Kevin Costner is dancing with television audiences once again.
In his first TV project since his Emmy-winning role in History’s record-breaking Hatfields & McCoys, the 63-year-old actor — who ascended from movie-star heartthrob to bona fide power player when he helmed and starred in 1990’s Oscar-winning Dances With Wolves — returns to his favored frontier sensibility for Paramount Network’s sweeping drama series Yellowstone.
Costner plays widower John Dutton, proprietor of the modern-day Yellowstone Dutton Ranch, his family’s Rhode Island-sized Montana sprawl of big business, modern technology and Wild West skill sets. Invulnerable to outside forces for generations, the estate’s prime location in the shadow of Yellowstone National Park now renders it a target for land developers, oil and logging corporations, the neighboring Indian reservation, and locals who feel that the Duttons’ interests have usurped their own progress.
The series is the creation of acclaimed filmmaker Taylor Sheridan, who grew up on ranches in Texas and Montana, and described the series as a sort of modernized Bonanza or perhaps “The Great Gatsby on the largest ranch in Montana.” With Costner onboard, what began as another in Sheridan’s lauded stable of neo-Western films evolved into an event series — and launched a bidding war for the finished project that allowed the men to produce a breathtaking series with cinematic visuals, a stellar ensemble cast and a story as epic and violent as the land on which it’s set.
“I will move back and forth between feature films and television,” says Costner, who executive produces the series with Sheridan. “You dance with the prettiest girl. You go to the best script. And the best script was Yellowstone. … I like the world that Taylor created. It was an easy decision for me.”
Yellowstone filmed in part on Chief Joseph Ranch — one of America’s real-life historic working ranches, about 60 miles south of Missoula, Mont. That sometimes put the actors in close proximity with the natural perils they were committing to film, but also imbued them with the spirit of a landscape most of us know only from photos and the movies. Which means we don’t really know it at all.
We caught up with Costner, who eschews Hollywood for a bucolic Aspen homestead, to wrangle more intel on Yellowstone.
You’ve said you conduct your career based on good writing. Tell me about your earliest moments with Yellowstone, getting to know Taylor and seeing the possibilities here.
Kevin Costner: Well, he sent it to me and the idea was we were gonna make one big, really long movie. That’s how it started out. But everybody seemed to like the world that he was creating and wanted to go past that. There’s an authenticity to how he writes, and it’s not a world that we’ve explored very much, to be quite honest.
And it’s something that I’m attracted to with modern-day ranching and the issues that go with that — land use, water rights, the pressures on the people who have the land to keep it and the pressure that people who want it are putting on them. It represents a way of life, and he has a grasp of that.
Given those things you just mentioned, is there also a timeliness to the series, given how oligarchy and the intentions of this administration and its EPA toward unspoiled lands have been top of mind?
I never know what’s timely or isn’t. You hear that a lot of times, when people are in love with their project — “Couldn’t be a better time for this!” I just did a thing about Bonnie and Clyde [Netflix’s upcoming The Highwaymen], and it’s like, “God, there couldn’t be a better time for this!” [Laughs]
For me, all the things you’re talking about are protected by layers and layers of people that can spin a story. Out there, you didn’t have a lawyer to arbitrate for you, or a manager or a publicist. All these people seem to be existing behind the law, and then sometimes not ascribing to the law at all.
Everything we’re standing on, blood was shed over it. Somebody else’s. You can’t help but look at the Bitterroot Valley that we film in and understand what Lewis and Clark might have seen on their way to the Pacific Ocean, but we just rolled over the people that were there. The people who were tough enough, mean enough, strong enough, resourceful enough, crafty enough have it now. And the ones that were really smart have a lot of it.
Like Dutton and his forebears?
We start with that premise: a man who’s got a ranch the size of Rhode Island and there are now Porsches there and generation after generation has been able to fight this on terms very much like they settled it to be quite honest. Like I said, problems are arbitrated outside the law. But as we come into this series, that’s just not flying anymore. So, it’s one man’s mission to hold on to what four generations have held before him, and he has to do that with a very dysfunctional family.
And do it two ways, from a business standpoint — equal parts big money and true grit. Tell me a little bit more about John Dutton as rancher and businessman.
There’s people that fight for “God and country” and there’s people that fight for the land that they actually live on. If you’ve ever fought for the land and the people on it — where you sleep, where you feed yourself — you feel the difference.
