L.A. Theater Talk: Why Val Kilmer Is Obsessed With Mark Twain

Neil Jacobs
Val Kilmer as Mark Twain in "Citizen Twain"

The star of "Citizen Twain," premiering in Culver City on June 28, discusses the "radical social commentary giant."

Over the past several years, Val Kilmer’s become possessed by Mark Twain, writing and workshopping a self-starring character study, Citizen Twain, that premieres at Culver City’s Kirk Douglas Theatre on June 28.

“He’s a very current figure,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Especially these days, the right kind of conversation America should be having is a Mark Twain kind of conversation -- one with a sense of generosity about our foolishness and our achievements.”

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Kilmer chose to construct the play’s narrative within the contours of a stand-up comedy act. “It’s a form he basically created, that way of speaking, which is very personal,” he says. “Whether addressing items out of the newspaper, like Lenny Bruce, or issues of race, like Red Foxx or Chris Rock. He did it all first.” Kilmer adds: “You have to remember, he’s a really radical social commentary giant. He would say things like, ‘If Christ were alive today, there’s one thing he wouldn’t have been: A Christian!’”

Each performance ends with an audience question-and-answer session, uniquely conducted as Kilmer’s Twain makeup is removed in full view. The actor makes it a point to solicit feedback on the character, which he’s methodically evolved through prior runs at local venues ranging from the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery to the United States Veterans Artists’ Alliance Hall. “I don’t know what to call the process,” he says. “‘Unbecoming’ the character?”

Kilmer’s transparent approach to conjuring his Twain will eventually be supplemented by an in-progress documentary about his work on Citizen Twain, directed by Leo Scott, who edited The Fourth Dimension, a 2012 Harmony Korine film starring Kilmer. “I always wanted to make a documentary about creating a role,” he says, “Because when it comes down to it, acting is really what it’s about to be human.”