Kevin Costner on Building His Career, Positive Self-Talk, and Making Dances with Wolves Happen (#119)

The Tim Ferriss Show with Jon Baird and Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner (@modernwest) is an internationally renowned filmmaker. He is considered one of the most critically acclaimed and visionary storytellers of his generation. Costner has produced, directed, and/or starred in memorable films such as Dances with Wolves, JFK, The Bodyguard, Field of Dreams, Tin Cup, Bull Durham, Open Range, Hatfields & McCoys, and Black or White, among many others. He has been honored with two Academy Awards, three Golden Globe Awards, and an Emmy Award.

This episode also features Jon Baird, the author and illustrator of the novels Day Job and Songs from Nowhere Near the Heart. He is the co-developer, along with Costner, of the Horizon miniseries.

Their first book collaboration is a beautiful tome — The Explorers Guild: A Passage to Shambhala. Kirkus described it: “With its colorful cast, exotic locales, and intertwined fates, the book slowly addicts. A rousing throwback whose spinning plates never stop, even at the end.”

You can find the transcript of this episode here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

#119: Kevin Costner on Building His Career, Positive Self-Talk, and Making Dances with Wolves Happen

Did you enjoy this podcast? — If so, don’t miss my conversation with Arnold Schwarzenegger. In this episode, we discuss psychological warfare and much more. (stream below or right-click here to download):

Ep 60: Tim Ferriss Interviews Arnold Schwarzenegger on Psychological Warfare (And Much More)

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QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite Kevin Costner movie and why? Please let me know in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…


Selected Links from the Episode

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Show Notes

  • The origins of Kevin Costner [6:01]
  • On being raised in a conservative Baptist family [8:08]
  • Work ethic and lessons learned from his father [16:46]
  • The near-death experience during Costner’s first audition [23:56]
  • The story behind being cast for The Big Chill [33:26]
  • Kevin Costner’s self-talk for the the seemingly impractical goal of being an actor [36:01]
  • Advice for his younger self [40:06]
  • On his scariest scenes [40:56]
  • Explaining the ‘let us suppose’ scenes in JFK and working with Oliver Stone [45:46]
  • How Kevin Costner deals with burnout [48:46]
  • On managing the challenging aspects of fame [56:31]
  • The story behind Dances with Wolves, working with Michael Blake [57:46]
  • Mistakes made as a young director [1:06:25]
  • Why write The Explorers Guild? [1:11:00]
  • Jon Baird and the origin of The Explorers Guild [1:12:00]
  • The aesthetic thinking behind The Explorers Guild [1:19:10]
  • The process of working together to create The Explorers Guild [1:21:30]
  • Describing the ideal reader for the book [1:26:30]
  • What type of writers have most influenced Jon Baird’s storytelling [1:29:50]
  • When Kevin Costner thinks of the word “successful,” who is the first person who comes to mind and why? [1:40:50]
  • Kevin Costner’s favorite documentary [1:42:40]
  • Overcoming bad habits and equestrian stunt work [1:44:05]
  • Important historical figures for Kevin Costner [1:47:50]
  • Telling the story of Tatanka [1:48:50]
  • If you could have one billboard anywhere, where would it be and what would it say? [1:50:45]
  • Advice to his 30-year-old self [1:51:20]
  • Kevin Costner’s ask of the audience [1:52:15]

People Mentioned

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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75 Replies to “Kevin Costner on Building His Career, Positive Self-Talk, and Making Dances with Wolves Happen (#119)”

  1. Tim, I’ve been really enjoying your podcasts. You bring a fresh approach as an interviewer and get some good stuff out of your guests. I don’t know what caused me to think of this but it would be cool if you integrated the following questions…

    Who is the one person dead or alive or imaginary that you would love to get an email from and what would the purpose of the email be?

    Do you think that you have a higher than normal sex drive?

    (Backstory) based on napolian hills theory that those who do should be called blessed because they can use sexual transmutation to get more done and thearfore have an advantage over others.

    I can see these being really fun for the guest to answer.

    Thank you!


    from Houston TX

    1. Ah, yes, Think and Grow Rich. I remember that chapter well, and agree that would be an interesting although awkward question for future guests.

