Kevin Costner knows a good Americana yarn when he sees it. And he saw one in the History Channel’s lavish new miniseries “Hatfields and McCoys,” which will air Monday to Tuesday. .
Costner’s cinematic track record has seen him exploring various iconic moments in American history, real (“JFK,” “Wyatt Earp”), embellished (“The Untouchables”) and imagined (“Dances With Wolves”). So for his first major foray into television, it’s not entirely surprising that he chose to produce and star in the cable network’s attempt to build a sweeping, old school miniseries with a generational tilt around the decades-long feud between two Appalachian families that spilled blood across the West Virginia-Kentucky border and splashed headline ink around the country.
“I found it interesting that both states were going to go to war with each other,” says Costner, who plays “Devil” Anse Hatfield, the tenacious patriarch of the West Virginia clan who in the decades following the Civil War pursued the feud against the Kentucky brood of his onetime friend and Confederate brother-in-arms Randall McCoy (played by Bill Paxton).
“West Virginia was going to fight Kentucky. They sent militia to the border and it was a really out of control thing. It was just when the press was starting to take shape in America, and so the New York papers were writing about these ‘hillbillies.’ That's where it all started.”
“It's one of my favorite times in American history,” says Paxton of the enduring fascination with the families’ blood feud. “There's something about the Civil War: it left a kind of haunted ghost over everything. It enriched our culture in a very gothic way, and that feeling, the hauntedness and the gothic nature of it, to me was kind of like Emily Bronte or something...I love the language, too. The language is fantastic, the way that these people express themselves. It wasn't so generic."
For executive producer Leslie Greif, creator of the TV series “Walker, Texas Ranger,” realizing a large-scale projects about the Hatfields and McCoys has been a lengthy labor of love. “It's been a career dream,” Greif says. “When I first started in television miniseries was the staple of TV: It was 'Thorn Birds,' 'Roots,' 'Shogun,' 'Rich Man Poor Man,' 'North and South,' 'Winds of War.' I thought, 'What would be a great, epic tale?' and I figured, 'How about the greatest feud in American history?' "
After Greif recruited Costner, he brought on his longtime friend and collaborator Kevin Reynolds (“Fandango,” “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “Waterworld”) to direct the project. He also took an active hand in luring in actors he’d either long wanted to work with – like Paxton and Powers Boothe– or had co-starred with before – like Mare Winningham and Jena Malone – to headline alongside him. Paxton and Costner became fast friends.
“He's a consummate filmmaker,” Paxton says of Costner. “I pride myself on my filmmaking, and so there was no trial run period. We got to Transylvania and we just dove into the deep end of the pool and we had each other's back. There was a comfort level with the two of us that was just instantaneous."
“Kevin called and said, 'I'm doing a mini-series about the Hatfields and McCoys and you're going to do it,' and I said, 'Yeah, I am, because I'll do whatever you say,’” laughs Winningham, who plays Randall McCoy’s wife Sally. “I have worked with him before, and that's why I'm no dummy.”
The cast roundly praised Costner for his willingness to take on any task on set to make the miniseries work, including stepping behind the camera as second unit director from time to time. Costner shrugs off the kudos: “You pitch in,” he says simply. “You pitch in, in the areas that you think you actually know what you're doing…I started in the low budget world. I worked over at Raleigh Studios and I've never been afraid to pick up a sandbag or help move a dolly. It's a treat to be able to make movies. I've always kind of understood that. There are a lot of jobs that are mundane – and I've had them!”
Inspired by Costner’s example to jump in with both feet, the actors found their own fascinations with the material. “Obviously the death and dying is what it's all about, in terms of why it persists to this day and why people are still talking about it,” says Winningham. “But the way the writers and the filmmakers depicted each death, you don't become anesthetized. You become the opposite. It becomes harder and harder to take, and I think that was a really smart way of filming this miniseries: to make each death painful and each one worse than the next so that the cumulative effect is just so horrific that it ends up being a testament to anti-violence.”
“It was an honor society, as opposed to necessarily a law society,” says Powers Boothe of the lack of formal law and order that allowed to feud to fester and grow. “And that honor came out of your personal honor and your faith in God and all these other things. Those were the rules. My character – I play Kevin's older brother – is a judge and a lawyer. He tries to be a little more rational at some times, but then when push comes to shove, blood is blood. That's not I don't think far from what goes on today.”
Indeed, Paxton says he thinks the story remains very relevant to contemporary audience. “I think there's a lot of timeless stuff: the nature of feuds and disharmony among different groups of people, family members or whatever,” he says. “You have to be careful when obsession comes into things, starting to obsess on a hatred. My dad always taught me something that Buddy Ebsen said, and that was, 'While you're holding a grudge, they're out dancing.' "
“Hatfields & McCoys” airs at 9 p.m. on May, 28, 29 and 30 on History Channel.