Val Kilmer: Number One With a Bullet?
Ever since Top Gun in 1986, Val Kilmer had been flirting with moviestardom. While his costar became a megastar, A-list status eluded Kilmer for the better part of a decade. In 1995, when Kilmer stepped into the Batsuit for Batman Forever, it seemed like that would finally change. As we know now, things didn’t exactly go as planned for Kilmer and the Bat-franchise. In the June 1995 issue of Movieline, the eccentric actor discussed his career choices and the possibility of a long and prosperous run as the Dark Knight.
“I was sleeping in a cave full of bats, having just come out of the Kalahari Desert,” proclaims Val Kilmer, trying his best to sound Hemingwayesque, but–clad as he is in shit-kickers, jeans and a two-day stubble –coming off more like Banana Republic. The actor carefully scrutinizes me to make sure I’ve absorbed the irony of how the screen’s brand-new Batman had been camping out in the wilds with real, night-flying mammals when Hollywood sent the call. Satisfied that I have, Kilmer continues, “I was in South Africa with a brilliant artist, Bowen Boschier, who lives in the bush a portion of each year, doing research on an impossible movie project that I’ve been working on for nine years now.
“I hadn’t had a shower in two-and-a-half weeks, I couldn’t even be reached by airplane, my wife was in London,” he says. “I had trouble with the Land Rover, so, while Bowen was off fixing the radiator, I –the complete wimp–thought, ‘I’ll call my agent.’ It was almost a joke, for the phone value of saying, ‘I’m in the largest desert in the world. Where are you?’ My agent said, ‘We’re not having this conversation, but if it works out, do you wanna be Batman?'”
Somebody had to. Michael Keaton had bailed at practically zero hour from fronting the third installment of the wildly profitable film series. Rumors flew, claiming that new Batdirector Joel Schumacher’s wish list included the likes of Ralph Fiennes and Daniel Day-Lewis. Indeed, Kilmer opines, “It looked like it might not work out with Michael Keaton, so they asked Joel Schumacher, ‘Who do you want for Batman?’ When he said me, I asked my agent, ‘Why? Who did they not get?’ I’d met with Joel a couple of times before about other [movies]. I didn’t know anything in terms of the cast, story or anything, but I said, ‘Sure, sounds like fun.'”
Plenty lucrative fun, at that. According to his agreement with Warner Bros, for this and two more potential Batflicks, a document he describes as “phone book-thick,” Kilmer could conceivably earn, with merchandising and all, in excess of $6 million for Batman Forever, with many more millions to roll in should there be further films in the series. Still, he insists, “It’s no more job security than any other, because maybe they won’t want to do another one.” Then, with a self-contented grin, he adds. “Although from what they’re saying, it’s probable that they will.”
I’m glad to see him smile since it’s the first sign I’ve had that the often self-serious actor has any sense of humor whatsoever. But then, Kilmer is anything but easy to figure. I’ve quickly learned that to pose him any question is to invite an obtuse, not always coherent, frequently entertaining discourse that might touch on any theme from the poetic angst of Shelley to the power of the love beads he favors to his new-and-improved attitude toward the movie business. He is, as I was warned by people who know him, a piece of work: by turns sarcastic and friendly, puffed-up and self-spoofing, sincerely grounded and almost calculatingly off-centered. He often seems to be rehearsing for the Brando-type interview he plans to someday give Larry King.
Of course, what he needs before that can happen is a career like Brando’s. No question, Kilmer’s momentum has been regained ever since he stole everything but the cameras in Tombstone, playing the most glamorously terminally ill character since Greta Garbo in Camille. But there was a lot of inertia to overcome. After the success of Top Gun in 1987, Kilmer scarred in George Lucas’s much-hyped-in-advance fantasy dud Willow, and later portrayed Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s much-hyped-in-advance bio dud The Doors, and either of these projects had the potential to yield mega results, career-wise, but both tanked. Other turns, in such blink-and-you-missed-’em movies as Kill Me Again (where, as in Willow, he played opposite his actress wife, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer). The Real McCoy, Thunderheart, True Romance, the still unreleased Dead Girl, or, for TV, such telefilms as Gore Vidal’s Billy the Kid, did nothing to further Kilmer’s standing in the industry.
