On the door of a hotel room in Hollywood, somebody’s taped a note: “Do not disturb until 11.” When I knock at precisely 11, Val Kilmer answers the door wearing only a pair of orange shorts and a full beard. At age 42, he is still taut in the belly. “I’ll be down in a minute,” he says with a grin.
A few minutes later, he’s down in the lobby, having filled out his outfit with a t-shirt and a pair of sandals. Before we can talk, Michael Madsen spots him at the front desk. They trade pleasantries, and then Madsen says, “I want to send you something–give me your address.” Kilmer scribbles down the address of the ranch in New Mexico where he lives, sometimes with his two kids–Mercedes, 11, and Jack, 8. (They spend the rest of the year in Los Angeles with Kilmer’s ex-wife, actress Joanne Whalley.)
“Michael Madsen’s going to send me money!” whispers Kilmer later.
He owes you money?
For a long time now, over ten years. He was high at the time, he says.
How much money?
Not that much, but he went on one day, [perfect imitation of Madsen’s raspy voice]: “My wife is gonna go back to her job.” She’s gonna strip again? “Yeah, she wants to go back to work.” Well, gee, Michael, that’s too bad. “If she had some money she wouldn’t have to.” You don’t make enough money? “I have bills and stuff.” I gave him a bunch of money. He was pretty out there for a while, but he looked fantastic. I’m happy for him.
To some, Madsen has nothing on Kilmer for being out there. Joel Schumacher, who directed Kilmer in Batman Forever, called him “rude… childish and irresponsible.” John Frankenheimer, who directed him in The Island of Dr. Moreau, said he’d never work with him again. Despite his talent, Kilmer gets more press for his ego, his outbursts, and the rumors that he carries a gun.
This morning, “the man Hollywood loves to hate”–as Entertainment Weekly once dubbed him–seems charming and friendly, if hypersensitive about how he’s been portrayed in the media; at one point he asks me, “Are you a kind writer?”
Kilmer grew up as a golden child of Los Angeles–but just before he left for Julliard, his beloved younger brother Wesley, 15, died in a drowning accident. He credits Christian Science with strengthening him. “I was born on December 31st, the last day of the ’50s,” Kilmer muses. “I’ve always been pretty worked up about time.” Right now–eager to mend fences and reestablish himself–he is as busy as he’s ever been–he has seven movies due for release in the next year. He’s excited about Spartan, a political thriller from David Mamet, but Wonderland is up first. In one of his best performances, Kilmer plays John Holmes after his porn career is over: still beguiling but dissolute, addicted to freebase cocaine, and possibly involved in a brutal murder.
I ask Kilmer about the blue paint under his fingernails. “You want to come upstairs?” he says. His hotel room is festooned with photographs of the Wonderland cast, including Lisa Kudrow as Holmes’ wife and Kate Bosworth as his teen lover. The photos were shot by his pal Ali Alborzi and glued together and painted or otherwise modified by Kilmer. He was so overwhelmed by the camaraderie on the Wonderland set–what he calls “Wonderlove”–that he wanted to make more art about it. He indicates a photo of Bosworth looking particularly luminous. “If only she were photogenic,” he jokes. “It’s such a shame, to go through life relying on your personality.”
So why this tsunami of work?
Well, I took time off primarily because of my children. It was no good hearing about them on the phone. This business is an amazing life. I just realized in the last couple years how lucky I am. I’ve gone around complaining about why I’ve been treated badly by a few people, but it’s not complicated. I just recently realized that our community demands a certain tithing and I never did it. There are people who buy Steven Spielberg’s driver big presents every year, so if their name comes up in the car, he’ll say something nice. Once I realized that, I decided to take advantage of learning something, and apply myself in a way that would help me.
