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Kevin Costner juggles being a father and an assassin in '3 Days to Kill'

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"3 Days to Kill" (directed by McG and co-written by Luc Besson) is an action-thriller starring Kevin Costner as Ethan Renner, a dangerous international spy, who is determined to give up his high stakes life to finally build a closer relationship with his estranged wife Christine (played by Connie Nielsen) and their daughter Zooey (played by Hailee Steinfeld), whom he's previously kept at arm's length to keep out of danger. But first, he must complete one last mission, even if it means juggling the two toughest assignments yet: hunting down the world’s most ruthless terrorist and looking after his teenage daughter for the first time in 10 years, while his wife is out of town. Amber Heard has a supporting role as a mysterious and seductive government agent named Vivi, who orders Ethan to go on his last mission. Here is what Costner, Heard and McG said at the Los Angeles press conference for "3 Days to Kill."

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Kevin, how challenging was the stunts and physicality you had for “3 Days to Kill”? And to McG, how did the stunts impact your design and execution?

McG: Well, Kevin's the kind of guy, he's never seen base camp. He loves to be on the set and active in the filmmaking process. And that goes for the stunts as well. And every once in a while, you've got to grab him by the back of his pants and say, "Kevin, this one's not all that safe for you to be in the car as it rams to other car off the bridge and down into the river." He's just very focused in that respect.

It was fun shooting things practically, in the spirit of [John] Frankenheimer and those films that I grew up on and were real seminal. We wanted to do it in camera. Shutting down the streets of Paris was fun, in that respect.

I think it's clear to everybody who's seen the picture that the action is decorative. It's hopefully a character-driven piece. We're hoping that the defining characteristic of this film is the balance of certainly action and comedy, but particularly a dramatic investment in this Ethan character, played by Kevin.

Costner: Any time you're cold [when doing stunts], things are harder. I’ve been evolving in my stunt career. It used to be that my stunt guy, we would talk about it, when it was time for him to take over. The way you know you’re getting older, we’d look at the thing and he’d goes, “You could make it.”

I could tell that he’s starts getting scared. I said, “I can’t!” So there is an evolving thing. Fortunately, I didn’t have that over there because I had a new stunt coordinator ... You have to measure things. I wanted to ride with the buffalo. I wanted to do those things. Whenever you can put the audience in the car, on the horse, or carrying your daughter, they’re now in the movie.

But stunts have always had their place, and I have to measure them now. I’ve done things where, if I make a mistake, I could die. You really need to look at each thing. That usually is a mechanical failure ... Weird things happen. So I have gone from doing everything, to listening and saying, “Maybe I shouldn’t do this.”

“3 Days to Kill” shows the balance that Ethan is trying to find between work life and home life. When you have demanding jobs like you do, what’s that balance like for you, personally?

Costner: When dealing with women (my boss in this instance, my hellish relationship with her), Ethan gets frustrated, and my house is the same. There’s a level of humor that we tried to bring into the movie without winking at the camera. That’s always important.

I think it’s funnier if you don’t wink, and say, “I’m really frustrated by you, by her, by my wife, by my daughter.” So there’s a part of the world where he’s very efficient, in his life, and he’s not that great in this particular aspect. He can be shut down.

Heard: I agree. For my part in it, our relationship is an interesting one, and it’s the power struggle of these two strong characters constantly going against each other. What’s interesting is that he’s very accomplished, and he’s very good at his job. He’s tried and true. He’s a veteran of the trade that they’re in.

And she’s a whole other school. It’s a new school. We're very completely opposite people, in some ways. They’re adversaries, which is what I liked. It’s rare that you see that dynamic between a man and a woman in a film.

I liked that that didn’t bother or hinder McG’s imagination or his desire to see that come to fruition. He didn’t care. It was like, “Why couldn’t I be his boss? Just because I wear high heels?” You don’t see that often, which is why I liked it.

McG: What you're talking about is the central theme of the picture. You guys as journalists, I think you can understand that sometimes you get so caught up in your work life, that there's an atrophy on the home front. I think that's one of the primary stories of the film.

You have a guy in Ethan who is so focused on duty that he's spent a lot of time in the field. And then he gets a piece of information, and he gets deeply in touch with what matter most in his life, which is clearly his daughter and his wife. And that's not going to be an easy road to win his way back into their hearts.

And what you speak of also, in regard to that dynamic, I talked a lot with Kevin about it. I talked a lot with Amber about it. It's just interesting that the idea of "enlisted" and "officer." That was sort of the paradigm we went for. If you've got somebody who's a 35-year-old, 40-year-old enlisted man or woman, and then you have a younger officer come in, and that person has rank, that's a strange dynamic.

