‘Hatfields & McCoys’: Kevin Costner, Bill Paxton on Guns, Grit and Feud for Thought

In the History Channel's "Hatfields & McCoys," the two actors face off and get grimy as battling patriarchs of the killer clans


Long before we had Trump vs. Rosie, Tupac vs. Biggie, Carson vs. Rivers, or Axl vs. Slash, there was the biggest celebrity beef of them all: Hatfields vs. McCoys. The bloodletting of that late-19th-century Appalachian family feud became the stuff of international legend … but until now, remarkably, never a major mass entertainment.

That oversight will finally be corrected with the History Channel’s six-hour miniseries, "Hatfields & McCoys," made possible by the combined passion and stardom of Kevin Costner, a producer on the project who also plays the peculiarly named Devil Anse Hatfield. He was joined by top “real McCoy” Bill Paxton, the "Big Love" star who may not be as famous for Westerns as Costner, but who does bring some experience at playing perplexed patriarchs.

Speaking of feuds, real or perceived, Costner brought in as his director Kevin Reynolds, notwithstanding the fact that most entertainment news junkies assumed they’d kept their distance ever since their previous collaboration, 1995’s "Waterworld," ended in acrimony. But spending two and a half months shooting in woodsy Romania (standing in for West Virginia and Kentucky) instead of on the ocean proved they can still make beautiful music—or at least bloody mayhem—together.

"Hatfields & McCoys" marks a historic first for the History Channel, being the first scripted miniseries they’ve taken to air (not counting the controversial "Kennedys," which the network commissioned but ultimately sold off).

Epic films like "How the West Was Won" went away decades ago, and the thing that replaced them, the broadcast-network miniseries, is gone too. Does this represent a throwback to either of those eras?
KEVIN COSTNER: You can’t just say you want to bring something back because it’s nostalgic. You have to bring something back that can stand up. I mean, Spartacus could be long but not good. Giant could be long but not good, but it is. So if you want to do Hatfields, you don’t do it long because [that’s how things used to be done]. You do it because that’s the story you want to tell. You have to fight for the story you want to tell — and if it’s eight hours, you’ve got to fight for that.

Did you and the network toss around different lengths for a while?
COSTNER No. Look, we’ve [Costner and director Kevin Reynolds] been making feature films, and we didn’t have any hesitation about stepping into this medium. But we didn’t want to go into this and see it also edited. That wouldn’t have flown for me. It was my promise to Bill and everybody else that they were gonna see the scenes they signed up for. And this was only supposed to be two nights, but History had the courage to make it three when they saw that the story, as it was being told, took up that time. That's pretty amazing for a network.

BILL PAXTON I’m a big fan of some of those movies that Kevin and you both mentioned, and I’ve been watching a lot of them lately on Turner Classic Movies. I just watched "How the West Was Won," and God, it holds up great! I forgot just what a tough guy Jimmy Stewart played. And had this been made back in those days, "Hatfields & McCoys"  probably would have played at the Cinerama Dome, and there would have been a big intermission card with the overture music. I hope it bodes well for more things like this, because there are a lot of actors like us who enjoy having a little more time to explore the part because of the length of the piece.

Also read: History Teams Up With Kevin Costner for 'Hatfields & McCoy'

Length aside, it feels grittier and grimier than most of those widescreen epics we’re thinking of.
PAXTON It’s kind of shot like "The Wild Bunch." The violence is visceral. I saw it for the first time all the way through when they screened it for us and family and friends. There were a lot of scenes where I wasn’t around when they were shooting the Hatfield action that I wasn’t in. And I tell you what, it’s very intense. They used high caliber weapons that just destroy you when they hit you, and you really get the feeling of that.

Kevin, you and your band have just released a concept album based on the movie called "Famous for Killing Each Other. That would have made a good title for the film as well. It comes from a line in the script…
COSTNER It’s a scene that wasn’t in the original screenplay, and it’s something I wanted to have in there, so I took it upon myself to write that scene. As good as the screenplay was, we get to the end and you go, “What was this about?” I wanted to see if we couldn’t somehow wrap up what this was about. It hit me that we could have a woman going, “Why are we here with the children to see a hanging?” A guy says, “Well, these people are famous.” And of course you need a woman to go, “Famous? For what?” And then we go to a common drunk who says, “Famous for killing each other.”

