Val Kilmer is not a cliché, despite what Val Kilmer himself might say. True, he began his career performing the plays of Shakespeare. And yes, he was admitted to Juilliard at 17. But the actor who, as Iceman in Top Gun (1985), burned his way into American cultural memory with a bite into thin air, has cultivated-whether consciously or not-one of the most idiosyncratic careers in recent memory. He has played Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley, Willem de Kooning and King Philip II, Batman and Doc Holliday, the voice of Moses (of the Exodus story) and the voice of kitt (from Knight Rider). His feuds with directors, most notoriously Joel Schumacher on the set of Batman Forever (1995), and John Frankenheimer, the director of The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), are almost as legendary as the films that he is rumored to have turned down--The Outsiders (1983), Blue Velvet (1986), Point Break (1991), and Indecent Proposal (1993), to name a few. Yet Kilmer suggests that these elements of Val Kilmer, the movie actor as Movie Character, are verily clichés as well: his Los Angeles upbringing; his skyrocket rise to fame; his movie-star marriage and subsequent divorce from Willow (1987) co-star Joanne Whalley; the early success that, in hindsight, presaged a string of disappointments like The Saint (1997), At First Sight (1999), Red Planet (2000), and The Ten Commandments: The Musical (2004).
Clichés though, are defined by their predictability, and Kilmer, now 51, remains as inscrutable as ever. He has joked about running for governor of New Mexico. He still works with singular directors like Werner Herzog in The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call-New Orleans (2009) and Francis Ford Coppola in the forthcoming Twixt Now and Sunrise, out this fall. Yet he's also starred alongside 50 Cent in a trio of straight-to-DVD crime thrillers, including Blood Out, due this month. Meanwhile, a new generation is rediscovering Kilmer's early comedic movies: as the rockabilly teen idol Nick Rivers singing and dancing his way through the Zucker brothers' cult hit Top Secret! (1984) and as the lazy laser-technology whiz kid in the government-weapons-satire Real Genius (1985). And nearly a quarter century after Top Gun, when Kilmer and Tom Cruise, by chance, attended the same Los Angeles Lakers game in 2009, they found themselves together again, shown split-screen on the Jumbotron, while Kenny Loggins's "Danger Zone" played over the speakers.
Recently, Kilmer has turned his attention to another lifelong passion, the art world, and has begun an ambitious sculpture project on his Pecos River Ranch in New Mexico. Last year he attended the opening of the Whitney Biennial with the Polish artist Piotr Uklanski, who cast Kilmer as the Dead Man in his 2006 kielbasa Western Summer Love, after which they became friends. They recently spoke, and their conversation continually returned to some recurring themes: Kilmer's fear (or lack thereof) of death; his love of art; and the real meaning of the word cliché.
PIOTR UKLANSKI: Why did you recently go up to the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Art] in Boston? Does it have anything to do with the script you're writing at present?
VAL KILMER: The movie I'm writing right now is about Mark Twain and Mary Baker Eddy.
UKLANSKI: What's so special for you about Mark Twain?
HEREVER YOU STAND, L.A. IS OVER THERE. BUT HOLLYWOOD’S A REALLY HONEST BUSINESS. THEY DON’T PULL ANY PUNCHES. THEY TELL YOU EXACTLY WHAT YOU WANT—I WANT THE FAKE BREASTS AND THE FLAT CAR AND THE BIG POOL. THEY’RE REAL UP-FRONT ABOUT IT.—Val Kilmer
KILMER: As he said about himself, "I am not an American; I am the American." And he really was. He understood everything. And he was a brilliant listener-that's his genius. He hears every stratum. He's looking for a way to deal with racism where he's from, the South, and he picks a river rat for a main character who is 12 years old.
UKLANSKI: Are you working on a script?
KILMER: There is a rough-draft script, but to sell a film that's anywhere around this subject is challenging. I've done little incidental jobs to finance the development of this film for about five years, which is why I have such a strange filmography these days, because it's very, very hard, almost impossible to finance a small film these days, even though it's a very good time if you call $50 million small. I think that was the budget for The Social Network. [It was $40 million.] It's really very difficult to present a winning proposition to financiers on paper because there's nobody backing the movies right now.
UKLANSKI: By the way, I got the audio files with you singing in a Mark Twain voice. Are you thinking of having that included in the film?