  2. QOTD- best Kevin Costner film for me is “Field of Dreams”, one for the cast of characters but the story hit on a personal level with me as my father past away when I was 6 years old. So seeing Costner’s character meet his father and play a round of catch together really hit home so to speak. Great flick and one I can watch repeatedly.

    Thank you for bringing him on the podcast! Epic. People will come, Ray.

  3. QOTD: I am constantly recommending “Thirteen Days” to people. It’s a great look at a moment where the Cold War very nearly turned hot.

  4. People always forget about “Mr Brooks”. One of the most underrated Costner’s movies. A master piece in my opinion.

  5. Great job, Tim. Your best work as an interviewer (despite THE CHILL slip). That stuff doesn’t matter. What matters is creating space for the person to be real and revealing – and you nailed it.

  6. QOTD, The Untouchables. Loyalty, duty and courage portrayed by Costner, Garcia, Connery appealed to everything my Army service instilled in me.

  7. Great stuff Tim, the podcasts add tremendous value and I enjoy your open and honest conversations with some of the most high performance individuals around today. Flattery aside, I would like to ask how you formulate your questions to guests? I find your curiosity and articulation very inspiring and I wondered if you had a few seconds so place a link, a book or recommendation to help a brother out?

  8. I would have to say “Dances With Wolves”, because it’s a classic retelling of “The Hero’s Journey”. The storytelling, the writing, acting, music, are so perfectly crafted, it could not, in my opinion, be improved.

  9. Just finished listening to the Kevin Costner interview & _loved_ it. I have a new level of respect for Mr Costner as a result of Tim’s interview. Good job!

  10. Saw Dances With Wolves alone as a teenager on a Friday when the others going out that night all got grounded or something like that. I took my Dad back to the matinee the next morning. At the end of the movie, when Wind in his Hair said “do you see that I will always be your friend” and it was the most powerful moment my Father and I shared during our lives together, we just looked at each other and cried. It had been at the end of a pretty rugged time in our lives and it reminded us of the bond that we had and how we had now become friends. It was the first movie that made me feel something on an emotional level. Great film.

  11. That stuff about the prick teacher making him do math in front of the 5th graders is something that everyone can identify with. We all have baggage like that. It follows us and holds us back. It obviously has not prevented Kevin Costner’s success but for others it has. Its painful either way. So how do you get past something like that?

  12. Fave Kevin Costner movie is Bull Durham. Costner is perfect, Robbins is nutty, and Sarandon…there are no words. I’m breathing thru my eyelids like a lizard of the Galapagos Islands right now…

    Keep up the good work, Ferriss!

  13. QOTD: Water World!!

    Tim – i have a Podcast request or book idea – My wife and i just had a baby in September and i think either a podcast on hacking all things baby would be great or a book on how to hack babies would be great – a possible option would be Dr. Harvey Karp. Thanks for all you do, very inspiring i have all of your books

  14. Hi Tim, on a couple of your podcast episodes (not this Kevin Costner one) you’ve mentioned that a lot of women you know complain that they meet a lot of boys but can’t find any men, and you’ve also asked some interviewees (i.e. Jocko) about what advice they’d have for men, or something along those lines.. I’d be interested in hearing an interview exploring those topics more.

    Some questions I’d have if I was doing the interview:

    – What do the women MEAN by the difference between boys & men?

    – Do men ever complain that they’re meeting only girls and can’t find any women? If no, why not?

    – What does it mean to be a man anyway – anything more than shooting guns & changing tires? Are emotional men who like poetry & ballet somehow not real men?

    – How common is it for men to be untrue to themselves in trying to live up to what they think it means to be a real man?

    …and similar questions could be asked about women. I don’t know who you could interview about all that, but I think it would be an interesting interview.

    1. If you want to know, what it means, to be a real man, ask yourself what is more inspiring than let´s say muscles, changing tires, playboy and pressing “like” buttons.

      For me it is barock music. For others it might be a flower, a tree, design, … beauty lies in the ears of the beholder.

