When it comes to celebrities who have called Ventura home, the place where they grew up, there is one who almost always comes top of mind: Kevin Costner. While most locals know he lived here for some duration of time, Costner actually spent a substantial period of his adolescence not only here but also in Santa Paula and Ojai. When the Thomas Fire ravaged Ventura County in December, he decided he needed to give back and help the residents who had been hit hard and continue to struggle. He will be performing this weekend with his band Modern West to raise money at the Thomas Fire Benefit Festival on Saturday, Feb. 3, at Plaza Park in Ventura.
Costner took a break from his vacation last week to talk to the VCReporter about life in Ventura, helping others, and his own run-in with tragedy on tour.
VCReporter: You are on vacation and about to begin filming a new movie. What kind of movie?
Costner: It’s a true story about a Texas Ranger who operated in the 1800s, and into the next century he went into private security. The Legendary Texas Ranger lived in both centuries, on horse with Indians; and in 1934, he was brought out of retirement because they can’t catch Bonnie and Clyde.
How is it to portray these characters with such parameters of Hollywood glamor?
It’s interesting to play this in particular. The original Bonnie and Clyde (movie) came out when I was living in Ventura.
When was that?
1968, ’69, something like that. I remember when I was going to Cabrillo Junior High. It is just so funny, living your life; and this story having an impression on you and now I am a part of this same story. I have had a lot of circles of my life.
Tell me more about growing up in Ventura. Millions admire you and your work and we often feel connected to people we see on film, but you are seriously connected here. Tell me about why you came here and how long you were here.
I was born in Compton and lived in Compton the first six to seven years and then moved to upper Ojai to live near a little schoolhouse up there on Topa Lane. That was a magical time for me, moving out of the inner city to that place. Played Little League in Santa Paula, went to a little Christian day school there; then my father, who worked for Edison Company, was transferred to Thousand Oaks, Calabasas, but he decided he wanted to live in Ventura, so he literally traded a home, didn’t buy it. He made a straight trade for the house where we lived off . . . Wells Road in a little tract home out there.
I went to Saticoy for three years, then went to Cabrillo when I thought I was going to go to Balboa, [they were] trying to equalize the schools. Then I thought I would go to Ventura High, but of course that is where kids from Cabrillo went. Then I went to Buena.
So you were a bulldog and not a cougar?
[laughs] Yeah, yeah. After my sophomore year, I went to another city and then went to another city after that. And a different college. Tenth, 11th, 12th grade were all different schools.
You seem like you have a real close connection to your experience here.
All I know is, I consider Ventura where I really grew up. When people ask where I grew up, I say Ventura. Where I was born? Compton.
Did you do any acting here?
I sang in a local boys traveling choir. I was trained classically in piano for four years. So I really loved music. It was obviously the ’60s, that music was emerging. I was listening to the Youngbloods and The Doors and also listening to Motown. Music was really exploding. So many different camps. Singer-songwriters, Carole King, James Taylor, Jim Croce. A lot of music going on. It was really all over the place. Like anything, I gravitated toward songs that were classics that people still use in commercials.
Pop music of the ’60s?
Yeah, I’m not surprised that what you feel is classic at that time stays classic. I always felt I had a good ear for that music and I listened to it when I was very young. I remember walking out of my little tract there off Wells Road to up in those hills and going hunting, which I did almost every night. There was a little garage band playing and I was probably 12-13, walking by and I heard these young — must have been teenagers, looked like men to me — teenagers, playing this song. I remember walking by the house, and I kinda walked back and thought, that is a pretty good tune. It was “Born to be Wild.” Obviously it’s a classic tune, had it in several of my movies. It just struck me, so many songs that I gravitated to and you probably have the same draw, a lot of classic music that is still used.
I grew up listening to Nirvana and bonded with Led Zepplin and The Doors. I remember meeting Robert Plant and he was kind of rude to me.
We have this idea about people and then we meet them and a lot of times they are a disappointment. It’s your experience and it’s a really real one. I don’t know at what point you get famous and get caught up and stray away from a level of reality. Who knows, maybe you were rude. I don’t think so though ….
Well, he made fun of my name. I am curious about, have you been up to the fire area yet?
On my own, I just drove. We were evacuated from our home; my daughter was evacuated in Ojai. It was her first home and she was pregnant with her first child. It was traumatic for them and so we evacuated and ultimately were able to come back 15 days later. And when the rains came, we let some people stay with us at our homes. We haven’t suffered the way other people have suffered. I just drove to Santa Paula, drove up into Wheeler Road and started going up the different roads and wanted to see for myself.
