There’s no such thing as a typical Kevin Costner movie.
During the past three decades, he has covered a lot of storytelling territory: action, sports movies, love stories, Westerns and more.
Still, it’s probably safe to say he’s not the first actor who comes to mind to play a widowed grandfather entangled in an ugly battle for custody of a biracial child.
That’s Costner’s atypical role in Black or White, an intimate domestic drama that opens in theaters Friday.
Costner — the star of such modern-day classics as Bull Durham, Field of Dreams and Dances With Wolves — probably isn’t even the fifth or the 50th guy who comes to mind for this kind of movie.
Even Costner concedes this.
“It shouldn’t have spiraled down to me,” he says during a recent publicity tour stop in Dallas. “But it did find me, and I like the ideas expressed in it, so I wanted to be part of it.”
In fact, Costner felt so strongly about those ideas, and about initiating a conversation that addresses the racial divide still present in our more blended America, that he invested his own money, half of the $9 million production budget, to ensure that the film could be made.
“Even though it’s specific and even though it’s small, I don’t think this plays like a niche movie that only a few people are going to get,” Costner says. “I think it’s a film that speaks for our generation.”
The story in a nutshell: After his wife dies unexpectedly, Costner’s character, Elliot, has to step into the primary parenting role for 7-year-old Eloise, whose mother died during childbirth and whose African-American father is out of the picture.
Once “Papa” Elliot gets the hang of caring for Eloise (played by Jillian Estell), he faces a legal challenge from the absentee father’s family. The girl’s grandmother Rowena (Octavia Spencer) initiates a fight for sole custody that becomes increasingly rancorous when accusations of bigotry come into play.
“There are some touchy subjects that this film doesn’t back away from,” Costner says. “There were ideas in it that I didn’t know how to articulate until, fortunately, they were articulated for me in this script.
“There also were things that I know Octavia and Anthony Mackie [who plays Rowena’s brother] have wanted to say but didn’t have a forum to say until they were spoken here.
“I think we’ve been desperate to have this conversation for a long time.”
Sharing the spotlight
Costner says he has a lot at stake in this film — and not just financially.
“I still feel I have to prove myself as an actor,” he says. “I think that’s why I get myself into things that I’m not sure how to play them. I think that’s why I put myself in a place where I know I can be humiliated if I screw it up.
“But if I’m nervous the night before I shoot the big courtroom scene, I figure it’s because I know I’m doing something that matters.”
Costner was accompanied during his interview at the Crescent Court Hotel in Dallas by his 10-year-old leading lady.
Jillian happens to be from Frisco. She has a lot of experience in modeling (J.C. Penney, Frito-Lay, Neiman Marcus and Dillard’s) and commercials (Chuck E. Cheese’s, VTech MobiGo and Superpages), but Black or White is her first leading role in a feature film.
“It was somewhat of an accident that I got into modeling,” Jillian says. “My mom and I were at J.C. Penney and someone came over and said, ‘Wait, you’re not leaving yet, are you? She still has her photo shoot.’ And my mom said, ‘That’s not why we’re here. We don’t even have an agent.’ And they said, ‘Well, get one and we’ll see you tomorrow at 5.’
“That got me started in modeling. I went into commercials and acting from there, and I love it.”
When the role in Black or White came her way, she was excited about being in a movie with Spencer, whom she knew from The Help. But full disclosure: She didn’t know who Costner was until getting to see him in Field of Dreams.
“That was a good movie,” she says. “Now I’m a big fan.”
The feeling is mutual.
“A lot was riding on who played the part of Eloise and how authentic she could be,” Costner says. “Jillian held up her end in a really important way.
“Now we’re forever tied to one another because of what we shared in this movie.”