EXCLUSIVE: When Val Kilmer was presented with the Grand Honorary Award for outstanding contribution to cinema at the Sitges genre festival in Spain last month, he wanted to do one interview about his career. The catch was, it had to be done in an email back and forth, because he is recovering from cancer treatments to his throat and did not have his voice at the time. That festival also premiered The Super, a Stephan Rick-directed genre film Kilmer stars in with Chicago P.D. star Patrick John Flueger. Produced by Law & Order’s Dick Wolf (Black Swan’s John J. McLaughlin scripted it from Wolf’s idea), Tom Thayer and Fortress Features’ Brett Forbes and Patrick Rizzotti, Kilmer and Flueger play the maintenance man and super of a Manhattan hi-rise apartment building where tenants disappear with alarming frequency. Endeavor Content is currently finding a distributor for the film. This Q&A predated the sexual harassment scandals that included Kevin Spacey. Recalling that Kilmer and Spacey were classmates at Julliard before each went on to Hollywood success, I asked Kilmer if he wanted to comment, and he politely declined.
DEADLINE: In The Super, you play a character who is odd and creepy on the surface, but keeps you guessing as to his true motives. You haven’t done many genre films. Why this one?
KILMER: The surprises in the script were extremely well constructed. It’s the type of film where you will want to see it again and find a way to be innocent again of how it ends up. And our director was so enthusiastic and clear about how he intended to create the suspense. And Mr. Wolf has a habit of bringing quality to every project he involves himself with.
DEADLINE: Why now, for a genre turn? What is the last film that scared the daylights out of you?
KILMER: I dislike scary films intensely. But when it’s a classic that you know will live forever like The Exorcist or The Shining, you have to show up. Even The Birds, which is the first scary movie I ever saw, still works. Masters make masterpieces.
DEADLINE: You play a creepy handyman. What process did you go through to find this character?
KILMER: Lots of long walks in greasy overalls – lots of mumbling. He knows somehow his life is over and is banking on one final moment of gory triumph before the final curtain. Maybe…
DEADLINE: We are doing this interview via email. At the risk of being intrusive, how are you feeling these days? I ask because you have answered concerns of your fans and said you had struggled with throat cancer but had come out on the right side of it.
KILMER: The first time I was asked if I had cancer, I answered truthfully that I had no cancer. As I hadn’t. If they had asked, have you had cancer, I would have said, yes, but it’s all healed now. Now, I just have to recover from the treatment from chemo and radiation. Somehow I was accused of not being forthright. Well, if years ago I had broken a leg and I was asked today if I have any broken bones, I would answer just as I did the cancer question: no, I don’t have any. Because I believe that the power of prayer is as potent today as it was in Jesus’ time, there tends to speculation I haven’t done all I can do to be as healthy as I have a right to be. Extraordinary assumptions are often made about others when one considers what a complete mystery our own bodies are to most of us. People are often afraid of what they don’t understand. I was. I’m so grateful I’ve experienced firsthand what consistent prayer and love can offer.
DEADLINE: Since you received this career honor at Sitges, let’s revisit some of your film experiences and choices. What do you think about another Top Gun after 31 years, and will you be bringing the Ice Man back?
KILMER: I’ve been so fortunate to have chosen so many roles that still have resonance with contemporary audiences. I did a live show and there were questions about my very first film, Top Secret. Who remembers an actor’s very first film? I’m so lucky. And I don’t think I’m bragging or inaccurate to say I’m fortunate enough to be in the best rock and roll film made so far, The Doors. Sure seems like by now someone like PT Anderson would have come along and taken that crown from Oliver, but it doesn’t seem to have happened yet. And Batman? As Sean Penn told me when I asked him advice at the time, he said, “As long as you play a superhero that has a good mask, having a cape is icing on the cake. Or the cape.” I was trying also to get his wife to play my girlfriend. He spoke for her and said “Nah, the only other role in a superhero film is the bad guy…”
And Top Gun is still the best film with airplanes in it, I think, although I’m fond of The Great Waldo Pepper. Someone sent me a poll recently where Tombstone snuck into the top 10 Best Westerns of all time. I don’t know if that film is a classic, but it has some elements of a classic, like that cast and screenplay. I still can’t go thru an airport without hearing “I’m your huckleberry.”
Fans have always been extremely kind and I’ve not been deserving of it much as I chose a quiet life in the wilderness of New Mexico. Now, I have my own story to tell, Mark Twain and Mary Baker Eddy, which I’ve devoted nearly 20 years to create, in case you have been wondering where I’ve been. I intend to direct the piece, and play the enormous Mark Twain, as grand as the Mississippi he loved so completely. In order to have total focus and energy to guide the lucky actress who gets to play one of America’s hidden heroes, Mrs. Eddy — a genius who healed thousands of people — I wrote a play to complete my research of Twain. Well, the play took off and now I’m touring the country with a live show where I present the film of the play. (I was touring the play but my tongue swelled up and I had to take a break.) So now, as my recovery moves along, I have some dramatic choices: whether to make the film sooner, and not wait for my full recovery, or trust that since I’ve waited this long to present my masterpiece, I might as well go all in.