KILMER: Yes, I am, and I've actually talked to a couple of editors who cut together some footage. YouTube is a new experience for me-someone threw a laptop in front of me and showed me Nic Cage going mad, which has got to be the funniest thing on YouTube. He's so courageous.
UKLANSKI: Send me a link. I'll have to look at it.
KILMER: Yeah, it's insane. But I found some great leads. I haven't reached out to [songwriter and producer] T Bone Burnett yet, whom I know, and I was just talking to [electronic musician] Dan Deacon last night about the play and the music and the period, and he's doing Francis's music for the film we just did. I made a film with Francis Ford Coppola since last we talked.
UKLANSKI: How did you get involved in Coppola's project?
KILMER: Here's the question: What do Francis Coppola, Marlon Brando, Bob Dylan, Robert Downey Jr., and T Bone Burnett all have in common?
UKLANSKI: Twixt Now and Sunrise? I understand that there's going to be a 3-D segment in it. Were you on the ropes? A green screen?
KILMER: There's a couple of dream sequences. What Francis has done is use the 3-D sparingly. It only comes a couple of times, so it's very memorable when there's an event and you put your glasses on.
UKLANSKI: When is it out?
KILMER: It's a Halloween extravaganza. There're dogs and vampires. I play a writer who's something like [author] Mario Puzo, or at least how Francis describes Puzo's experience where he wrote The Godfather while he was waiting for inspiration for his masterpiece. My character is a guy who tossed off this book about witches, and it became a big deal, and now he's known as doing these silly witch books and he's on hard times now looking for inspiration.
UKLANSKI: You also went to Africa for a while, because you were working on another film project about a witch doctor, right?
KILMER: I never finished that screenplay.
UKLANSKI: Are witch doctors real?
KILMER: It wasn't about witch doctors, per se. It was about an Englishman who was considered to be a witch doctor. And it may be more accurate to say holy man. He had a great affinity with animals.
UKLANSKI: Was he an animal whisperer?
KILMER: Beyond that. As a teenager, he'd walk into an African village and the snakes would just come up to him. He could catch them too. There aren't a lot of locals who want anything to do with snakes.
UKLANSKI: Does voodoo have anything to do with this holy man?
KILMER: There's black magic and white magic. We've all been raised in the West thinking that black magic is the bad one, but in this particular place, white magic is more like that. It depends on what area of Africa you're in. Take the Bushmen: They're the closest link to early man. In the Bushmen story, the honey badger marries a rainbow, which seems abstract unless you live outside all the time. The honey badger mates right after the rain, so it makes sense. When they are making life, a rainbow is there.
DON’T BELIEVE IN DEATH. THE PHYSICISTS NOW ARE STARTING TO CATCH UP WITH ARTISTS OR THE WITCH DOCTOR . . . BECAUSE NOW THEY CAN PROVE MATHEMATICALLY THAT EVERYTHING’S JUST A POINT OF VIEW.—Val Kilmer
UKLANSKI: That subject is really immense, but I have a feeling you've gotten to the bottom of it.
KILMER: No, I haven't. What interested me about the project I was working on is how there's a deep, deep connection there. And I don't know if you can ever really unlock the mystery of it. It's as important and as silly as talking about art. You can go on forever, but anyone who thinks they've figured it out is just silly. But I've had such a good time getting into the art world in earnest. It's such a different world from movies, which are so unruly and sprawling.
UKLANSKI: The stakes in movies are weirdly higher.
KILMER: Not weirdly-I think exactly in proportion to the hundred million dollars that someone wants back after they've spent three months on it. No other business blows that much cash that fast. It's unreal. I'm going to put a museum on my ranch and people keep saying, "That's a huge idea." Yeah, it's big, but not bigger than the average big movie. A hundred million dollars in the art world is a substantial amount of cash to do anything. That's maybe a big gallery's total sales for a given year.
UKLANSKI: Or you just buy one Giacometti. How did you get into art? You wrote poetry. You were active in the arts from early on, but still, it's not like you woke up one day after you played Batman-
KILMER: Well, you know I specialize in "man." I played Iceman, Batman, Dead Man . . .
UKLANSKI: How did you rehearse for the role of the Dead Man in my movie? A near-death experience would've helped.
