The Oscar winner takes a stab at playing pure evil in ''Mr. Brooks''

By Adam B. Vary
June 01, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s been nine days since Kevin Costner’s wife of more than two years, Christine, gave birth to their son, Cayden Wyatt. But on this gray morning, nestled on a massive living-room couch in his home near Santa Barbara, the 52-year-old is the picture of calm. Stroking the thicket of hair below his lip, the actor explains that the baby is named for a distinguished figure from his past. Of course: Wyatt Earp — the wild American frontier’s premier hero and the role Costner played in the 1994 film, right?

Not quite. ”It’s a reference to the best dog I ever had,” Costner says, smiling, his well-tanned face crinkling as his current canines, white Labs Daisy and Jewel, snuggle underfoot near the crackling fireplace. ”Someone might read between the lines: Why are you naming him after a dog? But if you’ve ever had a great one in your life…” Costner trails off wistfully. ”I’ve had about 10; he was the greatest.”

Costner seems to be in the mood to confound expectations. For more than 20 years, he’s built a career as Hollywood’s archetypal leading man, from The Untouchables to Field of Dreams and The Bodyguard. His directorial debut, Dances With Wolves, resurrected the Western, won an armful of Oscars, and had pundits calling him the second coming of Gary Cooper. When he’s played scoundrels (Bull Durham, Tin Cup), they’ve been good guys at heart. He even weathered the one-two punch of belly flops Waterworld and The Postman, and rebounded with roles in well-received films like 2005’s Upside of Anger. But this month, in the noir-y thriller Mr. Brooks, he puts forth his most un-Costner role yet: an irredeemable serial killer who’s addicted to murder.

”I wasn’t dying to be in a serial-killer movie,” Costner points out (pun seemingly unintended). ”They kinda creep me out.” Nonetheless, Costner was so taken with the central conceit — the title killer’s a family man wrestling with his own lethal nature, personified by an illusory alter ego, played by William Hurt — that he signed on to star and produce. But only if he could do so independently, with no major-studio meddling.

When a potential financier demanded the film not exceed two hours — presumably a not-so-subtle swipe at Costner’s renowned appetite for lengthy running times — Costner waited nine months until a more flexible backer could be found. ”He was much stronger than [co-writer Raynold Gideon] and I,” recalls co-writer/director Bruce A. Evans. ”As writers, everything is malleable to us: ‘We could cut this line. We could maybe make this scene do something else.’ ‘No,’ [Costner said], ‘we’re doing what I read!”’

And yet, the final, Costner-supervised cut of Mr. Brooks came in at a lean 117 minutes (minus credits). ”There’s a real myth about my decisions being artsy-fartsy or [the result of] vanity,” Costner contends. Now well into his third decade in the movies, Costner is vehement that Hollywood’s group-think mentality can kill a movie. He says that creative compromise can affect a film’s box office ”by millions of dollars…. Movies that I have liked on paper have suffered in post[production]. I’m not surprised on opening weekend [when they bomb]. It’s like watching a car crash.” When he goes on like this, Costner can seem defensive — but then he’ll defuse the moment by casually flopping his beach-blond hair (now graying slightly) forward over his forehead.

Costner won’t single out which wrecks he’s talking about exactly, but, if you’re wondering, they are definitely not Waterworld or The Postman. He stubbornly supports those films, all these many years later. But he isn’t interested in comparing their bad press — too costly! too long! — with the relatively free ride that certain 2007 threequels are getting for their running time and budgetary bloat. Says Costner: ”I don’t feel vindicated. They’re doing that because of their success, and they can.”

He has, obviously, a relationship with Hollywood that is ambivalent at best. The L.A. native recently sold his Hollywood Hills estate (to Ryan Seacrest) and is renovating an oceanfront property two hours north. He and Christine, 33, a handbag designer, currently live in a nearby bungalow, which they plan to give to her parents. (Cayden Wyatt is Christine’s first child and his fifth. Costner has three grown children from his 16-year marriage to Cindy — they divorced in 1994 — and a 10-year-old son from another relationship.)

While that doesn’t mean he’s finished with Hollywood (”I really will work with anybody,” he says), he probably won’t visit that often. His next project is the Election Day satire Swing Vote, which he will finance out of his own pocket. (The soul patch is an effort to find the right look for his ne’er-do-well character before the film’s upcoming shoot.) ”It’s just a simple comedy, Capraesque, if you will. What’s important is that it stay that [way]. If it tries to be something else, it’s going to fail.” With Costner’s dedication to his own reinvention, it’s clear that he’s merely talking about his next movie, and not himself.