In the Los Angeles bureau of PEOPLE, correspondent Kristina "Tina" Johnson is known for plunging tirelessly into any assignment—from Patrick (Ghost) Swayze's cinematic ascendancy to last year's San Francisco earthquake to Marc Smith's wrenching battle against leukemia (p. 75). But Johnson confesses that her first interview with Kevin Costner for this week's cover story was, well, a different story. "It was my celebrity crush," she says. The early minutes of their initial meeting in his L.A. office were a bit of a sweat fest. "My throat closed up—that's never happened," recalls Johnson. "But he calmed me down. He asked me where I was from, where I went to school." Quickly recovering, she turned the Q&A around, and what was scheduled as a 20-minute interview turned into two hours. Then, to see the actor in action, she traveled to the South Dakota location of Dances with Wolves, which Costner not only starred in but directed and co-produced. There, in a cavernous makeshift studio replete with dust, horses, a tepee, Native Americans recruited from the U.S. and Canada and an anxious crew, she was doubly impressed. "He's calm and he's cool," she says. "You don't ever get the sense that he's losing control, and yet afterward, when you ask, it's refreshing to hear him say he's under the most pressure he has ever felt."

Johnson, 33, arrived on the West Coast three years ago from New York City, where she had worked as a reporter for PEOPLE since 1983. Born in Danbury, Conn., she has a journalistic role model in her newspaperman father, William Oscar Johnson, who moved the family from Baltimore to Minneapolis to Boston and finally to New York City, where he is a senior writer at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. After co-editing her Germantown, N.Y., high school yearbook, Johnson tackled Vassar College as an English major. She spent a few low-impact years running a beach bar-restaurant on a five-acre island near Tortola, British Virgin Islands, before working in advertising production at Dance magazine in Manhattan.

Keeping Pacific Standard Time has meant some adjustments. In a nutshell: "In L.A. you drive," she says. "In New York you are driven." Johnson has shifted gears smoothly. "Tina's a gifted conversationalist and interviewer," says L.A. bureau chief Jack Kelley. "She can draw people out without making them feel they've been grilled." Johnson finds it a most satisfying pursuit. "You get to take people off their pedestals," she says. "Like with Kevin—it's nice to discover he's just the cowboy next door."