Val Kilmer – 20 years ago when he was still healthy, vibrant, and combative

                                 September By Philip Berk

Val Kilmer is at the crossroad of his professional life.

In New York to talk about Spartan, in which he gives his best performance in years, he arrives with a book in hand.

Is he going to read it if he gets bored?

Despite the reputation that proceeds him, he’s quite congenial and he looks great, but for some reason he’s having a hard time articulating his thoughts.

Ten years ago I asked the question, Is there life after Batman.

Unfortunately the record speaks for itself.

He hasn’t had a hit movie since.

And no actor in history, not even Barbra Streisand, has ever had to deal with the pernicious press that has hounded him.

Just about everyone from Marlon Brando to director Joel Schumacher has been quoted as saying, “Kilmer is impossible to work with.” 

Eight years year ago I remember asking him if it were true that whenever he couldn’t get his way with the director (on Island of Dr. Moreau), he’d walk up to the camera, rip out the film, and expose the negative?

Accompanied by his then newly acquired publicist, he jokingly replied, “Absolutely. Every single day. Even when I wasn’t working, I’d do it  for Marlon Brando and David Thewlis.”

A moment later — serious this time — he continued, “For a long time I chose to work very selectively. I’ve done about a third of the movies most of my contemporaries have done. Recently however it’s been my great and good fortune to be offered a series of jobs I couldn’t pass up. I was given opportunities to work with people like Robert DeNiro, Marlon Brando, and Michael Douglas. In between I had done Batman Forever which was a long shoot, at the same time my wife was pregnant. Then, with less than a month off, I started The Saint.

“All this time, I had no publicist. They (the media) write things that are totally the opposite of the truth. I had a great time with the Australian crew on Dr. Moreau. (One story claimed he put a cigarette out on a crew member’s forehead.) 

“I enjoyed working with the director who I supposedly had fired. It’s impossible for any actor of any stature to get a director fired (Richard Stanley who was replaced by John Frankenheimer.) I had a great time with both directors of that film, but when the story was published, New Line, the studio that produced the film chose not to react to it.” (Frankenheimer, however, was quoted as saying he’d never work with him again.) 

“I had a great time with Brando. We’re still friends. They write we didn’t get along. It was a shame, but it didn’t bother him. He was very kind. One quote attributed to him was sent to Marlon in advance, and he faxed me in London asking if I thought he should do anything about it. It was very flattering, and I said do whatever you think.”

So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that at the Spartan junket my first question to him is, Has he mellowed?

“I don’t think I’ve mellowed. Maybe I’m smarter,” he answers.

In what way?

As though pleading his case he explains, “I got accused of being wild. I never got to have any of the wild fun. All I did was work hard. I never had any really good directors saying mean things. A couple of years ago I realized I needed to defend myself. Playing  the character in Salton Sea I threw a bottle at another character. They took pictures and said I did it to the director. So I hired a lawyer. They said you won’t get a retraction and they won’t apologize. I’m happy to say I got both. So I have learned you have to take responsibility for things that get written and just move on.”

David Mamet is the director of Spartan and Oliver Stone who directed him in The Doors is working again with him on Alexander, in which he and Angelina Jolie play Colin Farrell’s parents.

Both have good things to say about him.

Did they offer him any useful advise?

“I discussed this question with Mamet, who also has a reputation, and he just said, ‘It means they like you.’ But Oliver Stone, who’s pretty rascally himself, when we were making The Doors warned me, ‘You have to take time for the studio and the press or they’ll hold it against you.’ Unfortunately I just didn’t listen to him, and that’s what happened. I just didn’t accept a larger sense of responsibility. I just didn’t think it was my job to play a character.” 

Speaking of Oliver, what will his take on Alexander the Great be. Will it be as controversial as we expect?

“Alexander embodied so many ideas, and he” (meaning Oliver) “took on so much of himself. The core of the story is identity, and Oliver writes the screenplay not to impress intelligentsia, but to learn the answers to questions he wants to know (about himself). Now when I was younger I was kind critical of his work because I thought he could be more conclusive even though his style is didactic. I always thought he knew more than he was telling us, but now I realize he uses film  to try and understand what happened to him when he was younger, and with Alexander it’s his father. It’s almost desperate with him. He really wants to know why his father said and did the things that he did and why his mom treated him like she did, and that’s what the story’s about. Man trying to reconcile what for the most of us is our reality, what our parents tell us who we are.”

Will he include current political parallels?

“I think he’s more interested in spiritual things than politics. He’s always been interested in that, but now he’s speaking more openly about praying and practicing a faith. He’s remarried and has a kid, and is interested in everything that has to do with spiritual pursuits that lead to knowledge.”

Would he care to comment on the newspaper reports that he had a quick affair with Angelina on the set?

“Really, I want to get that article.”

Did they date?

“What’s dating. I don’t know. Not really.”

But he’s blushing?

“She makes me blush, she does,” he genially answers. “No, we’re just friends.” 

How was it on the set?

