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"When I read the script, I thought, 'Wow this is an angry household,' but I think I can use what I've got to level it out, and yet not be, you know, heroic, because the guy is basically a stoner and a slacker."

That's Kevin Costner, talking about his role in the utterly grown-up, hugely appealing movie "The Upside of Anger," starring Joan Allen. (Costner is quick to say, "My role is actually a supporting one.")

This film tells of a beautiful, mature mother of four girls, a big drinker who wallows in hysteria and bitterness over being deserted after many years of marriage. Miss Allen is sure to pick up an Oscar nod for her vodka-soaked, over-the-top harridan. But it is Kevin Costner, as a washed up athlete living in a house littered with beer bottles and regret, who anchors the film. At first glance he's no prize but, being a sweetheart down deep, he keeps knocking at Miss Allen's door asking entrance to her tumultuous, all-female household. He is a heartfelt turn-on and it's his best performance, ever.

I met with Costner at the Four Seasons hotel last week, and he was just as I remembered him from our last meeting five or six years ago. Fit and youthful at 50, he is -- or should be -- every woman's dream man. He's handsome but not obvious, sensitive but not weak, intelligent and passionate about his craft without being pretentious or a bore. Sexy. For all the rough action types he has played onscreen, I have always found Kevin a rather nurturing leading man -- even in roles that don't require that, it comes through. (He hopes to next play a serial killer. Appealingly, no doubt.)

Believe me, a man who can tell you the intricacies of film budgets, and keep it interesting, is some man. Often, though not on "Upside," he is on the producing side. He says, "If I feel we need $16 million for a film, and they want to give 14, I might just pass, or wait. That $2 million could be vital. I won't make a film just to make a film. I have an obligation to the story, to the writing." Of writers the actor says, "When they hit the ball out of the park, it's amazing. I am in awe of that talent."

Costner insists he won't be part of the "dumbing down" of film, whether it's family drama, romantic comedy or Westerns. "I want to give my personal best, be involved in something that's worthy and not insult the audience."

Costner was 29 when he made his first big impression in 1985's "Silverado," so he says he managed to avoid some of the too much too soon, fast-lane life, which he describes as "the confusion with being popular and exposing yourself without thought. This is a conversation I have with myself, 'Do you want to be popular or true?' I've chosen true. But the very fact that I need to have my inner dialogue means it's always a struggle for an actor."

I ask Kevin does "being on top" matter to him? He laughs. "Look, I'm sensitive. I can be a baby. I'd like to be the 'in vogue' actor. But, to be honest, I like to be 'hot' for my kids. I want my children to be proud of me. I know they're proud of this movie." Costner's kids are college and high-school age, young adults, really. That he wants his success to make them proud is touching, as is his description of each child and his or her accomplishments. When he refers to fatherhood as "the favorite role of my life," you sense it's true.

And while he knows what he wants, his ego seems in check. At one point he was explaining something and said, "When an artist ... not that I'm an artist!" So, even his self-deprecation is sexy. (I ask you, is this a dream guy, or what?)

"The Upside of Anger" has been garnering raves. I wondered why he is out stumping for it now? "I'm not going to be a donkey for a studio, even if it's a film I believe in. I say you start promoting this movie; I'll start, too. I'm not going to junket myself to death and then watch the advertising disappear."

Summing up his passion Costner says, "If you get away from all the in-fighting and PR and money issues, movies are a romantic business, still. I'm never bored. I'm never cavalier. When those lights go down, great things can happen. That's the power of film. It can be life-altering."

Tribune Media Services

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