Kevin Costner is in Los Angeles to talk Hidden Figures. It’s the story of Katherine Johnson and the team of female NASA mathematicians who helped launch man into space and win the race to the moon. The film itself, as Costner explains, is about much more than racial equality. “There are a lot of swinging issues that are set behind this story, and I don’t mean to over simplify it. You’re talking about Civil Rights, women in the workplace, and in this instance, racism.”
Costner and I talked about his character and what makes Hidden Figures so important, not only to spotlight these great ladies, but to remind us what they and so many others across America had to face on a daily basis in the 1960s.
Since Costner is such a pleasure to hear in conversation, today we’re introducing a new feature of our interviews at Awards Daily. I’ve included a few soundbites to supplement the transcript of our conversation. Let us know what you think….
Awards Daily: What was it about the film that made you want to get on board?
KC: It was just that, it was the film. I wasn’t going to get on board at first. The part I was going to play was a bit confusing and I had said so. I also said how much I thought of the movie and that it was great.
I explained to Ted [Theodore Melfi], our director that I thought the part [of Al Harrison] was schizophrenic, [laughs] but you need to explain why they are like that. Ted explained that the part was actually a combination of three different men so that totally made sense, but the part didn’t service the whole idea. Ted and I talked about his character about how he’s helping to advance the ideas of the film, so that’s what we did.
AD: Who did you have as your research point?
KC: I spoke to Ted first and foremost. I said to him we should embrace the idea first of all as racism in his [Harrison’s] case being ignorant. He’s so concerned that they don’t come in second in this two-man race that he doesn’t even bother to look down and see that the coffee pot has taken on such significance.
Racism comes in a lot of forms. It can come from not paying attention, sometimes just being overtly racist, or saying silly things to hurt people but you’re not really a racist, but they are racist remarks. We didn’t want to get too tied in with that, that he [Harrison] was not aware it’s going on because he’s too focused on what the mission was, that he’s not aware. The disappointment he looks at these other men, he shares a bit of himself that he was too busy himself to look and see what was really going on here.
AD: Your character turns out to be quite a hero. We’re not sure where he’s going to be. Then you have this incredible sledgehammer scene and he beats that sign. I wanted to cheer so loudly.
Listen to Kevin answer the question:
KC: I think a lot of us in our hearts want to tear an injustice down. When it’s orchestrated correctly, I try to make it so that everybody gets to be me. You, anybody that you love watching this movie who says, “I want to be him. That’s what I need to be.” These signs in history, they need to come down, and it takes time. Maybe we’re the ones that can tear this down. My hope is anyone watching this, or still has the ability to change their mind about the way they behaved, has a chance to tear down their own signs because it’s not right.
Unlike sports sometimes, it feels like the best player gets to play, in this instance, our best player wasn’t even allowed in. She [Katherine Johnson] became a difference maker, and Ted did such a great job. What was really important was, we could have gone to the sign, and we know you’re going to get that feeling that you just expressed, but we thought if we would create the coffee pot, we would earn that moment in the hallway even more. That he starts to boil as a person.
We could have gone right to the sign and had a nice effect with the audience, and I think having that coffee pot helps that scene with the sledgehammer.
AD: I think, in retrospect, that’s why you’re so sucked in.
KC: I think it is because you realize subconsciously, we don’t show him going to find that bathroom, but we know that because of that coffee pot, he wasn’t done. He was pissed, and he needed to see where this was, and it probably started out, “Where is this silly bathroom?” and realizing that it’s far and what an injustice that is, and then, there’s this sign there that says that. I think the coffee pot is an underestimated scene that precedes the scene that you really love.
AD: Everything comes together, he’s been totally unaware that she has to go 40 minutes just to take a toilet break.
KC: He’s mad at her, and that’s what we want to do too. We don’t want to let Harrison off the hook. He’s mad at her, and he’s really wrong. He’s the one that gets the brunt of that conversation when he’s actually been semi-good to her. He gets the brunt because he asks her, “Where the hell have you been?” And he’s not taking it easy on her.
AD: Then you have her tirade?
