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Movies: Angst Is So Yesterday

6 minute read
Joel Stein/Los Angeles

Val Kilmer talks in ellipses. He eventually circles back somewhere near his point, but he leaves out all the connective tissue, so you’re just sitting there as he looks directly ahead, talking about Tom Hanks and being related to poet Joyce Kilmer and the importance of branding, and you can’t help wondering, “Is he really just drinking green tea with honey?”

What follows, to give you an idea, is a typical direct quote without any words omitted–the ellipses just signifying a brief Kilmer breath: “I’m looking to do comedy … I’m very lucky. I never had to pay dues. I went to Juilliard. I wrote about a West German terrorist for Joseph Papp. That was my first job … I had a wonderful marriage while it lasted … Things like the Film Commission and visiting with friends … I really have respect for guys my age or older who can do so many things at once … Maybe with Shane I’ll be lucky enough to do both at once … So I’d like to make big movies again, but with a different kind of attitude.” I’m pretty sure what he meant was that he’s bummed he hasn’t become as big a star as people thought he would, and he thinks his new movie will help him change that. But the only reason I know that is because I asked him. Three times.

At 45, after making a specialty of playing dark characters like Jim Morrison in The Doors and drug-addicted John Holmes in Wonderland, he’s starring in his first intelligent buddy comedy. The directorial debut of Shane Black–the highest-paid screenwriter of the early to mid-’90s (Lethal Weapon, Last Action Hero), who hadn’t worked in six years–Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang pairs Kilmer with Robert Downey Jr. in a very meta film-noir detective story in which the narrator is constantly interrupting to apologize for various film clichés. Kilmer plays Gay Perry, a private investigator who’s gay and named Perry.

That film, Kilmer believes, could be the start of his new business model. He has talked to Downey about teaming up on more comedies, like an edgier Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller. “I knew Tom Hanks. We were starting in comedies around the same time,” he says, sipping his tea at the bar at the Hotel Bel-Air and recalling his mid-’80s roles in Top Secret! and Real Genius. “Tom Hanks was very smart. He made several of the same kind of films in a row. Sweet films: Big, Sleepless in Seattle. So you thought of him as a product. I’d be very happy to do a bunch of comedies in a row. Sean Penn, Nic Cage, Johnny Depp have very established identities. I would enjoy being recognized for a kind of acting.”

What Kilmer has become known for is being difficult to work with. Every interviewer is told by his publicist not to bring that up, and 10 minutes into every interview, Kilmer himself brings it up. As part of his new business plan, the usually press-averse Kilmer is going on the offensive to repair his image, which he says has been created by the media because of the eccentric roles he has taken, the fact that he is a Method actor or because he lives far from Hollywood on a 6,000-acre ranch near Santa Fe, N.M., with more than 100 animals. But now, he says, he can’t take the abuse anymore. “It’s like being a black man and being called a n_____,” he says, kind of loudly. “If someone calls you a n_____ all day long, you start thinking of yourself as a n_____. And the only way to be Nelson Mandela is to be better than your opposition.” I am not sure if I’m the opposition or not, but looking around at the crowded bar, I decide not to push it.

Still, Kilmer admits that he has mellowed since The Doors in 1991, when Oliver Stone, of all people, said he was pushy. Stone, however, has said he enjoyed working with him in last year’s Alexander. “Now I know more about directing,” says Kilmer, who–of course–wants to make his own films. “Now I know if the pressure is coming up not to ask the same question nine times like I used to.” Kiss Kiss’s Black says Kilmer was an asset, even if he was sometimes weird, calling the director at home in strange voices, which Black eventually realized were test voices for Gay Perry. “I suspect that people mistook his perfectionism for arrogance,” Black says. “Weirdness is tolerable in someone who delivers blockbuster performance after performance.”

But it’s still weirdness. As much as Kilmer still looks like a movie star–glowing skin, giant teeth, deep green eyes and a velvet Paul Smith suit over a floral-print Paul Smith shirt–the main thing you notice about him is, in fact, his weirdness, although it’s of a cool variety. This interview was postponed three days so he could jet to Russia to go to a party with his friend Mikhail Gorbachev, and then an extra two days so he could take a part in a Polish art film. It seems as if his life is in some constant state of artsy flux. He refers to most of his experiences as “a great adventure.” He has made more than 200 giant collages–using photos from all his films since 2003’s Wonderland–in the style of his friend photographer Peter Beard (Kilmer has lots of impressive friends, from Gorby to Bob Dylan) and has exhibited the collages in galleries in Italy and Japan. He carries an idea journal everywhere, jotting thoughts for poems as well as songs for the rock album he intends to put out soon. He would like to do another musical onstage (he was Moses in last year’s short-lived Ten Commandments). He’s in the middle of writing three screenplays; one about Mark Twain; one a tragicomedy about divorce; and one about Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, the religion that Kilmer practices.

Weirdest of all is that through all the rambling, he is kind of funny. It’s an off-putting, absurdist, uncomfortable funny, but it’s funny. He and Downey, as the punk Hope and Crosby? It’s not that crazy.

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