Most of these career choices invite questions like. “Hey, Val, what the hell were you thinking of?” I decide to ask something else instead. “Can it possibly be true that you turned down such movies as Dune, Blue Velvet, Flatliners, Backdraft, Sliver, Point Break, In the Line of Fire and Indecent Proposal?”
“It may or may not sound pretentious.” replies Kilmer, “but I’ve turned down, consciously and specifically, many jobs I knew would have been a pretty surefire way to go about making a lot of money, being recognized and gaining power in the industry.” Why? Marital togetherness, for starters. “Many jobs I’ve turned down because Joanne got one, even where the job I’d turned down was clearly more of an advantage to me in the abstract than the job she had chosen was for her.”
Then there are the weird vagaries of career heat, or lack thereof. He shrugs in a carefree way and says, “Nothing’s ever guaranteed. It’s all math, like, ‘This guy has better numbers, so give the job to him.’ If the business people think they can make money with you, it’s not, like, a deep conversation that they have about you. Actors can get into a rhythm of working where the confidence (about them) is like the stock market. Someone ‘feels’ good, so they pay whatever, which gives other studios confidence, like, ‘Those guys have good taste, they hired him,’ so whether he or she is any good, you can do four or five jobs like that until you’re discovered. This town is filled with mystery careers – people who aren’t discovered, found out, and they keep giving money to them.”
Any mystery careers he cares to “out”? He wags a finger, laughing, but no dice. Okay, then, how does Kilmer view himself relative to his Top Gun co-star. Tom Cruise, who’s been making hits like Born on the Fourth of July, A Few Good Men, The Firm and Interview With the Vampire while Kilmer’s career, until very recently, stalled? “He’s got an enormous capacity far all the size of the world that he has wanted.” Kilmer offers about Cruise’s success. “He’s a very conscientious guy, so, if he didn’t want that world, he wouldn’t have it. I don’t, so I won’t. My career is bound to be eclectic because my tastes are.” For example, he tells me. “I’m interested in four projects I have in development, but the budgets that I ask for, for two of them, are less than the million dollars they’ve spent on my costumes alone for Batman Forever.” With a sigh, he remarks. “They’re all impossible movies to make.”
Fine, he’s got eclectic tastes, but then why would he have passed up the decidedly eclectic Blue Velvet, the David Lynch movie which would seem to suit his tastes to a T? “I was given [a copy of that script] because [at one point] I was involved with Dune,” he recalls. “It would have been my first job for damn near a year. So, Dave gave me the script and it was straight-out, hard-core pornography before page 30. I never finished it. I said, ‘Good luck, but I can’t do this.’ It isn’t what he ended up making,” he says, pointedly. “That movie, I would have done.” Suddenly he’s off and running about eroticism in films. “Joanne and I both feel what’s appealing to us, anyway, is mystery,” he tells me. “Sex scenes are almost impossible to do the way I like them, which is when they continue to tell the story, where you’re involved uncontrollably in the character’s mind. The scenes in The Lover were extraordinary in their intimacy, like those in In the Realm of the Senses. You’re involved in the minds of the characters, not just watching sex.”
Aside from the fact that he’s made so many films which didn’t catch fire, I ask Kilmer whether he might have gotten hotter faster, and stayed that way longer, if he hadn’t persisted in living where the movie action isn’t. For 10 years Kilmer lived in New York, where he worked in theater (“the most fulfilling thing I can do and get paid for”) these days, he, his wife and their daughter live in New Mexico.
Kilmer makes no apology for not living in Southern California, whatever the price. “I feel safer in Johannesburg than in L.A. Violence comes out of the blue here. I’ve had friends who have been carjacked, all kinds of things. Successful felons, criminals love L.A. It’s so big, there’s so many freeways to get on after you do your score. Because of its possibilities, L.A.’s the most sorrowful city in the world,” he continues. “It had every kind of land just an hour away, could have been the greatest representation of the melting pot, just because of the ease, the weather, the terrain. I have a kind of poignant view about this city. I moved out to New Mexico and go back and forth. I did it without really any concern of losing whatever momentum was or is being gained.”
Although there have been rumors aplenty that Kilmer’s been clashing with Batman Forever co-star Jim Carrey and even with director Schumacher, it’s all par for the course if the stories I’ve heard of Kilmer’s run-ins with moviemakers dating all the way back to director Martha Coolidge, on Real Genius, are true.
