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Kevin Costner: 'It's Really Important How You Talk at the Dinner Table'

Photograph by Rex / Rex USA

Growing up in Compton, Calif., Kevin Costner learned a few things about race — and some of those things, he made a conscious effort to unlearn.

The 60-year-old actor and father stars in and produced "Black or White," a PG-13 film that opens January 30 about a grandfather who is suddenly left to care for his biracial granddaughter. When her paternal grandmother, played by Octavia Spencer, wants custody, the little girl is torn between two families. Not only that, but racial tensions come into play, and let's just say that things get harsh.

"I was around these issues, and extended family—and how everyone talked. I no longer talk that way," Costner reveals to mom.me. "That was just the way you grew up. [But] I don’t think that, and my children know nothing about that."

Costner talks to mom.me about similar films he's tackled that involve race, from "Dances With Wolves" to "The Bodyguard." He also discusses blended families and how his three children from his first marriage had to adjust when he started a family with wife Christine Baumgartner (pictured right), whom he married in 2004.

As a father, how have you talked to your own children about race?

I’ve had to deal with that with my oldest set. I’ve had two sets of children, and my youngest, they don’t know anything about it, which is encouraging. But they will see it somewhere along the line, and we will have that discussion. But right now, it’s really important how you talk at the dinner table. It’s really important when you’re in the car how you talk, because they’re listening. Whether you think they’re playing with their little Game Boys or whatever it is, they’re really listening. If you’re running red lights, they actually think that’s what they can do, too. If you’re fibbing about something, then they actually think that’s what they can do, too, in their life. If you act like you can get away with stuff, they’re going to do the same.

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You have been known as an actor who has bridged gaps between races — “Dances With Wolves,” “The Bodyguard,” now “Black or White.” What has drawn you to those themes?

"Dances With Wolves," for me, was a love story to the past, as tragic as it was. "Bodyguard," which I seem to have gotten a lot of credit for about how brave it was to cast Whitney [Houston], was — again, I don’t know if I’m just naïve — but I just knew I just had to find the prettiest girl, and so that drilled down so quickly in my mind to Whitney Houston. That’s really sincerely how I thought about it. And "Black or White," when I read it, I was just stunned at how it dealt with this subject.

It’s such a personal story. It’s a story of what we’re living right now. It’s us, and it’s like we’re not looking at history; we’re looking at right where we’re at. I thought it was just too important to pass up. And now the hope is that people will go.

Do you see “Black or White” as a family film that parents should take their kids to?

There are a couple rough moments, but I think on the whole it’s a very gentle movie. So yes, I’ve felt that, but that’s going to be up to each parent. I don’t know about children, but I think any child that’s 12 years old or more, I think they should absolutely see it.

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You mentioned earlier in the conversation about your two sets of kids. You have your own modern, blended family, with children from your first and second marriages. How do you make that work?

As these children interact together, there’s always this little bit of "Do you care for us now as much as you do them?" — that’s just a natural thing that happens, and you have to talk about how big love is. The ability to be able to love somebody else doesn’t mean there’s less love for you. Love seems to be always able to hang on to as many people as needs to be in that circle.

It almost seemed impossible to love the first [child] any more than you loved them. And then suddenly the second one comes, and you think there’s so much room for love. There’s so much room. And that’s the way it is with children, and if there was any, perhaps jealousy that existed, I basically reminded [my older kids] that they were going to have twice as long with me on this planet. I said, "Look, they’re not going to have what you had," and at that point, they all just embraced each other.

And you financed the movie, right?

No one else was going to make it — they weren’t sure that it had real value, and I said, "I think it has the ultimate value," and when I asked my wife [about financing the film], she said, "Oh my God." And I said, "I just believe in it." She said, "If you do, then I do, too."

Have you watched it with your kids?

Not the littlest ones. Well, my daughter sings in the movie. She’s the singer at the church. She’s really beautiful and has really blossomed into a wonderful young lady. That’s Lily.

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