      By the way I don´t trust women saying that they want real man, for whatever they think a real boy or man is, they want them to be their slave, just as Ester Vilar describes it in her book “The manipulated man” hahaha

    2. Great comments Justin thankyou. Poignant and relevant especially as Tim caters somewhat to male oriented interests (nothing wrong with that) or at least interests aligned with the masculine psyche (A better way of describing this)

      David Deida has focused exclusively on this topic in his books. What it means to be a ‘real’ man and a ‘real’ woman. The Way of The Superior Man is a great read and starting place. The Way of The Superior Woman

      He says a lot of very controversial things. It’s a bit more like Tyler Durden /Fight Club philosophy as far as men are concerned 😉 Men need challenges to grow. Men need to put their needs before the needs of the relationship. Men need to be trustworthy first and foremost.

      There’s a lot of great stuff but on the other hand, he builds up an intense amount of pressure and expectation for men to live up to that can be quite damaging. A certain open minded alternative lifestyle area in Australia (like San Francisco but not as cool or urban) where David Deida used to visit often, was slammed by his influence. The area is famous for it’s feminine males – paisley, long hair and earrings hahaha – and A lot of men actually ended up in rehab as a result of Deidas work – but not in a good way! They were really traumatised by the methods in his workshops

      So – it’s far more complex than one mans manifesto but his books are at least worth a read , for men and women, as long as you don’t see it as the final stop on the train line of maturation

  15. I have listened to every podcast and this one sounded like one of the toughest for you Tim. I loved the way you were able to push through when the rapport wasn’t there.

    My favourite podcast is still Waitzkin. I listen to that episode once every month. I think part of the appeal here is that he is so inaccessible. I have his book and have looked at his website but there is just not much out there about the work he is doing now. When listening to your conversation I felt I was being exposed to content and strategy reserved only for a privileged few. I know you have said that your technique was a little rough in the beginning but Waitzkin and Holiday were outstanding pieces of work.

  16. Hey Tim! Your book “the 4 hour work week” came late to my hands (I just started reading it a month ago) but it couldn’t have come at a better time. I have always been interested in starting a company, doing other work besides my job to learn and meet people and, most importantly, find a way to make sufficient money to be able to have more time and do what I could not do 5 years ago (travel and have more free time). I’ve been reading your blogs as well as listening to your podcasts a lot lately and they have been of great help to me. Being a teacher (mainly to learn and have a new experience since I have another job that actually pays my bills), I know the great feeling one has when you know you at least touched or changed a person’s life. This is why my comment is just to thank you for helping me feel alive again and making me focus on my ultimate goal…achieve happiness, wherever I may find it.

  17. Fandango was probably his first and one of my favorites…but how do you pick from so many great films and roles. Thanks Tim! Just love these interviews!

  18. Dances with Wolves is my absolute favorite Kevin Costner movie. I love history, reading and watching historical fiction, and Native America is just fascinating to me. When I was younger, I wished I lived during the mid-late 1800’s when the Indians of the west seemed to be their prime (or most filmed). When I first saw the movie at the theater, I was just in awe of the beauty of the story and the film. But that’s when Kevin Costner became my favorite actor. Today I can watch many of his films over and over…of course, I have many of the DVD’s. When my children bought me a new DVD player many, many years ago, they bought me the extended Dances with Wolves movie. They knew me well.

  19. I have been listening to your Podcast for over an year, this is by far the best episode that you have ever done.

    Thank You Tim 🙂

  20. QOTD: Favorite Kevin Costner movie is Dances with Wolves. I have always loved westerns and I thought he brought the story to life. Mr. Costner is one of my favorite actors but after listening to this podcast I have a whole new appreciation for who he is as a person. I could listen to this podcast time and again. Great job!

  21. My favorite Kevin Costner movie is Field of Dreams. We were in Galena, IL, when he was filming the scenes of Doc Graham’s Chisholm, MN, office. He was walking from the set and I asked him if I could take his picture. He then said to me, “Would you like to take your picture with me?” So, I have a picture of Kevin and me. I didn’t ask him for an autograph, which I regret to this day. He is really a down-to-earth kind of guy and incredibly handsome. Years later, we visited the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, IA. Great memories. Great movie. Great actor.

