[Ed's note: Welcome back to Bull Durham Week. Check out some of our other content this week: an interview with writer/director Ron Shelton and an interview with Tim Robbins. The 20th anniversary of the film's release is this upcoming Sunday.]
When Kevin Costner was cast in the role of Crash Davis, he didn't yet have a big Hollywood name. He was 33, and still needed that one huge break. And at the time, he was still hell bent on proving to director Ron Shelton that he could hit a fastball. He even hit two on the set, just for good measure. Afterwards, he was on his way—and was soon directing Oscar-winning films, and starring in other epic baseball flicks. For our good measure. With Bull Durham twenty years in his rear view mirror as of this week, we caught up with Costner, and made him turn off SportsCenter for a few minutes to tell us a little about it.
No shot to your acting skills, but Ron Shelton did say he wanted actors who could play ball.
Well, I said to Ron when we started, "Let's go to the batting cage." And Ron said, "No, I don't have to do that with you because that'll just give you the high ground to say to anybody that 'Kevin did it.' " Like that would give me an edge. I love acting in (sports) movies because I love playing for a coach, and there's a sense that a good director is just that, and if they are good, you feel like you'd do anything for them.
Did you relate to Crash Davis?
Well, I was 33, and that's kind of late both in my profession and baseball, so it's kind of like a love of the game thing, like him. You can't really let go. I related to him quite a bit in that I couldn't give up on things, couldn't let them go, and that's probably what would make him a good coach.
So you consider yourself late to the game, so to speak?
I didn't get into it until after college, and I probably didn't make a paycheck for seven years, so that would be like laboring in the minor leagues and coming to your senses at 22, where you have to make a decision.
So it matters that you can play?
It's funny, all these actors now have on their resume that they can roller skate or golf or ride a horse or something, as though I'll cast them when I'm making a Western, but they must put it there for a reason.
And you can swing a bat.
I can swing a bat.
Did you get a feel for what guys in the minors go through?
Yeah, and I also felt for Shelton, who was there, and knows what it's like to hate life when you're supposed to be doing something you love, and get pissed and get kicked out of games, and everybody's life is at risk in a way. The movie reflects that.
But after all of that, it ultimately becomes the breakthrough in your career.
Yeah, and a learning tool. Last week, I'm out here shooting a movie in Albuquerque, and I was sitting in the office of the manager of the Isotopes, and he tells me, "The big thing here is you can't try to beat your players to the majors." And it was such a true thing as I look back to that time. You have to just soak it up for what the experience is, and take what you can get from it.
So Hollywood mimics sports in some ways?
Well, in sports you can have a guy get drunk and beat up his wife or have problems with drugs and the next day he can pitch a no hitter and there'll be some critics who treat it as a sign of his redemption. Sports are more forgiving, and I say that with a great reverence for athletes. Your failures personally or failures in acting or making films can ruin you or at least your life for a time, but what you made in some ways isn't even you, it's just this representation, or really, an idea of someone else. But that pitcher, that's still the same guy who screwed up in real life. I just think in Hollywood, the critics are more relentless.
When you were shooting Bull Durham, did you get a feel for Crash, or where he'd be, or even life as a minor leaguer?
You get a serious respect for the idea of the minor leagues. I wanted to grab the high school kids thinking of leaving and say, go to college, stay off that bus for as long as you can! And there's that other thing, this psychological aspect where it's both for the first time they may have to sit on a bench, and for the first time, the guy on the bench next to them might not be happy you just hit a home run. I have a respect for that mental battle. You forget the guys you are most competing with are on that bus with you.
A good anecdote from the set that nobody's heard…
I'll tell you what. Ronny (Shelton) likes pranks. Anyway, there's a guy in the film who was really enjoying himself in town when we weren't shooting, and may have had a good time out at the bars with a lady or two on the young side. Anyway, Ronny decides to get a local cop to come out and walk onto the set while we're in the middle of shooting a game scene and confront the guy, cuff him and arrest him for what would be, in the cop's words, having a little too much fun with an underage girl, unbeknownst to him. I mean, this is Durham and nobody's checking ID's. So the cops are basically there arresting the guy, and you can see the horror. Everybody else just loves this and it makes me almost want to throw up. I wanted to go hide in the dugout, and I'm dying. But the kid, the guy, he's just seriously watching his entire life crumble in front of him and it's in front of everybody! I'm pretty sure I snapped a bit and had to sort of reveal the prank, just for my own sanity. My stomach is just f**ing turning! And I mean, the thing is, Ronny had gotten actual cops to do this. They were taking him off the field. For all intents, this was no joke. I couldn't take the suffering.
So Shelton is a ringleader.
People love to act for Ron. He's tough, and he can direct like a manager, but he also will go to bat for his guys like (Lou) Piniella.
Shortly after this, you're directing yourself with Dances With Wolves.
There's no question, I took so much from him, even in a movie so different from that. Some of it was confidence, and a lot was just how to work with people. I didn't know much before that.
So you're huge into music. If you write The Ballad of Crash Davis, what's the line that keeps getting stuck in my head?
Oh man, you caught me flat-footed. That's why it's takes so damn long to write a good one! I've got three songs right now I've been working on since the 4th of July, and I've probably crossed out the line someone might remember already.
Rank your baseball flicks.
I can't do it without hurting feelings but I will say I love the way I've been embraced by baseball. I can't go to a game where they don't say, "Kevin Costner is here!" and bring me up to the booth to talk about the game, like I'm a part of it or ever was or something. I love it, but there's the fan in me too: I want to be down by the game.
Do you and Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) make it?
Yeah, I think so. We're sort of like these broken people whose pieces somehow find a way to come back together and make something. Like some China plates shattered, where the pieces come back together to re-form a completed piece. Everybody gets broken by life, but we find our way back together I think.
What was something you wanted for Bull Durham that didn't work out?
You know, I always wanted to use "Unchained Melody" for the love scene between Crash and Annie. I've always loved that song. And we didn't go with it, and then Ghost came out (laughs) and I don't think anybody can ever use it again, or wants to.