'No one will ever have seen Kevin play a role like this'
Taking risks means more rewards and more bruises along the way. But, as he tackles the most against-character part in his career, Kevin Costner tells Susan Griffin about living a life without fear
Kevin Costner is having trouble hearing. "I play a lot of rock 'n' roll, you'll have to speak up," explains the California native in what can only be described as a cowboy twang.
The Hollywood veteran, who sings and plays lead guitar in country rock band Kevin Costner & Modern West, might be hard of hearing, but he's looking easily 10 years younger than his 61 years in jeans and a grey shirt.
Since his breakthrough role in 1987 gangster movie The Untouchables, he's carved a reputation for playing all-American guys - such as Crash Davis in Bull Durham - and heroic figures with the likes of Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves.
But for his latest movie Criminal, Costner's been cast against type, as psychopathic inmate Jericho Stewart. He admits he was shocked when first approached about the role, and initially declined the offer. "I kept questioning, 'Why me?'" he admits.
But as director Ariel Vromen explains: "We're so used to Kevin playing charming characters. No one will ever have seen Kevin play a role like this, and that's an exciting prospect for a director."
With his gruff voice, shaved head and violent demeanour, Costner is unrecognisable in the film. "I showed up in London with long hair and a beard," he says. "I was thinking we were going to start the movie in prison, but they didn't, so I had to go into the make-up trailer and create that really severe look.
"Slowly but surely, Jericho came crawling out. They put the holes and the stitches in the back of my head and I started feeling a bit like Frankenstein," he adds.
It's little wonder people didn't recognise him. "Even my director wasn't sure," Costner recalls. "I think people have an impression of who I am, and that was not like anything they'd ever seen."
The story begins when CIA agent Bill Pope (Ryan Reynolds) is killed in the middle of a top-secret mission. He'd been tracking a hacker known as The Dutchman (played by Michael Pitt) who, while navigating the lawless Dark Web, uncovers the means to take charge of America's military weaponry.
With Pope's death, it's assumed that every piece of information he's uncovered is wiped out forever. But the CIA's London chief Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman) insists there's still hope, by enlisting maverick surgeon Dr Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) to implant Pope's DNA directly into another man's brain - and Jericho's the perfect candidate.
"Jericho's spent most of his life in prison," explains Costner. "An injury he suffered as a child rendered him a sociopath, so he has no understanding that the things he does are wrong. He just reacts, sometimes violently, sometimes humorously.
"But after his operation, Jericho starts going back and forth between who he was and who Pope is. He's very mixed and he's comprehending things and having sensations that he's never experienced before. That's what I had to figure out how to play."
The movie marks a reunion for Costner, Oldman and Jones, who worked together on Oliver Stone's 1991 movie JFK. "We had some complicated scenes without a lot of time to figure it out," says Costner. "That scene where I wake up in the hospital is cool. "I could measure that against any scene I've ever done. That was a tribute to those guys that we were able to somehow fire all those lines and get the action going."
Memory transfer might sound like the stuff of science-fiction, but the film's writers, Douglas Cook and David Weisberg, were inspired by real cutting-edge research in neurobiology, brain architecture and AI that suggests the processes that make up our innermost minds might soon be mappable and transferable.
"It doesn't terrify me and I'm not surprised by it," says the actor, a father-of-seven. "I would want it if I thought I was going to lose track of someone I loved or if I couldn't remember my children's names. The problem with some science is that it always gets aborted into something that's evil.
Costner has never shied away from political conversation and recently shared his thoughts on the US presidential campaigns, saying he doesn't find them "entertaining" but "embarrassing".
"It's important who the President is and it's important it be someone that has a vision and has a knowledge of the world," he says. "Anybody who doesn't show that really, in my mind, can't be President. I look for someone who's evolved."
On his own evolution, he reflects that he's "lived a life that's not fearful". "And because I've stretched in my life, because I've risked things. I've had some successes and I've had things that have bruised me too," explains the actor, whose directorial debut, 1990's Dances With Wolves, earned 12 Oscar nominations, winning seven. He's also experienced derision, for 1995's Waterworld and his second directorial effort, 1997's The Postman.
Is there anything else he wishes he'd done? "I can't think of anything," he replies. "Life doesn't scare me, and the idea of not being successful isn't something that paralyses me."
In recent years, Costner has starred in TV series Hatfields & McCoys, Kenneth Branagh's action-thriller Jack Ryan, NFL drama Draft Day and as Clark Kent's dad in the new Superman movies, but he's keen to get back behind the camera, too.
"I'd like to play the second half of my career out directing - there's a Western I want to do and some English people I'd like to come after," Costner reveals - although he declines to name names.
"Europeans populated the West, and I hope when I approach some English actors they'll say yes and come play cowboy with me."
Criminal is in cinemas now