Kevin Costner interview: Jack Ryan, and missing out on Superman

The great Kevin Costner chats to us about his role in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and how he nearly played Superman...

In Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Kevin Costner plays high-ranking CIA operative Thomas Harper, the handler responsible for recruiting and looking after young agent-to-be Jack Ryan (Chris Pine). The role marks the start of a busy year or so for Costner, who’ll soon be appearing in 3 Days To Kill, Draft Day, Black And White and McFarland.

For an actor whose pace has slowed in recent years, it marks a fresh period of work, and we’re hoping it’ll build to another directorial gig for Costner, who hasn’t been behind the camera since 2003’s acclaimed Open Range.

Costner talks a little bit about his directing plans in the round-table interview below, which took place while Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was still filming last year. The talented actor and director reminisces about his missed opportunity to play both Jack Ryan and Superman in the late 80s and early 90s, and the pressures of being a leading man.

On his character, Commander Thomas Harper

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I don’t think my character is a mentor, exactly. He recruits people. It’s safe to say he’s recruited more people than Jack Ryan during his career. There’s a management that goes with these assets that you place around the world. Jack starts off as a person that doesn’t have a gun in his hand. He has the capability and I’ve kind of assessed all these things, like he’s got a military background, but he’s a financial guy.

He’s got the classic leading man build but he doesn’t start off that way. So “mentor” isn’t the right word, necessarily. It’s not like I’m telling him how I do things. Jack Ryan is a resourceful guy. I manage him, like I’ve managed a lot of people. “Asset” is such an impersonal way to talk about people, but it’s how they talk. I’ve fallen into it already!

On the creation of the CIA

I think [the CIA system] was originally conceived out of WWII. Roosevelt understood very early that one thing we lacked was [that kind of intelligence operation]. We didn’t know anything about anything. He went to a guy he knew in college, and he went off and recruited Bill Donovan, and he was a guy that could parachute into Paris with a girl on his arm. He was almost a Bond type of personality, but his concept was that he went after very innocuous people like accountants, to get into the inside of the workings…

The CIA can’t operate in a dumb way. They have to operate in a smart way in terms of how they recruit, and they understand that you have to work into the fabric of these societies. Nothing stands out more than a Jack Ryan, a kind of anglo guy hanging out in Russia. You get people in on the inside, like ship-builders and accountants. If you saw how the CIA worked, the logic would be perfect to you. It’s not really brain surgery. It’s like, how do you get information?

I like to think that some guys were born for management and some guys fall into it. I don’t think my character was born for management, so I think he can’t help himself sometimes from getting involved with people under his stewardship. It’s like you don’t know how good somebody’s going to be until you see them. There’s a line in the screenplay where somebody says, “You’re not just an analyst anymore; you’re operational now and you basically have to have a gun”. The temperature grows in this film. 

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On working with Kenneth Branagh

Working with Ken [Branagh] was a strong appeal for me because we’re contemporaries and we both jumped out of acting into directing. And we both certainly had a thousand people tell us what they thought was wrong with us! We risked stepping outside our boxes. Nobody has ever been able to keep Ken in his box, so I’ve admired him from a distance since early in our careers. He talked to me about doing a movie that Andy Garcia ended up doing [Dead Again] that I just didn’t feel was right for me, but we had a healthy respect for each other.

I could fit this part. It wasn’t a giant stretch for me to play this, so it was really Ken. I thought he could do something really special with this.

I don’t know what will come from this. I think you make one movie at a time. People nowadays want things to have an extended life, but if we don’t keep our eye on this ball… You can’t just force a franchise – although it’s tried sometimes! I think this one has to stand alone. When Ken asked me to come to it… It’s not that I owed him anything, but if I could help him with this movie, I loved the idea of that. Only he had it in his mind how I might be able to do that. 

On working with Chris Pine, and his role as Jack Ryan

I’ve been where Chris [Pine] is at. I guess my version of this film would be No Way Out or something, on some level. I think he has a very good handle on it, and our dynamic from a script standpoint is that I’m in the position of handling him, and obligated to get him out of a situation if I’ve gotten him in. Our dynamic is a nice one. He controls himself really well on set. He knows what he’s doing. He understands this kind of “leading man” responsibility. He’s 6 ft and he’s white and there’s this certain kind of thing that you have to do.

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It’s a kind of thing you learn how to do without doing lisps and accents and limps. You can’t get away with all the tricks you get to play as a character actor. Sometimes as a leading man what makes you almost boring is that you’ve got to stand there and take people through the movie. You don’t get to do what all the people who play the bad guy or the eccentric get to do. It’s hard sometimes, because you go, “Am I doing enough here?” It’s not an easy thing, which is why there aren’t a lot of guys who can fill those shoes. People think it’s easy to be Spencer Tracy. Oh, really?

