Interview: Kevin Costner on “Hidden Figures” — Movie Mom
Kevin Costner almost turned down his role in “Hidden Figures.” Based on the remarkable true story of African-American women mathematicians at NASA in the 1960’s, it is an inspiring, uplifting story of the triumph of intelligence, hard work, dedication, and integrity, despite the powerful obstacles they faced as women of color. But the supervisor character played by Costner was the weakest part of the original script. “My character was one they didn’t have the rights to. So he really was an amalgamation of three people and it read like that. I almost didn’t do the movie because the character didn’t make a lot of sense to me, his contributions weren’t enough to prop up the girls. It was just kind of moving from room to room and saying things that were very contradictory. So when I approached the director about that I said, ‘Look, I like the movie, I think the girls are written beautifully. It’s not an MO of mine to want to increase my part or do whatever but there’s something very schizophrenic about this, and [writer/director] Theodore Melfi said, ‘Well you got me.’ and I said, ‘Okay, explain,’ and he said, ‘I couldn’t get the rights to that character, I spend the least amount of time with him and he is not one person. I know, it reads like three.’ And so I said, “That character doesn’t survive in this screenplay that well and he is also not propping other people up because he is saying some inconsistent things. He is giving some mixed signals. So we don’t have to make him better, we don’t have to make him bigger. We have to make them real.’”
He researched the era to understand how limited the technology was. The film shows the first mainframe computer being installed at NASA at a time when “computer” was the term assigned to the women who performed complex calculations by hand. “That was a first click, it was interesting to see that. It was a very crude time. We tend to think of it as very sophisticated, but my children have some toys at home that are more sophisticated than all the technology they had in that room.”
Even though the technology was very limited, Costner related to the role of a man supervising engineers and mathematicians. “I have technologies that I have supported and own and funded, so I deal with scientists and engineers. So I know what it is like to prop them up so that they can do their best work. I know their mindset and I know that they are not always possessed of managerial skills. They’re very individual and they are very creative. I think of them as artists but they have to be managed. But I can’t talk their language because once I quit doing percentages I was done with math.”
The haircut and the clothing helped him imagine the past, but some elements of the story are timeless. “There some things that are constant when it comes to behavior, when it comes to people who are insecure, who are selfish, who can’t give credit. That kind of person has emerged throughout time, the one that’s insecure, so the men are somehow not allowing the cream of the crop to have a chance. The best are not getting through the eye of the needle because of insecurity, not necessarily racism. There’s a big difference but the reality is, that’s a very human quality. So that existed in the 60’s and racism exists now, too. We can be very pleased with looking back and being happy that the story is told and how absurd it seems that woman had to be off-campus so to speak, how absurd to see that they had to be divided. Then the separate bathroom, the separate coffee pot and things like that. I hope people are feeling how absurd it was. I hope they are feeling a sense of shame because every time they do that means we have a chance to go forward. When they walk out of the theater they just have to hold up a mirror to where we are at today and we can still be found wanting in a very severe way. Ask yourself and then answer honestly. We have come a long way but there are other areas where we’ve just not. We have not evolved enough. There are more evolved people now than ever. There are more people that don’t want to accept racism, don’t want it to be here. There are more people that want to protect the planet now than ever. But the noise of the people that are not thinking that way is just louder. There are more of us than ever but they are louder than ever and it’s disappointing that people can’t have a level of empathy.”
Even with all of his experience and honors, Costner finds something new in every project. “I am still learning. I think I’m a better actor than I was three years ago because I tried.”
Originally published at www.beliefnet.com on December 20, 2016.