For Kevin Costner, the beard was probably the toughest part. "It went on one hair at a time, singly laid in," he says of the old-man whiskers he wears for Hatfields & McCoys, an epic three-night miniseries beginning tonight on History. Costner plays Devil Anse Hatfield, patriarch and neighbor-from-hell to Randall McCoy (an equally fuzzy-faced Bill Paxton). "My chin would get poked and prodded for an hour every morning," says Costner. The pain registers in his voice even now. "I'd play music, I'd talk to people, but it never got any easier. Fortunately, it's the best damned beard I've ever had."
That's saying something coming from the Oscar winner who Fu Manchu'd his way across the American West in Dances With Wolves and Wyatt Earp. But it speaks to the passion Costner brings to Hatfields, a project that had him grubbing it for weeks in drizzly Transylvania, 100 miles outside of Bucharest. "Apparently, the forests of Romania today look very much the way West Virginia and Kentucky did in those bloody years after the Civil War," Costner says.
The Hatfield-McCoy saga began around 1865, when one murder escalated into the bitterest of feuds between once friendly clans on opposite sides of the Tug Fork River. Fifteen years and a dozen more killings later, the fight became a metaphor for family loyalty gone haywire.
In other words, it's the perfect historical backdrop for six hours of rifle-popping, hog-stealing, squirrel-hunting good times. "This is a war that defined our country in many ways," says Paxton. "Any subsequent feud that sprung up between families or even sports teams got branded a Hatfields-and-McCoys situation. This is our chance to tell the real story behind the legend."
To do that, History "went for authenticity down to the smallest detail of how these two rival families really lived," says Nancy Dubuc, president of History and Lifetime. That meant training actors to ride stallions, shoot heavy weapons and live without — Sweet Abraham Lincoln! — reliable wi-fi in the Carpathian Mountains.
The miniseries also stars Tom Berenger as Jim Vance, the real troublemaker among the Hatfields; Powers Boothe as Wall Hatfield, Devil Anse's even-keeled older brother and a local judge; and a cast of 1,480 extras. "It was a multitudinous group of mostly cute young men playing dress-up and carrying guns for seven weeks," says Mare Winningham, who plays Randall McCoy's wife, Sally. "Soon enough, even the actors playing Hatfields and McCoys started forming separate cliques."
Paxton had a particularly deep connection to the material. The Big Love actor's great-great-grandfather was a Confederate general under Stonewall Jackson, and Paxton brought along a family history book, passed down through the generations, that made the past come alive. "The misery of war never really changes," Paxton says. "You still feel the spirit of these characters 150 years after they're gone."
The real spirits came out at the end of each shooting day. With little else to do in the Romanian outback but drink and make merry, the nights turned into old-fashioned hootenannies, particularly when Costner's band performed. "A bunch of music started pouring out of me in that setting," says Costner, who wrote a concept album, Famous for Killing Each Other, based on his Hatfields experience (available on iTunes and amazon.com). "The story is so deeply American and affecting, I wanted a personal soundtrack to accompany it."
As production neared completion, Costner's character had aged from 30 to 73, and his real beard was growing in where the fake whiskers had been glued. Still, Costner was ready for it to be done. "We were a long way from home and you start to miss the comforts of a hot shower and your own bed," he says. "And I won't say I was sorry to see that beard gone once and for all."
Hatfields & McCoys airs Monday at 9/8c on History.