It’s not wall-to-wall action. It’s a young man and a woman and he’s kept a secret from her and now she’s involved in it… There are some movies that are wall-to-wall action and others that depend more on how their story unfolds. It all comes down to story. Some are more dialogue heavy than others.

How Costner narrowly missed out on being Jack Ryan himself

I was asked to be in the first one [The Hunt For Red October]! People fell in love with these books. Their whole summers are spent reading them. People like to travel with their stories: they like a certain style. There’ll never, ever be another Bond situation: that is what it is, and it’s such a great thing and it gave birth to all these other things.

I would have done Red October. I wanted to do it, but I had postponed Dances With Wolves for a year and I was suddenly going to make it, and I really couldn’t do anything else. They offered me more money than I had ever seen, and I think they though I was just stubborn. But I wasn’t! “No” didn’t mean “More money!”, it meant that I couldn’t do it. I had given my word on Dances With Wolves.

Everyone wondered what the hell it was. It was called so many names! This little Indian movie. It got called Kevin’s Gate. I didn’t know what everyone’s problem was! I would have loved to have done Red October but it just wasn’t going to happen. I’d given my word to be somewhere else.

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I like directing. I haven’t done a lot of it. I’ve only directed three movies, but I’d like to do more, and I think I will as my career plays out. I’m stubborn enough to not do it unless I think I’m going to be able to influence every bit of it. I’m not a big committee guy. I’m developing four or five movies that I’d like to direct at the moment. I have three little kids under five, so I haven’t worked that much in the last few years. I’m doing back-to-back movies this year, which I’ve only done once before. 

I did Field Of Dreams and Revenge back-to-back, with two days between them. If you look at my career, and whoever you’d consider my contemporaries, like Bruce or Mel or Richard, I’ve probably done about a third of the movies that they’ve done, because sometimes I just go home and go build a road or something! But I would like to direct more, and this last four years I’ve written a lot, and acquired certain things. But I won’t just go out and make them for somebody else. I want to own them. We own it if they do well, and if they don’t do well we own that too. Let’s make sure they are what they are, the length that they are. I love subplot. Sometimes subplots get cut out for conventional reasons of running time. I’m kind of like, where’s everybody going? If it makes it six minutes longer, let’s keep it that. I’ve never learned, that’s for sure!

On his all-American public persona, and almost playing Superman

No one ever mistakes me for anything other than American. I make American stories, and hopefully they travel internationally. But I make cowboy movies, so I get that [I’m seen as an American everyman]. The funny thing for me, which highlights the idea of a career, is that maybe there’s a moment early in my career when I could have played Superman. I don’t know whether I could have gotten the curl right! But time tells you when you can play his father, and those things are changing for you.

I don’t think of it that way, but I think I don’t run away from our history, the good or the bad of it. I think… I’m not Superman’s biological father obviously, but I like to think I gave him the DNA for his character and how he behaves as a person. I haven’t ever tried to do that [represent a wholesome value system] purposefully. People just see you in a certain light.

I did A Perfect World and Mr Brooks – a killer and a serial killer – but even those characters I try to make certain that you understand who they are as people. I would not have done Mr Brooks, just because a serial killer is a despicable thing, but I thought I could bring a personality to it. Now with Dexter they’ve made a series out of it. There has to be a level of understanding. You don’t have to make a serial killer a good guy, but if you can understand him, I think you’ve done your job.

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On the possibility of appearing in a Jack Ryan sequel

I don’t really think of this as a series. I don’t really covet other people’s parts. I certainly haven’t approached this one as part of a series. I know what I’m supposed to do with this movie. This movie has its own kind of life, and if they want to bring my character back it’s going to have to be interesting, and really step up. I’ve been asked to do a second Bull Durham and a second Bodyguard. I’ve been asked to make another version of almost every movie I’ve ever made! So I see this as just one movie, a Kenneth Branagh film, and I loved that he wanted me to be in it.

I’m not carrying this film: Chris is the one that has to do the running and jumping and saving the girl. We all want to do that as kids, right? We all want to be heroic. Gary Cooper had a great quote, and I said this to Chris: when he was asked what he looked for in scripts, he said “days off”. I thought that was a really good line. I remember Jo-Beth Williams saying she wished she’d realised she’d actually be shooting in that muddy pool for days. So when I read a script now I go, “Hmmm… Waterworld… I’m probably going to be in the water a lot…”

I don’t know that I was ever as cold in a movie as I was on Waterworld. You wouldn’t think that, because it’s Hawaii and beautiful. All I’ll say is, the next time you get wet, stand in front of a fan! The wind blows in Hawaii constantly, and I’d be wet, and they’d be throwing buckets of water over me… It’s crazy stuff like that that nobody warns you about!

Kevin Costner, thank you very much.

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