Kevin Costner Reflects on His Career, Mentors and 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit'

Twenty years ago, Kevin Costner was supposed to play Jack Ryan, the character popularized in films like The Hunt For Red October and Patriot Games. Although he went on to enjoy success in different roles, it seems fitting that Costner now plays a mentor to the character in Kenneth Branagh’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, a reimagining of the franchise starring Chris Pine as the CIA analyst-turned-spy.

Costner spoke to press at the recent Los Angeles press day for the film, where he addressed discussed his recent career renaissance. In addition to talking about his impressions of the character as the filmmakers updated him for modern audiences, Costner reflected on his own experiences being mentored, and offered some insights into how and why he took the role of the character’s adviser.

Kevin, you’ve been in Russian spy thrillers before – No Way Out is one of your great movies. How have things changed from the 20th century to the 21st century?

Kevin Costner: I’m still thinking about that century thing you said (laughs). I don’t know what’s changed, really. You know, hopefully when our movies are realer, they get realer when they happen to be, you know, the James Bond situation where a guy parachutes in, and that kind of thing. That’s another kind of spy movie. So I don’t know. You know, our job is to entertain and to find the rhythms that do that, the language of the day, and hopefully that we don’t try to reinvent the wheel, because spies are trying not to get caught, trying to stop bad things, and you know, hopefully the level of sophistication always is going up. Sorry.

You were going to play Jack Ryan at one point. Were you already well-versed in the series’ mythology by the time you came in to play the mentor role to Jack in this one?

Well, you know, the mentor role is always that – what can you offer a younger man, what can you offer a younger woman, things in your level of experience, and so that by definition is the mentor, if you have a level of experience. But that’s what I was – if you read it on paper, that’s the role that’s meant for me. […] And what I liked about it was that I wasn’t just a person at a desk on a phone going, “Get the hell out of there. What the hell are you doing? Well, you need to do it faster.” I mean, Kenneth was able to say, wait a second, I want to incorporate some of your skill set into this where even though I’m a stupidvisor, if you would, a supervisor here, that I could take the gloves off, so to speak, and become involved and bring a physical presence and team up with him at the right moment. So I thought that was unusual for the mentor role. Usually they’re back in Washington or they’re in a big, giant control room. In this instance, we were always fairly close together and trying to sort it out a little bit together, and as the movie progresses, you see that he just possesses a lot of intuitive skills, whether it’s being how to survive or to process a lot of information in a very quick way, which I actually ask him a couple times to slow down, remembering that I’m in another century (laughs).

Talk a little bit about career longevity. How have you maintained this career that just always surprises people?

Well, I would say this, and I think this might come as a surprise: You know, I didn’t make my first check until I was about 27, 28 years old, so I didn’t burst on the scene at 19 or 20. And you know, probably if you think about the guys in my category, I probably have about half the movies that they have, if you kind of added them up. You’d have to look at that. But you know, I had three little kids the last five years, my wife and I, and I slowed down for about three to, you know, get them started, and I’ve had enough of that fuckin’ minivan (laughs), and I just had to get a minivan ‘cause my back was killing me with the SUV, three seats and shit, I thought, I have to go back to killing somebody for real or you know, action movies, ‘cause this is too tough. But I did, about the last year and a half, after I did Hatfields and got on a horse again, I started to feel, you know, my love of acting. And so about a year and a half ago I amassed a series of movies that are gonna kind of come out, but that’s unusual for me to go back to back. But longevity for me is not a check, it’s a love, I’ve loved making movies, I’ve loved living my life outside the lines of Hollywood, so when I come to work I like to work, and I like to work with people that are very specific, and all the gentlemen up here are really specific people. I have a history with some and for some it was a first time that I’d like to replicate down the line. So I don’t know, I have been fortunate, blessed, loved, and it’s added up to 30 years.

At the end of the film you refer to Jack Ryan as something of a Boy Scout, which reminded me of your role as Elliot Ness. How does it feel to step into sort of the Sean Connery role from The Untouchables?

Oh, yeah. Yeah, well, listen, you know, I think … I’m gonna talk as if I’m not in the room now for a second, OK (laughs)? What I mean by that is, I think the smarter directors do this a lot of times, they’ll take a supporting role and they’ll put a leading man in it, because they either know how to inhabit the screen, and nowhere was it better than when Sean Connery came in and played the little Irish street cop, and you realized how formidable he was. And I remember telling Sean at the time, I said, “Sean, this has got enough meat on the bone that you could win the Academy Award.” And Brian [De Palma] could have easily cast any character actor to bring up that Irish brogue or whatever that you would, but he said, no, he went to arguably the biggest star, biggest star I’ve ever worked in my life, I think Sean Connery was, to play this and I think what happens is then there’s no – he just knows how to hold onto the screen, and so I have a feeling that that might have been swirling around in this genius’s head over there what he wanted to do with William Harper, you know, it was easy to support Chris.

I love the way you talked about your character and that he was a mentor. But was it easier to be mentored in 1983 or 1984 than it would be in 2014? And who mentored you?

I’ll tell you, I think exchange, honest exchange, is never out of vogue and it will be just as practical as it was in ‘83 and in the year that we’re dealing with. This is a business that’s pretty interesting, than a lot of businesses. You get up in the morning, you have breakfast with the people you work with all day, you have lunch with them and you have dinner with them. And the nature of acting, if you think you put three minutes of film in a can a day, that means you’re spending an enormous amount of hours getting to talk about people’s lives, their families. There’s a lot of things that go on on the set. But in terms of mentorship, it was probably Sean. He was a leading man and he carries himself as a man, and I remember a big scene with De Nero and everybody and we were all talking and he finally told me, he goes, “Mr. Ness.” I said, “What?” And he goes, “Sit-sit down.” And I said, “Wh – sit down right now?” And he goes, “Yes, it’s gonna be a long day.” Yeah, and he just talked about, not artsy-fartsy stuff, he talked about sometimes just practical shit, like, “It’s gonna be a long day. Sit down. And you and I are gonna sit here and we’re gonna watch and when it’s our turn we’ll be ready.” So, what better advice could one man give another than like, you know, something so practical that I could use?

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is in theaters now.

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