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An Hour With Moses 

The Old Testament superstar looks remarkably like Val Kilmer

Thursday, Sep 23 2004
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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 Commandments was 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.

How did you get involved with AmeriCares?

In my screenplay, a character ends up in Baghdad. I called [AmeriCares] and asked, can I bring my cameraman? They said I was the first American private citizen [let] into Iraq at that time [1998]. They made us sit on the tarmac in Jordan for an entire day. It was Saddam’s birthday; we thought they were going to make us be in some sort of strange parade. After 72 hours, they let us go; we filmed everywhere, interviewed everybody. I was moved by the grace, a little surprised at how welcomed I was because I’d been in South Africa, and I’d been in Russia before Gorbachev, where the officialness of domination was always felt. In other places, I heard people being obliged to speak the party line. In Baghdad, no one did. I gave gifts, things I’d collected. They would hold the gift like this [holding out his hand and feeling an imaginary object], and look at me, and hold it and feel it, this way of being regarded. I was in an ancient culture. I’d kind of forgotten.

So as recently as last year, having been in Baghdad, you’re reading the Bible, which our government is constantly invoking . . .

I’m not surprised by our government, which had a dubious beginning, starting with whether or not he was really elected president . . . Not to be self-serving, I think why The Ten Commandments is so valuable is that everyone knows, deep in their heart, knows that we need to obey the law, and the law is protection, and all these geniuses [the Founding Fathers] designed laws to apply reason and conscience to protect us from ourselves — those guys were rich too, they owned 70 percent of the country, but they devised this set of laws . . . And now there’s a responsibility we have, because of our power, we should be more cautious . . . I kind of feel sorry for George. He really just wants to be commissioner of baseball, poor guy, and they keep asking him all these difficult questions. I get this very strong sense that it’s a very tight ship and that the president is the spokesperson for the few people who are running the thing. That’s no secret.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS | A musical by PATRICK LEONARD and MARIBETH DERRY Presented by BCBGMAXAZRIA ENTERTAINMENT at the KODAK THEATER, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood | In previews, opens Mon., Sept. 27, 8 p.m.; through Oct. 31. Call (213) 480-3232.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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