DEADLINE: Top Gun tapped into a mythology of cocky American military might that seemed to fly during the Reagan administration. How will that play today, in a world that is much more complicated?
KILMER: Top Gun, Maverick is, I believe, the title of the sequel. Well, Jerry Bruckheimer has been more successful than any top five producers combined, so I kinda think he will figure out the correct point of view for these times, and Tom Cruise seems to have a knack for what audiences enjoy. I’m not worried.
DEADLINE: A favorite memory of that movie, when you, Cruise, Anthony Edwards, Tim Robbins, Meg Ryan, Kelly McGillis and others were taking off in your careers?
KILMER: On Top Gun, I had a van, and so often we’d all pile in that and go carouse around town. Unfortunately they had Tom working 24/7 so we never got to hang out and relax. I surf so I brought a board down. The most fun was a Top Gun Fun Pilot’s party they threw for us “to show us how it’s done.” I had a perfectly round bruise on my chest over my heart in the morning I had absolutely no memory of. After half a day of complete dead ends investigating this round mystery, I accidentally poked it- and all in a flash it came to me. This is a true story. A bruise had formed where the fighter pilots had poked me in the chest all night with their Superman fingers saying things like “You are doing it right. We’ve read the script and this Iceman character is correct. This Maverick? This hot shot? He wouldn’t last. We’d make sure of that.” They were very serious. Teamwork is life and death. They didn’t get that it was a drama meant to reveal that point. They left the next morning to fly air cover when we secretly bombed Libya. They hinted at a secret mission several time but no one told us all of it. We had to read it in the papers. Our plot line was suddenly not so silly. Memories of my movies? Oh, so many.
DEADLINE: One from The Island of Dr. Moreau?
KILMER: I threw a party on the Gold Coast for my dear hard working crew, and Marlon Brando showed up in giant Elvis sunglasses, a golden silk scarf by Hermès, and a white mumu, floor length. And makeup. Full film makeup. (He was sensitive about his skin at the time.) We laughed so hard, twice he made me spit food. And he was obsessed with the smallest man in the world [co-star Nelson de la Rosa] who spoke Spanish, so they were off in a corner forever. Insane. Beautiful people and beautiful experience – the film gets a bad rap because Poor [director John] Frankenheimer was desperate for a comeback, and he froze up with Marlon’s gutsy style of improv. Marlon was just trying to save a poorly constructed script. I got blamed for ruining he film, even though I died two-thirds of the way thru. And the film is just as bad when I’m not in it. I always wondered how he could have made that claim with all the evidence against him, till I realized no one every saw the ending!!! And some very fine execs were tortured about the fiasco, and some blamed me without ever getting the true story. One exec in particular who is an amazing talent, used me as a party story for years. Oh well. Win some, lose some. I love Marlon and was so lucky to be able to call him my friend.
DEADLINE: Heat, the Michael Mann-directed crime classic. Pacino, De Niro, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo, Ashley Judd. Your character Chris was madly in love with his wife, but as love with the compulsive gambling demons that always drove him to need big scores. How did you connect with his character, whether it was people you met with his addictive qualities and the adrenaline rush one must feel pulling off these heists?
KILMER: I am not familiar with violence. I’ve never hit anyone in my whole Life. Not once. I’ve prevented some fights, but never struck a soul. So Chris was a real Challenge. I had to find the actions which would trigger the impulse to be violent to the point of murder, instantly. Like the way Ninjas train, living with death a breath away, every hour of every day… and what I thought Michael might be after and what I’m proud of, is that vicious violence is so fast when it happens, one almost feels cheated. Even I, when I watch my performance, I unconsciously argue for extending the shit when I see the heat around the corner at the bank, and murder so quickly you really are not sure what you’ve just seen.
I met the guy Chris was modeled after- a safe cracker. What’s hard to imagine because we know everyone has fear at some point, motivated by something, but as far as I could glean, these guys were like Vikings, just seeking a noble death during battle. And also being flat crazy. He told a hilarious story of his mistress confronting him in front of his wife, or the other way around, with a gun. Which he thought was hilarious, until she shot him in the stomach. The two women went on arguing in the kitchen even though he lost so much blood he slipped in it on the vinyl floor, and fell and couldn’t get up. Then, the two women slipped in the blood, couldn’t get up and so decided to resolve it right there on the kitchen floor. They went into full mud wrestling mode, except it was blood. He said he even had enough energy to laugh at how he was gonna die.. he managed to slither over to the phone on the wall and dial 911 and pass out. He woke up in hospital stitches up, with both women still on either side of him, screaming clawing and cursing the other. “Val, my hand to God, as if I wasn’t even there! The nurses were too scared to kick them out….They asked me who I was closest with and that got us nowhere fast. I finally asked the doc to kill me since I didn’t want to live in a world without both of them, which made one of them laugh and then they finally relaxed.