KILMER: I have had near-death experiences. I thought it was going to be really easy, but it takes a great deal of discipline to be dead. I'm thinking of an actor I could make fun of right now . . .
UKLANSKI: How about Tom Cruise. You make fun of him sometimes?
KILMER: You can't make fun of Tom Cruise. Poor thing.
UKLANSKI: As he gets older he looks like a lesbian . . .
KILMER: My ex-wife did say that if you hang in there long enough in any world, you become the opposite. Georgia O'Keefe's a very handsome man at the end of her days. Katharine Hepburn was really looking good there. Howard Hughes had become a very beautiful, regal lady by the end.
UKLANSKI: If your museum project takes off, do you think Hollywood will approve of it? Would they understand it, or they don't care?
KILMER: Well, I'm a cliché. I don't want that to be the lead line in the article, but we all grow up. I was very silly about Hollywood. It's easy to criticize. If you have to be there and find your way, you don't need someone like me coming in and reminding you that it's a boneyard. Like Gertrude Stein's most famous perfect sentence of any idea she ever had: There's no there there. Wherever you stand, L.A. is over there. But I've found that Hollywood's a really honest business. They don't pull any punches. They tell you exactly what you want-I want the fake breasts and the flat car and the big pool. You know, they're real up-front about it.
UKLANSKI: But if you make a good performance as an actor, the film is not marketed, or if the film is good but it's not marketed, it doesn't succeed. How is that telling the truth? And isn't it interesting that you want to leave the "truth-telling" of Hollywood?
KILMER: Hollywood's like a warehouse. It's just a place that you go. What's interesting in the warehouse has to do with the creative people. People are always great. Sean Penn's an example of someone who was raised there, never had a problem with being there, and just found the people that he wanted to work with. And every year he worked with more of them. And there's still a list that we both had when we were kids. I haven't worked with [Robert] Duvall, and we share a greater kinship than Sean. It's not really a choice of preferring one world to another.
UKLANSKI: We need to talk more about death, which we haven't-
KILMER: Yes, we will! I just wanted to talk about how [architects] Diller Scofidio + Renfro did an impossible thing. In New York City, they fixed the Juilliard school-my alma mater.
UKLANSKI: They did?
KILMER: Look, I'm clutching my heart.
UKLANSKI: But you had an anticlimax or something when you left Juilliard.
KILMER: No, it was a great victory, because they didn't know what to do with my particular class. And so they accused us of not being able to work together. The main reason was we had really strong women, and there are no plays for women, and they couldn't concentrate long enough to give us what we needed.
UKLANSKI: When you came to Hollywood from New York right after Juilliard, how did you go about getting your first job? Did you hang out with a gang of friends, or was it kind of a lonely trip?
KILMER: It's pretty extreme. I wrote a play at Juilliard about a Western terrorist, and at the time there was virtually no discussion about terrorism in any popular arena in the United States. So it was a very timely play that Joe Papp produced called How It All Began, and it was so serious, and we wrote it as a collective when we were in school and then it got produced professionally right out of school at the Public [Theater]. I had been involved with this pretty heavy subject for two and a half years, and I was just looking to do something that would be fun and not taxing in any way, so ironically my first movie was a comedy, because I had grown up in Los Angeles and I was obsessed with the Kentucky Fried Theater [a comedy troupe]. Those guys made Airplane!, and this was their second film, called Top Secret! It was a very strange beginning to what my training was, which was classic theater and Shakespeare and then going into this absurdist comedy style.
UKLANSKI: And then all that led to Top Gun? How did that have an impact on your career? Because that must have really moved you to an entirely other place, correct?
KILMER: Yeah, that was a very popular movie, and it still seems to endure. People talk about it pretty much every time I go to an airport. [laughs] But that's a long time ago already.
UKLANSKI: You've promised to talk to me some more about death . . .
KILMER: Yes-and I want to have you come out to the ranch so we can talk about the West. Tony Shafrazi was saying he was impressed with my plans for the ranch. He saw me the other day and was saying that he was surprised that I'm into art. I saw him at the disco every night back at Studio 54 in the old days. But we never talked about art back then.
UKLANSKI: What is this about you not drinking anymore?
KILMER: I quit drinking. I never really drank.
