Kevin Costner is at his best when dealing with America’s past: The Untouchables, JFK and his Oscar winning Dances with Wolves, for example. In 13 Days, Costner adopts a Boston accent and the guise of real-life presidential aide Kenneth P. O’Donnell, in this powerful drama revolving around the Cuban Missile crisis of the early 60s. It’s a change of pace for the Oscar winner, but one, which he relishes, as he explains to Paul Fischer in Los Angeles.
The first thing one notices when watching Thirteen Days, is that Kevin Costner is afforded a chance to play a character, as opposed to an offshoot of his on-screen persona. As historical character Kenneth P. O’Donnell, Costner not only adopts a thick Bostonian accent, but is happy to become part of an ensemble, allowing the actors who play the Kennedy brothers (Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp) to have their moments in the sun.
“I play characters a lot at home with my kids and so I KNOW how to act and play characters”, Costner explains. “It would be foolish of me, in most of the other movies I have done, to take other roles. The reality is, with those other movies, I’ve always known those other roles were great, so we can get great actors to play them. But mostly, I’ve played the role that I should. When it comes to the character part, and I have to develop a lisp or a limp, people go: Oh he’s really acting and it might detract from the movie. So I never do. If I see a movie where I absolutely have to don on the character, then I’m happy to do that, but to do that every time just to prove that I can act, would be a mistake”. Costner insists that he takes a lot of pride in his acting “and listen, there are a lot of roles I’d love to play, but it’s not the smart move, and I pride myself on doing the smart thing, as far as a movie is concerned”. Thirteen Days is such a film, Costner adds. “I think Bruce [Greenwood] plays JFK better than I could have played him”. Costner says he resisted what he calls a “vanity move” and refused “a star turn” by playing O’Donnell, “drift into the background, relax and let everyone look at John when he walks into the room. That’s the right move”.
In Thirteen Days, the power and peril of the American presidency is dramatically explored by Aussie director Roger Donaldson, who captures the urgency, suspense and paralysing chaos of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The alarming escalation of events during those fateful days brought to the fore such public figures as Robert McNamara, Adlai Stevenson, Theodore Sorenson, Andrei Gromyko, Anatoly Dobrynin, McGeorge Bundy, Dean Acheson, Dean Rusk, and General Curtis LeMay. In addition many others.politicians, diplomats and soldiers.were on the front line of the showdown. In Thirteen Days, we see all of these people, — and, above all.President John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby, through the eyes of a trusted presidential aide and confidante, Kenneth P. O’Donnell (Costner). O’Donnell, who served as Special Assistant to the President, was a key White House insider with a birds eye view of the crisis. His office was next door to the President’s Oval Office, and he was a major behind the scenes figure in the Kennedy White House. In the film, O’Donnell serves as a conduit to this gripping dramatization of one of the most dangerous moments in modern history.
This is the second time that Costner has re-visited the Kennedy mythology on screen, so one wonders what it is that continues to fascinate the actor about the whole JFK mystique. “I don’t know that it’s that fascinating because I’ve been inundated with the tabloidisation of their lives over the last 20 years, I think there must be millions of people going: What was so great about the Kennedys, since so many horrible things are written about them? The reality is, when you look at those 13 days, you realise how great they were during that period. There was nobody else on the political landscape that probably could have done what they did”.
Costner remains passionate about the Kennedys, not only because he goes beyond their mythology, but when looking back at the way the brothers dealt with the 13 days of the missile crisis, “we remain indebted to them because they put their own political careers in second place, because they were not going to be re-elected by going against the military; they were NOT winning poles on what the right thing to do was”. What is interesting, is that Thirteen Days is relatively anti-militaristic, but Costner denies that such a stance makes the film less propagandist in tone. “If you also check the language of the movie and what I’m proud of, is that the stuff the military was saying was not wrong. What they were wrong about, and what Jack Kennedy fought against, was that it was the only solution. Jack was prepared to push the button, he WAS prepared to go to war, but what he was NOT prepared to do, was let lives be just chess pieces and just statistics, because that’s the mentality that exists with the military”.
Given recent political events in America, it may seem that Thirteen Days is nothing if not timely. “One can make that argument”, Costner cautiously responds. “But I think a good movie will always be of its time”.
Costner has not always had it easy. While critics may well be kind to Thirteen Days, his career has been up and down. Yet Costner remains upbeat about his career, and when asked how he would like a future generation of movie fans to remember him, the actor says that “they can look at the body of my work and look at the films that I’ve been making consistently”. Including the likes of Waterworld, Wyatt Earp, The War or Perfect World. “None of those films were considered commercial successes but I would put those films up against anybody else’s films that they were making”.
Costner just finished working on 3000 Miles to Graceland, featuring a stellar cast including Kurt Russell, Christian Slater and Courtney Cox. “It’s a very commercial movie but I have an entirely different look. He’s a bad guy of sorts and fun to do.”