  22. I really thought Waterworld was cool, I wish you would have asked him how he felt about it. Judging from how many times it has been shown on TV I am guessing I am not the only one that likes it.

  23. QOTD: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It may not have been his best, but I was about 10 years old when that came out and that movie just RULED in my eyes.

  24. I have been listening religiously to your podcasts for the past 6 months and have gone back and listened to nearly all. For me, the interview with Costner & Baird was the best just ahead of Tony Robbins. Already Purchased a copy of “The Explorer’s Guild. Awesome job. Please keep pumping these out.

  25. Tim, this podcast with Kevin Costner has been the most helpful to me personally, thanks for pulling this off and making it available. God bless.

  26. I’ve never really been into the movies of Kevin Costner (although I thought he was phenomenal in Hatfields & McCoys) but I was blown away by Kevin Costner the podcast interviewee. So refreshing to hear someone from a Hollywood background who is so grounded and genuine – absolutely no fakery about this guy whatsoever. The previous commenter who commended you (Tim) for soldiering on when the rapport wasn’t there cannot possibly have been listening to the same interview that I heard – Kevin Costner was the most down-to-earth, open, engaging, generous and entertaining guest you have interviewed thus far. I came away with a profound respect for the guy and his work ethic and must now inevitably seek out The Explorer’s Guild. And I agree with Kevin Costner about the value of the long-form interview in a world dictated by sound bite journalism – as an interviewer you are ahead of the pack in this field Tim, as you demonstrate so deftly and masterfully here. Tremendous work.



  27. In the late 1980s my extended family and I were at a ski resort where Mr. Costner and his family were also staying (Deer Valley, I think). As soon as we discovered this, my teenage girl cousins were instantly obsessed with stalking the Costners, and especially Kevin.

    At one point my cousins were on a bus to the slopes and the driver mentioned that Kevin had just gone back to the lodge. So my teenage cousins changed their ski plans and wanted to go back to lodge immediately to continue stalking Kevin Costner. Another cousin, a girl who was probably about 8, said to the teenagers, “Who cares about stupid old Kevin Costner anyway.”

    What none of them knew was that the Costner family’s nanny was also on the bus and heard my young cousin’s comment. Later in the day, the group of teen and tween cousins were together at the lodge. Kevin Costner approached all of them and said with a coy smile, “Okay, who here called me stupid?”

    Love that story. Really speaks to the real honesty of the person that this interview also touched. Thank you so much for doing this interview.

  28. Great interview Tim. If you enjoyed Dances With Wolves highly recommend Carol Ballard’s Never Cry Wolf..quite a few similarities (besides the wolves of course!). Surprised there was no mention of ‘The Man Who Saved The World’, great recent documentary where Kevin had a a very important cameo!

  29. That was without a doubt the best, most interesting interview I have heard in a long time. Way to go, Tim, Kevin, et al. Cheers!

  30. This podcast resonated heavily. I listen to your podcasts and read the works of entrepreneurs and other new world successes – I fear that I will never be able to achieve the same success with my ideas as I don’t have the ability to reach focus on it for a “burnout” amount of hours. Kevin noted that he has a limit he understands, and because he loves so many other things, he does them anyway, and he still become a success.

    This was inspiring as it helped damper doubts I had about my muse being successful. I can still achieve something great and make time for guitar, photography, and football (soccer), and exploring.

    Thanks again! Keep the fun!

  31. I have a hard time choosing a favorite Costner film; there are so many to like. The one I have most recently watched over and over is “Draft Day”.

  32. Open Range is my favourite Kevin Costner movie. As far as I am concerned, it is the last GREAT western made. The sweeping vista over the valley of green with thunder clouds in the distance made me sigh with content. Even my Dad who grew up in the era of the great westerns loves this movie. Costner and Duvall the perfect gentlemen with an innate sense of right and wrong and the willingness to do something about the injustice wreaked by a seemingly all powerful, unbeatable tyrant! I love that movie!

    I have always wanted to thank Kevin Costner for making that movie. If you are able, could you please pass on my sincere thanks?