UKLANSKI: You were lying to me about waking up next to two Russian girls in a dingy hotel in Moscow after a three-day binge? What about smoking?
KILMER: What, dope? No! Everything in high school was reversed. If marijuana was supposed to make you mellow, I would be like, "The cops, the cops, the
cops . . ." I was what you call the buzz kill. [both laugh]
UKLANSKI: And in The Doors , where you played Jim Morrison? Didn't you send Oliver Stone a screen tape when you were totally high?
KILMER: I acted high because that was the part, but no.
UKLANSKI: You said you were a cliché. I like what you said. What was that about?
KILMER: Yes. Nothing but. First of all, I'm not just an actor born in L.A.. I was born in the Griffith Park Hospital. You can't get any more clichéd than that. Then my first home was not near LAX, it was at LAX. I mean, it's now condemned and owned by the airport. Then we moved to the Valley, and it wasn't near Roy Rogers, it's next to Roy Rogers. Then my dad bought Roy Rogers's house. Right now I'm already 100 percent cliché, and I'm only at 11 or 12 years old.
UKLANSKI: Roy Rogers-what was that like? He was a star! Were you starstruck?
KILMER: I was tongue-tied. I was with five cousins and two brothers, and they all pushed me forward to go knock on the door. Dale Evans [Rogers's wife] answered the door the first time. She said [imitates Texas accent] "Hi, honey! Can I help you?" And I froze and said, "Can Roy Rogers come out and play?" And she said, "I think he's a little busy right now." And I ran away.
UKLANSKI: You were, like, 11?
KILMER: That was, like, 7. But when my dad bought his house, I was, like, 12 or 13.
UKLANSKI: You lived in his house?
KILMER: Yup. When we first went there, he had a jeep and it had a name, Nelly Bell, that was in the front yard. He had stuffed Bullet, his dog, and Trigger, his horse. They were in the recreation room. So our joke in childhood was, we were all worried about Dale-if she goes first, is she going to be stuffed too? Holding a tray of chocolate cookies in the kitchen?
UKLANSKI: It was a little creepy, the house?
KILMER: Not creepy. What was heavy about it was that the guy who developed the area was a friend of Roy's who died on his ranch. Roy and Dale only had one child, who was mongoloid. They adopted, I think, four kids, and two of them died. So they sold to my dad. My little brother died on the property. In my family, two people died on that property.
UKLANSKI: The second was your father?
KILMER: Yeah, my dad died there.
UKLANSKI: Your childhood was a while ago. And of course these are your memories, and yet you are bringing this up. Is it when you look back at your life, it's cliché?
KILMER: I don't think of my life as a cliché, but I'm a cliché eccentric. Complete with a strange name-I mean, who's named Val? How many Vals do you know? I mean, really?
UKLANSKI: Now, how about a purely journalistic question. You've turned down so many roles in the movies-why did you take on Summer Love then?
KILMER: I lost my mind there. I don't know any other logical explanation. But then, I was talking about Robert Altman today. Two times, or even three, I turned him down. Isn't that silly? Altman's so good. Right up to the end. I mean, Gosford Park  is fantastic.
UKLANSKI: It's a little boring.
KILMER: You weren't paying attention!
UKLANSKI: So you have regrets that you didn't take his roles, but do you have regrets that you did Summer Love?
KILMER: Oh, no. Are you kidding? That's supreme! I laugh a lot about it.
UKLANSKI: Will we do something else together?
KILMER: Well, I'm re-entering the work force. I think what's healthy about saying "a cliché" is that, even talking about my career, I had attitudes that I learned and adopted that were easy to imagine in relation to the Marlon Brando school. Not even the acting behavior, but the lifestyle, the attitude that the filmmaker doesn't know what he's doing, that you have contempt for everybody except a couple of people. Basically, spoiled. Brando was extremely talented, a genius, but he was also very spoiled.
UKLANSKI: Don't you think it came very much from his really early success? He was already huge when James Dean started copying him. And he had all the women in the world, and the gap between the common folk and the star at the time was much larger than it is now.
KILMER: But being a cliché means-it's a very lucky career-going to Juilliard. It was impossible to get into that school. It's still impossible. But they didn't take anybody that was a kid. The average age in my class was 21, 22.
UKLANSKI: How old were you?
UKLANSKI: So you're saying that even making Juilliard in that sense is a cliché.
