"I used my best move on you. That's the only one I got and I used it," says Kevin Costner, very pleased with himself for turning a handshake into a dance step -- a gentle little spin that swept a reporter off her feet and down onto the sofa cushions. His smile is pure insinuation and he has that you-know-that-I-know-that-you-know look in his eye.

In town for the premiere of his stirring western epic "Dances With Wolves," Costner remains a vine-ripened Hollywood heartthrob despite this impressive debut as a director. His thin hair, splashed with sun, falls over his brow and his voice is hoarse with fatigue. "Bear with me now," he implores, pushing his visitor's shoe with the toe of a fancy cowboy boot. It is the manipulative gesture of a little boy trying to get his way.

Costner's coltishness is an undeniable aspect of his big-screen charisma. What's more, he's drawn to boyish escapades -- cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, peanuts and Cracker Jack. But then it takes not age but a certain grace to dance with wolves, to tame a wild thing, to gentle an audience. And though he has never directed before, Costner transports us with a fiddler's easy rhythm back to the majesty of waving-grain America in the days of the buffalo.

A depiction of the horse culture -- the settlers, the cavalry and Indians -- "Dances With Wolves" is in the English, Pawnee and Lakota Sioux languages. The appreciative Sioux formally adopted the filmmaker for his positive depiction of "the people." "Well, Christmas will never be the same, will it? I hope they take American Express on the reservation," jokes Costner, who's doing press at the Ritz-Carlton. He worries that the epic will be taken for a political statement. "I'm not about messages, I'm about entertainment. ... Granted it's not standard movie fare, but I think people will want to buy popcorn and want to have Cokes and go see it."

He decided to try directing, he explained, because "I have real strong feelings that movies have been so shortened that the literacy of cinema is getting lost. Producers are convinced that people won't sit still for longer than two hours. How can every story be told in exactly two hours?" mutters Costner, who offered to buy out backers for $18 million rather than cut favorite moments from the three-hour film.

"I'm a longer-is-better kind of guy," he says. "I actually wanted to direct 'Revenge,' {a picture he starred in earlier this year} but they wouldn't let me," he says. "Then I found 'Dances' and it was big, it was ambitious. I mean, I'm not stupid, I didn't look at it and not think to myself, 'My God, what am I doing?' I'm just setting myself up for every known problem -- animals, non-actors, children, foreign language, length, subtitles. But I'm not being cavalier when I say I thought it was a greater risk to not do the movie."

Portrait of the Auteur As a Young Man From the time he was a tot, Costner has been enchanted by the epic sweep of the cinema, a fancy that led to an affection for filmmakers John Ford and David Lean. "I remember being in those pajamas that have your feet included," he says, "and my brother who was four years older was going to the show and I couldn't for the life of me understand why I couldn't tag along. And my mother bought me a popgun -- same thing as a sucker for me -- so I'd shut up. And I remember it was raining and the water was still beading on the windows. We went by this big marquee and I remember seeing those ruby-red letters and I remember saying to my mom, 'What does it say?' She said, 'Oh, that's "Ben-Hur." ' "

When he was 7 -- and no longer wearing pajamas with feet -- he went to the Cinerama Dome in Compton, Calif., to see "How the West Was Won" and was especially taken with Spencer Tracy's narration and Jimmy Stewart's birch-bark canoe. Right then and there he decided that he wanted to make movies (though he wasn't really sure how the people got in there), to gallop bareback over that vast ocean of grass. Flash forward a quarter of a century, and he is smitten with "Dances With Wolves."

Essentially it is the story of a 19th-century lonely guy who finds civility among the "savages." Lt. John Dunbar, a decorated Union officer, leaves the carnage of the Civil War behind when he is rewarded with an outpost on the American frontier. Arriving at Fort Sedgewick, he finds it abandoned except for a wolf he names Two Socks. Dunbar welcomes the solitude, feeling comfortable enough to go for a stroll in the buff.