  33. Tim,

    Will you ever have Don Wildman on your show? Not the tv host, the health and fitness guru in Malibu. I think he would add so much value to listeners everywhere. He’s incredible.

  34. I’ve been following Tim for quite some time now and I’m desperate for help. Is there any way I can contact him directly?

  35. Great job with the Costner podcast Tim. There’s an apocryphal Costner story that I was listening for in your interview, but it never surfaced. The word is that when Kevin was in the early stages of his movie career he supposedly approached the late Richard Burton during a cross-country flight to ask for some acting tips, or for some general advice on his career. Supposedly Burton was not only very accommodating but it turns out that he had some very helpful advice to give. As I said, it’s an apocryphal story.

  36. Hey this is kind of random and not related to this particular podcast but I’m wondering if any other regular listeners of the podcast can point me in the right direction of a product Tim has mentioned a few times on his podcast: something that he travels with that he can put water into and have like a 35 lb kettlebell when fully filled up? I’ve spent the last 30 minutes looking at the links in the explicitly fitness podcasts and google search and have had no luck. Any point in the right direction would be much appreciated thanks!

  37. Kevin mentioned that he needed to exercise but didn’t really want to go to a gym. I’m using a body weight exercise plan laid out in “Convict Conditioning”. I uses 6 basic exercises. There are 10 progressive steps for each exercise. The starting routine in only 2 days a week and lasts for 10 to 15 minutes each day. I do kettle bell swings and planks 2 other days. He might like this plan.

  38. This is my favorite podcast by far. I’m an Actor too so I can totally relate. Thanks for this it made my day. My all time fav Kevin Costner film is Tin Cup.

  39. Thoroughly enjoyed this.

    Inspired to get their ‘classic’ adventure book for the kids, with the thought that it may just become a family heirloom, passing down from generation to generation. After I read it first of course.

    Nice work, once again, TIm.

  40. I’ll never forget the story behind Costner switching from business studies to acting: he pulled out a newspaper, saw an ad and followed the truest energy of “I want to do this”. It’s a story I’ll be sharing….

    Tim – congrats on the questions that so draw out these vignettes from Senor Costner!

  41. Loved this episode, particularly Costner’s reflections on his childhood, his relationship with his father and his experiences growing up, and how he came to acting in his early 20s. Do you think he knows that he has ADD? It would be helpful to him, especially as he’s a father with young kids himself now and sees that his kids are “just like him” in terms of misplacing their stuff.

  42. Hey Tim, really great episode – thanks for all the content. Purely out of interest I wanted to ask why sometimes the titles of the posts change, like how this one started out as “Kevin Costner: The Near-Death Audition, Work Ethic and The Explorers Guild”? Are you actively A/B testing them some way? Cheers

  43. Kevin Costner’s Waterworld (1995) was awesome. Critics didn’t like it but, IMHO, it’s awesome. Dances with Wolves is currently on my 200 to-watch list of movies.

  44. My favorite Costner movie is For Love of the Game. It touches on a guy who can’t understand why something so good and important to him isn’t good and important to everyone. He then realizes that good/important thing pales next something better and more important.

  45. Who is the artist they mention when they are talking about the type of art they were looking to have in the book?

  46. This has been a great episode, thanks for such a honest voice.

    I’ve listed to it while on train passing through central Europe, so different setting filled with great conversation.


  47. It’s great to have such a unique, intimate conversation with the author of Dances with Wolves! Thanks Tim!

  48. Amazing.

    I really appreciate this podcast.

    A tremendous amount of lessons and experience shared that has touched my mind and heart.

    Thank you so much to Tim, Kevin and Jon!


    Madison, WI

  49. Enjoyed it very much. Costner seems down to earth but a little stand off ish at times. Can’t blame him though, Hollywood is a tough crowd and a lot of people are not genuine. Always thought he was from Oklahoma like me, found out he wasn’t through this but his Dad was, this explains a lot for me. Dances is one of the GOATs. I liked Mr. Brooks too for a recent film. Nobody here mentioned Wyatt Earp. That movie was awesome.

  50. Hi Tim–I searched “Self talk” in your search bar and the Costner interview was the first return.

    What are a few of your go-to self talk strategies?

    Thank you in advance.