In Wonderland, Val Kilmer plays the part of the infamous porn star John Holmes in his declining days.
TORONTO - Val Kilmer's clothing was covered in hieroglyphics. Which was strange, but not that strange - even oddly appropriate for an actor so famously cryptic. We met last month on the roof of the Four Seasons hotel during the Toronto International Film Festival. He was here with a melodrama called Wonderland.
The film is not particularly good, but he's good in it, and in person Kilmer carries the wide grin of a man who owns the room and doesn't care what you think anyway - although you come to realize after a few minutes that this is far from the case. He's gracious and generous with his time, and a little shy. He almost seems to be taking a break, just stopping by.
He comes off the complete opposite of his reputation: that he's hard to handle, overly obsessive about the smallest role, an all-around classic “difficult actor” who's driven more than his share of famous directors to publicly declare “Never again.” Val Kilmer is the man Hollywood loves to hate, as Entertainment Weekly once described him.
As for the hieroglyphics, they're literal: lines, dots, triangles, and random words, written in blue ink on his jeans the way bored high school students doodle on their clothing during detention. Kilmer took off his sunglasses and sat with his back to the sun. As he talked, he fingered a leather day planner covered with the same nonsensical characters in dark pen.
“I'm blessed to have played so many unusual characters,” he said. “But I think I've suffered because of this.” His voice was surprisingly high but unsurprisingly dreamy and elliptical - he also has a reputation for taking things too seriously, for turning every chat into a survey course in the philosophy of fame and acting. “I want my acting to be what's important. But it's a business. Hits dictate worth. They care about hits, they should. But some in this industry get me confused with characters I play. I've been accused sometimes of being difficult, right? But I've never done anything in a job except try and make it better.”
Kilmer sounds whiny in print but sensible in person. Now, after reaching superstar status a decade ago, then sinking out of sight with a few bad, expensive flubs - then taking off a stretch to raise his two children, he said - Kilmer is eager to put himself out there again.
Minus the baggage.
“I was in this picture called Top Gun.” (He said “Tom Gun,” but it's an honest flub.) “Tom Cruise was in it, of course. We started at almost exactly the same time. He goes after directors. He went after Spielberg to make Minority Report. I've never done anything like that. He's made three pictures a year. I've made maybe half the pictures he's made - I don't know how many, I've never added them up. But if you're famous, you work at it. I respect people who can do that. But I've always pursued what's interested me, what I thought would hold my imagination. It's a very long time to make a single movie. Tom likes to work more.”
But do you jumpstart a stalled career by flooding the market and playing nice? In November, Kilmer has a supporting role in Ron Howard's The Missing; next year you won't be able to avoid him: just for starters, he has parts in Oliver Stone's Alexander, Michael Mann's Collateral, David Mamet's Spartan.
Wonderland, opening in Toledo Friday, is more typical of the films he's taken in the last few years. It's relatively small, and made by a young director, James Cox. Kilmer plays the infamous porn star John Holmes. But it's no bio pic.
The movie's Holmes is a stud in decline, charismatic but seedy, mixed up with drug dealers in Laurel Canyon, then connected with a notorious multiple homicide - 1981's Wonderland Avenue murders. (Holmes, who died in 1988, was later acquitted of being involved; the movie leaves the extent of his participation fuzzier.) Kilmer was the first choice for the role, Cox said. “There's a dynamic in him that understands chaos. He gets a person's natural internal chaos - I don't know where it comes from, but it's right under the surface.”
The first thing that struck Kilmer about the script was the violence, he said. It turned him off. He didn't want to make a celebration of excess. He wanted to show the consequences of excess. The irony is that Cox's kitchen-sink direction is so predictable, jittery, and shabby chic. It only further enshrines early '80s L.A. as a romantically sleazy playground, territory already better served by Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights. But Kilmer emerges unscathed.
He said he's always pursued acting as his career anyway, “as opposed to a career as a star. I've never put much premium on success. It's nice when you're hot. People follow you around more. But the older I get, the more I'm practical about what's important.”
After peaking in the early 1990s with The Doors, Tombstone, and Thunderheart, he traded in a few career chips, replacing Michael Keaton as Batman and starring in disastrous big-screen remakes of The Saint and The Island of Dr. Moreau. His reputation tended to proceed him, and it didn't help that no one really liked his choices in the world of big impersonal studio blockbusting.
“I wasn't unhappy making big action movies,” he said, “but it's just not as much fun acting in them. Most acting in films, the actual action of the role, I've decided, is learning to pace yourself and content yourself with waiting. You really get paid to wait more than you get paid to act. Literally. The way I see it is with smaller movies, you wait less and act more.”
I ask him why he hasn't made more comedies. After graduating from the Julliard School, his first feature was Top Secret!, the 1982 parody of spy and Elvis movies; his second was Real Genius (1985), and he landed the part of an obnoxious overachiever after meeting producer Brian Grazer and telling him, “I'm sorry. You look like you're 12 years old. I work with men.”
“You know, it's my fault I didn't do more comedy,” Kilmer said. “I should have probably done more.” He said he's since talked to Grazer about a Real Genius sequel - “not a week passes when someone doesn't tell me that's their favorite.” He said he did Saturday Night Live “kind of to use it as live audition tape.” But he isn't offered comedy anymore.
“I can't get one and I'd love to do one again. I'm pretty good at it, I think. Comedy is a very weird world, a conservative world. They only want what's worked, and because I haven't done a comedy in so long, no one will give me one. Hollywood's memory is short, and now it's microscopic.”