"I loved playing him," said Val Kilmer of his recent character, Danny Parker, in The Salton Sea. "He's obsessed and broken, like Hamlet. He doesn't know quite what to do, although he seems to know very clearly what to do. He's a complicated character."
You could say the same of Kilmer, who is far from an easy character study, as I found out during our recent interview. My conversation with the 42-year-old actor left me with more questions than answers. I don't believe he was trying to be difficult or deceptive during our conversation. On the contrary he displayed thoughtfulness and candor in discussing his work and his personal life.
The problem in trying to define Kilmer is that he's not interested in simplifying his opinions to form the sound bites some journalists demand. Likewise the actor has little interest in taking the easy route when it comes to telling a story on film, and because of that he has sometimes been described—or, as his supporters say, mistaken—as a difficult actor to work with.
Devil or Angel?
"He is misunderstood," opined D.J. Caruso, who directed Kilmer in The Salton Sea, in which Kilmer's character enters the seedy underworld of the drug trade to seek revenge against his wife's murderers. "I think it's important for people to know what a good relationship we had."
Caruso, however, has a pretty good idea how Kilmer may have acquired that reputation for being difficult. "I think a lot of times he probably was not in roles that were challenging enough, and he was trying to make something more of them than the director or the script or the studio wanted him to be," said the filmmaker, citing Kilmer's role in the 1995 film Batman Forever as a prime example.
According to Caruso, Kilmer tried to dig deeper into the motivations driving the Dark Knight than the film's director, Joel Schumacher, was interested in pursuing. When Kilmer would ask Schumacher what might motivate his character to say something or to behave in a certain way, Schumacher would allegedly reply "Well, you're Batman. Just go do it."
"I can see that just driving Val crazy," said Caruso. "He's so smart and so intellectual and wants to be so good, and that type of direction would probably trigger some negative feelings toward the project or the character or maybe even the director. So I can see why that reputation was built."
Said Red Planet director Antony Hoffman of Kilmer, "You have to hold your own against him. He kept me on my toes. But he's very generous." Caruso was also willing to go the distance with Kilmer, and it was not uncommon for the two to spend two to three hours discussing a particular scene if that's what Kilmer felt was needed. Indeed, given Kilmer's tarnished reputation, Caruso admitted he never expected the actor to collaborate so closely.
"It actually surprised me how much he really wanted to be directed," he said. "He was really willing and wanting to be directed. I had heard that once Val forms an opinion about a character, he's pretty much stuck on it, and directing him might be more difficult. What surprised me the most, and what was most rewarding, was how collaborative he was."
Still, there are certain directors who refer to their first jobs with Kilmer as their last. Schumacher has called the actor "one of the most psychologically troubled people I've ever worked with." John Frankenheimer, who sparred with him during the making of the 1996 movie The Island of Dr. Moreau, said there were two things he would never do: "Climb Mount Everest and work with Val Kilmer again."
When I confronted Kilmer about the negative comments some filmmakers have made about working with him, he looked puzzled and denied any wrongdoing. "I don't have that memory in any of my work. I have been more and more able to help directors make stories, because it's their movie. It's really a director's movie. I like to collaborate. I haven't tried to force it, because you can't. So the frustration that's led professional directors to comment personally is really not my business. I think it's sad, but it's never happened in any good film that I've done."
Talk to most actors who have worked with Kilmer, and they'll likely tell you that he's far from difficult to work with. "Of course a certain reputation precedes him," acknowledged Canadian actor Deborah Kara Unger (The Game, The Hurricane), who worked with Kilmer on The Salton Sea and never witnessed him misbehaving.
If anything, Kilmer might be too giving to his fellow actors. Noted Caruso, "I think sometimes he might be too generous. There were some scenes [in The Salton Sea] that were particularly Danny's scenes, and lots of times Val would encourage other actors—like Peter [Sarsgaard], for example—to do more in the scene. Val would say, 'Wouldn't it be great if Peter did this?' There are certain actors who like to hit the ball back, and whenever we found an actor who was willing to play ball, Val would be even more giving."
Unger agreed, saying, "He was completely involved in where my character was going, in terms of his character. He was very generous, and eager to spend as much time as possible to make certain that everyone was on the same page—and he's tireless in that. He's not at all selfish. He serves the story, and that's not common with actors of his clout."
Like Caruso, Unger can see how Kilmer's commitment to telling the film's story could be misconstrued, making him seem tough to work with. She said, "He reminds me of the kid who said, 'The Emperor has no clothes,' and that's what pisses people off about him. He's not afraid to say that, although I think he understands how much people don't like him saying that. Therein, he's exceedingly valuable. There's so many sycophants and spineless, manipulative people who use the art of storytelling through the medium of film just to fulfill and accelerate their own selfish journeys, that someone like Val could, indeed, piss off—because Val really loves storytelling and he understands the value of storytelling."