KC: Rightfully so.
AD: What was it like being on set around women playing these characters?
KC: Maybe I’m guilty like Harrison. Why didn’t I think African Americans had a place in our space program? Why didn’t I know it? I can either be embarrassed or I can ashamed, which I choose to be neither, but I can be thrilled that once this story was found that it became movie worthy and I’m really happy to be a part of it and to add to it.
AD: Isn’t it crazy that we live in a society where we didn’t know these women played such a huge part in getting us to space?
KC: I didn’t know humans were called computers first. I thought that was an amazing little twist.
AD: How have you seen movies and attitudes change in terms of perspectives for you ?
KC: I used my own money the other year [2014, with Black and White]. No one said anything the other year when I made that movie. For me, I’ve always gone with stories that move me. I didn’t care about what was in vogue and what wasn’t in vogue, it’s always been the way I’ve conducted my career. I’m not surprised I like Hidden Figures. If people think there’s something in vogue that’s a little sad, and now find great stories and are now not afraid because they involve African Americans, then that’s good too. It’s not a ship that I had to get onto.
AD: Were you a math or science nerd coming in because there’s a lot involved?
KC: There is a lot. Let’s face it, the women that did this, they see things that we don’t see. You’re a journalist, you’re a lot more than that, but right now, I’m an actor talking to a journalist. These people [mathematicians] think about things differently. If we were out on the Serengeti in Africa, they would be the zebras. There would be other animals that recognize each other, and we recognize them, and we go, “Oh, those are the smart guys.”
I have to pretend to be a smart person. I’m not.
AD: What did you have available for you in putting Al Harrison together?
KC: I watched every significant liftoff since the ’60s. I actually had a lot to draw on.
AD: In terms of your career, and you have this incredible body of work, are you looking to do more directing?
Listen to Kevin talk about his plan to direct more in the future:
KC: Thank you. I would like to play out the second half of my career doing more directing. I think I will. I have the movies and scripts that I want to tell. I’m stubborn in the sense that they’re going to be altered, and to protect that, you have to come up with your own financing. It’s not a simple thing to do, to talk people out of millions of dollars. That’s why I’ve had to use my own to tell Black and White.
I have a plan to direct more. I love acting. I’d love to do some Westerns and some other movies. There’s a novel that I co-authored: The Explorer’s Guild. I’d like to see that someday come to the screen, and it’s a fantastic story.
AD: And of course, there’s your music.
KC: Well, we finished another album and we haven’t released it. Mostly because I can’t go on tour for 100 days. I have a family but we love making music. We’re going to record eight new songs. I’m asked to play all over the world and I could probably do a 200-night tour, but that’s not the life I can live. Making music makes me happy. I continue to do it, but I have to figure out how it can fit between the raindrops of my life.
AD: Why are people responding to this film? I’ve told you how it inspired me.
KC: Drop race for a second, and be in awe of a child who is eight years old and is so gifted that she goes to a college and blows everyone away. When I see that, and know that to be true, that stuff is interesting to me how a human being is gifted or touched with a gift. If we can learn that we can get the cream to the top. And that race or gender can’t be a deterrent. We have people that can make a difference in the lives of other people and the history of a program.
I was very taken when the little girl goes. I was very taken with the judge who saw his way clear with her argument, that it was solid. You like to think that that can happen in a court, that the argument that is presented can affect a human, that they’re not predisposed as to what their decision is going to be. In that world, it was not easy for that man to make the decision and he made it for her. I like that man, I like that moment.
Neither one had anything to do with the space program at first. I think of Harrison saying all the rooms she couldn’t be in. There’s no line there, he lifts that pass and says, “You belong here.” We all want that. We want it for our children. Do you have children?
AD: No, I don’t, but I have friends with kids.
KC: So to see somebody included where they should be included and not marginalized and to be in there. Certainly, she wasn’t the only person. She’s a person. Ted did a good job in not making the only reason, the only they got there was because of Katherine. The only reason that John [Glenn] was willing to go was because of Katherine. There’s a distinction and it’s important.