You’ve emphasized, proudly, that you accomplished this epic piece without an epic budget. At the same time, there are other name actors in the cast besides just you two, and you had an established feature director, and you were shooting overseas for two and a half months. So can we assume this wasn’t all that low-budget?
COSTNER Well, when you compare it to other cable, it’s probably about a third of the budget. I feel like we did a lot for a little. I came up in a low-budget world, and so did Kevin Reynolds, so I think we all used our bag of tricks to give this the look that we wanted. I mean, for our opening [Civil War] battle, we had like 60 guys. This is our army? We put 40 over here and 20 over here. We didn’t have big cranes. We didn’t have a Steadicam. We really made up for all that.

PAXTON Because I knew that [Costner and Reynolds] had done these big action films together, that was attractive to me as an actor, knowing we not only had a real feature director but a producer/lead actor who had worked with this director. There was no time wasted either on the set, because these men knew each other and knew how they worked. A lot of time gets wasted when people get thrown together. You’ve got to use every second of your shoot.

How did you two get along as actors? Did you have any Method thing going with each other for those two and a half months, where you didn’t talk when the cameras were off but just spit tobacco at each other from opposite sides of the set?
COSTNER No. It was too hard to be in Romania by ourselves. Anybody that spoke English we latched onto. I don’t know if I would have been friends with Bill, but he was the only guy there. [Laughter]

Was there anything the other guy did that surprised you?
COSTNER I thought Bill had a really hard part to play. It was thankless in many ways, because he plays a person who was informed and guided by his religion, [to the point that] it gets laborious, because how he wanted to live his life is how he expected other people to live. I think of the scene outside the church where he approaches me and he’s so pinched, so pulled in, that his mouth can barely talk. I think that really speaks to his craft.
PAXTON I was worried that maybe in the script, there might have been a little more empathy toward the Hatfields. But Kevin played it fearlessly. He wasn’t afraid to show him striking his son or shooting a guy. These were men who were products of their time, coming out of this horrible war. I loved that there’s not really a good guy or a bad guy.
COSTNER That would have destroyed us, angling to make one man seem more reasonable than the other. Everybody thinks they’re righteous in their life. 

The audience has a certain expectation of what Kevin Costner will be like in a Western. Then, within the first 20 minutes or so, you shoot a prisoner of war in the back. 
I don’t need the audience to like me. I just need them to understand. I understood why he shot that guy in the back. He’s upset with the guy who did the first shot, Jim Vance (Tom Berenger), who’s like a psychopath. So when he kills that boy, he says, “What was I supposed to do when you blew the other one’s brainpan out?” That’s good writing. Devil Anse Hatfield is not a beast, but he has purpose and certainty about what has to be done.

For you, Bill, this couldn’t be more different than some of the things you’ve done. But I would hope the pitch they made to you didn’t start with: “You’re going be the patriarch of a very, very large family”…
Well, I called Kevin, and I told him what my reservation was, as far as that goes. He said, “You know, I think this could be a really important document. Even though, yeah, there’s similarities to the roles, it’s set in the past…” He understood [the hesitance]. But he didn’t do bad with those baseball pictures, and he’s made more than one Western.

It’s really different for me from "Big Love." For me, there’s nothing more exciting than to get to do a transformation like this. I love that this character had no vanity at all — my teeth were brown, and half the time I was unbathed, and my hair wasn’t really done, and I got to really inhabit the clothes, and go to Kentucky and hear the accent and work on that. You live for that as an actor. I think with "Big Love," audiences got used to seeing me in that kind of way, and they forgot that was an actor in that part. But I think here, you get to show that, hey, this is what I do.

And I think it was the same for Kevin. He embraced the whole guy physically, too. This epic RED camera that they use is very unforgiving. Boy, you can see every nook and cranny. Suddenly you look like an English muffin. But I got off on it. You really can see the character in our faces. I love the rawness of the look. It looks cold and lean and hard.

When you’re shooting in Romania and you’re supposed to look grimy and sweaty, is there ever a time when you go back to the hotel room at the end of a long day and think, “I’m not gonna bother taking a shower before I go back?”
COSTNER No, but I fell asleep a lot in my clothes. You’re so tired, you don’t know if you’re hungry or even know what you are. You just lay down and you feel like a drunk when you get up and you go, “Man, I’m still in my clothes, and there’s blood on me.” Jesus, the maid comes in and sees the blood, and she doesn’t know if she should put yellow tape around the room or what.
PAXTON Sometimes when they had to add facial hair, it took a while. I hate being in a makeup trailer for very long. But I tried to wear it one night to save myself some trouble, and it was worse. It’s so much better to just scrub off the war paint at the end of the day and have a cold beer. Leave it at the office!

Well, thank you for…
PAXTON It’s a homoerotic love story, by the way. People don’t really seem to want to ask about that. The love that dare not speak its name!