IN SEARCH OF Val ON THE BIG SCREEN, VAL KILMER HAS ROCKETED TO FAME, AT HOME, HE’S A SINGLE DAD GROUNDED IN HIS KIDS. WRITTEN BY STEVE POND PHOTOGRAPHY BY E. J. CAMP It happened a couple of years ago, but Val Kilmer still loves to tell the story. He was sitting at home when his daughter Mercedes came into the room, visibly uipset at her younger brother. “Jack’s not believing me,” she complained to her dad. “I told him that you’re Batman, and he says he’s Batman.” Mercedes insisted, but Jack resisted: Every time she triend to explain that their father really was Batman-at least on the big screen, in the 1995 movie Batman Forever-Jack insisted that he, not Val, was the real Batman. So Kilmer figured he’d better handle things. “I went in,” he says, “and I said to him, ‘Jack, your sister’s telling you about this time when I splayed Batman in the movies.’ And he just kind of nodded, like “Yeah, that’s what she said.’” More evidence, it seems, was needed. Kilmer didn’t actually own a copy of Batman Forever, so he sent an assistant to the video store to rent one. Then the family gathered in the living room to watch. Jack was “sitting there with his arms folded, like he’s thinking, okay, there Dad is with his cape on, pretending to be me. He was unconvinced..”
Within about 20 minutes, notes Kilmer, Mercedes got bored and left; she’d seen the movie before. Jack watched a while longer, but he too wondered away before conceding that his father had any special claim on the keys to the Batmobile. “So they both left,” he says, laughing as he recalls the scene. “And twenty-five minutes into the movie, I’m sitting there watching batman alone in my living room.”
He’s a movie star to you and me: the man behind the cowl in Batman Forever. The cocky fighter pilot Iceman in Top Gun, Jim Morrison in The Doors, Doc Holliday in Tombstone, the voice of God (and Moses) in The Prince of Egypt. From Top Secret! In 1984 to last year’s At First Sight, his career has been marked by mercurial brilliance, seesawing momentum, and a string of intense but unpredictable performances in big movies, and little movies, easy movies and troubled movies. He’s an A-list actor praised by his admirers for tenacity and focus but dogged by a reputation for being difficult, a smart but seemingly reluctant leading man who’s never quite capitalized on the blockbusters he’s appeared in (following Top Gun with Willow and Kill Me Again, Batman Forever with third billing in Heat). Even now, with several projects under his belt, he’s sticking to a characteristically uneven path: He stars in the sci-fi actioner Red Planet, a big-ticket item by any measure, to be followed by the low-budget drama Salton Sea and a small role as artist Weillem de Kooning in Ed Harris’s film Pollock. “He has a charming quality about him,” says Antony Hoffman, who directed Kilmer in Red Planet. “But he also can go to a very intense place where no one knows what the hell he’s thinking. He’s always thinking, and he has moody spells. You just have to work with them, or work through them.”
He’s a tricky case, this Val Kilmer. At the age of 40, this is a man who carries with him a slew of nagging career questions: Is he trouble, or is that a bad rap? Why hasn’t he made more movie, or bigger movies, or more commercial movies? Is fierce independence a good thing in a modern leading man, r is this guy his own worst enemy? But as he sits on the back porch of his house near Santa Fe, New Mexico, all those typical showbiz queries seem rather insignificant. Partly, that’s a function of distance. The concerns that drive Hollywood are markedly les pressing one time zone, two states, and about 1,000 miles to the east-particularly when those miles take you to a 6,000-acre ranch that sits amid rolling green hills, traversed by rivers that have cut through the land to create sheer cliffs and verdant wetlands.
All of this is visible from Kilmer’s house, a one-story log cabin, decorated with Native American folk art, that lies at the end of a couple of miles of dirt road, surrounded by filds and corrals holding horses and llamas. But this setting (Kilmer has lived in New Mexico since 1983, on this ranch for four years, and in this house for one) isn’t the only reason why the vagaries of his career seem relatively unimportant; another crucial one is that he’s sitting here rhapsodizing about his relationship with the 9-year-old girl and the 5-year old boy who know him not as Batman, but as dad.
In fact, when they’re on the ranch, Kilmer’s kids couldn’t even watch his movies if they wanted; there is no television set here, no nearby Blockbuster, no local Cineplex. “But they love the ranch, and everything about it,” he says. “I haven’t ever heard from them, nor do I expect them to ever say, “What are we going to do now?”
Mercedes and Jack aren’t here at the moment; school has just started in Los Angeles, where they live with their mother, actress Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, from whom Kilmer was divorced in 1996. The two share custody, and their kids spent half the summer in New Mexico, fishing, camping, riding horses, and exploring the ranch, which kept them busy enough that (to their father’s dismay) they never quite got back to the archery lessons they’d started last year.
“Their young minds are already filled with an enormous experience of nature in this ranch,” he says softly. “The ranch is a whole lifestyle, a life commitment, that’s at least equal to their other two environments-the school environment and their mother’s house….”
