Val Kilmer: a career on the edge

October 21, 2003|By Barry Koltnow | Barry Koltnow,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Val Kilmer throws his head back and laughs at the question.

Then he narrows his eyes and furrows his brow. He looks skyward to ponder the question for a few moments.

"Hmmm, there must have been one," he says. "Oh, what about Top Gun? I suppose that was one.

"And Batman Forever. That was definitely one. And I really thought Red Planet was one, although it didn't turn out to be one."

He shakes his head. "That might be it. I can't think of any more."

The question was: "Have you ever picked a role because it might actually help your career?"

If you will notice, Kilmer did not mention his latest movie.

Wonderland, scheduled to open Friday at the Charles Theatre, is not likely to be the type of blockbuster that boosts his career in a commercial sense. But, like so many of Kilmer's choices, it might further enhance his reputation among his peers as a fearless actor who never makes the drive for success a factor in his career.

The new film is a dark and disturbing look into the rapidly deteriorating life of the late porn star John Holmes in the summer of 1981. It details his involvement in a seedy underworld of drugs and violence that culminated in the murders of four people in a Laurel Canyon home on Wonderland Avenue.

When the movie starts, Holmes is no longer the king of the porn industry. He is out of the business and addicted to cocaine, hanging around with too many of the wrong people and involved in a strange romantic triangle with his wife, Sharon (played by Friends star Lisa Kudrow), and teen-age girlfriend, Dawn Schiller (Kate Bosworth).

Tom Hanks must have passed on this one.

In fact, even the adventurous Kilmer almost passed on this script.

"When I was told about the film, I was afraid that the audience would be disappointed because it is not a biopic and it's not about the world of pornography," the actor explained. "That's what the audience might expect, but instead it really is a whodunit about the consequences of excess."

The film's producers sent him the script anyway, telling Kilmer to see if he was interested in the smaller role of gangster Eddie Nash, who eventually was played by Eric Bogosian. It was a ruse to get Kilmer to read the whole script and it worked. He called them back and said he was interested in portraying Holmes.

"He wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed," Kilmer said of the porn star, who died in 1988 of an AIDS-related illness, "but he had street smarts. He was clever, resourceful and a world-class hustler. He also was charming and fun-loving. I loved the idea of playing such an extreme character."

The stage first

Kilmer, 43, attended the same San Fernando Valley high school (Chatsworth) as Kevin Spacey and Mare Winningham. He credits Spacey with persuading him to apply to Juilliard, and the 17-year-old Kilmer became the youngest person ever admitted to the prestigious drama school.

After his schooling, he worked on the New York stage before making the transition to movies in the 1984 comedy Top Secret!

Kilmer, who has two children from an eight-year marriage (which ended in divorce in 1996) to actress Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, then made another comedy called Real Genius, before making his mark as the cool Navy pilot nicknamed "Iceman" who taunts Tom Cruise in the 1986 mega-hit Top Gun.

After Willow and Kill Me Again, Kilmer made critics take notice when he played rock legend Jim Morrison in director Oliver Stone's The Doors. Two years later, in 1993, he turned in a stunning performance as Doc Holliday in Tombstone.

There were two hits in 1995 - Heat and Batman Forever - but a lot of misses since then, including the aforementioned Red Planet and the dreadful The Salton Sea.

His poor choice of roles was only part of Kilmer's problem in Hollywood. His reputation as a perfectionist who battles publicly with his co-stars and directors has not endeared him to many within the industry. One director even took out an ad insisting that he would never work with Kilmer again.

"When certain people criticize me for being demanding, I think that's a cover for something they didn't do well," he said. "I think they're trying to protect themselves.

"I believe I'm challenging, not demanding, and I make no apologies for that."

Kudrow said she was aware of Kilmer's combative reputation before she acted with him.

"I was intimidated by that reputation, but I was excited by his other reputation of being a really talented actor," the actress said. "Once I met him and started working with him, that negative reputation disappeared.

"He is a phenomenal actor who makes the other actors with him look good. I never saw him as demanding, but he is committed to making the best possible movie. If he had any gripes on the set, they were made in a positive way. He's an actor who has the big picture in mind, not just how a particular scene will make him look."

Unwise choices

While he disputes his reputation as a disruptive force, Kilmer acknowledges that he has been his own worst enemy in other ways.

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