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Val Kilmer Returns: Taking on Twain, Career Regrets, Celebrity and an Untraditional Hollywood Life

The enigmatic actor reflects on his one man show and a lifetime spent in and out of the spotlight.
Neil Jacobs

Yes, he was born and raised in Hollywood, but Val Kilmer has a distinctly outsider perspective on the inner workings of show business -- an impressive feat of avoidance and sometimes alienation, considering that he's the guy with a résumé of iconic roles. He's Iceman, Jim Morrison, Doc Holliday, Batman and Moses, but he's also the edgy, allegedly prickly guy who for so long lived not in the Hills but the flatlands of New Mexico.

Kilmer knows this; he knows what people say, is aware of the perceptions and rumors about his at times offbeat way of life. But again, for a guy with Hollywood in his blood, the industry hasn't been his life.

Still, he's never stopped working, and at 52, with the weight of fiscal and idealistic responsibilities lifted from his broad shoulders, he's more excited than ever about finally pursuing projects that stoke his passion. He's back in Los Angeles, having sold off the 600-acre ranch outside Santa Fe, and starting this week, will direct and star in Citizen Twain, playing his hero, Mark Twain, in the one-man play that has been a decade in the making. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter from the Hollywood Forever Cemetery -- the location's irony is no accident -- Kilmer reflected on his career and the landscape of America.

This interview has been slightly condensed.

THR: You've long been interested in Mark Twain. I suppose there's an obvious answer to this, but what exactly do you find so compelling about the man?

Kilmer: I've always loved his humor and genius. He angled himself as incidental to social relevance, but really it's at the core of his brilliance, of being able to humorously approach subjects that are either taboo, like writing humorously about religion, or some of the glaring social injustices. Like when he was a kid in San Francisco, writing about the Chinese immigrant community and what was happening there, it got him fired. He kind of perfected his style with Huckleberry Finn in being able to present the glaring racial injustices in his own backyard to the whole country in such a way that the regular reader had to shift and grow out of outmoded ways of thinking. 

THR: If you read a quote of his now and don't attribute it to Mark Twain in the 1800s, you might think it was about something we're dealing with today.

Kilmer: Oh yeah, no question. ... I think now the common man knows the swindlers of Wall Street are really trying to pretend that they have a natural right to the money. In Twain's day, there was a sort of baloney being perpetrated on the regular guy that there was a justification to theft, and I think nowadays we just accept that these guys are smarter so we can't catch them.

THR: You're playing him, but do you see yourself as someone who is a modern Mark Twain? Or do you think we have a modern Mark Twain?

Kilmer: Certainly, in terms of outreach and power and respect, I think Jon Stewart is a worthy comparison because he's got a very specific agenda and he seems to be getting, even gaining, a respect from the conservative community because, like Twain, his stuff is so -- you can't really deny him. Twain was kind of a ridiculous showman and self-promoter, like Stephen Colbert, so that's the kind of American satirist. There's a lot in comparing that style of presenting yourself as completely absurd but making really valid points along the way.

THR: Do you see yourself as someone in that vein, since you're doing the show and have made political points before?

Kilmer: Well, I have publicly been not that consistent; even as an actor, I've tried to participate in subjects that I care about, that I have some feeling that I've earned the right to have something to say, but most of the time I haven't sought out a public exposure. I got a fancy UNESCO award years ago for work I did in Africa, but I never took any pictures and stuff like that. I went to Iraq years ago, didn't really kind of -- aren't actors usually a little suspect while they're doing good? Even Bob Hope, God bless him, a little self-serving.

But I certainly, in my life have been involved in Africa since the early 1980s, I certainly appreciated when George Clooney went on CNN, got to go right in, meet the president and have his say about what he believes is important to address there, or any of his thousand best friends. You know, Matt Damon is doing stuff for water, and Bono's campaign -- they're all worthy attempts to do good in the region, which can use all the help it can get.

THR: Why do you think there is cynicism about celebrities who do those things?

Kilmer: Because there's good reason? (Laughs) Like I said, I don't fault anybody trying to do good. I'm not talking about anyone else; I have had some negative press that sort of continued on, like a misquote a guy did eight to 10 years ago in New Mexico about vets, and every now and then someone says, "Yeah, but you shouldn't have said that," and I go, "Well I didn't." I explain the story, and they say, "Oh, it didn't read like that; I thought you were saying vets and kids who go to war were dumb or something." And I wasn't. The writer exactly flipped what I was trying to say about unfortunate kids.

THR: You were going to make a film about Mark Twain.

Kilmer: Yeah, I am.

THR: So that hasn't morphed into the play. What is the difference, and what is the status of that?

