Dancing with a western

Actor Kevin Costner and his wife Christine Baumgartner at a premiere for the television series, Yellowstone, in Los Angeles, California, in which he plays the patriarch of a cattle ranch.
Actor Kevin Costner and his wife Christine Baumgartner at a premiere for the television series, Yellowstone, in Los Angeles, California, in which he plays the patriarch of a cattle ranch.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • Few actors seem more at home on the range than Kevin Costner.

On screen, he has roamed the American frontier in Silverado (1985), Wyatt Earp (1994) and his Oscar-winning calling card, Dances With Wolves (1990).

Off-screen, he owns a 65ha ranch in Aspen, Colorado, and fronts a band called Modern West.

Which makes him a perfect fit for Yellowstone, a modern-day western, where Costner plays John Dutton, patriarch of a sizeable cattle ranch which abuts a national park, an Indian reservation and a town overflowing with land developers and energy speculators.

It is a violence-tinged saga and everyone wants a piece of Dutton's Montana empire, including the daughter and three sons under his care since his wife died.

Yellowstone, which debuts on Wednesday, is the first dramatic series on Paramount Network (the rebranded Spike TV). It was filmed, in part, at the historic Chief Joseph Ranch in Montana's picturesque Bitterroot Valley.

"He's over the edge, but he's real clear on why he's doing things and his fingerprints are on a lot," Costner, 63, said of his character. "The only morality that exists is the one right in front of him in how he protects his family, his ranch and the people who work on that."

Here are excerpts from the telephone conversation with Costner.

John Dutton can be as fearsome as an old-fashioned Old West land baron.

He is a modern-day CEO, if you will, probably more than any of the generations before him, simply because he has had to arbitrate so many problems with lawyers and encroachment and white-collar people coming after his land.

The urbanisation and environmental protection that are threatening his ranch are much different than (what faced) his predecessors.

Characters that took up legendary status in the West were very capable of making really hard decisions that were probably questioned by people - but not for very long.

What is the appeal of the strong western?

Most westerns, I just don't like them. But there (are) six or seven that really marked me because they somehow got under the skin.

You did not know the type of individuals you were running into on the trail, if they are in need of water, in need of food, a psychopath.

When those situations are drawn carefully - and most of the time they are not, because people got used to the idea of black hat, white hat, a bad guy for a good guy to knock down - a real dilemma sets itself up for very heightened drama.

I think westerns are working (at) their very best when we see a certain incident and go, "God, I wonder if I would have made it".

Do you recall when you fell in love with the West?

When I was seven, I saw How The West Was Won (1962) at the Cinerama Dome (in Hollywood) and one of the first images was Jimmy Stewart in a birch-bark canoe.

When he pulled that canoe up onto a beach, there was this group of exotic-looking people and I thought: "I'm interested in who they are. I'd like to live in a world where they are."

I actually went out and built three canoes between that age and about 18 because I wanted to go down the rivers that (explorers Meriwether) Lewis and (William) Clark went.

When did the second half of your career begin?

Well, it probably began a long time ago, but I am acting like it just began now. I want to know what I am doing, when I am going to do it. I want to find true partners and make these films and find distribution that makes sense to the theatres. I want to control my own destiny.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2018, with the headline 'Dancing with a western'. Print Edition | Subscribe