Latter-day Saint

Val Kilmer is the third actor to play Simon Templar. How does he measure up? Is he himself saint or sinner?

A sked about the performance of his star, director Phillip Noyce leans forward a mite conspiratorially and assumes a sombre tone of voice. "It's ironic, isn't it, that off the screen there's this great debate about Val Kilmer, saint or sinner, and that the story of The Saint should be about exactly that. It's possible that he's a man in search of redemption himself. Certainly he's in search of a new reputation." A few minutes later, after Noyce has left the room and Kilmer has taken his place, the star confines his search to the whereabouts of the bathroom, and then for his cigarettes. Redemption, it seems, will have to wait, although he's quite interested in searching out some neat locations for the possible sequel to The Saint - he favours the off-duty potential of doubling up with an international yacht race or maybe a spot of deep-sea diving in the Maldives.

Tanned, handsome and only slightly smaller than his screen presence suggests, Kilmer looks like a million dollars, which is seven million less than he received for his role in The Saint. What Kilmer is supposed to be redeeming himself from is the allegation, first reported in an Entertainment Weekly cover-story about temperamental stars, that he's a raging primadonna. According to the Batman Forever director Joel Schumacher, Kilmer's behaviour on set was "atrocious". It was also reported elsewhere that, during the filming of The Saint, Kilmer was having an affair with his co-star Elisabeth Shue, though this was denied by Noyce.

But now, Kilmer is most interested in talking about his admiration for Peter Sellers, whom he credits as the inspiration for the many different disguises he adopts to mainly comic effect in The Saint. "I've really always loved his work since I was a kid. Peter Sellers was just a brilliant actor, and also comedic. I always hoped that he would do something like he ended up doing in Being There, where it's all about subtlety, but extreme. I just thought he was an ideal. I never presumed to liken myself to him but he had an approach to looking at how to play a role that was so thorough."

Kilmer's talent for comedy has been apparent since his Broadway debut in a 1983 production of Scottish author John Byrne's hilarious play The Slab Boys, where he co-starred with Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon, and his film debut in the Zucker brothers' skit Top Secret, where he played a wonderfully po-faced Elvis-clone to great effect. He remembers that for The Slab Boys, they had to drop a lot of the Glaswegian dialect because the Broadway audience couldn't understand it. "Byrne said with pride that his Glaswegian cast were unintelligible in parts to an audience from Edinburgh. There's such a glottal traffic jam in there."

On The Saint, Kilmer took his love of disguise as far as turning up on- set in character and standing next to Noyce without the director realising who he was. He also developed most of the characterisations himself, as the script was still being written as the movie progressed. "I thought that was something I could contribute because I like dialects, and the disguise element does fit right in with the character of Simon Templar, although there was always the risk factor of being too extreme, that it would be corny or send up the genre, which Phillip didn't want to do." Of the disguises, three in particular stand out: Bruno, the effeminate German, was, says Kilmer, "originally a lot more flamboyant than Phillip could handle. I went eight or 10 times further out, starting off wearing a pearl necklace and seeing how scary it could be being such a guy." Tony the journalist, an oleaginous creep with greasy teeth, came about "as a challenge against the clock to come up with something for a scene that was on again and off again because of the budget. Because everyone liked him so much I thought it would be a nifty touch in honouring Elizabeth's character to have him proved wrong." (The journalist doubts that Shue's formula for cold nuclear fusion will work.)

But the best of all the personae is the figure of Thomas Moore, in which Kilmer revisits his Jim Morrison role from The Doors to create a Byronic poet with a South African accent who charms the pants off Shue's uptight scientist. The role was modelled on Kilmer's best friend, whose African- explorer father is the subject of a screenplay he's currently writing, and which might become the first project he directs. "I'm in the process of writing it and I'm now at that part of my career where I could take the time and the risk of directing it myself. I'd prefer someone else to direct but it is a director's medium, and it's quite difficult to reveal what exists in nature, to capture that energy."

Despite his leading-man status, Kilmer would like to see himself as a character actor most of all. "I like telling the story and having the story revealed through character. It's not yet a lost art in screenwriting but screenwriters themselves have that complaint. The onus now is in selling the concept and both the trust and the value seem to have gone. William Goldman wrote an article recently about the death of the Hollywood system, because it's failing to accept that stories deliver the most interesting part of the movie experience, yet they are what it is all about. I'm always trying to find something in the characters that I play so that I can maintain an interest throughout the shooting. Having said that, the Oscars this year were actually about something."

Kilmer appears in almost every frame of The Saint, and he's eager for the sequel, if it comes, especially if the redemptive power of exotic locations and deep-sea diving is involved too. For Noyce, "the Simon Templar at the beginning of the movie is psychologically wounded, closed, and he wears a mask because he's so wounded. I personally think Kilmer plays the role very well. At the end perhaps, he drives off into the sunset in his Volvo having metamorphosed into something approaching Roger Moore." A cut to Val, emblematic eyebrow raised in tribute to our Rog as he snorkles through the coral, might be a nice closing shot for the sequel, if it comes. Redemption might have to wait a little longern 'The Saint' opens tomorrow. Ryan Gilbey reviews the film on page 8

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