“You called Martha Coolidge, did you?” he asks, laughing. “Coolidge, nothing,” I say. “I’ve heard tales of roaring fits and complete standoffs with filmmakers ranging from producer George Lucas (Willow) to directors Michael Apted (Thunderheart) and Oliver Stone (The Doors).”
”We learn, the hard way,” he replies, “that you can’t change how a film is perceived. I’ve been out of line on one aspect of the way I’ve approached work because I just hadn’t accepted that as a fact. If I’ve been hustled, like, ‘We’ll make these changes,’ ‘We’ll do this or that’– nothing unique to me, you understand, just standard business practice where time gets away–what I never accepted or had any empathy with, from the producer’s, director’s or writer’s side, is that they have stuff they want but don’t get, either. I didn’t learn until Tombstone that an actor cannot change the tone, the predominant feeling of a film. They killed more people behind the camera on Tombstone than they did at the O.K. Corral. Over 100 people quit or got fired. Somehow, strangely, my character survived all the damage.”
Fine, so his story is that he’s a changed man nowadays. Still, what happened on, say, Willow? “I thought acting was harder than it is,” he says. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. Like George Lucas says, ‘A movie is a success or failure from the minute you solidify the concept. Execution is 50 percent. It is the primal attachment to a concept that makes the movie work or not work.’ It doesn’t matter about the press, or who you hired, or anything. If you don’t want to see Arnold Schwarzenegger pregnant, you ain’t gonna go. I was going a little nuts on [Willow], but that was my style then. I didn’t trust that I couldn’t have an effect that would be positive [on the finished product]–I was living out a philosophy that what you think has a direct influence on your immediate surroundings.” He shrugs, then adds, “I apologized to George Lucas for two years.”
So what went down between Kilmer and Oliver Stone during the making of The Doors?
“Jim Morrison is a very important guy in this man’s life,” he asserts. “I mean, the music helped him from going crazy after he got back from Vietnam–it’s a deeply personal thing. In my mind [at the time], the first job that I had in movies that was anywhere close to the theater work I’ve done or want to do is The Doors. I, unfairly to the business, thought I’d been unlucky until that time. I just learned, fairly recently, how lucky I have been, in that it’s damn hard to get a job. The Doors was the first time that I had a role large enough to remain passionate for the months of living inside what adds up to, basically, a minute of screen time a day. There’s a kind of madness required to be meticulous [when so little film is shot per day]; it’s very hard to keep excited. So, the ideas of Jim Morrison, the character, stimulated me. And Oliver is stimulating–uncontrollably! You know, if nothing’s going on, he’ll say. ‘Why is this ceiling here? Rip it out!’ And everybody who works for him likes that kind of juice, Oliver Stone’s the only director I’ve worked with [who] kind of takes on the character of a film or the characters in it. While the style of the Doors’ songs, and the character of Morrison, was about waiting, waiting, waiting to explode,” he says, letting fly with a deep chortle, “we were never waiting. I just think we sometimes damaged what we were filming, ’cause we moved so much.”
When pressed for an example. Kilmer recalls, “I had my own long hair for The Doors, but then [we had to shoot] the period of the movie where Morrison’s much younger, with short hair. So, I gotta pile all this hair onto my head, pin it down, then put on a short wig. At the end of the film, Morrison’s hair was supposed to be frazzled–which would’ve destroyed my real hair– so, again, [my hair was piled up, and] I had a long wig on. [Cinematographer] Robert Richardson used these white lights, I forget what they’re called, that actually made whatever they hit so hot it would glow. What you’re actually seeing is the heat. Well, they melted Ray Manzarek’s organ–his real organ, that he brought in– while Kyle [MacLachlan] was playing. When the heat from those lights went through my wig and hit the pins holding up my real hair, my head was being fried. So, while I was trying to capture something esoteric about Morrison, that he was an existentialist who didn’t believe in existentialism, my head was being fried!”