I’m not saying one’s better than the other, but this guy’s fighting for his way of life and his property against a lot of forces. Tricky ones. And he’s got one foot in one century and the other foot in another. It’s a convoluted world that he’s having to operate in right now — rules and regulations on his own land. Should a person be able to do whatever they want on a piece of property? There’s arguments that could be made both ways, not to the detriment of other people, not to the detriment of the environment.
Dutton’s kids appear to value very different things — and not necessarily the ranch. Tell me about this guy managing the business of his family, as well.
The evolution of John Dutton and his family is such that, for four generations, all the children wanted to do was take over, inherit and advance the ranch. John was able to do that, to grow the ranch in a way a CEO would, but he also is steeped in the tradition of ranching.
Unfortunately, he lost his wife, and when he lost his wife, he lost obviously the center of his own life and the center of his children’s lives. He has not been able to be a proper father to his daughter. The kids have other interests that take them away from the ranch. So, the thing that you’re fighting to save — to advance, to keep going — you’re not even sure who you’re trying to save it for anymore.
Tell me about the Dutton kids.
One son [Dave Annable’s Lee Dutton] is very content to just be a wrangler. It’s difficult for John — that’s not what he needs. He needs somebody to inherit one of the great ranches of all time, but Lee doesn’t have the ambition for it, and you see that very clearly. He has another son [Wes Bentley’s Jamie] who has political aspirations and, while John understands the nature of politics and its modern-day place in these things, he despises that. Another son [Luke Grimes’ Kayce] had difficulty growing up — issues of violence, bad choices made, pregnancies early in their teens — and went off to war. He’s been a little disenfranchised by war. And John’s daughter [Kelly Reilly’s Beth Dutton] lost what a mother can be to a daughter. As hard as it is to raise a daughter [Costner has three], imagine a cowboy trying to raise a daughter as wild and as beautiful as Beth.
So, there are layers of succession in this story — family, business, land and legacy?
Yeah. Is there even gonna be a ranch to divide up … to inherit? Are mistakes going to be made in trying to suppress the forces that are coming at him? John is having to protect some things that he shouldn’t have to protect, but because of mistakes made by other people, he’s exposed. A wounded bull, if you will.
What’s most interesting to me is that John Dutton is, in a sense, the most capable guy from the beginning of the generations. He had the benefit of what he learned, and at the height of his business and understanding it. And yet, he’s probably the most poised to lose it all because of modern day issues that can attack him, and a dysfunctional family that’s made him vulnerable.
John can’t deal with the morality outside the ranch, but on the ranch, he decides the morality. That can be harsh, it can be biblical, it can be whatever it is. “I don’t care how other people do things, but on my land, it’s done this way.”
Tell me a little bit more about land rights in this story.
The Native Americans [led by Gil Birmingham’s Thomas Rainwater] in certain instances now have the ability to use the very thing that took things from them — the law — to try to get it back. When you combine someone like that with someone who’s a very ambitious developer [Danny Huston’s Dan Jenkins], you see people who normally would not get along at all create an alliance, see a common enemy in John Dutton.
So, you see forces teaming up against him, and in the world of politics, you realize they’re trying to figure out as quick as they can which way the wind’s gonna blow. For a lot of time, the Duttons weren’t vulnerable, but suddenly they’re a little vulnerable.
That developer, Danny Huston’s Dan Jenkins. What are Dutton’s interactions with this guy?
Money is a driving force for Danny’s character. Some people are never gonna have enough. And it all comes in the name of other people. What happens is, when somebody really wants something bad enough, they use “the public good” as their own special club, when in fact they could give a @#$% about the people. “People would love to play golf here! People should be able to play golf here!” It’s like, “Oh, really? The general public? Does that mean on your land, too?” “Oh, no, no, no — just on yours.”
The character that Taylor’s drawn there is no different. He’s a formidable character in the piece.
Your band is called Modern West. Might a song or two might appear in this modern Western story?
We’ve got some really beautiful songs — three that are just great — but I don’t know if they fit for Taylor. You’ll probably see a Yellowstone-inspired record though. I’ll do exactly what I did with Hatfields & McCoys [Famous for Killing Each Other: Music Inspired by the Hatfields and McCoys].
Yellowstone premieres Wednesday, June 20 at 9/8c on Paramount Network