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By Bill Raden
The publicist for the Kirk Douglas Theatre finds me in the theater's cinder-block cubicle otherwise known as the "Green Room" — only one wall is actually green. We walk together through a passageway leading to the theater's backstage. A view from the stage wings opens up on the profile of Val Kilmer, by himself, slim and nattily dressed, gazing out, with chin raised, from center stage onto the theater's 300 empty seats. He'll be performing in the solo show he wrote, Citizen Twain, at the venue beginning June 28. In the show, he impersonates Mark Twain — sort of like Hal Holbrook has been doing for decades, but with a slightly more cosmic and transcendental view. (Kilmer's Twain time-travels to the present to comment on current events.)
On seeing us, Kilmer turns abruptly, as though we've just invaded his privacy — which we have.
"Would you like us to come back?" the publicist asks.
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"No, no," Kilmer says. "I was just practicing ... being adored."
The amusing thing about Kilmer, not unlike Twain, into whose skin he's been crawling for well over a year in the development of this show, is the grandiloquent things he'll say about himself — but with a twist of self-mockery.
"All these journalists keep asking about the 'G' word," he says, since so much of the play is about Twain's sometimes terse relationship to God. "And I say, 'Honestly, can we talk about someone other than me?' "
The best reaction is to laugh out loud, and he'll laugh right along with you.
Kilmer is best known for film roles, such as the lead in Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever, Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone's The Doors and his remarkable portrayal of Doc Holliday in the Western Tombstone. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley in a Christian Science home. He studied acting at Juilliard and has performed on Broadway (Slab Boys in 1993 with Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn) and on the stages of New York's Public Theatre and the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. Kilmer is reputed to have turned down a role in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 The Outsiders in order to honor his theater commitments. (He later worked with Coppola on the 2011 release Twixt.)
His latest commitment to the theater, Citizen Twain, is a labor of love and continues to be what Kilmer calls a work in progress. He presented an earlier version of the show last year at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. "It's better now," he says.
This project actually started with an independent film he's been working on since 2002, about the relationship between Twain and the founder of the Christian Science church (to which Kilmer belongs), Mary Baker Eddy. She also established the reputable newspaper The Christian Science Monitor as a reaction against the tabloid press of her era.
Eddy was a spiritualist who responded to the savage medical treatments of her day by exploring and condoning psychological and theological cures for disease rather than traditional medicines and remedies. Twain is known for parodying her work.
While developing that film, Kilmer knew he'd be playing Twain, so he created Citizen Twain in order to better understand him.
"Is it to better understand a man who was so critical of the church you were reared in?" I ask.
Kilmer sits in a chair in the theater's front row and gazes into space as he speaks: "Most of what's quoted are negative things he said, but he said equally grand things about her that aren't quoted."
For example, Twain wrote of Eddy: "In several ways she is the most interesting woman that ever lived, and the most extraordinary. The same may be said of her career, and the same may be said of its chief result."
Kilmer adds, "I think she was a genius. There's a lot of admiration and jealousy about any writer he was writing about, but a woman writer, writing about God, was of particular interest. She was probably the most famous woman in America at the end of her life, and he was probably the most famous man in the world at that time — with the possible exception of Ulysses Grant."
Kilmer says that the usual representation of Twain as an agnostic or an atheist isn't necessarily true. (The question has been debated.)
In Kilmer's film, Eddy is the subject. She's mentioned in the play, but Twain is the subject.
“The play is a character study about Mark Twain,” Kilmer says. "He was like any serious person, trying to figure out his place in the world, and in the cosmos."
Kilmer says that over the past couple of years, he's developed discipline on business matters. I think he means it, but it's hard to tell if this is another quip.
"I never developed a persona, which is part of business — a lot of my contemporaries have a persona. I'm sure Johnny Depp loves lots of jewelry, but it's a persona."
"And are you developing one?" I ask.
"I don't know but I feel excited for the first time, to be in business."
"What are you talking about?"
"Entertainment! Being creative and making money in the theater is very challenging. [Pause.] I'm glad you're laughing. My accountant is not laughing. It's a serious investment — no pun intended."
Kilmer is refreshingly honest about his diminishing fortunes, about his 2,000-acre ranch in New Mexico, famous for its herds of roaming buffalo, of which he now owns just 200 acres.
"No buffalo at present," he says. "Twenty-five years later, it's strange not to own a horse, or have a wife [Kilmer was divorced from his British actress wife, Joanne Whalley, in 1996], no dogs. ... For a while I was feeding over 100 domestic animals and 1,000 wild animals a day. ... Now it's just two ungrateful children. My daughter is 21 — she's been 21 for about 16 years now. And my son just turned 18."
The last time I interviewed Kilmer was in 2004, on the Paramount lot, when he was rehearsing his role as Moses in musical The Ten Commandments, staged at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. It received a critical drubbing here. At that time, he was telling a photographer about how he'd bought a new Pontiac GTO sports car for his son, then only 8, because he wanted the boy to have something Kilmer never could have had when he was 8.
"Ah yes, The Ten Commandments...," Kilmer reflects, again gazing into space. "It's hard to believe ... [a long pause] that happened. That was a story as large as the parting of the Red Sea would allow. People were open to it in France [where the musical premiered], but in retrospect, it didn't make a whole lot of sense to bring it to L.A."
Then back to business: "My business plan was to get lucky. My second business plan was to get lucky again — except that the business world imploded a few years ago — so my plan of having all my eggs in a ranch basket, I couldn't follow through. ... I was a couple of action movies shy."
The movies that catapulted Kilmer to stardom — Top Gun, Top Secret!, Batman Forever and The Doors — are relegated to his early career. More recently, he's been appearing in an eclectic assortment of sometimes highly respected indie films, such as South African filmmaker Michael Oblowitz's The Traveler, and Harmony Korine's short "The Lotus Community Workshop," which is part of a collaborative film, The Fourth Dimension.
Kilmer refutes the perception that he turned down another Batman film after Batman Forever. "I didn't turn it down. I was under contract to do The Saint when Warner Bros. neglected to tell me they were planning another Batman. ... I asked them if they could wait [but] they had rose-colored glasses about rushing it into production. But I think Joel Schumacher was concerned about how he was being perceived as a director. ... It wasn't a fact that I didn't want to do the picture because of him, but he sort of talked that way. He started a story that persists ... " — though Kilmer suggests that Schumacher has now made peace with that past. "I think he agrees with the billion-dollar profits we made, that people liked it. I think all is forgiven."
Years later, Kilmer says he's doing what he does best — character work.
"Citizen Twain works because it's a comedy and people laugh — I'm not asking them to do more than that. I still laugh at his jokes that I read 13 years ago," he says.
Citizen Twain starts June 28 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Call (213) 628-2772 or go to centertheatregroup.org/calendar for tickets.