Kilmer: Oh, I had been preparing to go out and fund-raise, and as I got closer to having a script and a budget and starting to talk to actors, I realized that I hadn't devoted enough time to the character. I just made the assumption -- oh, well I've been reading a lot about Mark Twain for the last decade -- but I hadn't put in the actual hours. There's really no way of creating the role of Mark Twain without being onstage. He was a speaker, first and foremost; he did it before he was a famous writer, it's how he became famous as a writer, and it's even how he wrote novels. He would write in the morning and then read them to his children.

THR: So is this a warmup for the movie in a way?

Kilmer: Oh, it's certainly for the role. I'm directing it, and I wouldn't have time for normal breaks as an actor, and for a role and character as complicated as Twain and how I'm depicting him in the movie, I had to take time off to own it. And also I kind of got into the idea that it's not that creative, or unusual, to fund-raise now personally and for a small, hard-to-make movie because it's period, God's in it, God's a player -- well not really; (Laughs) Morgan Freeman wasn't available.

THR: So now you're an actor, writer, director and are being given an honorary doctorate in Missouri; if someone asked you to sum up who you are, what you do, what your title is at this point, what would you say?

Kilmer: Well, I never had a business plan. I did, actually, I'm lying. My business plan was to get lucky, and I did, that was great. And then my second business plan was to get lucky again, and there, I faltered. I had not anticipated the global collapse. But I was doing just fine because I kept buying my neighbors' ranches, and that was really a dream that I ended up sacrificing much integrity of my career for the integrity of this land and different causes. I guess I'd call my children a cause, definitely a full-time job, and now that they're older, I just realized that I was very lucky and I was privately very grateful. But I wasn't very practical in thinking about Hollywood and our business. It's a very social business, and I never tried to be involved in the community of it. Pretty foolish about that, just casual comments that aren't very insightful. It's just easy to make fun of Los Angeles. 

Being raised here, I kind of thought I had the right to do that. And usually with business, especially, I've made my employers a billion dollars, which is not a little, and I don't relate to the money, but I relate to the people. And that just happens a lot; people comment on the movies that I made, and yesterday, a real fancy writer -- I don't want to gossip, but a big-deal writer -- was going on about Real Genius, which is a pretty silly comedy and my second movie, it was a real long time ago. I'm proud that the movies and choices I made as an actor, separate from sort of my public folly in terms of business, but that's sort of relation to money, too. It's not really how people watch movies. I don't know, it's odd, it is sadly how people choose to go to them now, because you just make snap -- if we're being told a movie is good or doing well because of the numbers, people do equate it to success, it's certainly how our culture functions.

THR: Does that make it difficult to make your Twain film or smaller, artistic films if that money is the barometer?

Kilmer: I don't think it's really changed. All I'm really, really happy about is that I'm more excited to act now or even talk about acting or my career or do the things that more clearly reflect my real beliefs, like this play or this movie. It's hard to point to that movies that reflect what I believe. I'm proud of my acting, but I just didn't have those aims when I was younger. And there are a lot of amazing careers, I mentioned George Clooney earlier, what he's done, his best friend Brad Pitt, what he's done from the humblest beginnings. Brad was dressed up like a chicken on Hollywood Boulevard, trying to get people to buy chicken wings. These guys came in humbly to Hollywood, loved it and figured out how it works. And everyone has a great time, and they're able to make movies that really matter to them. That's great. The whole community is getting re-created now. 

THR: Why are you more enthusiastic about acting now than in the past?

Kilmer: Well, I don't have any regrets, but there are two to three jobs, that if you do those action movies, you're secured as a certain global stature. It's an adage, but it's kind of true: Once you're a star, you're always a star; it's just what level? And I was in some big, wonderful movies and enjoyed a lot of success, but I didn't sort of secure that position. And one of the consequences of that is having to be in, or at least for the objectives I was pursuing for a lot of conservationist campaigns, just making a lot of living without any kind of standards regarding the acting or the material. So it's very humbling to be able to -- it's absurd to describe, but have a meaningful conversation about your perks package or how big your trailer is and all that. It doesn't really ever come into play in terms of the actual experience of acting. It's all the same; it's a hard thing to do, and it's nice if you've got a big trailer to stretch in, or, I don't know, I was in one actor's gym that followed him around. that's nice, but it doesn't make a better actor.

I'm just excited because I still know how to do it, I'm excited to share ideas with good people. Francis Ford Coppola was practically my first director I've ever met. I finally got to work with him (on Twixt). He's not going to make 30 more movies, I hope he does, but he's only going to make five or six. Also, my kids are older, and I was quite preoccupied with their well-being and trying to be responsible to them on their daily basis. And I sold my ranch, so I just kind of cleared the decks. I haven't been on a date in seven years.

What do you think?

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