Val Kilmer: Malice in wonderland

Val Kilmer's Hollywood reputation (as an arrogant, dangerous weirdo) precedes him, and his film roles tell a similar story. But what's he like in the oft-bared flesh? Charlotte O'Sullivan dares to get close

Val Kilmer is sitting on the sofa, flicking through a magazine. "Do you wanna see these pictures that me and my friend took?" he says, and pats the cushion next to him. "We made collages. Cool, huh?" The photos (inspired by Kilmer's latest film, the low-budget Wonderland) were supposed to be showing at London's Proud gallery. "Yeah," says Kilmer, pulling a can-you-believe-it face, "but the guy went crazy on me... just cuckoo. Tried to sue me, and wrote this article about me." A wry shake of the head. "Silly man."

Now, before we go any further, I think it's only fair to say that Val Kilmer is himself prone to the odd "turn". He denies this, of course. In fact, before the interview, the PR asks me not to bring up Kilmer's "bad" reputation, "because he's had to answer these questions so many times". For the record, some directors have found this notoriously dedicated actor a little hard to deal with, including Joel Schumacher (Batman Forever), who said that he needed "psychiatric help"; Ron Howard (Willow), who called him "immature"; and John Frankenheimer (The Island of Dr Moreau), who vowed that there were two things he'd never do: "Climb Mount Everest and work with Val Kilmer again."

That the actor Tom Sizemore has joined in the slaggings probably counts for less (he's got his own problems). But the fact is, even Kilmer's friends and fans (Oliver Stone, Michael Mann) admit that he can be testing. "With the wrong approach," warned Stone, "you may see a side of him that you don't like". Most recently, on Wonderland, a fellow-actor confessed that, with Kilmer around, "I felt almost in danger".

That Kilmer is a fitfully astounding performer is not in question. As Wonderland's blasted, ultimately homicidal ex-porn star John Holmes - the real-life figure at the centre of a gruesome gangland slaying in early 1980s LA - he comes dripping with greasy intensity. He was also magnetic in Tombstone, as Doc Holliday, and very watchable as well in The Doors and Heat. He even managed to hurl a little spice into the bland stew of Willow (where he met Joanne Whalley, the British actress whom he married in 1988 and divorced in 1996), and, personally, I think he made a decent, sensual fist of Batman. But, for whatever reason (and disastrous takings for The Saint can't have helped), in the last few years, the high-profile roles have dried up. Of a recent film, one critic bitchily wrote that it was "drowning in its own pretensions... along with, quite possibly, what's left of Kilmer's career".

Anyway, Kilmer (44, last New Year's Eve) doesn't seem too worried. As the PR has already assured me, he's on "top form" today, and does indeed look in rude health, positively jaunty in his blue suit and middle-management-smart shirt. Some might say that his is a funny face (tweak those features just a bit - the meaty cheeks, the over-eager teeth - and he bears an unnerving resemblance to The League of Gentlemen's Herr Lip). From most angles, though, he's the starry real deal, reminiscent of a young Jeff Bridges and, in profile, Mel Gibson. He's especially photogenic when sporting long, flowing hair - as the "collages" he's still poring over make clear.

"We had a show in Rome," he says, happily, "and we've got one in the best gallery in Tokyo. We've done two shows in LA. Did I mention Rome? And look, that's Paris Hilton, we put her in it..."

We talk a little bit about the film, about how much he liked working with Kate Bosworth, who plays his girlfriend Dawn ("I am a romantic by nature, so it wasn't difficult to imagine falling for her!"), and the people in his life who remind him of Holmes - people who do despicable things, but who are lovable, too. "I'm trying to know less of them," he says, rolling his eyes. "I do tend to help out characters who are lost causes. I guess [leaning forward and plopping a lump of sugar into his green tea] we have to. You know, birds with broken wings..."

"Have you seen the art we did?" he says, suddenly. "Yeah," I reply, somewhat bewildered. He reaches for the magazine, and, with a frown of concentration, points at the exact same pictures, all over again. "We did these together. We have shows all over the world now. We had one in Rome..."

Dear God, I'm in Groundhog Day.

He surveys the queasy-sleazy scenarios spread before us. "There's a reason those murders take place on Wonderland Avenue, I think, psychically. If you look at an aerial map of LA, it is directly in the centre of this circle, absolutely in the centre..." Another picture grabs his attention. "Now this one has a real In Cold Blood feeling. I superimposed that on a gun case. And that's Paris Hilton..."

Eventually, he loses interest in the magazine and, still smiling, goes on to say what a pleasure it was to work with the cast - the fun they had, all the laughing they did. "Acting is so strange," he drawls. "There was this actor, Ted Levine. And, um, I've often been associated, personally, with the roles that I've played - people in extreme circumstances [oh, heaven, I think, where is this sentence going?]. It's very hard, when you're a good actor, too, because you're supposed to make it look easy, right?

"So anyway, I kept trying to talk to Ted, 'cos I really like his acting, and he would never talk to me, he was always looking at me like... [he gropes for the right words] ...he was putting up with me breathing. But when I watched the film, I realised it had nothing to do with me - that contempt. He was just doing his job, he was in character."

