The ''JFK'' star returned to camelot for the red-alert thriller

By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated November 17, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Kevin Costner talks about ”Thirteen Days”

He played a post-apocalyptic fish-man in Waterworld and a post-apocalyptic letter carrier in The Postman. But here is Kevin Costner as you’ve never seen — or heard — him before, starring as an almost-apocalyptic presidential assistant in the Cuban Missile Crisis drama Thirteen Days. Brandishing a Boston accent thicker than New England clam chowdah, the 45-year-old actor plays Kenny O’Donnell, the real-life White House aide who — at least according to this version of history — was President Kennedy’s chief adviser during those horrific two weeks in October 1962, when America and Russia went eyeball-to-eyeball over Soviet warheads in Cuba… and very nearly blew up the world. Lunching on a club sandwich in a Los Angeles hotel suite, Costner talks about bringing the $80 million historical thriller, directed by Roger Donaldson, to the screen.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You have been trying to get Thirteen Days off the ground for a couple of years. It was put in turnaround twice before New Line finally picked it up. What was the problem?
KEVIN COSTNER: The studios look at what’s out there and ask themselves if a film is commercially viable, what they think it’ll do on paper. And this movie is practically an art film. An expensive art film. And that’s a bad combination, at least from their point of view. But it’s really a very easy movie to watch. It should be very popular.

You got involved in the project pretty early. Were you always going to play Kenny O’Donnell? Did you ever have your eye on Jack or Bobby Kennedy [played by Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp]?
When somebody like myself tips his hand about wanting to be in a movie, everyone is always worried about the next shoe to drop. Who does he want to play? But I just felt there were too many minefields for me to play John Kennedy. I mean, he’s such an icon that you needed someone — I’m trying to think of the words here — someone with less flesh impact. Somebody that isn’t as well known as I am. Because otherwise the question becomes, How well is Costner doing as Kennedy? It would become all about everything that I was doing wrong. You’d never get into Kennedy.

There are some minefields to playing O’Donnell, as well. You had to inflate his role in the Cuban Missile Crisis to help give the story a dramatic center. Are you worried about backlash, the sort of controversy you and Oliver Stone got into over the historical accuracy of JFK?
Well, the Kennedys are getting their due. They’re the ones who are really golden in this story. And we checked in with Kevin O’Donnell [Kenny’s son] to find out when he was getting uncomfortable with the script. He was really good about it. He told us when he thought we were going too far. But we had to create some dramatic leaps, and Kenny was the only character we had that could do that. This could turn out to be a hotbed over who’s done what in history. But Kenny was our window into the story, and he has to bridge some scenes, bridge some conversations that maybe did or didn’t happen. People may take issue with it, but, you know, this is a good movie. So I’m not concerned.

I read somewhere — and I don’t know if this is true or not — that John F. Kennedy’s first words when he heard about the Soviet missiles in Cuba were ”F—ed again.” You have Kennedy uttering a few F-phrases, but not that particular one….
Well, the problem is that all of a sudden you get an R rating. I had a great line that was cut because of that concern. Kenny has this speech about loyalty. He’s on the phone when Kennedy walks in and he’s yelling into the phone [in Boston accent], ”There’s a word you need to learn in politics. It’s loyalty. Loyalty, motherf—er!” It was such a cool line. It was exactly the right tone we needed. But that line isn’t in the movie anymore. All you hear now is ”Loyalty, loyalty.” And it sounds kind of stupid. Doesn’t have the same resonance. It’s like we’re practically making the airplane version, the TV version. But I’m kind of a dinosaur on this issue. I’m constantly at odds with the industry over this sort of thing. I don’t want to pretend that I’m some cutting-edge film guy, but that ”motherf—er” line was important. Movies are psychological journeys, and just by dropping that word out to move it from an R to a PG-13 rating, you have limited some people’s ability to love this movie. And you really haven’t increased the number of people who’ll go see it. So there really is no reason to lose the line.

Couldn’t you have insisted that it stay in?
Yeah, but I would have to say it was going to be in there or I won’t promote the film. That’s the kind of stance I would have to take. And, frankly, I’m a little tired of doing that. I don’t like to threaten.

You slipped into your Boston accent a minute ago….
Yeah, I just felt it for a second.

You’ve done accents for movies before.
I did a really poor one in Robin Hood.

Were you concerned about doing a better job with the accent in this movie?
Well, I didn’t have a lot of time to work on it, but I did the best I could. I felt that it was really important that when these guys walked into rooms, they were like fingernails on a chalkboard. They were in a group by themselves and everyone else was like, ”Oh, those damn Kennedys.”

This is your second time playing a Kennedy-era character. Is that pure coincidence or is there something about the Kennedys that draws you to them?
I’m fond of the era and I’m a student of history, but it’s a coincidence. Same thing with baseball. I’ve done a couple of baseball pictures, but that’s a coincidence too. I like baseball, but I’m not a fanatic.

You have another movie coming out this spring….
Yeah, a very violent movie called 3,000 Miles to Graceland. I play the illegitimate son of Elvis. It’s very stylish and violent — almost a film noir for this millennium.

Sounds like it might be controversial.
I hope so. I’m secretly glad I made a violent movie, because I’m not known for that. I’m the guy from Field of Dreams.

So you want it to be controversial?
[Smiles] I hope it gets into everyone’s face.

Thirteen Days

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 135 minutes
  • Roger Donaldson