And then, from a place of character, Amber's character isn't really experiencing any crisis. She's not having any reflection. She's living the life of Riley, and she's loving it, and the world seems to roll in her direction, until she meets this Ethan character that she can't just break in half. And she puzzles him and stumps him and actually makes him consider humanity. And that's how I believe her character arcs out from the beginning of the picture to the end of the picture.

There's a generation gap between Ethan and Zooey. Ethan is often in "analog mode" while his daughter Zooey clearly lives in a very tech-oriented, digital world. To Kevin and McG, as older gentleman, have you ever felt that generation gap?

McG: First, I need to crawl in to a fetal position. It's the first time I've ever been referred to as an "older gentleman." My career is rolling along. I'm sitting next to [Amber] Heard, who's in her 20s, and Kevin Costner. I need you to hug me right now because I'm going to lose my sh*t!

But yeah, I try to keep a foot in the digital and world and certainly a foot in the analog world. In fact, the first thing I did when I moved to Paris was I bought a record player. I was like, "I'm going to listen to vinyl, I'm going to stare at the Seine, and I'm going to think about this picture, and stay in tune with that." Obviously we've got Hailee, where everything is LOL, emoticon this, that and the other. She's a handful in her own way.

Costner: Listen, I still pay money to get into a phone machine. It's a little easier for me to make a connection. Our humor comes out of this stuff. We wrote the scene in the kitchen about "Welcome to this century." She's so easy with my stuff. She was a very good screen partner, Hailee.

Amber, what was it like to play this fun, seductive spy hunter? You're almost like a badass version of Q from the James Bond movies.

Heard: What I was attracted to about her was this idea that I could play with the suspension of reality. Vivi doesn’t live in the same world that we live in. She doesn’t even live in the same world that the rest of the characters live in. It's that heightened sense of reality, and the freedom that comes with that, drew me to her.

I also liked that, sure, she can be seductive, but that’s not where her power is. Her power is skill and knowledge, and her ability to do her job well and be unaffected by it on an emotional level. There are many things about her that make her who she is in the movie.

Being seductive is just another side effect of all the other stuff. It didn’t affect her. That's what I liked about her. It was just a consequence. And I always prefer to shoot the gun than wear a wedding dress. It’s far more interesting to me.

McG: That's something we all talked about early on. We're all sitting here, living in the real world, and this is one of the most beautiful creatures you could ever imagine. And it's almost distracting. And I said, "Listen, I don't want it to be about your beauty."

And she started talking about Christopher Hitchens. Well, that's interesting. "I'm a girl from Texas, and I'm a member of the gun club." She's got these dimensions. So I said, "Let's use that, and let's bring that to this character."

I like strong female characters that don't apologize for being sexy. If you're going to do something, do it with style and panache. And it was also interesting to collide that character with the very workman-like efficiency of the Ethan character. To me, that was how we got that two-hander.

Kevin, you’ve said previously that you were taking time off from acting to be with your young children, but you seem to be working a lot now. Did that re-energize you, and have you changed your approach to acting, at all?

Costner: Well, I’m worn out now. No. I’ve never changed my approach to acting. I’ve always felt like I’ve gotten better. I think that all of us can get better. I feel like, in my acting, I’m better than I was three pictures ago.

I think about it. I’m a slow study. It takes me a long time to grasp the material, in order to perform it. Not to bore you, but I'm a slow study. But when I come to the set, on the first day, I know the whole movie. That’s why I have to start so early.

So I have learned my own patterns, and I have watched other good actors. I have done what every good actor does: steal ideas. You see things.You stand on the shoulders of people. But yeah, I had the babies and did that.

And then I went and did “Hatfields & McCoys.” And then I lined up these movies. I wish they weren’t so packed. On the other hand, I’m glad I did them. That’s just the way it plays out.

I’m not re-energized. I’ve always loved the business. I’m a romantic about it. But, for me, this business is always pushing a rock uphill, it feels like.

In addition to being an exceptional actor, you’re also an Academy Award-winning director. How do you separate Kevin Costner the director from Kevin Costner the actor when you’re acting in a project? And what was it like to work with McG? And what are you looking for in a director?

Costner: It’s easy for me. I don’t have all the worries that McG has every morning. On the weekend, when everybody’s deciding what restaurant they’re going to go to in Paris or what they’re going to see, the director starts to hate everybody because he has to really think about what he has to do.

