Hidden Figures traces the true story of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), three black women who made an invaluable contribution to NASA’s space-race efforts in the 1960s, but never got their due until now. Dubbed “computers,” they were talented mathematicians who pored over calculations made by the Space Task Group as they labored to send astronaut John Glenn into space. Hidden Figures focuses mainly on Johnson as she takes on a new position working under NASA bigwig Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). Though he appreciates her formidable mind, Harrison himself is not mindful of the daily challenges Johnson must face as a black woman, and his slowly dawning awareness gives the film one of its most resonant story arcs. As Costner told Vulture recently in a very candid conversation, that’s an arc he had to fight for.
I know you had a big hand in shaping this character. What happened?
When I was approached with the film, I basically said, “Look, I can see why they’re making this movie, but anybody in the world could play this role. I wouldn’t choose to play this role.” Not because the movie wasn’t significant, but because the part was a little schizophrenic — and I just want to say, I don’t have anything against playing a schizophrenic! Or a serial killer, or anything. But the character was saying something on one page and then on another page saying something different, and you didn’t understand him in the arc of the movie. There should be a reason why a person is the way they are, and it should manifest itself in something important to the film. And it didn’t.
You told this to Ted Melfi, the director?
We didn’t have a lot of time for niceties, to be honest. I love writers, but this was a moment where I had to come very clean with him, very quickly. I just said, simply, “Congratulations on the screenplay. It’s not my M.O. to come in and want to change things because of some weird pride of authorship, but this part is difficult. It’s schizophrenic.” And he was quiet, and I thought, “Well, fuck. I just hurt his feelings and I didn’t want to do that.” And he said, “You know, it’s the one part I’ve had trouble with. I focused so much on the women and I was unsuccessful in obtaining the rights to any of these men’s lives” — there were three of them — “so I had to make a character out of these three people.” And I said, “Well, it kind of reads like that. We can try to fix this, but it means we’re going to have to work on this. You’re about to go down to Atlanta and shoot, and the last thing you’re going to want to do after a long day is call me back in California and work on the supporting part, but that’s what it’s going to take for me to do it.” I told him, “I’ll help if you want me to, but if you’re just going to do pages on your own and they come back and I start drawing red lines through them, I know that’s going to get frustrating. And perhaps you’ll get tired and we won’t get there. I’ve done what you’re doing, and I know you’re going to be tired.”
So how did he respond?
He goes, “I’ll do it. And we’ll do it together.” I said, “Really?” And he said, “Really.” Listen, a lot of people will promise you a lot of things to get you in a movie, and then all of a sudden, reasons will come along as to why they can’t do them anymore and that promise gets broken. That didn’t happen with Ted. He was very true to me about his pledge to make this be a supporting part that supported these women and this movie.
When you started working on the character, how did you know you had cracked it?
I’ll tell you, it’s when the scenes get easier to write. You’re starting to know what the character would say, and you can start writing with a level of economy. When you know a character really well, sometimes you know just by looking at them what they’re thinking. And we understood that my character needed to have what you might call a real or vague form of racism, which is that he wasn’t paying attention. He wasn’t paying enough attention in the workplace to know that this was even a problem. You know, I work around a lot of scientists and engineers because I invest in those kinds of companies — I actually own those companies, I’m talking about as a founder — and they don’t do well with politics. Right? That group of people who are trying to develop something from a technical standpoint, they just want to work, and politics can be the thing that screws them up the most. They’re not equipped for it, they’re a different breed of cat. I was able to bring that sort of stuff to Ted.
Is there a moment in the movie that’s informed by that knowledge?
I’ll tell you when it came into relief for me. There’s a scene where Katherine reads through the redacted moments of the space program and figures them out, and originally, my character was square in the center of that scene. I said to Ted, “He would not be in that scene. He would be ten or 15 feet away marveling at how she’s able to figure out those redactions.” That was more interesting to him, that she could come up with these numbers somehow, rather than interrogating her. His intellectual curiosity has trumped any desire to be hostile to her, and Ted understood that. Even though I was written into that scene, I said, “Take me out of it.” You don’t even realize I’m in that scene until you come over and find me. So we started to find moments like that. This guy wants the cream to get to the top, and that’s it.
He’s formidable, but he has this achievement-based moral code. You get the feeling that if you could successfully appeal to that, he will listen, and Taraji’s character comes to understand that and use it to plead her case.
I think that’s right. Listen, this isn’t a flashy role. It’s a straightforward role. To me, it’s kind of like a Spencer Tracy role where you just stand there and deliver, and I think that’s what’s appropriate. In a lot of movies, to show you where the scene is, you’d cut to a shot of the NASA building to show you the NASA sign and tell you you’re at NASA. I said, “Let’s create a character where, when you cut to my face, that’s what tells you you’re at NASA.”
The character is presented as a decent man, but he’s spent much of his life not paying much attention to the racism going on around him.
I think those people can often make racist statements without being racist. They don’t know. Those jokes that used to pass in the ‘50s and ‘60s, even into the ‘70s … they don’t wash anymore. We talked about the scales coming off his eyes, that he suddenly starts to see things clearly. He wants to know, more than anything, why they’re second in a two-man race. The truth is that the best ideas aren’t getting to the top.
Was there a moment in your life where you went through the same journey as your character, when you became more aware of racial prejudice and privilege?
I was born in Compton, California. I was around people who used the N-word — not being mean, but they used it. They used it in jokes, they used it in everything. You’re a product of where you grew up, but there came a moment in my life where somehow, nothing was funny anymore where that word was concerned, and it was never spoken again. It was in my teens, and I’m not exactly proud of that, but I never remember using that word in anger. I told you I grew up in Compton, and the first girl I thought was really, really pretty was Diana Ross, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Whitney Houston was in The Bodyguard. A lot of people have talked a lot about that movie, because I kiss her. I really kiss her! I thought to myself, “Who wouldn’t want to kiss her?” You’ve got to be a blockhead to not want to kiss her.
Hidden Figures always felt necessary, but do you think it takes on added significance now that it arrives in a post-Trump world?
I’ve never thought much about the timing of movies. The truth is, my wife and I spent our money making a movie called Black or White a year and a half ago, and that really deals with the notion of racism. I don’t know if you ever saw it or not, but my bent is toward movies that surprise me. I certainly don’t pick movies because I think they’re riding a wave or they’re in vogue — I pick them simply because they move me. This moved me, starting with [the prologue where] Katherine as a little girl goes up to the chalkboard and she’s gifted. It doesn’t matter that she’s black or white but that she’s gifted. I was very moved by the scene where the judge listens to the story that Mary presented to him. What we want in our lives is to see justice, and this man gave her justice. I was thrilled by that moment. I was really pleased to be a part of this, and it’s a great reminder to me that whenever things go best for me, it’s just about the movie. People will notice you, and that’s enough.
Do you plan to direct again? It’s been a long time since your last movie, Open Range.
I have another Western I’ve co-written with some people, and I would like to play out the second half of my career directing more. I’ve constantly given the movies I’ve found to directors who I thought could do it better, but there are a lot of voices in my ear from my family saying, “You need to direct the movies you fall in love with.” So I think I will.
This interview has been edited and condensed.