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Costner Puts His Stamp on the Outlaw Prince

In an interview, the actor explains his take on the Robin Hood legend, and what he enjoyed in making the movie

KEVIN COSTNER'S shirt provides the only spot of brilliant green this morning among the cluster of filmmakers and reporters gathered at the Westin Canal Hotel in New Orleans to talk about "Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves." "I just thought I would get into the swing of things today," he says in that drawling, rueful way of his. Costner is doing double-duty, dividing his time between location shooting for Oliver Stone's new movie, "JFK," in which he plays the colorful New Orleans District Attorney, Jim Garrison, and conducting interviews for "Robin Hood."

Oddly, he's wearing more green today than at any time in the movie. Although green has been traditionally associated with Robin Hood - and was the accepted color of the landed gentry in 12th-century England - Mr. Costner reminds me that "These guys lived in the dirt and mud. I refused to wear those green tights and those feathered cap things, too." Indeed, the brown leggings, black leather shoulder harness, and thick, sepia-toned scarves are all part of a general overhaul of the character's image. Costn e

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r was uncomfortable with anything that seemed derivative of the look and tone of the costume classics by Errol Flynn, Cornel Wilde, and others.

"The first time this particular script came to me I didn't want to play it," Costner says. "But by the middle of last summer my friend Kevin Reynolds [director of the movie] was on board with the production company, Morgan's Creek. And his version seemed to advance the genre. If it had not advanced Robin Hood in new ways, I wouldn't have done it. As I read through it, I kept saying to myself, yeah, it tracks, it tracks. It's not all buddy-buddy, you know. And Robin Hood - well, here's a guy who's spent f

ive years in prison. He's seen death. He escapes and comes back to England and finds his father dead. He's rootless now and doesn't know what to do. The Errol Flynn character and most others are not like this. They always are sure of themselves...."

Moreover, these actors spoke with English accents. Costner purportedly found himself in a bit of a quandary regarding Robin's voice. His supporting cast (many of whom are English) all sported believable accents. Costner, according to some recent articles, couldn't get the inflections right and had to spend many hours in post-production working on the dialogue.

Casually, Costner waves off the gossip. "I did some looping [dubbing] in some cases where I thought I could improve the voice, that's all. And we had some horrific sound problems because it was an outdoor movie. But I'm satisfied." He pauses with a sudden smile. "I knew it was important to try to do [an accent], even if I might get hammered for it." In the final product Costner has a rather neutral kind of inflection.

Predictably, the athletic Costner had a great time with the sheer physicality of the role. In "Robin Hood" he jumps on and off horses, crosses staves with Little John (in a scene he insisted on doing without a double), dispatches two bad guys with two arrows shot simultaneously from his bow, and swings on a variety of ropes and drapes. He is, in short, delighted that the traditional swashbuckling spirit has been retained.

"Don't most guys - and women, too, I think - love to swing from a rope and stuff? There's this scene during a battle between Robin's men and the invading Celts when I'm up in a tree and have to leap out into space, grab a rope, and swing across to another tree. That's me on the rope, but a stunt guy made the leap. I would've made the leap, too, but they wouldn't let me! You know, [the stunt man] fell the second time he tried it. He could've killed himself." Costner pauses, but his brief silence is more o

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ne of admiration than fear.

A counterbalance to these heroics, however, is another Costner trademark, a certain kind of elegant klutziness that pops up now and again. Remember in "Dances With Wolves" when Costner's character Lieutenant Dunbar hits his head on the low doorway of his cabin and knocks himself out? In a scene in "Robin Hood" Costner finds himself momentarily tangled up in his harness and longbow. He lurches and stumbles, struggling with the recalcitrant costume.

"I love that scene," laughs Costner. It was an accident, but I liked it so much we left it in. You'd never see Errol that way! It's the sort of thing that keeps Robin's flamboyance believable."

The ascendance of Costner's career in the last five years owes much to this blend of bravado and bashfulness, strength and softness, that appeals to both men and women. But he can't forget the humiliations of his first film projects: Before he scored in "No Way Out" and "The Untouchables" in 1987, and later with "Bull Durham," there were a string of movies like "The Big Chill" where his character was left on the editing-room floor. Now, although the 12 Oscar nominations (and seven awards) for "Dances wi t

h Wolves" and an estimated worldwide gross to date of over $400 million have secured his fame, he has become the inevitable target of the tabloid press and the victim of the pressures of his own celebrity.

I once saw his unflappable exterior slip during a preview screening of "Dances with Wolves." As the result of several projection malfunctions there were interruptions and time delays in the screening. He fled to the lobby where, privately, he leaned against a wall and gave vent to his frustrations, shaking visibly.

"I think everybody goes through life thinking they're immune to this kind of stuff," he says today. "But we're not. The pressures get to you. I don't like that. You wouldn't like it. Maybe you would find it interesting for a moment. But trust me on this one little thing: You wouldn't like it for long. But I wanted to be at the top. I didn't want a mediocre career, I wanted a great career."

It is significant that he insists on bringing members of his family to all his location shoots. His three children were extras in "Dances with Wolves." Recently, his wife's parents stayed with him in the Northumberland locations for "Robin Hood." It's the kind of connections he knows he has to maintain. "I know it sounds hokey or something," he says, "But ... when things get confusing to me and I have to try to figure them out, [my family's] there."

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