At this he trails off. Kilmer may love to talk about his kids and about parenting, but the man is not a linear, organized conversationalist. “Val’s smart, and his mind races ahead of his tongue sometimes,” is how At First Sight director Irwin Winkler sums it up. Unquestionably intelligent but charmingly spacy, he wanders from topic to topic, speaking with quiet intensity but also veering off into tangents, mixing family and religion and career into a bracing but occasionally confounding conversational stew. And all the while, he’s also focused on a second task: Sitting here in shorts and a pale lavender short sleeved shirt, Kilmer quietly picks small pottery shards out of a bowl in front of him and uses Elmer’s glue to painstakingly affix them to a large glass bottle that rests in his lap. “I think better with a little activity,” he explains.
Besides, he’s way behind schedule finishing this bottle, which, as it turns out, is a present for his daughter and an item fire with family history. The shards with which he’s decorating it are bits and pieces of Native American pottery he found in the Apache Mountains of northwest New Mexico decades ago, when he would explore those hills with his father, Gene Kilmer. “I was about ten or eleven, and we would come out here and crawl around the areas my father lived.” He says. “I’ve had this stuff since then, and I finally decided to do something with it.”
Kilmer may have been born and raised in Southern California, but he’s always felt the lure of New Mexico through his father. “He had an incredible life,” Kilmer says. “He was raised on Indian land, and his father was a prospector-not unlike Walter Huston in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and just as colorful. He had fantastic stories, so I grew up with this romantic notion of wilderness. And I started looking for that sense of the wildlife, the ‘no fences’ sensibility, and knowing sadly that it would not be here for long.”
If Kilmer grew up with a passion for land, he also had one for acting. “My younger brother just had that attack, that confidence.” Kilmer’s parents divorced when he was 9; his mother wound up in Pittsburgh, but he spent most of his time with his father in California. By the time he was 12, Kilmer was auditioning for television commercials; at 17, he was the youngest student accepted into the acting program at the Juilliard School in New York City. The day before he was to start school, his younger brother, Wesley, drowned in a swimming pool. Raised as a Christian Scientist (and still a devout member of that church) Kilmer struggled, he says, “to move from faith to belief to understanding about life-to really apply these principles that I had believed, that life is gone but it’s not gone, that life doesn’t end. Trying to convince myself, and accepting that it was over, actually made me see that he’s alive through the joy that he brought.”
Kilmer went back to school after the funeral, and slowly he came to realize what it was that drew him to acting. “Traditionally, actors really need the attention,” he says with a grin. “They want and need a kind of recognition, for you to like them. You know, they clap when you’re done with your job, thank you. But my interest in it was more to do with the essence of it. I tried to find something in the performance that was true, something I could create myself.”
This kind of approach can, no doubt, cause problems in a movie career: How do you search exhaustively for that essence when you’re only one small part in a huge production that may be veering off track? “The fun of movie acting,” he says “is that you can know how it’s best for you to do things, but the more you’re around, the more you need to accept that you can’t control it in the way that best suits you. Maybe psychically and cosmically you work best from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m., but we’re making a movie here in the daytime.”
His reputation suggests that at times Kilmer wasn’t entirely able to accept this lack of control. Though he’s been praised by colleagues, he was famously badmouthed by directors Joel Schumacher (Batman Returns) and John Frankenhimer, who made the laughable 1996 remake of the Island of Doctor Moreau. (Kilmer’s older brother, Mark, from whom he has been estranged since the death of their father in 1993, has also made disparaging public comments about Kilmer’s ego.)
“I’d heard the stories about him, so I checked him out,” says producer-director Irwin Winkler. “I called Bob De Niro and Michael Mann, who’d worked with him on Heat, and they both gave him raves.” After casting Kilmer in At First Sight, Winkler even arranged the actor’s schedule to give him frequent long weekends with his kids. “I had a wonderful experience, in spite of all the naysayers,” Winkler Says. “Some people expect an actor to be like a wooden Indian, to do what he’s told and never open his mouth. But Val has lots of great ideas, and he should be listened to.
For years, Kilmer tried to ignore the bad rep; now he’s decided to answer some charges via a personal website, www.val-klmer.org. “You’ll be able to know what I believe, because there’s no filter,” he says. “And for people who have lied consistently abut me, I will tell the truth, and they can’t refute it because then you get into legal territory. A lie is a lie, and liars are liars, and I have never, ever, lied about my job.”
Which is not to say that he hasn’t learned a few lessons about adaptation. “Really, he says, “It’s about being able to adapt and grow and be confident and learn different ways to bring out your talents when you don’t have ideal conditions-which is most of the time. And I think that it’s the same challenge with parenting, to take on that responsibility, which is can be awesome sometimes, and find the essence.”