DEADLINE: The bank robbery and subsequent shootout was so detailed, it gets cited as one of the best action sequences. Can you explain the challenges of being part of such a technically challenging sequence, with so many moving parts, cars, firepower and actors?
KILMER: Michael thinks like an actor on the set and really lets the outside world fall away and live in the moment. Sometimes even to his detriment as a producer or director, because one gets seduced by drama and the characters and the situation- the essence of why we put up with all the impossible compromises and humiliations and misunderstandings, one of the worst is being judged Personally as the character you’re playing. That’s happened to me on many roles where I played strong unreasonable characters like Jim Morrison or agent Levoi in Thunderheart, or in The Saint, it was a daily grind. Also the proper effort to make the film memorable. Movies are made and made memorable by moments, like Harrison Ford, pulling his gun out and shooting the giant warrior because he just doesn’t have TIME any more. A priceless moment in Indiana Jones where the defining of the character is at once the central core of the drama. Those opportunities are always there, but difficult to create when executives don’t know what makes a film memorable, or a character, or what makes a woman feel beautiful on a day she doesn’t, so she tries harder do her job.
DEADLINE: Your Doc Holliday character in Tombstone was so haunting, loyal to his pal Wyatt Earp, his health failing fast from lung cancer, but not his lethal gun slinging skills.
KILMER: The main spine starts with the fact that the Southern aristocrat and his entire world had just been blown up and disappeared forever as if it had never existed. I started with my secret weapon, the dialect and speech coach Tim Monich who works with the best people on earth, 24/7 for 30 years now. I told him I needed a dialect that didn’t exist anymore and within days, there was a tape at my doorstep of a true Southern aristocrat who spoke so slowly and precisely about the theater he had restored. The film would have been 6 hours long he spoke so slowly…so I had to hit a balance. The dialect was key. It informs even the walk, the thought process… his condescension.
Then, taking on the subject of death which he’s witnessed firs hand since he was perhaps ten years old. Ugly death. When you make that fact normal in a character profile that has to live, and not just exist as some well written sentences in a drawer, a documentary film if you will that is a living guide to life that works for every situation. Death, death, death. And then add to that bleak picture a dazzlingly sharp sense of the ironic. Extra effort, I’d put into virtually every moment, to summarize, to encapsulate, to capture the elemental dark truth, even to strive for poetry, because this just might be your last shot at getting it right, to prove his way of life was not only worthwhile, but elemental director’s thriving culture. And there’s the only guy within 1,000 miles with the sense of moral courage to even hear the statement, let alone hear a humorous angle. [The movie] very much worked because of Kurt [Russell’s] hard work as a producer, and secret director.
DEADLINE: You returned to work with Oliver Stone on Alexander, which seemed like a mad shoot in Morocco. A memory playing Alexander’s father, working with Oliver, Colin Farrell and Angelina Jolie?
KILMER: Angelina was quietly handling her mother’s ultimate passing, which she trusted me with, I’d like to think because she sensed a spiritual side to me. And I had lost my little brother and my father, so our personal relationship was completely different than our characters, which we never discussed. We worked that out in daily flirtatious improvs, usually at the emotional detriment to our son, Alexander. Both still in love and both in real battle for the affections of their son. They dedicated their lives to the boy who would be king and rule the world. She was a real pro. Colin’s like an Irish puppy dog- so free and fun. So handsome. I do wish he’d listened to me about the wigs, and some insights I thought I had from studying Alexander even before Oliver asked me to play him after we did The Doors, but Oliver couldn’t get the money so the years passed. But Colin never took me up on it. I understand why he didn’t, but I think he would have been happier with his performance had he taken an hour and listened.
Watching Christopher Plummer and Anthony Hopkins rip a complicated text in one take was always a thrill. And watching the horse wranglers make ancient war strategy come to life was a rare treat. Most filmmakers if they are very dedicated make fine films. Oliver Stone, David Lean, Marty Scorsese, Billy Wilder, Frank Capra, Francis Coppola? They make worlds.
DEADLINE: When you look back on a career full of great performances, what might you have done differently given the benefit of hindsight? Maybe a role you took that you regret, or one you passed on that maybe you undervalued, or perhaps waiting as long as you did to direct?
KILMER: I wouldn’t know what I know now spiritually without turning away from the success as often as I did. I did my “time in the wilderness” in a very serious way, and today I know who I am, and can look any man on earth, in the face, with love, empathy and forgiveness.
DEADLINE: At what time in your career, and your life, were you happiest and most content personally and in the work you were doing?
KILMER: Hamlet (10 years), and writing and preparing the role and script for Mark Twain and Mary Baker Eddy (there’s a better title but it’s evading me as yet- maybe Letters for Earth).
DEADLINE: Since you are looking back over a long road, most lessons we learn come through adversity. Care to summon a few lessons that made you better?
KILMER: Not without betraying some trusts which I’d rather not.