A lot of times in my career, after doing a big commercial job, I frustrated my agents because I live in New Mexico and I didn’t take advantage of it. It’s all about relationships. Nicholson and Beatty had Robert Towne. Katherine Hepburn had George Cukor. Pacino had Martin Bregman. Obviously, there’s Scorsese and DeNiro. I knew that was important, but I never got around to cultivating those relationships. Tom Cruise, he pursued Steven Spielberg to make Minority Report–Spielberg’s got maybe 30 scripts that are brilliant, and he’s going to make maybe five more movies. Tom made that happen. So I’d like to do that. I’d like to be smart.
Are you more willing to do that tithing now?
I’m kind of a loner. I like to contribute in a different way to that community, so I’ve tried to take the time to find those people who share a sensibility to make something worthwhile. You know what else is really wonderful about the movie business? It seems like it’s all fake and if someone’s mouth is moving you can’t believe them, but it’s absolutely the opposite. Everyone tells the truth here. A big fat slob with the cigar wants the girl with the big tits and the black car and the pool and he doesn’t make any bones about it. Everyone else in the world, they all want Pamela Anderson but they can’t really say so. These guys say, “I want her! Hurry! I’ll fly her in!”
How’d you end up playing John Holmes?
I decided to take a little time and figure out what I wanted to do. I’ve always been frustrated about doing these larger jobs. The money doesn’t make the experience more fun for me. For some people it does, it’s a great life getting on and off those jets. I started looking for a job that could sustain my interest and be fun to do. And I didn’t know Wonderland was that job two years ago. I turned it down a zillion times. I just didn’t wanna be associated with the porn industry. I discovered that I am associated with it: I’m in the entertainment business.
So what interested you about Holmes?
I found out he was a brilliant hustler. He’d read a situation and give people some impression of what they wanted so he could get something. That’s different than a thief, different than a liar, different than an actor. Actors sort of do that. You’re giving your impression of something and creating an environment where you’re satisfied to be in that world. So then it became a dynamic, interesting story. And the cast is very important. I’m not a very good actor with love. If I don’t like the actress it’s hard for me to pretend. Holmes was devoted, in his way, to his wife and his girlfriend. He was as horrible as a man can be to a woman, and they still regarded him with affection. Also, strangely, the capital of the porn industry was Cahuenga Park, right next to my house.
So growing up, you had the porn industry on one side, and Roy Rodgers and Dale Evans’ ranch on the other. That’s an amazing juxtaposition.
Well, that’s L.A.
Did you know Roy and Dale when you were a kid? Or were they just a distant presence?
My cousins and my brothers elected me to go knock on their door. The jeep from the TV show was out front, and a convertible Cadillac with longhorns on it. And Trigger was stuffed in the house, up on two legs. So was Bullet, the dog. Dale answered the door and I choked. I said, “Can Roy come out and play?” As I said it, I was thinking, “Jerk, idiot, stupid, run away.” She was so sweet. She said, “I don’t think so right now, honey.”
Growing up, what were the differences between you and your brothers?
My older brother always went a bit further than me in terms of endurance–if my lips were turning purple, his would be turning black. Wesley, my younger brother, was very artistic. I came home one day and the sofa was torn apart like a bobcat had been released inside. I go into my room and every piece of clothing in my closet is on the ground. So we’d been robbed, but I open the drawers and they’re all neat, it’s the weirdest thing. And then I remember my brother is home, I start calling his name, trying to find him. In the rec room, where Trigger had been–my dad ended up buying Roy’s ranch–there was a 20-foot octopus that he had made by taking the wire of all the coat hangers in the house and making the skeleton. And the reason the sofa was ripped apart is that he was taking the foam and wrapped it around to make the skin of this thing and spray-painting it. He was obsessed with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. And as soon as he saw me he said come over, and I just started automatically helping him film it. Eventually I said what’s the deal with the size, Wesley? He says, “I tried the miniature, it just wasn’t cutting it.” And you know what was great? When my parents got home, they just loved the octopus. He tore up the sofa and it didn’t matter. A difference in my spirit to his is that I was more concerned about what people think, which is a bad thing for acting.
Tell me something you used to believe that turned out not to be true.
