Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Val Kilmer

'Sea' the Light

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

April 12, 2002—When I first saw Val Kilmer in the hilarious Top Secret! (1984), I was sure I was looking at the biggest movie star in the world. Yet, that comedy from the makers of Airplane! inexplicably tanked, and Kilmer was free to become not a movie star, but an actor.

Though he's never been nominated for an Oscar, movie buffs still talk in whispers about the Juilliard-trained actor's astonishing performances as Jim Morrison in The Doors (1991) and as Doc Holliday in Tombstone (1993).

He's also had a knack for choosing projects with a shelf life, such as the cult favorites Real Genius (1985), George Lucas and Ron Howard's Willow (1988), John Dahl's Kill Me Again and Michael Mann's crime thriller Heat (1995). In addition, he was barely seen as Elvis Presley in Quentin Tarantino and Tony Scott's True Romance (1993) and heard as the voice of God in the animated The Prince of Egypt (1998). All that, and he got to be Batman too, in 1995's Batman Forever.

Now, along with Morrison, Top Secret's Nick Rivers, Elvis and Doc Holliday (who played a little piano), Kilmer adds another musician to his resume. In his new film The Salton Sea, which opens today in Bay Area theaters, he plays a jazz trumpeter searching for redemption and to avenge his dead wife in the world of "tweakers" -- or junkies on speed.

During a recent visit to San Francisco, Kilmer proved a little too edgy and restless to sit still for interviews all day. He vaults over a chair and sits down at the grand piano in his giant hotel room, tickling away at the keys, even though the only thing he knows how to play is the one minute of Chopin he learned for Tombstone.

Still, he's extremely pleased with The Salton Sea, disclosing that he and director D.J. Caruso bonded right from the start over the recent deaths of Kilmer's younger brother and Caruso's older brother.

"Any story, even a light comedy, should cost the creator something," Kilmer explains. "I've never seen any art that really moved me that didn't take some passion, care and blood. Not to be too grand, but I do look at it as a noble profession. And you're telling a story. You're giving away something of your life and what you've learned."

"I knew that D.J. had something to say on the subject of loss -- more than just wanting to make a good movie," Kilmer says.

Caruso explains that he and his star would spend extra time together. "I'd go to Val's house or he'd go to my house -- not to rehearse, but just to be in sync. We'd go over the script, I'd show him the locations I found, or whatever," he says.

On finding a sense of anguish to flesh out his character, Kilmer reveals a little trade secret. On close-ups, he twists his thighs really hard. "Meryl Streep taught me that. That's the thing about movie acting -- you really can't tell the difference between me losing my wife and the pain of twisting my thighs. You make the same face."

Kilmer doesn't want to give the impression that The Salton Sea is a downer. Quite the contrary. "Just the very first page of the script is to give the audience an idea of what a ride it is. He's playing the trumpet in a room on the floor. His stomach's bleeding, the room's on fire and there's money floating around his head. And he doesn't seem to mind!" he laughs. "I haven't done this in years, but as soon as I finished it I read it from the beginning again."

With The Salton Sea under his belt, Kilmer hopes next to do a comedy, which he hasn't done since his early days with Top Secret! and Real Genius. "They won't give me one!" he complains while popping some chewing gum. "I ended up calling the Farrelly brothers, because I just think they're so radical! They've set a new standard for oddness. Their stories are moving to me!"

The actor also enjoys when he gets to work with music, and even recorded a rock album as his Top Secret! character Nick Rivers. He wishes he could have worked more on the music for The Doors, adding that any actor usually only contributes about 30% to the soundtrack.

Comedy, drama and music all are important to Kilmer, providing that they're genuine in some way. Referring to the use of speed and other drugs in The Salton Sea, he clarifies that though drugs might temporarily have the same effect as great art, they ultimately do not solve anything.

"We just have millions and millions of people who are so sad, who are in so much pain, and they just want to get out of the pain of mortality. It gives us these beautiful images that are just perfect or inspiring, or a good, kick-ass song that makes you feel good. We want to be in that state that's more than the physical. And that's all drugs could ever do on their best day."

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