"I shot the thing as delicately as I could," says Costner, who avers he never likes taking his shirt off on screen, much less his chaps. "I found the biggest reeds I could find to get behind. ... But he was taking a bath and you could see that he was at peace with himself. ... And it was a scene that was written and was not dreamed up by me. I believe in the theatricality of {the moment} and for me to do it any other way would have been kind of a chickening out."

And yet! "There was a scene that I always wanted to put in the movie that I never could find the right spot, where he like masturbates. And I thought it was perfectly appropriate. And I don't mean to make you blush. And actually this was a movie before it was ever a book, and when Michael {Blake} wrote it, he wrote that scene and these stupid people that published the thing edited that scene out. Dunbar was so lonely, the reason he did that one act was because he'd gone to the village and the Lakota wouldn't talk to him -- it subconsciously just began to happen, you know. I related so much to the idea of that loneliness, of being by yourself. People reading this will go holy {expletive}, Kevin's {expletive} out of his mind," he laughs. And 36 years' worth of crow's-feet track the corners of his pale eyes.

A filmmaker who reveres a good script, Costner is nevertheless noted for his improvisations -- painting Susan Sarandon's toenails in 'Bull Durham,' for instance. In this movie he cavorts, whooping like a pup, around a colossal bonfire after a visit with the Sioux. "I had this thing about this guy who could not let these people go," he says. "Dunbar was so lonely for them and I just thought he started dancing, and I did feel a little foolish out there by myself because it wasn't scripted and I said I need to do this, I need to do this. And I need for the animals {Two Socks and Dunbar's horse} to watch. And I just was thinking of early man, how early man must have just been, he just needed to howl at the moon.

"I wanted to do this movie, not for the big things, not for the obvious things," he says. "I relished the chance of riding with the buffalo and riding in the Civil War, and those are the little-boy things that I enjoy. But my attraction to the script was the little things."

A Boy Named Sioux The antithesis of the brats and bohunks who dominated the screen in the early '80s, Costner emerged from the pack as a new-age Gary Cooper, a self-described "guy who is a guy." There is in him something of a throwback.

"I specialize in enigmatic characters that often debunk the theory of what successful people are," says Costner. "You know, Crash Davis never made it to the big leagues, but he was an attractive guy. And Dunbar is not a macho guy. He's a guy who faints and writes poetry. ... I didn't want him to be a traditional, laconic western character -- although I identify with those guys that appear on the horizon. I felt that he had a real openness about him and a sense of humor."

Like the farmer who built a ball field in his corn patch, Dunbar is a believer. If the land speaks through sighing grasses, he listens. And if he loves, it is without cynicism. An officer and a gentleman, Dunbar is set against Costner's view of the average white frontiersman. "They're not guys that you would invite to your house for dinner," says Costner. "They're bigots. The people that inhabited the frontier, in the Army specifically, were not what you call your best citizens. They were often immigrants ... the have-nots of society 150 years ago.

"The frontier was not a healthy place. A swift death could come at you in all forms -- be it a lightning storm that hit the prairie, be it a grizzly bear, and I know that'll make people laugh when they read that in the paper. But there were thousands of grizzly bears, as there were millions of buffalo, and those things could run you down and kill you. You know, you could not lock yourself up in your Subaru. You know what I mean? It's not Glacier National Park. This was a wild country -- and that word underlined."

The Costner Clan In a mossy cashmere coat, beard stubble and well-worn jeans, Costner is cowboy casual, handsome in the way of a well-worn Stetson. Of Irish, German and Cherokee descent, he is an all-American mutt. He has been married to Cindy, his Cal State sweetheart, since 1978. She and the three Costner kids joined him here for the world premiere -- his little daughter wailing, "I want my own soda."

His entire family appears in the movie. "They're all wiped out in one massacre scene," he says. "My son, Joe, is the little boy chasing the chickens. He's a good little walker, isn't he? And Lily has the puppies. And my wife was at the table, and Annie has lines in the movie. I needed people to play those parts and I brought my family out to be with me, and I guess people wonder why I would do that but I just did it and I can't explain it."