I didn’t believe that there were some things that love couldn’t heal, but Wesley died and my dad just never recovered. So it’s in the human memory that that’s what happened, that my dad basically died of a broken heart. But now I understand, more than believe, the statement that love does heal.
Looking back, what in your life would you do differently?
When I was 21, I should’ve gone to Japan and studied with this genius director, Hibashi Suzuki. His company toured the world and every year, he invited two or three people to spend the summer at their camp. And instead, I ended up in Las Vegas with Cher. I’m not saying she was a mistake–but I should have turned left. [His cell phone rings; he answers it.] Hey! I can’t talk right now–I’m busy talking about me. I’ve been looking at photographs of me, and answering all these questions about me. [He hangs up.]
I’m fine. Back to me.
So when you’re home in New Mexico, how do you spend your time?
I feed the animals. The ranch has chickens, pigs, goats, horses, llamas, deer, bear, snakes, mice, bobcats, mountain lions, ringlets, and a herd of buffalo. It’s been so hot, we go to the watering hole and jump in the river. [puts on hick accent] We shoot the automatic weapons at the trespassers and people a different color than us.
Outside of your movies, have you ever carried a gun?
I did at a photo shoot the other day.
And in your regular life?
Have I actually carried it… on my body?
Or in the car?
In the car, yeah.
Okay. How come?
I live in the homicide capital of the Southwest. Eighty percent of the people in my county are drunk. So driving home on the highway, especially with kids, it’s just a precaution. The cops I know say that unless have it in you to take a life then you shouldn’t even own a gun. Very often the perpetrator will take the gun and shoot you with it.
Tell me about working on The Spartan with David Mamet.
David hasn’t made a great film yet, but he’s got a great work ethic. His brain is ridiculous. In another movie, I would have done everything in my power to save a fiftieth of what he cut. In this one, I just learned not to say if I particularly liked a scene, because then he would probably cut it.
You’ve got a small role in The Missing–your first movie with Ron Howard since Willow in 1988. How’d that happen?
After Willow, I was very hard on Ron as a director because I was hurt on the picture, and I didn’t really care that he had 150 other people to take care of–I wanted him to take care of me more. So I would kind of knock him through the years. He’s an easy target, he’s Opie. But then I started hearing from people that it wasn’t funny to him. So I wrote to him saying sorry, and he wrote back a polite note, saying it’s okay. So I wrote back, saying, no really, I’m sorry. And he called to say it was okay, and I just wasn’t convinced. So I wrote him another letter and said I really really want to make it okay, so I’ll do anything you want, it doesn’t matter if it’s a walk-on part or whatever. And it turned out I was right, he still had his feelings hurt.
Your one scene is with Cate Blanchett.
She is so extraordinary. She picked up a shovel, and I’m standing there and I’m thinking “What a fascinating shovel.” And it’s just a damn shovel but she picked it up. Three different times I was acting with her I completely forgot I was in a movie. I was just staring at her like a dope.
Do you think you bear some responsibility for your bad reputation, or have you just been misunderstood?
I’ve been [pause] careless about how I viewed my business. Part of what got compounded is that it’s tough to get divorced–I found out I was getting divorced on TV in Ireland. But I trust that the truth is the truth and a lie is a lie. And the things that [John] Frankenheimer said about me were lies and the things that Joel Schumacher said were lies. And by comparison, you can call Michael Mann or Oliver Stone or anybody good at their job and they’ll tell you a different version. Frankenheimer, God bless him, he passed on, but he had a history of being mean about people. He tried to use me as the reason his film [The Island of Dr. Moreau] didn’t turn out. Except I died two-thirds of the way through and it’s a crap movie all the way through. And I didn’t blame him. I don’t know why he blames me.
Schumacher called you a “psychologically disturbed human being.”
Schumacher’s not a great director by any stretch–there are only ten or so great directors in the history of film–but he makes everyone happy, he makes money. But his version of me being unstable–he’s very smart, he can’t say anything about work because then I can sue him for slander. The idea is that I’m not responsible. About what? Doing homework? Representing the character? Making money? I’ve made my employers over a billion dollars. I didn’t really set out to do that, but I’m very proud that I’ve consistently made money.