Presumably, playing Batman and his alter ego. Bruce Wayne, has been a snap by comparison, right? “Well,” says Kilmer, “it is kind of easy to go out and subdue the bad guy, yes–I mean, my preparation as an actor is lo get dressed. That does make it much easier to go to work. Yet, there are truly comic perversions to doing Batman Forever.” Such as? “The suit shrinks.” he replies, referring to the rubber muscle number that, some say, hastened Michael Keaton’s exit from the movie series. “Wet suits don’t shrink, but this particular kind of rubber does after two weeks. If my grandparents were alive, I’d spend much more time with them because [wearing the Batman costume] is like being old, at least from what I hear about being old from elderly people. You feel young, you don’t stop feeling or reacting in your mind, but your body just doesn’t do things at the same speed. Plus, you can’t see. Or breathe. For no reason at all, you can’t find things. Your joints ache for no reason. And you can’t hear anymore.” Are we talking about the elderly now, or about being trapped inside the suit? “They were all quite passionate about telling me the improvements [they’d made] before I put the costume on,” Kilmer goes on lo say. “I really don’t know how Michael [Keaton] did it. It’s 140 degrees in there.” Suddenly, Kilmer breaks out into a hilarious, full-throated version of “What I Did for Love.”
When he’s through. I ask how the guy who once quipped that leather pants killed Jim Morrison has managed to give a performance while encased in this Batsuit from hell? “With my lips,” Kilmer drawls. “Occasionally, with a nostril or an eyelid.” And what, exactly, does a superhero wear under his supersuit? “Nothing.” he says, shooting me his best Clark Gable macho grin. “Buff. man. He’s dedicated. Batman, I tell you.”
When I ask what Kilmer thinks is behind the gossip that he’s been feuding with co-star Jim Carrey–talk that started on TV’s “Hard Copy” and which was later rebutted by director Joel Schumacher in Liz Smith’s syndicated column–he replies. “I don’t know how that started. When those stories came out, I’m not sure, either we hadn’t actually met or it was our first day together. Anyway, I later went over and said to [Carrey], ‘This stuff’s coming out. Don’t know why.” And he doesn’t know why he’s getting all this stuff written and said [about him], either.”
I wonder how Kilmer, who claims he’s better prepared for the success Batman Forever may bring than he’s ever been before, would have handled himself had he landed and succeeded with roles he missed out on, like, say, Interview With the Vampire or Crimson Tide? “The only distress I’ve had [about movies I haven’t made] is when I discard the reality of what the job entails, look at it subjectively and say, ‘Shouldn’t I be able to do that?’ But it never adds up to regretting what I’ve experienced instead of those other movies, no.” About Vampire, he says, “I love that director and would have done that job if they had asked me to. They did a poll on one of those on-line computer services and I came up as the guy the computer nerds wanted to do it. That didn’t mean anything to me at the time, though, because I hadn’t read the book.”
Warming to the topic, he volunteers, “I started off my year saying to my agent, ‘I’ve never been in a movie with someone older.’ I don’t think there’s any actor my age who hasn’t done that style, whatever you want to call them, ‘buddy movies’ or whatever. I would love to work with Gene Hackman and nearly have three or four times. Crimson Tide went around forever, but it’s hard to feel, like, a loss when they chose a black actor. I couldn’t say, ‘I could do that!'”
Up next for him is a role alongside Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Michael Mann’s cops-and-robbers thriller, Heat. It’s a small role, and I’ve heard that Kilmer’s accepting it sent some of his advisers into apoplexy because they consider it too small after Batman Forever. Others say it is small even in comparison to Dead Girl, a movie with such a low profile Kilmer doesn’t know its whereabouts. “I haven’t seen it and I’m longing to,” he claims. Cupping his hands over his mouth, he shouts, “Adam, where are you?” referring to writer-director Adam Coleman Howard, for whom Kilmer played the son of a Malibu shrink who has run off to produce a movie, leaving his kid to deal with his patients. Kilmer says he’s not sweating it, since, for him, it’s the role, not the movies. “There are only three reasons to do a movie: the cast, the director, the role.” he announces. “Like I say, you live in a minute of screen time, but to prepare for that minute takes much more than a day. You’d better be excited about what those moments are, even if they’re the hardest moments. Or the smallest.”
One final question before he’s back to rehearsals for Heat. Why did he refuse to be photographed while smoking, on moral grounds, for the shots that accompany this article, yet so enjoy posing with a gun? “I’m better at taking pictures if I can think ‘props,'” he explains. “Like. I came to the photo shoot with my briefcase from Heat and your editor said, ‘What’s in it?’ I went, ‘I got beads. I got a gun,’ and he said, ‘Well, let’s take some pictures with that.’ It’s very stylized, gang, right? It’s not like it reads, ‘Go shoot somebody!’ Understand?” Almost, Val, almost.
Stephen Rebello interviewed Denzel Washington for the May Movieline.