KILMER: Well, I'm sure if I interviewed you right now, you would go to certain key events that maybe people know about you because of your fame as an artist. I lost my little brother, so I was forced to confront death sooner than the average kid from the San Fernando Valley. And being an artist and my religious background and point of view basically showed me how to view life as never-ending.
UKLANSKI: Do you think about the moment of not being, like, Val Kilmer anymore?
KILMER: I don't believe in death.
UKLANSKI: So do you believe in life after death?
KILMER: Yes. I think death is just a transition to another state of consciousness.
UKLANSKI: You don't fear death.
UKLANSKI: I read somewhere that your grandfather was in a coma for a long time. Did you witness that?
KILMER: No. But I went to public school in L.A., so I felt like I'd been in a coma for three years. I woke up, and moved to New York.
UKLANSKI: It seems like you are getting involved in the movies again.
KILMER: Well, I worked for many years where I was only interested in a very personal, subjective idea, and I was very lucky that acting enabled that. I could live a fantasy lifestyle and travel the world and have a lot of adventures. I would take on jobs where it was exclusively some aspect of acting that I was interested in, not really any regard for a career, and so I got mislabeled as someone who was not fun to work with, something negative, or being a professional, but never by any of the great directors I've worked-
UKLANSKI: You are excellent to work with, excuse me!
KILMER: I don't think you can find any good director that has anything negative to say. But I think it's partly because I never lived in Hollywood, I didn't cultivate a personality. What I did was put together this really spectacular ranch in New Mexico, and in many ways I sacrificed the integrity of my career for the integrity of the land. And it's such a big project, which I am very proud of. It's enabled me to continue this kind of quality in my career. Even Top Gun, for example, even though it's a very commercial film, there's something memorable about the role I played in relation to other roles because it's very specific and an indication of something that I was doing right.
UKLANSKI: You're the actor that everyone loves to watch over and over and over.
KILMER: As many choices as I've made that were totally foolish, like turning down work from Altman, or Sean Penn asked me to do a job-
UKLANSKI: Why did you turn him down? 'Cause he lives in a trailer?
KILMER: He used to live in a trailer. But that was a particular role-I should've done that job. And what I learned from him, and then from my own mistakes about directors or other actors-especially with directors, they go really fast. Spielberg, as prolific as he's been, he's only going to make six or seven more movies. But we don't think of directors that way. We think of them as prolific as actors. But actors can make three movies a year.
UKLANSKI: Unless you're Woody Allen or Clint Eastwood.
KILMER: But even so, those guys will only make four or five more movies.
UKLANSKI: But last year you made more than three. You made, like, six.
KILMER: That's what I'm saying. What I have is this art-nature project. I sort of sacrificed my career the last four or five years to pay for it. The business changed at the same time I decided to work less with the big movies. It used to be that you were hired depending on your career. Then, over the last three years, it's now about each movie. Will Smith doesn't play in small films-the only way he would do a small movie is if he had a big smash. I don't know if he's made a small movie in the last six or seven years.
UKLANSKI: Are you talking about sacrificing your career?
KILMER: I have no regrets, I'm just talking about business, like Batman Forever and those types of big movies. I can't just go do one because I want to. You used to be able to do that. You could go away for a long time or experiment.
UKLANSKI: So you mean you are dedicated to your art project so much that you can't do that?
KILMER: I'm just talking about work. For a while that was a choice-you could say no to great directors and it was fine, but you can't do that anymore. First of all, there just aren't that many good directors. Like Werner Herzog-I did that small role because I love Nic Cage and I love Werner-
UKLANSKI: In The Bad Lieutenant.
KILMER: Yeah. It was a great opportunity to hang out with Werner and watch him work, but there wasn't even a role-they kind of made it up so we could hang out together. Werner is someone that I've always wanted to work with, but I was just either foolish or conceited that I thought because we like each other he's looking as actively as I am. And it doesn't happen like that. I mean, do you think Tom Cruise didn't court these directors? He went after Spielberg!
UKLANSKI: And [Stanley] Kubrick.
KILMER: Yeah, because he was smart!
UKLANSKI: But you used to do that, when you went after [Oliver] Stone, right? I think you are having a great moment now.
