drama there, you know.  I can't use the word 'exciting' . . .  I worry about all this . . .  Some people talk about ["Swing Vote" being] good timing.  I sometimes even question if maybe we're dealing with voter fatigue.  Maybe it's not good timing at all." 

Kevin Costner's resume is as diverse as any other A-list actor's in Hollywood.  At one point in the late 1980's and through the early 1990's, he was America's most popular actor, in such films as "The Untouchables" (1987), "No Way Out" (1987), "Bull Durham" (1988), "Field Of Dreams" (1989), "Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves" (1991), "JFK" (1991), "The Bodyguard" (1992), all of which were commercial or critical successes.  Mr. Costner's "Dances With Wolves", winner of seven Academy Awards in 1991, was the high-point of his career, the first of four films he has directed (he also directed parts of "Waterworld" -- he had uncredited billing after Mr. Reynolds reportedly discontinued his direction of the $200 million film due to creative differences with Mr. Costner.)  "Waterworld", released by Universal Pictures, received something of a critical hiding upon its debut in the U.S. and Canada in 1995, and Mr. Costner was asked about the film that was reportedly the cause of a rumored split between himself and the film's credited director Kevin Reynolds, whom Mr. Costner worked with four years earlier on "Robin Hood".

Asked how his relationship was with Mr. Reynolds these days, Mr. Costner expressed mild surprise at the inquiry.  "Kevin and I are fine.  We're always looking for things to do.  You know, Kevin and I -- and you should think about this -- Kevin and I made two movies that weren't sequels in the nineties that made $800 million.  Each of those films made 400 million bucks -- Robin Hood and Waterworld.  I don't know any director combination like that that's not dealing with a sequel -- and that's 1990 dollars.  We should be making movies together, you know.  But the myth is, people, the difference -- the thing about Kevin and I is we're both artists, we're both stubborn.  And in the world of studio, that pits us against each other because we don't settle.  And studios are all about compromise and all about blah, blah, blah.  And those movies, one of the reasons they are as good as they are -- flawed, make no mistake all movies are flawed -- is because of Kevin Reynolds.  So we recognize each other.  People try to politicize us.  Basically you go, "Waterworld" -- the studios start running for cover.  That movie is so monetarily successful for them, you never -- can't believe it.  It's still the most popular ride at Universal Studios.  I'm reminded about Waterworld wherever I go in the world."

Now a little laughter breaks out among several of the roundtable journalists.

"No -- in a positive way.  They should re-release Waterworld.  They should make a sequel about Waterworld.  They made a sequel about Hellboy and it did 50 million, the first one.  We made -- but they don't want to admit any of it.  So what am I supposed to do with you journalists?"

As he half-jokes here, the room fills with laughter.

"What am I supposed to do?  Kevin and I are fine!  We made Fandango.  You know, it's a classic movie."

In the intervening years since "Waterworld" -- specifically ten years after, Mr. Costner has enjoyed something of a resurgence, with acclaimed performances in "The Upside Of Anger" (2005) and last year's "Mr. Brooks", in which he played a serial killer in suburban Washington state.  He had said that the studio (MGM) was in a difficult position with the latter film because it was losing money in the millions of dollars, so that "Mr. Brooks", a film that might have received Academy Awards consideration (for William Hurt's performance) by being released in the fall of 2007 was instead released in early June last year, in between blockbuster smash hits like "Spider-Man 3", "Shrek The Third" and "Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End".  Not surprisingly the film died a quick death at the North American box office.  One of the moments that Mr. Costner relishes the most in any of his films is in "For Love Of The Game", in which he pitches as a member of the Detroit Tigers baseball team at Yankee Stadium, where he said he looked at his parents watching him in the stands.

As for being a parent himself, following the conclusion of the current interview Mr. Costner offers an anecdote about his eldest daughter, who at 13 was underage yet wanted to see her father's R-rated film "A Perfect World" (1993), directed by Clint Eastwood.  She was adamant about wanting to see it and eventually wore down her father, who relented after initial "no" responses.  The agreement was that she cover her eyes whenever Mr. Costner told her to do so.  His eldest daughter pulled a sleight of hand trick however, because no sooner had she been granted permission to watch than her two siblings were standing right behind her.  "I completely got trapped," the father of three said.

"So we get all the way to the end (of "A Perfect World") and at some point in time my son is lying on my chest watching, and I die in the end.  And I'm shot.  And now the movie -- and I can hear kind of some sniffling -- and the lights come up.  And my son, all he does is he turns over on my chest.  And he was really young . . . he started feeling my face.  And he's just looking right in my eyes, touching me to see if I'm alive.  And I realize, you know, about the age difference and why they can see movies and why they can't.  And my heart was just breaking.  And he was just seeing because he couldn't -- what had just happened on the screen -- he was getting it right in his mind that everything was okay."

Kevin Costner couldn't get over his crafty eldest daughter however.  She was able to school her dad in the art of persuasion and guile.  And in "Swing Vote" Molly Johnson has a similar effect on her dad Bud Johnson.

"Swing Vote" also stars Paula Patton, Dennis Hopper, Kelsey Grammer, Stanley Tucci, Nathan Lane and George Lopez.  The film opens in the U.S. and Canada on August 1.

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2008.  All Rights Reserved.

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