“The first scene we had was a rape scene. I kept blowing my lines on purpose. Then pausing he adds,” I’m sorry. Did I say that? Oh gosh, we’ll have to do it again.  But we had a lot of fun. We’re looking to do another movie. She’s very thorough, serious about acting. There’s just not a lot of women or men as beautiful and talented.”

Does he still see himself as a rebel?

“I never cultivated the kind of personality or way of being thought of which most of my peers that are famous have done in some way. I have a lot of respect for how they handle it. It takes a lot of work choosing a new tuxedo for the Oscars. I just never took pictures with famous photographers. I lived in New Mexico, did a lot of theatre when I started.  At that time, in the 70’s, it was proper if you were serious to be aloof. I don’t think that matters anymore. Nowadays most of the big stars come from television. It’s much more impressive to have done TV than theatre. So in answer to your question, I have always  been sincere about the truth.” 

How was Mamet able to bring out the best in him?

“It’s a terrible thing he does. I learned this from the guys he has worked with a lot, one of them Bill Macy is in the film. I asked him, Does he always cut this great stuff and he said, ‘Yes he’s a mad man.’ He’s a really tough editor and critic of himself. If he thinks something’s already been explained in  the story, he’ll cut it out.  I was always saying shoot it and cut when you’re editing.”

Not quite the answer I wanted. 

Is he still on good terms with his ex-wife, Joanna Whalley Kilmer?

“Let me put it this way. I had a friend who had been divorced for fifteen years, and she kept referring to her ex husband as ‘my husband.’ I said to her, ‘Did I read that wrong or didn’t you get divorced?’ and she said. ‘Yeah, but he’s my husband, I have children with him.’ It was really beautiful the way she talked. And that’s my attitude. I have a marriage with my former wife, and because of my children and for the strength and conviction that we have about being good parents, we have a successful relationship even though we’re not married.”

And his kids?

“For me being a parent is the fulfillment of ideas about life, the desire to be responsible to something wonderful. I was lucky to go to a good school and to be involved with great thinking,  and with children, because they live in the present, I just have a greater sense of trusting and enjoying how glorious life is.”

When I ask him about his wealth — supposedly after his father’s death he inherited $100 million – he denies it.

“My father died in debt.”

No truth to the story.

“He made money in his life, but he lost it.”

I decide not to ask him about his brother’s death (he drowned when Val was 17) the day before he began his studies at Julliard, where he was the youngest student ever admitted to the prestigious drama department.

Instead I question him about the audition.

How good was he?

“Not that good. I was just very lucky. I lied to my parents and told them they only did auditions in New York. I was supposed to go to San Francisco, but because I had a terrible California dialect, I guessed the judges there would all be bored stiff with actors that looked and sounded like me, so I auditioned in New York where the odds would be better.”

In high school his fellow drama student and girl friend was actress Mare Winningham. Another classmate was Kevin Spacey, who once told me, “Val was one of the most honorable and best actors I ever knew. He had a great influence on me as a person, and I’m happy with the success he’s had.”

Years ago when he was still married to Joanne Whalley who had just given birth to their first son, their second child, I remember asking him, “What makes their life together so perfect?”

After a long hesitation, he replied, “No, no, I’m not lost. I’ve just had a son on Tuesday, and someone asked me what it’s like, and I said I’ve missed half my child’s life. He was born four days ago.”

Then he continued, “I am sure a portion of our success is just our life style. It was important to me when she came to the United States, as with any friend whose opinion I value, how she would take to New Mexico, where I live. We were still dating at the time.”

Would he have made the same sacrifice for her? I asked.

“If she had decided she wanted to live in London or New York, I think I would have done that.” 

What makes their marriage work? I persisted.

“I guess being responsible and aggressive about values that you know are important and are so easy to lose in this business. It’s a very strange business, and very odd things become very normal in it.”

Five weeks later, Joanne filed for divorce citing the usual “irreconcilable differences,” and a year later they divorced.

As a father of two, is he bothered by the violence in his films?

“I think for good or ill, art is reflective of the times. It doesn’t inspire them. Some movies are violent, and they’re worthless because it’s impossible to learn anything from them; some can be dangerous because they celebrate violence, but it’s very naive for our government to say entertainment causes violence.”

Which does he prefer, acting in movies or working in the theatre?

“They’re different. The process of making movies is tedious. Personally, it’s not as satisfying. There’s a kind of electricity you get from (performing in front of) live audiences and a real sense of participation with the community you’re working in. I did Hamlet in Colorado. It was a small community but very intellectual. The same with the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. People there love to read books, and they’re crazy about Shakespeare. You get into a cab and the driver talks about As You Like it or King Lear. It’s a different experience and in that sense more satisfying. 

“When you make movies you don’t have much of a life. You get up before the sun rises, and you live inside that community, and that community means capturing 50, 60 seconds of screen time, which is kind of limiting. It’s hard to have a life and not sacrifice the quality of  the work. You end up making a choice in favor of the work you’re doing.”

Which seems to be what he’s been doing.