It seems obvious. "Dances With Wolves," a paean to the family ties that bind a nomadic culture together, mirrors, in a fashion, the actor-director-producer's own childhood. The Costners moved almost as frequently as the Sioux in connection with his father's job with Southern California Edison. And Kevin, who enrolled in four high schools in as many years, says he had only one date during that time.

Costner likes movies about men and women, but not movies in which they fight the battle of the sexes. Why? "I don't want to be around a mean-spirited woman," he says. "But I don't mind being around a woman that calls me on the carpet. But the next thing you know, there you are on the carpet. ... Sue {Sarandon} in "Bull Durham" was given great things to say and she's a great broad -- and I say broad as a term of endearment. You know, everyone likes to be challenged and I think you get charged by a woman who challenges you, and Susan does. She does on a personal level and she does on a theatrical level. In that particular movie, it was impossible not to respond to her -- at least if you call yourself a guy."

Mary McDonnell plays his romantic interest in "Dances With Wolves," a rugged valentine in deerskin called Stands With a Fist. A white woman who was adopted by the Sioux after the Pawnee slaughtered her family, she is the recent widow of a great Lakota warrior. "Mary was the closest thing to a cliche in the movie, and I thought {critics} might think, here we go, another Indian movie with white people. Mary is not an exception to the rule. The taking of orphan children and the raising, that was not an isolated thing. Mary very much happened on the plains."

The Road From 'Sizzle Beach' Costner's first movie, "Sizzle Beach" (1978), taught him about low-budget thinking, about leading a low-budget life. After that he took a couple of other disastrous parts, then stopped to study his craft while he made a living as a stage manager at Raleigh Studios. His new studio, TIG Productions, named for his grandmother, is now at that location. "Dances With Wolves" is the first of two westerns under the auspices of TIG.

As a director-producer, he is "very hands on," he says. "I love my actors and I refuse to let them fail. I'm ready to do anything, including lay down in the water and show them how I want them to die."

In a kissing scene with McDonnell, he whispers something in her ear. We think it's a sweet nothing, and so did the actress, but it was in fact Costner offering a last-minute instruction.

Happy Trails Costner has to go make a public-service announcement before meeting his family and winging off to London, where he is shooting "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves." "Are you going to speak in a British accent?" a reporter asks. "Not now," says the brat auteur. "In the movie."

Graceful as winter wheat, he rises to leave, 6 feet 1 unfolding from a wing chair, and offers to continue the interview in his limo. "Don't make me beg," he teases.

"Always got to rent one of these when I'm in Washington," he says of the town car, an allusion to his torrid scene with Sean Young in "No Way Out."

Costner leans back into the gray upholstery and watches Pennsylvania Avenue slide by. He would direct again if he found the right movie, "but I think you have to direct out of passion. You can't direct because you want to prove you can. I didn't do this movie because I wanted to prove I could direct. I didn't want to have a great first effort, I didn't want to have a really good movie or a good outing or a good review. What I really wanted was a great movie."

There is a coda to "Dances With Wolves" that reminds us that the Native American culture of the plains was soon lost. "It wasn't a complete movie until I said that, to me. ... It's not designed to make you feel guilty, and it's not designed to make you think, so don't intellectualize that you know what went on because you don't know what went on. You didn't live then. And it's just my way as a filmmaker of saying so. There was a real movement that said, 'Please don't put that legend up, Kevin, because everybody feels so good at the end of this movie.' I said that legend's not going to make anybody feel less good. It's just going to ground them a little bit in this movie because it's a terribly romantic look at the West. I don't mean terribly in that it's soft, because there's heavy violence in it, but when you think of the movie it's actually very soft, very tender. It's a gentle movie.

"I want to play with emotions that are real and play with themes that are real in your life, but I don't want to say, relax, people, this never really happened, the Indians all survived."

And Kevin Costner rides off into the sunset.