A part of me winces inside. Maybe the guy really just couldn't stand him. But that's getting on to dangerous ground, so I don't push it. Which makes it all the more surprising when Kilmer brings up the subject himself. He says that after taking time off to spend more time with his kids, (they visit him in New Mexico, where he has a ranch), he's now done six or seven movies in a row, and that it's a "great feeling". His green eyes bore into mine. "I'm not afraid anymore. I was hammered for a long time, for being a bad person, without any evidence. It was quite hard, quite hurtful to go through that. You know, I love my mom, and I'd have to call her every time one of these crazy stories came up and explain, 'They're just selling newspapers, mom'. Or I'd lose a job because someone was afraid to hire me, for some reason."

He cites his experience on The Island of Dr Moreau as one of the most mystifying cases of all. "I hired my own writer to try to help! Forty pages of notes we gave them, to try to make that movie work!"

And the rumour that he got the original director fired? He reaches out to touch my arm. "No actor can get a director fired! Not even Leonardo DiCaprio. There are laws and contracts and rules. Anyone in the business knows that."

So why did all these stories appear? He sighs. "I was getting divorced, and it was difficult." (Basically, he thinks that Whalley's friends fed negative stories to the press, to make it tricky for him to get custody of their two kids). "Plus, I always have been outspoken. I've always trusted and believed that the acting I'm getting paid to do was the most important thing. Now, I'm more clear that it's not the only responsibility I have."

Aha! A change of heart, perhaps. "When you're the lead in a movie," he says, clearing his throat, "you have to lead, and I've never been very graceful about problems. In the movie industry, there's lots of money, lots of fear. I was sort of pitiless, when I was younger, about fear, I thought you had to meet it head on. But that's me, it's not my right, to..." He starts the sentence again. "You have an opportunity, when you're in the lead, to set a standard of behaviour. I never paid much attention to that, but now I do."

It was actually Oliver Stone who brought about the conversion. "He said, 'You've got to address the higher-ups. 'Cos if you don't treat the executives how they like to be treated, they're gonna torture you. Now, with executives, directors, I'm more polite."

As mea culpas go, this one's not exactly brimming with humility - he's admitting to one or two errors, but the gist of it is: everyone's stupider than me, but instead of screaming at them I'm going to patronise them instead. Then again, maybe it's no bad thing to take yourself, and your job, so seriously. Of The Island of Dr Moreau experience, he says, with a hint of sadness, that if he had to do it again, he'd just leave things be ("Just to make people happy, and to avoid any scandal, I wouldn't try to make it better. I'd just go there and be happy every day. Marlon Brando [his co-star] told me over and over again, 'Stop trying to help 'em'.") Brando himself, of course, is an expert at giving his directors palpitations, but his prime motivation, you suspect, is boredom. Maybe Kilmer's panicky, earnest desire to turn everything he's involved with into a "classic" is actually rather commendable - even if, and when, it misfires.

Like a lot of arrogant people, Kilmer comes across as painfully vulnerable. He has talked, in the past, about the impact his younger brother's death had on him (aged 15, Wesley Kilmer drowned). He has said, too, that his father "appreciated, and loved more readily", his younger brother's talent. When I mention this, his mouth tightens. "Not just my father. Anyone did. He was just really talented."

He goes on to talk about his daughter Mercedes (nearly 13), and the time he took her to see a family that he really admires ("They read all the time, you just go to their house and you feel smarter"). So, anyway, he was looking forward to Mercedes being exposed to this salon, getting the chance to be "a fly on the wall". Exhausted from a day of filming, he crashed out in another room, only to wake up to peals of laughter. And then, walking into the room, what does he see but Mercedes, sitting on the couch, holding forth. "The people in the family, they're just listening to her, rapt! She was the most interesting conversationalist there!" His face glows with pride. Through her, he'd gotten to be the centre of attention, without any craziness at all.

That he is a man of many contradictions is something he happily admits. Just as the interview is coming to a close, he tells me, for example, that he loves The Office. It was Whalley who got him hooked (they're no longer estranged). "She knows what's up, so she passed on the tapes. God, it's so good! We've all known that guy, haven't we? Who thinks he's so funny and he's just not, and you work with him, so you're in prison. He tortures everyone!" He slaps his thigh, at the weirdness of it all. "There I am, watching it on my nice big flat TV screen, in my nice big rented house in LA, and I'm obsessed with some guy from Slough!" He puts his head in his hands. "Who can't do anything all day long except stick his foot in his mouth!"

He becomes helpless with laughter - really helpless, grunts of pleasure and all - at just the memory of David Brent's "celebrity" appearances. "Oh, it's so awful," he says, wiping a tear from his eye, "so wonderfully awful."

Ironic, isn't it? For all his talent, good looks and fortune, Kilmer has much in common with David Brent: a funny man, but not as funny as he wants to be; loud, but rather uncomfortable in crowds. An ageing puppy, desperate to be loved, he's an expert at casually causing offense, an amateur at playing cool. Would you want him as your "leader"? No, you wouldn't. Yet somehow, against all the odds, you wish him well.

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