'Hatfields & McCoys' Tom Berenger: 'They are a bunch of hillbillies that went at each other'

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hatfields-and-mccoys-hist.jpgDeep in the woods outside of Bucharest, Romania, the sun sets early over bare trees. It's silent until galloping becomes audible, and Kevin Costner, looking perfectly natural, rides up on a large black horse.

The cast of History's "Hatfields & McCoys," a miniseries airing over three consecutive nights beginning Monday, May 28, races against the fading sunlight to shoot a scene.

A little later, as the makeup artist deftly removes a beard, which made Costner look old and grungy, he reflects on the historical feud that lured him to produce and star in his major foray into television.

"Anybody who goes through war is marked," Costner says of his character, Devil Anse, patriarch of the Hatfields. "Anybody who has killed is marked, or has seen somebody killed is marked. How do you ever truly recover? He went on to father children, create an entrepreneurial business."

"Like any man of war, he is not willing to fight over anything," Costner says. "There's a serenity to Devil Anse."

bill-paxton-hatfields-and-mccoys-hist.jpgYet he fights for decades with Randall McCoy ( Bill Paxton ) and his family. Paxton, sporting a bushy beard and long hair, is almost unrecognizable from the clean-cut polygamist on "Big Love."

To build a character, Paxton tells Zap2it, "The first thing I like to do is find something they wrote. He left no record; he could not read. He could not write. I went to Pikeville [KY] to hear the accent."

Though McCoy may have left no written record, Paxton's great-great-grandfather, Elijah Paxton, a Confederate soldier, did. And Paxton used letters Elijah wrote to his wife to inform his character.

Mare Winningham plays McCoy's wife, Sally. When Costner called to ask her about moving to Romania for a few months, Winningham recalls responding, " 'Oh, do I get to be married to you?' It would have been the fourth time. I don't know if we were married in 'Wyatt Earp.' I was his whore."

Instead, Hatfield's wife, Levicy, is played by Sarah Parish ("Dr. Who"), who says it's surreal to be British in a Western and to play Costner's wife.

"I've had some husbands in my time," Parish says, "but he's up there as No. 1."

The miniseries has everyone age 30 years, and Parish, who is 43, was playing 21 the next day. "I have no idea what time makeup is," she says. "But I reckon I'll come in at 3 in the morning."

Another Hatfield kin is Jim Vance, Devil Anse's uncle. Tom Berenger describes his character as a "raccoon with rabies, a psychopath, a misogynist, and throw in a pinch of Bruce Dern. That's the recipe."

There's a scene in which Uncle Jim whips the wife of his grandnephew, Johnse, bolstering this description.

tom-berenger-hatfields-and-mccoys-hist.jpg"They are a bunch of hillbillies that went at each other," says Berenger, who looks pretty comfortable with a gun. "I can really shoot," he says. And the accent came easily to him because he lives in South Carolina. "This is more mountain, more twangy," he says.

"I've had more fun doing this than I have had in a long time," Berenger says. "The huge cast is fun. It's like 'Platoon.' It's a lot of guys and a lot of humor going on. It's like being on a sports team."

Over dinner, the camaraderie is evident when Matt Barr ("Hellcats") and Boyd Holbrook ("Milk"), who play Hatfield brothers Johnse and Cap, knock back shots of grappa and horse around.

As Johnse, Barr is shirtless in a number of scenes, and there's one in which he and Roseanna McCoy ( Lindsay Pulsipher) skinny-dip.

"Once you get nekkid in front of the crew, you can do anything," Barr says.

That relationship between a Hatfield boy and a McCoy girl, the terrific courtroom fight over a pig -- presided over Judge Wall Hatfield ( Powers Boothe) -- and revenge fueled the family feud.

"These two names that hate each other are absolutely linked," Costner says. "Wouldn't they be horrified if they knew?"

Still, fighting was simpler then, which Costner says has its benefits.

"No lawyers, no publicists," he says. "You didn't have people to get in the middle."

boyd-holbrook-hatfields-and-mccoys.jpgThe Hatfield and McCoy names resonate in that part of the country, says Holbrook, who grew up in Pike County, where his father is a coal miner. He calls Romania "the wild, wild East. If you get out of Bucharest, people are still driving carts."

It is an obvious question as to why an iconic American story is being told in a country where the Soviet influence remains palpable. Executive producer Leslie Greif explains, "Everything is more cost-effective, and working conditions are very pro-production."

Greif talks from a tent, where a space heater makes it cozy during winter. After three months, the cast is accustomed to the packs of dogs roaming the edges of the forest.

Though many have heard of the Hatfields and the McCoys, few know the details as well as Greif, who has been trying to bring this story to the screen for 30 years. He came close four times and had talked with Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Tom Selleck, Don Johnson and Burt Reynolds about playing roles.

"K.C. (as his friends call him) is this generation's Gary Cooper," Greif says. "At his core, he is all-American. I felt K.C. had the ability to take a chance on a character who had the potential to be very dark, very stark and cruel, but also create a whole fabric human being."

Outside, the actors repeatedly shoot a physically punishing scene requiring fighting, raw emotion and buckets of blood.

After cleaning up, Costner says, "I'm really happy I am playing this role." Nearly 150 years later, this feud remains relatable, he says. "Life is all about whose pig it is."
Photo/Video credit: History Channel