Val Kilmer: No more Mr Bad Guy

He hasn't always enjoyed the best of reputations in Hollywood. It's all been a misunderstanding, he tells Lesley O'Toole
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The Independent Culture

"Please hire me again, Jerry Bruckheimer. Jerry, please." Val Kilmer is not entirely play-acting. Though spectacular in last year's hypnotic, noir-ish, crime thriller Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, he says the rush of admiration for his performance - and an electric double-act with Robert Downey Jr - has not translated to any perceptible career heat. He is thrilled, though, to be starring for Bruckheimer and his old Top Gun director Tony Scott in Déjà Vu, the sort of flashy action-drama that has become the domain of Scott, Bruckheimer, and Denzel Washington.

Twenty years ago Kilmer did not want to play second lead in Top Gun. Today, he has no qualms playing second fiddle to Washington, or third, even, after Jim Caviezel, who has a juicy role as a twisted patriot. As always, Kilmer steals scenes, obviously, if not perhaps deliberately. And he is equally obviously having fun, as evidenced in his playfulness on screen and his irresistible, joie de vivre in person.

"With a little break and some of these films I've done recently, I kind of feel like I've only just started. I really feel again that this is a fun job. I feel very excited about storytelling and life and acting right now. And I think that's because I took some time off. It's a hard business."

Kilmer knows this better than most. He has been the object of vitriol hurled from the mouths of Joel Schumacher (Batman Forever, 1995) and John Frankenheimer (The Island of Dr Moreau, 1996). Yet today, he's a lamb. He also looks a thousand times better than his slightly doughy federal agent in Déjà Vu. Was the line already in the film about his character's having lost his looks? "Yeah, that was always there. You know, I started running round and training and all that stuff but I was hanging out with these FBI and DEA guys and they're just not like that. So I thought, 'I'll train on the next movie,' and started eating pasta."

He is still a very attractive man, who turns 47 on New Year's Eve, and is necessarily then a little more worn-looking than Top Gun's Iceman and, of course, Batman. He is also funny, confident, and immensely personable to boot, though he does have a tendency to talk 19 to the dozen.

"I really didn't take the business as seriously as a professional as I should have. We are all sensitive and I didn't realise just how sensitive we are. People like getting Christmas cards, you know."

Kilmer probably gets a lot of Christmas cards these days, at his remote (working) ranch outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. He clearly has a lot of friends in Hollywood (he is close to Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, for starters), as he always has. And if he has not enjoyed the career he might have, he admits it is as much due to his own decisions, as that reputation.

"You just don't turn down certain directors. You just don't. And I didn't realise how precious time is. I thought I could work with them again when I turned them down. I now realise I won't get another chance." Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola are just two.

"And I've turned down a lot of roles. The Insider is one. I don't regret that. And I turned down The Matrix, Laurence Fishburne's role."

Kilmer had worked with Déjà Vu's director Scott twice before, on the film that made him a movie star - 1986's Top Gun - and 1993's True Romance, in which he played Elvis. Kilmer is aware now that he owes him. "I didn't want to do Top Gun and I turned down a bunch of meetings with Tony. My agent was just torturing me, telling me, 'You're going to love him, he's a great guy,' so I went to meet him to get her off my back. So I meet him, listen to his deal, and then leave. As I pushed the button of the lift I heard this swooshing round the corner. The doors opened and Tony jumped in front of the lift and wouldn't let me leave. He went [now in a perfect Tony Scott impression], 'It's going to be great, man. There'll be jets and whooof! And I know you don't want to do it but your hair's going to be great!'"

Famously, Kilmer took the role and stardom followed. Two years later he made Willow, in which he co-starred with his wife-to-be, the British actress Joanne Whalley. They married in 1988, had two children - Mercedes, now 15, and Jack, 11 - and endured a difficult divorce in 1996.

He went on to do excellent work in the Nineties, in The Doors, Thunderheart, Tombstone and Heat. He also uses his profile for the benefit of the state he considers home, New Mexico. In 2002, Hollywood spent $3m filming in New Mexico, in 2006, $117m. "It's a very wonderful community for the United States, a tri-cultural Latino and Native American one. But there is extreme poverty, as in many Native American communities."

Kilmer says he also works for Habitat for Humanity, which aims to eliminate poverty housing. "I'm not a bad guy," he says at one point, in the resigned tone of one certain he will spend his immediate future having to prove it. "I'm very boring. I've never been in a fist-fight my whole life."

Kilmer insists Kiss Kiss Bang Bang did not readily translate into a slew of shiny, irresistible, offers. "I wish." It was not the first time Kilmer had been funny on film, but it seems to have re-ignited a long-dormant dream to laugh more. "It is so great to go to work and laugh all day long. Or all night long on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Most of it was shot at night, which is usually just exhausting but the sun would be coming up and I'd be upset because I just wanted to keep laughing."

Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr are actively looking for a comedy to make together, and I remind him of something he mentioned during an interview he gave in London last year. It was a Danny Boyle project about a period train heist that he mused might be something for the pair. "Yes!" Kilmer announces, excitedly. "One of the million Wilson brothers was going to do it. Or was it Hugh Grant? But thanks. I'm going to write another note to myself." He duly does so. "Danny Boyle is awfully good. I saw Shallow Grave when it came out and I wrote his name down then, like I am now."

Kilmer also has his own production company in Los Angeles. But his children also live there. His daughter Mercedes attends the same exclusive private school as one of Steven Spielberg's daughter, his son Jack one equally expensive and elite. "She just won the championship for debating here, which means she's the best arguer of all the kids in LA. I called the ex-wife and went, 'Look at the size of this trophy!' But then I realised all it's going to do is make her haughtier. She's 15 now so she's been arguing for 13 years and now she's got a trophy to prove it. She'll be like, 'Dad, I want a car.' And she'll probably point to the trophy and say, 'Don't make me prove it.'"

On his list of upcoming jobs are playing brothers with Mickey Rourke, a play and movie with high-school pal Kevin Spacey, a film about Mark Twain based on a biography he is writing, and a musical. But laughter is paramount. "I want Owen Wilson's life. I'd do nothing but comedies for the next five years if I could."

'Déjà Vu' opens today

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