TORONTO – He’s built an Oscar-winning career on memorable roles in period dramas ranging from crime capers to westerns and political thrillers. Now, Kevin Costner is stepping into the shoes of yet another real-life figure rooted in American folklore.
Following big-screen portrayals of federal agent Eliot Ness and gunslinger Wyatt Earp, the Oscar winner is heading to TV for “Hatfields & McCoys,” which chronicles the infamous feud between the two rival American families.
Costner and Bill Paxton (“Big Love”) portray patriarchs of the duelling clans in the three-part miniseries which debuts Monday at 8 p.m. ET on History Television.
Costner, who starred in the political thriller “JFK” and Cuban Missile Crisis docudrama “Thirteen Days,” said he doesn’t mind “dabbling” in American history, nor does he feel bound by any genre.
“I feel an affinity for my own country, for the history, and like to tell it in a robust way,” he said in a recent conference call with reporters.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that the subject is in vogue. My kind of great joy has been to be a storyteller,” he added.
He also feels added responsibility portraying real-life figures, saying he doesn’t want to “make them a clown.”
“My dad told me one time, he said: `Kevin, you know … when you knock somebody down, you should be sure that somewhere, you’re knocking down someone else’s hero,’” Costner recalled. “And it always informed me about how I thought about people, and not to be so quick.
“I want to try to give an honest portrayal of a guy living in that time. I didn’t want to sugarcoat him. But we don’t think it’s beyond him to look at those guys in the firing line and say: `Harden your hearts.’ He’s basically asking young men who knew each other to shoot.”
Costner plays “Devil” Anse Hatfield opposite Paxton’s Randall McCoy, with the film documenting mounting tensions between their families living along the Kentucky-West Virginia border. Conflicts arise over everything from a legal dispute over land rights to the theft of a pig, with blood boiling over — and spilling — on both sides.
Costner said there can be parallels drawn between disputes individuals have within their own lives to the bitter battle that endured between the feuding families.
“Sometimes when we look at this period we start to think of these as people with funny hats and funny beards, and gosh, they had a feud that lasted into the next century over a pig. And we know that, clearly, people fight over views.
“Somebody raises a fence, raises a hedge, takes a tree down and somebody who is our neighbour suddenly we’re in litigation with the next 15 years. So pettiness has existed in all centuries.”
Costner said it’s also difficult to understand the wounds that came with the Civil War — which serves as the backdrop of the story — and the lingering effects on those on and beyond the front lines.
“We’re looking at 7,000 men in Iraq and Afghanistan being killed, and in the Civil War we had over 500,000 and you understand the population was mainly located on the East Coast; so everybody was affected and feelings ran very deep.
“The Civil War — no matter how we try to distance ourselves from it — it threw a veil over this entire story and the anger and how deep feelings ran, and how people used it as an excuse for violence,” he added.
Costner said he hopes viewers remove their modern-day sensibilities to understand how at-risk the characters were.
“You had bounty hunters crossing the river hunting down your family and it’s like: `Well, gee, if I defend myself, does that mean I’m going to be on the wrong side of the law?’ And often it did.
“So there (were) absolute dilemmas we simply can’t get our arms around, and I hope that — because I think we’re authentic — that you kind of see the dilemma that the McCoy clan had and (the Hatfields) had.”
The miniseries marks the fourth collaboration with Costner and director Kevin Reynolds, following previous film efforts “Fandango,” “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and “Waterworld.” The film was shot over a four-month period in Romania during a production Costner said faced its share of challenges, including running out of English-speaking actors and having to have their voices looped.
The actor also served as a producer and said he got “strangely deep” into the project, translating from the screen to the recording studio. He created a companion record “Famous for Killing Each Other” with his band Modern West as well as the film’s theme “I Know These Hills.”
While Costner admits he’s “not a guy who likes Halloween,” he nonetheless relished the opportunity to fully inhabit his on-screen role.
“Putting on the guns, letting the beard go, getting a pipe, that is fun. You kind of look at everybody and you wink and you go, `Man, I have one of the great jobs in the world.’
“Who wouldn’t want to be in front of the horses going as fast as you could go? I guess the answer is a lot of people,” he added with a laugh. “A lot of people didn’t want to be in front, but I love riding that horse with a bunch coming behind me.”
The second and third instalments of “Hatfields & McCoys” will air on June 4 and June 11 at 8 p.m. ET.