Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton talk “Hatfields And McCoys.”
Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton star opposite each other in “Hatfields & McCoys” (premieres Mon., May 28 at 9 p.m. ET on HIST), a three-part miniseries that brings the true story of the iconic American family feud to life on the small screen. Set in the post-Civil War era on the border between West Virginia and Kentucky, it tells a tragic tale of betrayal, greed and revenge that fueled a decade-long cycle of murder and vigilantism.
As Costner and Paxton told HuffPost TV separately, the sprawling epic was a daunting project to tackle, but also provided a unique opportunity: Modern audiences may be vaguely aware of the mythology surrounding the conflict, but most non-history buffs probably haven’t given it much thought since their high school history classes. Costner, who served as a producer on the project and has a resume filled with American historical dramas, jumped at the chance to bring the classic story back into the public consciousness.
Note: These interviews have been edited and slightly condensed.
This is a classic American story, but my sense is that people these days aren’t aware of the real history behind it. Is that part of what drew you to the project? Costner: I think that people think this is folklore, like maybe this is an imaginary event that happened. But no, this is real history. People went to court, governors were almost going to war, militias were amassing at the borders. This was not a folk tale. This was as real as could get. If you had CNN back then, they would have been sitting on some hilltop watching this. This was big doings if you think about.
Paxton: It’s almost like a mythical legend at this point. The feud started kind of innocuously, just little things building until the the thing just exploded. And once people started killing each other, it just went to Defcon 5. It was almost like this mini-Civil War that was going on. And the reason we’re still talking about it today is because it hit the zeitgeist of the popular culture of the time.
Since then, there’s been movies and plays and comic books and songs and ballads and poems, and it became kind of a stereotype too. Growing up, your parents would tell you to quit fighting like the Hatfields and McCoys. But this is the first time in a long time that it’s been revisited in a popular forum as a movie. And maybe the first time it’s been done in a long-form, which gives you a chance to really take on all the events.
You’ve been drawn to a lot of historical dramas in your career. What appeals to you about the genre? Costner: I think there’s true drama in the formation of everything that we know and are standing on the shoulders of. I certainly do my share of other kinds of movies, like “Tin Cup” or “Bull Durham” or “The Bodyguard,” but if I see a piece of history, I’m not afraid of it as a piece of entertainment. Some people think, “Well, it’s not that entertaining; it’s history.” I don’t necessarily feel that way. What’s really hard to do though is to make history come to life. I mean, it’s one thing to know the story of the Hatfields and McCoys, and another thing entirely to bring it to the screen … not easy.
How was it working opposite each other? Paxton: Having Kevin Costner be in it, and it’s his first really big plunge into television, and knowing the Westerns he’s been involved with, that drew me in as much as the material. We knew each other in passing, but when he called to say he wanted me to be opposite him in this, I was flattered and honored, and I thought, “You know what? He’s gonna make sure this thing looks worth a damn.”
He came in loaded for bear. He was already off-book. He’d see an actor in the hallway and start throwing lines from a scene at him, and the other actor would be like, “Oh, crap.” But he was great.
We had a lot of fun kidding each other in a competitive way, but it wasn’t serious. It was just fun to be the Hatfields and McCoys. I’d yell at him across the room, “Hey Hatfield!” And he’d be like, “McCoy, you son of a bitch!” We all trash-talked all through the thing.
Costner: I’ve kind of known Bill from a long distance, and from the moment I met him, I knew I had a real partner who cared about the process, cared about the era. He had a great-great grandfather who served in the Confederacy, and died in the Confederacy. And he had his letters to his wife that he was generous to let us all read, and it helped to lodge us all in the era.
Paxton: He was a general who died leading the Stonewall brigade at Chancellorsville. He was 35 when he died, he went into the war age 33 as a captain.
I was reading all these objective histories of the family and it wasn’t giving me the conviction of character I needed to really play Randall McCoy. I’d remembered having a volume of these letters that my great-great grandfather had written to his wife before he died, and I think a descendant of his had printed it into a family printing. And I had read this book years ago, and I grabbed it as I was heading out before a 4:30 a.m. cab to take me to the airport.
And all the objective histories that I had of these people didn’t come close to giving me this, because suddenly I was reading a subjective account. Remember, there’s no letters of Randall McCoy or Devil Anse Hatfield to read, they didn’t leave any written record. But these records are so strong, and he talks about the misery of the war, deserters, the idea that their belief in a Christian god will allow them to persevere, and he’s worried that maybe the cause will turn because maybe we haven’t lived up to our Christian teachings. So those were the things that really helped me build this animosity and this obsession over this betrayal of this friend and comrade at arms.
Looking at the feud through an historical lens, are there lessons to be drawn from it? Are you struck by any parallels to modern day events? Costner: We certainly had a difficult time recovering from the Civil War … If someone victimized your family, your sister or brother, you would settle that score. So when we think about Iraq right now, or Pakistan or the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the murder that’s going on, these things are going to be settled. And they’re going to be settled in the middle of the night with people handcuffed and thrown into ditches … I mean, we haven’t come very far.
Paxton: It just shows the circle of violence and how it’s perpetuated. It’s a biblical story really, a cautionary tale … These people are just haunted people, just haunted as fuck. Randall McCoy becomes a fanatic, an obsessed fanatic … almost like a jihadist or something. The betrayal of a friend or family member always cuts deeper than if someone slighted you outside of that. And real obsession is a dangerous thing. This guy ate, drank and slept his obsession, and it poisoned his children.
They say pride goeth before a fall. But it becomes this tragic calamity at the end. There’s a scene at the end of the miniseries where one guy says, “What are they famous for?” And the answer is, “Killin’ each other.”
The first installment of “Hatfields & McCoys” airs Monday, May 28 at 9 p.m. ET on HIST. Part 2 airs Tuesday, May 29 at 9 p.m. ET and Part 3 airs Wednesday, May 30 at 9 p.m. ET.