From cocky fighter pilot to gay P.I., Val Kilmer has had a wild career. It gets even wilder as he returns to the stage for his one-man show, ‘Citizen Twain’
When Val Kilmer looks you directly in the eyes — and, cobra-like, he never seems to break a connection with you — it’s difficult not to be charmed. Still handsome at 53, this bushy-eyebrowed actor held his own opposite Tom Cruise in Top Gun, DeNiro and Pacino in Heat and Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau; he took over the iconic role of Batman, only to walk away from the franchise despite excellent reviews; he renewed interest in Method Acting following acclaimed turns as Jim Morrison in The Doors and Doc Holliday in Tombstone. And then, almost out of nowhere, he dropped out of sight.
“I didn’t fall off the map,” Kilmer corrects,
“I tumbled down the Grand Canyon.”
You might say, reports of the death of his career have been greatly exaggerated. For much of the past decade, Kilmer has taken mostly character roles in indie films; he hasn’t headlined a big-budget Hollywood film since the sci-fi flop Red Planet in 2000.
“I went from a Top 10 box office star to getting out of the system,” Kilmer offers from the lobby of the Wyly Theatre. And most significant of all? He’s totally OK with that.
“I was trying to be a responsible parent,” he says. “I don’t have any regrets.”
Kilmer was less a part of the Tinseltown machine than his fame might suggest. He started in theater, and has no problem coming back to it, as he does this week with the one-man show Citizen Twain, which Kilmer wrote and stars in as the legendary humorist. It’s not as much as a stretch as you might think. Kilmer wrote two plays back in his high school and college days, and when you see him in full makeup, it’s easy to be lost in the illusion.
And if you think of Kilmer as serious, well, you don’t remember his earliest movies: The spy spoof Top Secret! and the teen comedy Real Genius. (Also check out Kilmer as a gay detective opposite Robert Downey Jr. in 2005’s darkly comic Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.)
“I would’ve liked to have more comedies,” Kilmer sighs. “Hollywood is very finicky — they like to understand and make money off of known commodities.” By breaking away from the machine, Kilmer gets to reapproach his career on his own terms.
“I was looking for a film to write and happened upon something that would engage me for the many years it takes to get a project off the ground,” he explains. “I found this story, which captivated me. It’s a story about America, but also about the likes of Mark Twain and [Christian Science founder] Mary Baker Eddy. Twain was fascinated by Mrs. Eddy — she was the most quoted person of the 19th century in her time. He was jealous of her, I think.”
Of course, Kilmer not only has to combat preconceived ideas about being a dramatic movie star while doing a comedy in the theater; he also competes with the iconic role created 50 years ago by Hal Holbrook in a series of one-man shows about Twain.
“Holbrook has been so supportive of my vision,” says Kilmer. “He’s made my job really easy — many people know of Mark Twain because of Hal Holbrook!”
But Holbrook is now 82, and unlikely to perform the role much in the future. And Kilmer understands the burden of being associated too closely with one role.
“People come up to me all the time and say, ‘Your Jim Morrison is more Jim Morrison than Jim Morrison!’ That doesn’t make sense to me — I don’t think Jim Morrison knew who Jim Morrison was!”
Ultimately, portraying Twain is just part of the actor’s craft: A character study and love story with a dual perspective.
Kilmer is committed to four performances of the show, with the opportunity to expand to as many as 10 performances, based on demand.
“Dallas is a sophisticated city,” Kilmer says. “You get humor — hopefully [audiences] will laugh more than they did in New York City or Berkeley. I have never had something dramatic as satisfying as writing a joke and having it hit onstage.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 19, 2013.