There’s a story about you in screenwriter William Goldman’s book, about The Ghost and the Darkness, where Michael Douglas [the producer and costar] chews you out for unprofessional behavior in front of the entire set.
That is so sad. I wrote Bill a long, long letter and I’ve never sent it. But he is dead wrong with every single point. Bill’s version to suit his memory of his movie getting wrecked is the producer’s version where I was a major contributor to problems. Michael comes to the set and says I hear this, I hear that. I said, wait, Michael, you just got here, hang out a bit. Nothing starts on time, there’s 1,500 extras, there are lions that eat people, someone died last week, this doesn’t have to do with me being late on the set. I can’t be late–I live here on the reservation. I had no boots to put on and I was waiting in the air-conditioned trailer. That wasn’t me being late–that was them losing my boots or someone stole them or ate them. What hurts is that I really love Africa, and it turned out to be just another one of those movies.
Do you think you’ll send him that letter one day?
When I get around to writing my autobiography. I tell my own kids, you’re smart, you’re funny, you’re talented, you’re rich, you’ve got interesting parents, you’ve got a really cool house, you can’t complain, sorry. If you complain all you will be is a spoiled jerk, no one will like you. Who wants to read about actors bitching? The urge to be preoccupied with this stuff is debilitating. I just went on and on about this story, but really I would much rather have talked to you about the reproductive cycle of the rhino.
Is the reproductive cycle of the rhino unusual?
Well, no. [laughs] But the neck joints of a giraffe are.
You started your career with two good comedies–Real Genius, Top Secret–but haven’t really done any more of them. Why?
A lot of times I just picked a genre that I hadn’t done; I really wanted to try different ways of acting. I was very proud of that. I wouldn’t do that again because it’s a finicky business. I would have done five or six right then like Tom Hanks did. I think Tom is a different circumstance, he was happy that someone hired him. It sounds like I’m being rude, but that’s who he is. Same with Cruise. But I mention him because we started at pretty much the same time and he’s made more movies. I’ve had three or four times as busy as this last year and he has 15 years of it. Had I done that, I would’ve taken myself to that plateau of stardom where you never come back down. I just gave away that status.
Do you wish you hadn’t?
I don’t have any regrets at all. I’m so pleased with the people I’ve worked with. When I started, I thought because I did the very serious drama and the theater that leads to more of a knowledge of film that mattered. Now it’s actually a negative. It matters much more that you’re successful in television. It was a real embarrassment if you had done TV when I started, but now it’s huge. Big stars like Johnny Depp, Will Smith, Brad Pitt, oh, what’s his name? The ER guy.
[Pulls a face when he realizes he’s insulted his Batman successor, and continues] I can’t name anyone recently that’s come from the theater.
But Cate is a goddess in this world. So she doesn’t count. Ed Norton.
I was at college with Ed, actually. Back then, he wasn’t a very good actor.
I’ll go further. I went to high school with Kevin Spacey, and he was unwatchable. It hurt you because he was a funny guy and you liked being around him as a friend, but he was painful to watch act. You couldn’t, you had to pretend. You had to look over here [he gazes over my left shoulder]. And he learned. You can learn how to act.
What have you been reading lately?
A People’s History of the United States [by Howard Zinn]. The Professor and the Madman [by Simon Winchester]. The New Testament. The New Testament is tough. It’s a dark little story of Yahweh.
How has your faith informed your work?
Well, as Shakespeare said, there’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. Just to say those words requires a profound commitment to loving humanity. The premise of Christian Science is that it’s not a state of belief, it’s a state of understanding, of accepting and seeing life. And that’s a wonderful way to approach storytelling.
Is there a Biblical figure you identify with?
Other than God?
Interview by Gavin Edwards. Originally published (in a substantially shorter version) as “Mr. Difficult” in Rolling Stone 933 (October 16, 2003).