By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Photo by Stacy Kranitz
The guy on the line gives me directions, and I slog down Gower to Paramount Studios. Lo and behold, on Sound Stage 21, I find myself at the end of a corridor peeking through a little window at Moses, an imposing-looking guy with a cropped red beard and a scarf flung over one shoulder, on a big stage. He’s leading a tribe of Hebrews on an exodus from captivity while singing a pop song that recalls Andrew Lloyd Webber, while Moses bears a striking resemblance to Val Kilmer.
A few minutes later, the Hebrews are dismissed, and Kilmer sits alone on some kind of Egyptian throne. There are pillars all around, and lion motifs and, well, just think of Hollywood and Highland. A set painter details some bricks as a photographer snaps away at the actor, who quips about the gray having been removed from his beard — makes it easier to date the dancers, he says. (He’s divorced and has two children by his ex-wife, Joanne Whalley.)
“I got a convertible sports car for my son,” he tells the photographer.
“So your son’s, what, 16?” she asks.
“Oh, no, he’s 8,” Moses replies with a slight twinkle in his eye. “I wanted him to have what I couldn’t have when I was 8 — a GTO.” He cracks a small, sly smile.
The stage-musical adaptation of The Ten Commandmentswas a big hit in Paris in 2000, but co-producers Max Azria and Charles Cohen felt the need to Americanize it for its U.S. premiere at Hollywood’s Kodak Theater. A new director (Robert Iscove), lyricist (Maribeth Derry) and composer (Patrick Leonard) were brought in, and, of course, Kilmer was tapped to fill the big sandals of the hero of the Old Testament.
Kilmer feels at home in Los Angeles, and on the stage. He was born here and attended Chatsworth High, along with Kevin Spacey and Mare Winningham. He studied theater at Juilliard, where he played many of the big boys in Shakespeare’s canon — Richard III, Henry IV, Macbeth. In 1988, he portrayed Hamlet at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. But, of course, the star is most famous in this movie town for leading roles in The Saint, The Doors, Batman Forever, Top Secret!and Top Gun.
Fewer people know about his contributions to UNICEF (because they were made anonymously) and to AmeriCares — an American-based charity that assists people in war-torn regions — which hosted him in Baghdad in 1998. Kilmer made the contact himself because he’d written a screenplay in which a character winds up in Baghdad, so he was looking for a way to get there.
We spoke in a small, almost bare office off the corridor of Sound Stage 21. No desk, just two chairs, Moses and a reporter.
L.A. WEEKLY: A musical about Moses. Tell me the truth. What were you thinking?
VAL KILMER:I’ve done the role before [a voice-over for Moses in [DreamWorks’] animated film The Prince of Egypt]. I don’t know how I would have felt about saying yes if I hadn’t already been intensely studying the Bible for three years. It had a sense of destiny when I met [co-producer] Max Azria, the spirit behind this production. He’s a very honorable man, and he has a sense of destiny — “mission” is more accurate — about sharing with people his sense of joy and destiny. He was a Jew in Tunisia, a tri-culture [Jewish-Christian-Muslim] community. He’s obsessed, and that obsession has led him to do a series of completely crazy things. He rented the Kodak with no book. We said you can’t do that.
And he ignored you.
When you feel that destiny. I’ve always been proud of really searching, being blessed by a career that allowed me to explore. I’m very independent, sometimes foolishly. I’ve disregarded my agents. I blew a lot of opportunities. It’s not a complicated pattern that leads you to be successful. Some of my friends, like Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Kevin Spacey, who have those kind of ambitions . . . I’m not like that. I don’t ever think about fame. I never cultivated a personality like a character; most actors are usually attentive to that. I just find that every job that I’ve done, I’ve had good luck being able to do something that fits what I’m feeling at the time. And fate — my father passed on just before I did Tombstone. . . But it’s just too strange for Max [Azria]. He can’t get over that when he asked me to do the role, I’d been reading the Bible for three years.
Is it different — being back on the stage after being in the movies?
It’s different. It’s different when you’re playing Jim Morrison, and they close down the Sunset Strip, and they light it up for you, and you walk into the Whisky and sing those songs. Film affords you with those lifetime experiences that happen in such a condensed way. But those experiences live on. Onstage, because it really is magical, after it closes, it lives on only in everybody’s memory. It’s the most fun thing I do, besides playing with my children. But beyond that, to do a musical, like in Shakespeare, you have to physicalize the rhythm of the character. Besides just the bricklayer aspect of doing a play, you gotta be tough. Moses is very, very passionate. He killed a man; his lack of self-control, it’s still in him 60 years later when he destroys the Ten Commandments out of anger and frustration — it’s really physical, developing the muscles to channel the emotion. It’s not enough to express it through the words and the songs. You have to have it go through the body.