While the fire was scary, our fatalities were relatively low at two, though still tragic. I was especially concerned about the rains leading to floods and mudslides. I had no idea Montecito would be so vulnerable.
We know individuals who were rescued out of their homes and off their roofs, boulders cascading through their homes. We were looking at a piece of property with a realtor who was killed. So you know, there is no six degrees of separation here. Ojai, Santa Paula, they know each other. And our children still haven’t been to school since the fire. So many different decisions you make the last 30 days about where you are going to be and going to do. I just left work to come home, went back, moved family out, went back to work, kept trying to find a way back to Santa Barbara, then we decided to keep going. And so we did. Listen, I felt really fortunate thinking we needed to do something, I knew it wasn’t going to be enough. That’s what this concert is going to be about.
Our rental prices are already outrageous and this fire has an exponential effect. For people who have to be displaced and have to move to another home, looking at competing rents for what insurance companies will pay, it’s even harder for people to live.
Yeah, there are a lot of dynamics to battle something like this. It’s not over because it’s cleaned up, not over because it’s swept over. . . . Some of them will have a great difficulty in recovering. Whatever we try to do on Saturday, I don’t have the greatest answer for what that is, other than gotta just go and stand together. It’s kind of what human beings do. It’s not that we always know what to say when the worst things that could possibly happen, happen to somebody else. We don’t know what to say. We go stand next to each other, let our eyes see them and see us and that we are there. No great words but at least stand together for that moment, that day. And so those who haven’t been hurt by it, we are just looking to do something, so this is what we do.
We made a video about it. It’s about a 10-minute video about all of our feelings. It was really serious. We were on stage when it happened. We weren’t playing, we were coming up next. This stage fell on me, it went through our bus, my manager had 53 stitches. One of my players was hurt. Literally the stage fell on me and I was in between the steel girders and I was just caught in this net, fishing net so to speak, green thing that you see, pinned me down, like panty hose on your face, like a burglar. That’s what it did to me. I was lucky I wasn’t killed. That just goes to show you that things happen in an instant. I like to think I have a really good survival instinct. Sometimes things, they are quicker than you and it’s bigger and faster and you get lucky. Some people died on that stage, too. We went back a year later. We promised we would come back and I think we were the only band that did. We sang a couple of songs that had some healing. We will try and do that on Saturday.
Are you a songwriter too? You sing and play guitar.
I write. I am not as good of a writer as the other guys. We will play a song that I wrote with the band called “The Last Time.” That really was about me and my dad and you realize that there is going to be that last time. And so for a lot of people, this thing happened up in Santa Barbara (mudslides) and that song absolutely has a level of relevance. There is a song called “The Sun Will Rise Again.” It’s really about how tragedy hits. And we have to be able to hold onto something. While it’s going on there is no help, that’s for sure. There is this idea of hope and so I think we will sing that too. I am thinking about the set we might put together. I am just hoping there is some good feeling out of it.
I am becoming emotional already. I have heard countless stories of people who woke up to the fire and people who didn’t even have time to grab their wallets. Thinking about that last time, about how quickly they had to go or they could have been trapped and suffered a horrendous death.
My wife rounded up all of our children’s animals, their rabbits, birds, kitties, dogs. We had one of our dogs give birth to puppies in the hotel room we were staying in. None of that was a hardship, we were displaced. Again I keep coming back, what we are doing on Saturday, part of this is what we show our children, which is, even as adults we can be confused on what to do but we look at our children and we are going to go on Saturday and explain how lucky we were. We are trying to do things [to help].
Too bad instilling a better sensitivity in others about this sort of suffering and loss and sadness can be so difficult. Hopefully the music will enhance this togetherness and that we are better together.
It’s funny, we are going to do “Stand Strong” too. I have been thinking about our catalog of songs. Listen, you are trying to do your part and we are trying to do our small part. It’s exactly why I put the band together 14 years ago, because I didn’t like going to places and just being a person snapped in pictures.
It may seem a little superficial.
I didn’t want to feel that. I didn’t want to be that. So this is a perfect opportunity for what I tried to put together 13-14 years ago now. We will see you for sure out there and I appreciate you writing about this. That’s your part. It’s a strong part. You just use your skill of your writing.