KILMER: I couldn't be happier. I wasn't complaining. I'm just saying that in terms of what I have to do now-
UKLANSKI: You just need to get more wrinkles.
KILMER: I need to lose this spare tire.
UKLANSKI: I know a great plastic surgeon-
KILMER: Who puts in wrinkles?
KILMER: That might be interesting. I could go the other way-I could be the ultimate cliché and age first.
UKLANSKI: Yeah, you could have this sort of super-battered I-never-left-my-ranch I-never-left-New-Mexico look.
KILMER: I like how you think.
UKLANSKI: I can't believe you don't fear death.
KILMER: No. I don't believe in death. I think it's just a state of mind. The physicists now are starting to catch up with artists or the witch doctor, the healer, because now they can prove mathematically that everything's just a point of view.
UKLANSKI: But don't you think that means that the apparatus that we measure them with is not sufficient?
KILMER: No. Time itself is a concept. It's just because we're lame, because we can't see that fast, because we can't imagine that fast-we think that fast, but it's hard for us to articulate it. That doesn't mean you misapprehend it. It just means that you can't diagnose it with the same language. The human language is lame. It's lame, I say! That's as deep as I can get without dinner.
UKLANSKI: But don't you think this opening up as you get older, being full of understanding, is also a cliché?
KILMER: Yes. But I'm just suggesting that now-because I'm like a kid again about art, because I have this purpose-I want to use art to turn people on about positive solutions. I don't think the world is going to blow up because we're stupid. I think we're going to make it.
UKLANSKI: Weren't you thinking of running for governor or getting involved in politics in New Mexico as well?
KILMER: I was just making a joke about politics because of the strange problem of the press talking to celebrities during election time about specific issues that should be answered by more qualified people. But a couple friends in New Mexico called me up and said, "Were you serious about running for governor?" and I said, "No, but I certainly will show up and be more public if you need me to be." I helped put the bill together for our film commission in New Mexico, which has done really, really well.
UKLANSKI: You've had a long film career-
KILMER: Oh, I have.
UKLANSKI: You've done many things-
KILMER: Twenty-five years already! I mean, Top Gun is 25 years old.
UKLANSKI: You're interrupting me! Okay? And what I'm trying to say is that you've been very choosy, very disciplined about your film choices, okay? That's why I asked why did you turn down Altman and choose Summer Love? Which you kind of did not answer! But my point is that when you do art, it's just the same thing. You have to be very rigorous. You have amazing opportunity, but you can burn it in a flash.
UKLANSKI: It's good to be the eccentric cliché. But in the realm of art, it's best to not do the cliché thing. If you start your museum project, you have to be superprecise. It would be a waste to do the cliché outdoor
artists, consensus artists-maybe you should fucking take your time.
KILMER: I am.
UKLANSKI: We both talked a little bit about Tom Cruise or Sean Penn, who I understand are your peers. But how do you see yourself? I guess each one of you was on a very different professional trajectory, and I think it's an interesting moment to re-evaluate now that you're so busy.
KILMER: I think I shortchanged myself in terms of my acting career, because it's a very hard job to do well and there are many, many, many talented artists. And I didn't take advantage of those opportunities like most of my peers, where there's a real consistency. Once you achieve a certain level of fame, you can secure it with money and you can secure it with relationships, and I just lived in New Mexico for 25 years. And yet, here I am at 51, working with . . . I don't know, I don't have that many heroes . . . I always wanted to know Bob Dylan, and I love that guy, and I always wanted to work with Brando, and have that chance . . . And Francis Coppola's just, if he's not our greatest living director . . .
UKLANSKI: Well, he's neck and neck!
KILMER: It's just such a privilege to have lunch with the guy. And I mean it, really sincerely. He is so kind. As an artist, he's absolutely awake to the opportunity of what life affords us. Art is a way to get strength from something that is life-affirming. It can be quite violent and still be life-affirming. So I'm now really excited because I feel like I just started. I make a lot of jokes about fame because I'm just shy. I still will be uncomfortable in a room. I really enjoy our company, but I was nervous just to do the interview. [laughs] I'm laughing at myself because I've been doing interviews for 30 years. I should know how to do it by now. But that's why I live out in the wilderness.
Piotr Uklanski is an artist and filmmaker. He is planning a large-scale installation for the Lever House in New York later this year.