A bomb threat has sealed off the streets surrounding us, but Val Kilmer is calm. His long blond hair tied back into a loose ponytail, the actor is wearing a blue blazer, blue and white checkered shirt, and Levis, and sitting on a couch in his publicist's Hollywood office. He pours himself tea from a thermos and water from a mason jar. As he points to a piece of carrot sticking out of the middle of his “healthy” hamburger patty, he jokes that the meal is nutritious.
This is the infamously difficult Val Kilmer?
From legendary performances in films like Top Gun and The Doors to his reputation of being wildly eccentric, it's difficult not to be intrigued by Kilmer. In addition to being an actor, he is a poet, musician and visual artist. Currently, Kilmer, who at 17 years old was the youngest person ever to have been accepted into Juilliard's theater program, is returning to his roots. His latest artistic pursuit is workshopping a one-man play he's developing about orator/writer Mark Twain, a figure with whom Kilmer feels an intense kinship.
In person, Kilmer is gracious, jovial and open. He's very talkative, but he's equally contemplative. One moment, he'll be incredibly serious, choosing his words carefully. In the next moment, he's animated and doubled over in a big belly laugh.
He is all too aware of and disappointed by certain aspects of his reputation, including that pesky rumor that he's “difficult.” “It's kind of funny when I hear it,” says Kilmer. “But it's cost me millions of dollars from people not hiring me because they've heard something odd. But there's no credible director that's ever said, 'Don't hire him.' There are lots of actors who are awful people, but nobody talks about them being awful because they've made billions.”
Kilmer thinks his negative reputation developed when he was shooting The Doors. He says he thought director Oliver Stone was putting Jim Morrison on a “crazy pedestal.” In an attempt to “break the spell Oliver was under,” Kilmer says he asked Stone to start calling him “Jim.” Due to what Kilmer says is some kind of miscommunication, suddenly Kilmer was being ignored by everyone on the film set.
“He (Stone) told everyone that's what they had to do,” says Kilmer. “We had a really tight crew that had made a bunch of movies together and suddenly no one was talking to me. I asked Oliver, 'What did I do? What the fuck? What's going on?' He said, 'You said no one can talk to you.' I told him, 'I never said that! I told you to call me Jim.' It really wasn't about me, but that's what started the 'weird' thing.”
He's proud of many of the films he has done — he says The Doors has “held up really nicely.” And Top Gun? “There's no better movie with airplanes.”
But he admits that he's made some poor choices along the way. “I did a lot of terrible movies in the last 10 years to pay for my ranch (in New Mexico),” he says. “I had integrity about the land and really sacrificed integrity that built up from my career. But I don't have any regrets doing that. I have a sense of humor about it.” He refuses to name names. Instead he laughs and says, “Oh, I think there's no secret … I don't want to insult anyone's efforts on these straight-to-video movies, but I imagine that you could infer that anything that didn't get a release is probably a bad movie.”
One project Kilmer, a Christian Scientist, is absolutely devoted to, if not obsessed with, is a film he's writing about Mark Twain and Mary Baker Eddy (the founder of Christian Science), which is what sparked him to create his one-man play, Citizen Twain.
“Ten years ago I started looking for a story that was more reflective of what my interests are,” says Kilmer. “I was looking for a story that would represent me personally, so that's how I came up with this idea of Mark Twain and Mary Eddy Baker and how he was obsessed with her for the last 10 years of his life. The script started to take shape three or four years ago, but I realized I hadn't taken any time to develop the character to play, and kind of the only way you can do Mark Twain is to get on stage.”
What he admires most about his subject, in addition to his comedic genius, is Twain's conscientiousness and empathy. “That he has a respect for and finds everything interesting and does everything without judgement, that's the most important thing he has to offer,” says Kilmer. Slipping into the Twain character for a moment, complete with Twain's Southern accent, Kilmer recounts one of his favorite Twain quotes. “'I'm not an American. I'm the American.' At his heart, he stood for all men,” says Kilmer.
As for this weekend's workshop, Kilmer says it might be too soon to be staging it, but he is taking the risk anyway and asking the audience to remain after the performance for a Q&A. “Hopefully it will be entertaining but ultimately it's just … well … for example, it's a clever ruse or excuse, but at the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain says, 'Anybody trying to find a point in this will be shot.'* It's not about any kind of point. It's just entertainment.”
Val Kilmer's Citizen Twain will be performed tonight, Sat. and Sun. nights at Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Doors open at 7 p.m. Show begins at 8 p.m. Sunday matinee: Doors open at 2 p.m. Show begins at 3 p.m. Also Sat., April 7; Sun., April 8; Wed., April 11. Purchase tickets here.
*Ed. note: Kilmer paraphrased Twain. The full quote is, “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narra-tive will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”