Unger recalled a particular day on the set when Kilmer brought up a problem he had with a scene they were about to shoot. Shared Unger, "He could have said, 'OK. Let's just shoot it,' and everyone would have loved him, but it would have been a wasted day, because the scene would have been eliminated and Val knew that. So the scene had to be rewritten and people had to wait. Some could interpret that four-hour pause on a film set as [him being difficult], but the fact was that it just wasn't working, and Val wasn't afraid to go, 'This is important. This is valuable to what we're here for. Let's fearlessly address this.' We did and it worked out. I think that's very brave of him to do that
Tricks of the Trade
As one who acts on his convictions, it makes sense that one of Kilmer's favorite actors is Marlon Brando, whom Kilmer jumped at the chance to work with on the problematic Island of Dr. Moreau.
Said Kilmer of Brando, "He has genuine courage. A lot of actors' courage comes from wanting to be good; but once they achieve greatness, there's often a kind of complacency. You see great actors—people who have really pursued acting as a craft—[develop] a kind of complacency or a familiarity with a certain kind of behavior. Tricks, you know? But he has genuine courage.
"I know he has been uninterested in acting for quite a while, but he's still so obsessed—chronically obsessed—with behavior and storytelling. That's what's inspiring to me about him. To me, he has poetry that separates him from other actors. Poetry is an essence of something, and he's able to capture an essence."
Likewise, when Kilmer is at his best he is able to capture the true spirit of a character, even when the material does not necessarily rise to his caliber of performance. Such was the case in both Oliver Stone's The Doors, in which Kilmer seemed to bring the iconic Jim Morrison and his distinct voice back from the dead (Kilmer, in fact, did much of his own singing in the film), and in the 1993 Western Tombstone. In the latter, Kilmer's performance as the legendary Doc Holliday is arguably his finest work and the best reason to see the film. Kilmer completely inhabited the famous sharpshooter, bringing to the character a wonderful combination of loneliness, audacity, and deadpan wit. Every scene with Kilmer has a dangerous energy to it.
Said Caruso, "Val is the type of actor who, when he has a character that he can really get into, becomes that character. When I see him in the right-role, in the right movie, he's not a movie star playing someone; he actually makes me believe he is that character."
Kilmer's co-star Unger summed it up best: "He's one of the few authentic transformational actors out there."
Hamlet Was Pathetic
In The Salton Sea, Kilmer reminds us again why he can be such a valuable actor. The film is not great, in my book, but it is well worth seeing just to witness Kilmer metaphorically walking a tightrope throughout. Clearly he has invested everything in his performance. As Kilmer told me, he drew from so many things in his personal and professional experience in order to breathe life into his character, Danny.
Said the actor, "I sort of jumped in and let everything affect me. Having played Hamlet [at the 1988 Colorado Shakespeare Festival], I was familiar with a character assuming an identity and getting lost in it. I was familiar with the physical aspects of addiction from playing other characters. I'd lost a little brother [Wesley, who drowned at the age of 15 in 1977], so I knew about that—thinking about those moments in time when you have no hope. And then I just went right into the particularities of working with the director. Finding out what his tastes were, what he liked, and what he was willing to explore and pursue."
The real test for Kilmer, as it is for most actors, is to remain as truthful as possible in his performances. He said, "That's always a challenge—finding different ways to check the honesty meter to see if you're really investing or if you're hiding, because playing a character with a certain voice or any kind of mannerism can be a way of hiding from yourself. I like the kind of acting, and I like doing the kind of acting, where you really find yourself."
Above all, Kilmer's idea of good acting is defined by a willingness to fail, and if you look at Kilmer's body of work—from his first screen performance in the 1984 spoof Top Secret! to later work in Michael Mann's Heat or the spy thriller The Saint—the actor rarely plays it safe, nor does he choose to get comfortable as so many successful film stars do, repeatedly playing a certain type of character.
"I watched a [Frank] Capra interview recently, and he said if you're seeking formula—what works—then you're absolutely destined to fail," said Kilmer. "But if you're seeking to break formula and try new ground, at least you've got a chance to succeed. There isn't a guarantee, but you're forced to pursue healthy objectives, which are: What do I really believe about this story? How do I really respond to it? And not trying to present a version of yourself that you think is going to be appealing."
As for a specific technique, Kilmer claims to not rely on any—although he is a drama graduate of the Juilliard School and is well versed in classical theatre. Like most young actors, he used to believe there must be some secret great actors possessed. As he's grown older and wiser, he now realizes he had what they had all along.
"Celebrate yourself. What you have to say, no matter how simple, is all you need. You don't need to read an autobiography of an actor or a director to get it. You have it already," said Kilmer, recalling a particular experience that changed his outlook.
"When I was preparing to play Hamlet, a wonderful acting teacher, Peter Cass, said that I had enough to say to be able to play the character. He said, 'Why don't you think you can do it?' I said, 'He's just so awesome, so profound.' He said, 'What are you talking about? He's pathetic. He does anything anybody tells him to. Right off the bat, this guy he despises—who he hates to be around—says, Don't go back to school. Stay here. He says OK. He's tragic. He's stuck. He doesn't know what to do. But you have 10,000 choices.' He broke the spell over my sense that there was something beyond me."
These days the challenge for Kilmer is not whether he can tackle a role; it's not even necessarily about whether the role is challenging enough. The real obstacle, it seems, is for Kilmer to find like-minded collaborators.
"Val said something the other day at an AFI [American Film Institute] event, which is that he never really thought as much about the filmmaker as he did the roles," said Caruso. "Now he's really being conscious about not only the role but who's making the movie." BSW