I’ve never had that problem. And when it comes to the script, we need to be on the same page. We didn’t differ that much, and you shouldn’t, if you’re in sync. There’s going to be times when you have a different approach on a scene, that just shouldn’t happen very often, and it didn’t with us.

I learned some things watching McG. I came prepared to do what I was supposed to do, which was act. I was always prepared. People that play sports, people that do anything sometimes have bad days.

When I direct, I tell my actors, “There’s going to be a day when I’m not as good as others. And on those days, I really need for you to be good.” You have to deal with the whole life when you’re making a movie — boyfriends, girlfriend, things — and some days you’re just not as good.

So, for me, my pledge is always, on that day, if McG will tell me, “Hey, I’m not really feeling that good,” I get a little bit stronger. I’m a coach’s coaching player. I like to be on the floor. So if the coach tells me what to do out on the floor, I can get it done. I’m really comfortable being directed.

McG: For me, that was the primary attraction: the opportunity to work with Kevin Costner, knowing that he's an Academy Award-winning director. I'm very clear what I want to do, day in and day out or this scene and that scene. So I'd articulate, be it to Amber or Kevin, "Hey, I think this is where the scene is and what we're trying to achieve."

And then I'd do a lot of listening, because why wouldn't you? He's one of the great American film treasures of our time. I'm growing up on " No Way Out," I'm looking at "The Untouchables," I'm watching these films, and I can't believe I'm on the set. I'm a kid from Kalamazoo, Michigan, and here I am talking to Kevin Costner about where the emotional pivot is in this scene. It was humbling, it was exciting, and his level of professionalism colored the whole picture.

My whole goal was to make a Kevin Costner picture that, from tip to tail, enabled him to use all of his skill sets. I loved "Hatfields & McCoys." It's a lot going on there. I loved "Superman [Man of Steel]." "Jack Ryan: [Shadow Recruit]," [starring] my buddy Chris Pine, but it's a Kevin Costner movie.

I'm hoping that ["3 Days to Kill"] provides the best version of Kevin Costner, where he can have all that emotion, all that credibility, that special brand of humor that he brings, and add that dimensionalized performance that is decidedly his own. To me, that's what this movie is all about. That's the reason for being. So it was an honor to work with him. I hope I was clever enough to shut up and do a lot of listening on the day.

There are some pretty funny lines in “3 Days to Kill.” Did you get a chance to improvise or was it all scripted?

Costner: It was really scripted. That doesn’t mean we didn’t step into some windows of opportunity that presented themselves. You should always do that, but that was a very scripted thing.

We had to write some scenes, but we didn’t write them on the day. You should never do that. Don’t write them on the day. You have to get really comfortable with it. McG knows get a little bit more about how they would direct it. So I think we found some improv things that found their way in because you feel it, but it was more disciplined.

McG: People underestimate how funny these actors can be. The world's going to get a good look at Amber Heard soon. I've seen more of your next movie than you have. I just got back from Berlin. Is it "London Fields"? It's spectacular!

The cheekiness and the ability to turn a line, when you see that as a director, you go, "I know Kevin can handle this. Uh-oh. Here comes Amber. She can handle it too. And here's this precocious Hailee Steinfeld." You start to have a bunch of people who can go above and beyond what's asked of them.

So you have the comfort of knowing the script, and you come in very well-prepared for that. Then you can create a platform for discovery. And when you have star players, they can make those discoveries.

How did you find the balance between the action, the comedy, the drama and the sexiness?

McG: To me, that's the hope of the picture. You look at a movie and say, "Why is this movie worth making?" And I thought if we could balance those elements, because I love an Amblin movie, but I love a Scorsese movie. I'm a child of the movies. I love the dream of the movies. And I loved dimensionalized filmmaking, where it's dramatic, it's funny, it's action-packed, and it's clicking on all cylinders. So if we had the good fortune — and I wouldn't be so bold to say that we did it — but that was certainly the goal: to synthesize those things that don't often exist together.

There are sci-fi movies out there. There are tip-to-tail action movies out there. There are super-funny comedies. But to do something that's got a lot of heart, like, "Holy mackerel! I'm on the verge of tears when he's teaching his daughter how to ride a bike, I didn't expect that out of this film when I signed up for it," that, to me, is success. So if we were able to synthesize those things, that's the defining characteristic of the picture. And my thanks to Amber and Kevin and Hailee for delivering.

For more info: "3 Days to Kill" website

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