One of those challenges is how to raise his children within a celebrity-obsessed culture, and how to give them ordinary, unhurried lives. Despite Kilmer’s own tangled relationship with fame, he senses his kids are already quite wise to the game. “I would like to take full credit for how balanced and relaxed they are about their father’s fame, but in all honesty I can’t. There may be certain ways I behave that they’ve adopted, that make it impressive how they don’t take advantage of certain things. But they’re just gracious with people, and people sometimes behave foolishly, you know? My kids are sophisticated about it.”
Exploring New Mexico with his children, he says, takes him straight back to his own childhood excursions-but so, sadly, does his divorce. He married the British actress Whalley-Kilmer in 1988; eight year later, when Mercedes was 4 and Jack less than a year old, they broke up, a much more common outcome that it had been in his parents’ day. “My parents’ divorce came at a time when we were the only divorced family that I knew in my whole world,” he says “and afterwards I felt quite at bay because I had no experience with it.”
Still, the laissez-faire attitude toward broken families and unusual arrangements hardly made Kilmer’s own divorce any easier. “There were challenges,” he says with a sigh. “Living in separate states, what was a challenge. And there is genuine evil intent that can exist with divorce lawyers and psychologist and private judges and anybody that’s in any position to make money off our children. They will take full advantage. But my kids have a loving mother, and we both had to find our way to keeping the best interests of the children almost as a constant prayer. It’s not dissimilar to movie acting, you know” Everyone’s got the best intention, everyone wants it to work. Then it rains, and then the financiers just pay you half, then the director changes your favorite part about the character…..”
He shakes his head. “Sometimes trials can bring out the best in you,” he says, “Sometimes I was in L.A., but it wasn’t the right date. You read a piece of paper, you call the mediator, you fax, you sit there on hold. You say, ‘But they’re only four miles away, can’t we just…?’ ‘Well, no.’ You have to find a genuine trust that your love is being communicated. And you’ve got to be clear and remind yourself that what the children will remember is that experience of being together, and also the quality of love.”
Just lately, he says, his children seem to have acquired confidence and embraced the idea that they live in both Los Angeles and New Mexico, as different as those places are, Kilmer has considered buying a house in Los Angeles when his children are older, but for now, he simply rents a place while he works there. He calls the dual-home arrangement “a tribute to their mom as well,” and says it’s convinced him that divorce is no longer the crushing blow it sued to be for fathers who often found themselves cut off from their kids.
“There’s this whole notion that the family has to be this one unit,” he says. “But my father’s parents were together, and my dad picked cotton from before the sun rose until after sunset in the Texas panhandle, and got paid a dollar. Was he in a tighter family unit? I don’t know. He was standing near his mom, probably listening to her singing some crazy song, but he was working hard.”
He wipes some glue off his fingers, then smiles at his story about somebody else’s hard-luck childhood. “He was nine when he started doing this, and my daughter’s nine. I’ve told her this story several times, and she gets that look on her face like, ‘Oh no, what did I do that you’re telling me the cotton picking story again?’”
Kilmer knocks off a few rough edges from a shard of pottery, then looks approvingly at his daughter’s nearly-completed bottle. “This is so exciting,” he says. “Now I must grout.” A pause. “I love the word, grout.”
Kilmer will have little time for grouting this afternoon; he’s got to interview applicants for an office position, and he’s behind on his reading-both his adult-study assignments in a Christian Science program and his progress on the new Harry Potter book, which he has to finish if he wants to keep up with Mercedes.
And beyond htat, Kilmer knows he’s also got some actor business to do, what with three movies coming out ove rth enext few months. Pollock was the frist to be shot, and the quickest: Kilmer describes his work in the movie as a lark, a couple of days of fun playing the ferocious Abstract Impressionsit Willem de Kooning alongside Ed Harris’s Jackson Pollock. He put in more time on the Salton Sea, which he enthusiastically calls “a little movie with an unusual feeling, and lots of hooks and dramas and great characters.” And in between came Red Planet-which, he says appealed to him because “I’ve never done a science-fiction film, and I’m interested in all genres.” The film’s director, though, thinks Kilmer may have had other reasons for making a sci-fi flick about the repercussions of Earth’s dwindling resources. “I have sneaking suspicion,” says Antony Hoffman, “that he made it for his children. The movie deals with passing generation, and it looks at the environment and asks, What are we leaving for our kids? He never came out and said it, but I always had the sense that it had a message he wanted to leave for his kids.”
Kilmer feels as if he should be looking for more movies, especially with a potential actor’s strike looming next summer’ at the same time, he’s just come off back-to-back stints on Red Planet and Salton Sea, and he’d rather forget about work and focus on family. “I have let jobs go that might have been the right thing for my career, but they were not going to be the best for my kids,” he says. “And at the end of the day, I’ve never seen anything, from when my children were born, that impressed me more than their laughter, or meant more to me than that sense of being able to clam them, or provide for them, or protect them, or encourage them.” He looks down at the bottle in his hands, nods approvingly, and then slips one more pottery shard into an open space. “To be as honest as I can be,” he says, shaking his head, “maybe parenting would be more of a challenge for me if I had different children. But I just love it. I’d be happy to retire next year and just tend to them.”