LOS ANGELES — In Oliver Stone's "JFK," Kevin Costner plays crusading attorney Jim Garrison, who challenged the Warren Commission's report on the John F. Kennedy assassination by bringing New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw to trial on a conspiracy charge.
Unlike Mr. Stone, Mr. Costner -- a friend of President Bush -- is reluctant to discuss politics.
"My politics vary on different issues," says Mr. Costner. "When I was in college, my brother was in Vietnam. The most daring thing I did in college was listen to Mort Sahl. Since then, I like to think I've expanded. Any time anyone writes something, it should cause you to think. I'd like to think that all my whole life, I'd take in new ideas."
Yet Mr. Costner says had he been on the jury of the Shaw trial, he probably would have voted not guilty.
"I just don't think Jim Garrison had a strong enough case," he says.
When Mr. Costner speaks, he never raises his voice. When he shows anger, it takes the form of disappointment rather than rage. Such emotional restraint was one of the things that appealed to Mr. Stone, whose films have not been known for their conservative style.
"I like the low-key aspect of Kevin's personality," Mr. Stone says. "I would never have cast him as Jim Morrison, but 'JFK' isn't 'The Doors.' My films have been accused of being didactic, and I thought Kevin's laid-back personality would keep 'JFK' from seeming didactic."
Mr. Stone was eager to get Mr. Costner for the movie, which grossed $5 million over the weekend, its first weekend of wide release. He sent him the first draft of the screenplay while the actor was in the middle of filming "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves."
"I was tired and not particularly happy while making 'Robin Hood,' " Mr. Costner says. "I had just finished filming 'Dances With Wolves,' and I had promised Cindy [his wife] that we would take time off after 'Robin Hood.' "
He passed on the first draft of "JFK," finding it "information-dense, thick and a little confusing."
"But Oliver, being Oliver, crossed the ocean to talk to me," Mr. Costner says. "He brought a second script with him, and it was much better. Still, I didn't think it was an option for Cindy and me. We had promised each other this time together. But then she read the script and felt I had to do it. She said we'd take time off after 'JFK.' "
Mr. Costner is keenly aware that some people believe that the upright hero of "JFK" bears little resemblance to the real Jim Garrison.
"I knew early on that the film was never intended as a biography of Jim Garrison," he says. "There are a lot more sides of him than you see in the movie, and some of them are not flattering. But I think Oliver hints in the screenplay at infidelity and ambitiousness. But Garrison still comes off heroic, and I play him as written.
Mr. Costner is one of the most sought-after personalities working in films. "Robin Hood" earned him some of the worst notices of his career yet proved a hearty box-office success. However, he's aware he has his detractors.
"I am surprised 'Robin Hood' became such an issue of debate," he says. "It was strictly an entertainment story and, when all was said and done, it was a good movie. . . . It advanced the genre. I'm not the least bit ashamed of it."
He seems even more surprised at the backlash -- perhaps inevitable considering its success -- that followed "Dances With Wolves." Some critics now deem it a simplistic treatment of Native Americans.
" 'Dances' was just one story of the American West," he says. "It was not intended as a definitive statement on the plight of the Native Americans. It dealt with a very specific story that resulted in a plea for gentleness, and that appealed to me.
"What angered me was that some people in the media and in the industry were calling it 'Kevin's Gate' before it came out. I don't know where that kind of cynicism comes from. I wasn't surprised that audiences liked it. I always knew it told a people-oriented story. But I was surprised at those people who attacked it, and I still am."