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Rockin the vote
Swing Vote stars Kevin Costner and Madeline Carroll talk with Jeff Marker about their new movie
Kevin Costner, star of ‘Swing Vote,' performs with his band Modern West at the post-premiere party for the film in Los Angeles. - photo by Chris Pizzello

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Kevin Costner and Madeline Carroll about their upcoming political comedy, "Swing Vote," in a penthouse high atop the Four Seasons in Midtown Atlanta. I settled around a table with four fellow journalists, surrounded by posh furnishings and spectacular views of the city.

The two stars showed their contrasting personalities: Costner sauntered into the room wearing faded jeans, an untucked button-down shirt, an official "Swing Vote" baseball cap and a goatee - yet his body language maintained a clear boundary between himself and us.

But Carroll showed no such personal distance. She bounded into the room in jeans and a T-shirt with roughly 20 gel bracelets on each arm. She interviewed us as much we interviewed her.

Costner said he approached Bud Johnson, the main character in "Swing Vote," determined to show the character's strengths as well as his flaws.

"Well, we know what Bud isn't. He's not a PTA dad, and he's not a soccer father. He doesn't have all the ambition in the world. When did that happen? We don't explore that in this movie, but we see where he's at."

The character of Bud is a likeable guy but a frustrating father. Eventually, Bud faces that he has disappointed his daughter and his community and becomes a voice for a lot of people, Costner said.

"Bud heroically takes it all on, and he finds a way, in his own language, to speak for us all ... And surprisingly, you get a lump in your throat, and you didn't realize Bud could put it there."

Carroll said she benefited from the similarities between herself and her character.

"In some ways I am like (Molly) and some ways I'm not," she said. "Like, she's really, really smart, definitely, but I'm not really that smart."

But actually, she is. Her compassion and political awareness are stunning for her age, as she cited current and past presidential candidates and her efforts to bring awareness to human trafficking in Thailand.

Carroll also said she empathized with Molly, too, which helped when filming a tearful, moving class presentation.

"When I read it, I felt bad for Molly. And I had to think how devastated I would be if my dad didn't show up," she said. "I just had to think about what would upset me. I thought about my family, and all I had to do was bring it to life as if it were what Molly was thinking."

"Swing Vote" works mostly because of the chemistry between Costner and Carroll, which both said came naturally.

"Well, No. 1, you don't always have good chemistry," Costner said. "Sometimes you have to fall back on your technique so it looks like you love each other. Sometimes there's chemistry that exists between people, and Madeline and I, we developed a trust ... When you actually have chemistry, you can just touch. You just do. You can just do it naturally."

Carroll agreed. "I really didn't know what he was going to be like ... but he was amazing. I mean, when you see him, he's a nice guy. So it was cool just reacting from him. And he would always have barbecues at his house and stuff like that to help bond a little bit better. But whatever he would do, I would do the opposite so we'd have that kind of father-daughter thing."

Carroll also said she enjoyed working with the rest of the cast, too, especially going toe-to-toe with Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane.

"It was really funny 'cause Stanley Tucci would add in extra lines. Like in one part, he says, ‘You don't know my mother,' and he added some little things to make it even funnier, so it was really cool working with him," Carroll said. "And Nathan Lane is just, like, amazing. I had a certain idea of what his character would be like when I read the script, and when he came he had something completely different that was absolutely perfect. And then, Dennis Hopper, just seeing him was unbelievable ... He was really nice and quiet."

Costner said he doesn't want people to see "Swing Vote" thinking it will be a public service announcement, but simply look at it as a piece of raw entertainment.

"It's a comedy at its core that deals with a relationship between a father and a fifth-grader, and it's set against the backdrop of one of the great privileges in the history of this world," he said. "What keeps this country alive is the ability to vote. It's founded on it, and we've gotten lazy with it. And yet, we find a way in a piece of comedic entertainment, Capraesque if you will, to highlight it. Or underscore it - maybe that's a better word, underscore - because you're not hit over the head with it. We didn't want to demonize either party, you know; that was important."

One of movie's best qualities is its even-handed politics, which Costner said was difficult to maintain. In one scene, Bud gives a climactic speech that Costner thought would have to be rewritten over and over to get the right tone, without getting too preachy.

"And there's a humility there. And that humility is, (Bud's) really more concerned about his daughter being proud of him, you know, and realizing that what was once funny isn't so funny anymore."

Costner said he has plans to direct a movie, and added his plate is full with "a cowboy movie, got a World War II movie, got a real sexy, urban, violent movie and maybe a love story. So I've cherry-picked what I'm gonna do, and I'm gonna direct those movies."

Carroll's next career plans aren't so clear, but she has definite ideas about the kind of actors she looks up to. She named Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, "the guy from ‘Shawshank Redemption,'" and Costner as role models.

"I think as long as you're proud of your own work, then that's what matters," she said.