The first time Kevin Costner opens his mouth in Mike Binder’s Black or White, viewers are likely in for a surprise. The man whose genial California drawl once charmed Susan Sarandon and Eighties America by recounting his innermost convictions (“I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days”) now assumes the authoritative rasp of a mid-career Gene Hackman. The baseball glove that seemed welded to his hand for over a decade has been replaced by a scotch, rocks. This is Kevin Costner at 60. And he’s never been more alive or at ease onscreen.

Critic David Thomson once wrote that “a man like Costner would be killed by humor. The gravity stands high and bright, like an eagle on a peak.” In the Nineties, when the actor went all in on a pair of dystopian epics as grungy and bleak as they were earnest and admonitory, Thomson may have had a point. The everyman had become The Omega Man, and he bore the mantle nobly, playing stoic survivalists literally defined by their quests (The Mariner, The Postman). But just when it seemed we’d seen the last of his gentle smile and unforced charm, a funny thing happened: he hit middle age, and he started enjoying himself again.

The turning point may have been Binder’s The Upside of Anger (05), a dramedy about midlife romance and turning the page on regrets. Playing a likable lush and retired ballplayer who lends his support to a spurned wife (Joan Allen), Costner revealed a sensitivity commensurate with his maturity. Much as playing a boozy neighbor/unlikely love interest had done for Jack Nicholson in Terms of Endearment, the role of Denny Davies signaled Costner’s entry into character work, and in writer-director Binder, himself an actor and comedian, the star had found a collaborator who knew how to utilize his understated gifts.

Nine years later, they’ve reteamed on Black or White, the story of a hard-drinking widower raising his late daughter’s biracial child (Jillian Estell), forced to confront and defend his principles when the girl’s grandmother (Octavia Spencer) petitions for custody. Binder’s outspoken script so appealed to Costner that the actor financed the film himself, and offers one of his richest and—sorry, Mr. Thomson—funniest performances. Binder, who frequently draws on past experience for inspiration (see Crossing the Bridge and the poignant Indian Summer), spoke with FILM COMMENT about the real-life origins of Black or White and the qualities he appreciates in his leading man.

Black or White

How did the story first take shape in your head? Was the custody battle kind of the origin point, or did you see it first as a story of two people coming together over mutual need?

Yeah, I saw it more, first, as a family story. My wife and I helped raise a biracial nephew of ours when her sister died. He was seven years old when his mother died, and his father wasn’t in his life. We were involved with his family down in South Central, and my wife’s family, all as this kind of a group raising him. I always thought that was a great starting point for a story about family and race, and how racial relations have to grow forward going forward—where we have to move forward—and I added the custody case aspect as a way of taking the family apart while bringing them back together.

Speaking of Kevin Costner, in my view he’s in the most interesting phase of his career right now. He’s older, looser, funnier, perhaps more at home in his skin than he’s ever been before, and it kind of gives the impression that inside every leading man there’s a character actor struggling to get out.

[Laughs] It’s true.

And I see The Upside of Anger as his segue into character work, so I wonder if you could talk about the evolution of his career and the character acting he’s doing now?

I’ve always been a huge fan of his. He’s always been one of my top two or three favorite actors. I really think that what you say is true, he’s just getting comfortable in his skin. He’s a very interesting actor, and he doesn’t get a lot of credit for all that he does. He plays variations of himself, and doesn’t pick showy performances. They’re very real characters—he kind of reminds me a little bit of what Paul Newman was at that point in his career.

I can see that. I was going to say Spencer Tracy.

Yeah. Absolutely reminds me of a modern-day Spencer Tracy. I think that’s really true.

Because you don’t see the apparatus at work.

That’s right.

How much input into the character did he have? Because it seems like a very conscious departure for him, the way he talks in a rasp and cackles, and that ever-present scotch in his hand.

Oh, a lot. First of all, we’re good friends. Second of all, we produced the movie together. And he’s the movie star, so of course he would have a lot of input. It’s the most I’ve ever collaborated with anybody, and for me it was a really good collaboration. He brings a lot of ideas to the table when creating his character.

Black or White

As an actor, you’ve worked with the likes of Spielberg and Rebecca Miller and Rod Lurie. Is there any particular advice you’ve been given by a director that you’ve paid forward?

More from Kevin. I mean, from Kevin I’ve learned a lot about how great rehearsals are. If you do enough rehearsal, an actor will drive home and think about new ideas for the scene that, by time he shoots it, he’s had time to really think about it.

You have a background in comedy, and I wonder how that informed some of the more dramatic scenes where there’s humor nested within? Like the scene where Costner orders the father of his granddaughter to get sober, and the punctuation of that scene is Costner pouring himself another scotch.

I think it does. Even when I do drama I’m always thinking about it as a comedy, sometimes to a fault. But I don’t believe there’s any part of human life that suffers from a sense of humor, you know?

There’s a monologue near the end where Costner makes some points about perception—about your first impression and your second impression of a person—and they’re painfully candid. How did you come to write that speech?

When I came to that part in the movie, I wanted to really say what he felt about being called a racist. I really believe that we all see skin color—we’re not blind. But it’s about what’s our next thought, our next action. I don’t dislike anybody because of the color of their skin or their nationality or their sexuality. I’m more concerned about what kind of person they are, what the behavior—what the interaction we’re having is. It has nothing to do with me. I think that’s the majority of people in America and everywhere. It’s not your first thought. It’s your second and your third and your fourth and your fifth thought that’s important.

I just wondered if you were trying to get some of the more self-righteous people who claim they don’t see race at all to acknowledge certain things about themselves.

Yeah. I think that’s a good point.

Black or White

There were a lot of insights in the margins, like the way Anthony Mackie’s character considers his nephew an embarrassment. That seems to speak to how the actions of members of minority groups are seen to reflect their community in ways that others aren’t subject to. And you use supporting characters to tease out little nuances, like the interplay between the judge and Octavia Spencer’s character, which is almost entirely nonverbal.

The people in this family are all different people. I don’t like it when people are put into monolithic groups. “Black people think this way, and white people think this way,” et cetera. You can have an amazing family, and then there’s one bad apple in the family. Every family has that. And you can have a young guy who just has no sense of connection to his children, and his brothers and his uncles and his sisters are all incredibly connected to them.

There’s a very strong epithet that’s spoken by Costner more than halfway into the film that achieves a jarring effect. How much consideration went into the placement and context of that outburst?

Well, I don’t know, that kind of speaks to itself. We didn’t shy away from it, that’s for sure, or it wouldn’t be in the movie. But we both felt, okay, this is how we want to tell the story, and it’s a horrible word, but he used it, you know, and he’ll have to pay the penalties for it. Or explain himself.