Crazy Things Seem Normal . . . Normal Things Seem Crazy
Val Kilmer is an L. A. kid who now owns bison. He's a Christian Scientist and a collector of reference books. He's Cindy Crawford's ex and Bob Dylan's pal. He has portrayed Jim Morrison, Willem de Kooning, John Holmes, and Batman. Is he the most advanced actor of our time?
By Chuck Klosterman
"I just like looking at them," Val Kilmer tells me as we stare at his two bison. "I liked looking at them when I was a kid, and I like looking at them now." The buffalo are behind a fence, twenty-five feet away. A fifteen-hundred-pound bull stares back at us, bored and tired. He stomps his right hoof, turns 180 degrees, and defecates in our general direction. "Obviously, we are not seeing these particular buffalo at their most noble of moments," Kil-mer says, "but I still like looking at them. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I'm part Cherokee. There was such a relationship between the buffalo and the American Indian--the Indians would eat them, live inside their pelts, use every part of the body. There was almost no separation between the people and the animals."
Val Kilmer tells me he used to own a dozen buffalo, but now he's down to a pair. He says he named one of these remaining ungulates James Brown because it likes to spin around in circles and looks like the kind of beast who might beat up his wife. I have been talking to Kilmer for approximately three minutes; it's 5:20 P.M. on April Fool's Day.
Twenty-four hours ago, I was preparing to fly to Los Angeles to conduct this interview; this was because Val was supposedly leaving for Switzerland (for four months) on April 3. Late last night, these plans changed entirely. Suddenly, Val was not going to be in L. A. Instead I was instructed to fly to New Mexico, where someone would pick me up at the Albuquerque airport and drive me to Kilmer's six-thousand-acre ranch. However, when I arrived in Albuquerque this afternoon, the plans changed again. I was now told to rent a car and drive to the ranch myself. Curiously, the ranch is not outside Albuquerque (which I assumed would be the case, particularly since Val himself suggested I fly into the Albuquerque airport). It is actually outside Santa Fe, which is seventy-three miles away.
The drive to Santa Fe on I-25 is mildly Zen; there are road signs that say, GUSTY WINDS MAY EXIST. This seems more like lazy philosophy than travel advice. When I arrive in New Mexico's capital city, I discover that Kilmer's ranch is still another thirty minutes away, and the directions on how to get there are a little confusing; it takes me forty-five minutes before I find the gate to his property. The gate is closed. There is no one around for miles, the sky is huge, and my cell phone no longer works. This, I suppose, is where the buffalo roam (and where roaming rates apply). I locate an intercom phone outside the gate, but most of the numbers don't work. When an anonymous male voice finally responds to my desperate pleas for service, it is mechanical and terse: "Who are you meeting? What is this regarding?" I tell him I am a reporter, and that I am here to see Val Kilmer, and that Mr. Kilmer knows I am coming. There is a pause, and then he says, "Someone will meet you at the bridge!" The gate swings open and I drive through. I expect the residence to be near the entrance, but it is not; I drive at least two miles on a gravel road. Eventually, I cross a wooden bridge and park the vehicle. I see a man driving toward me on a camouflaged ATV four-wheeler, and the man looks like a cross between Jeff Bridges and Thomas Haden Church, which means that this is the man I am looking for. He parks next to my rental car; I roll down the window. He is smiling, and his teeth are huge. I find myself staring at them.
"Welcome to the West," the teeth say. "I'm Val Kilmer. Would you like to see the buffalo?"
"I've never been that comfortable talking about myself, or about acting," the forty-five-year-old Kilmer says. It's 7:00 P.M. We are now sitting in his lodge, which is more rustic than I anticipated. We are surrounded by unfinished wood and books about trout fishing, and an African kudu head hangs on the wall. There seem to be a lot of hoofed animals on this ranch, and many of them are dead. Kilmer's friendly ranch hand (a fortyish woman named Pam Sawyer) has just given me a plateful of Mexican food I don't really want, so Val is eating it for me. He is explaining why he almost never gives interviews.
"For quite a while, I thought that it didn't really matter if I defended myself [to journalists]. A lot of things kind of snowballed when I didn't refute them. And I mainly didn't do interviews because they're hard. When you're young, you're always concerned about how you're being seen and how you're being criticized."
I have not come to New Mexico to criticize Val Kilmer. However, he seems almost disturbingly certain of this fact. Last year, I wrote a column in which I described Kilmer as being "advanced." What this means is that I find Kilmer's persona interesting, and that I think he makes choices other actors would never consider, and that he is probably my favorite working actor. This is all true. However, Kilmer took this column to mean that I am his biggest fan on the planet and that he can trust me entirely. From the moment we look at his buffalo, he is completely relaxed and cooperative; he immediately introduces me to his children, Mercedes (age thirteen) and Jack (age ten). Val shares custody with their British mother (Joanne Whalley, Kilmer's costar from Willow) in Los Angeles, but the kids spend a great chunk of time on this ranch. They love it here, despite the fact that it doesn't have a decent television. Along with the bison, the farmstead includes horses, a dog, two cats, and (as of this afternoon) five baby chickens, one of which will disappear before the night is over. (Both cats are suspects.) The Kilmer clan is animal crazy; the house smells like a veterinarian's office. Jack is predominantly consumed with the chicks in the kitchen and the trampoline in the backyard. Mercedes is an artist and a John Lennon fan; she seems a little too smart to be thirteen. When I ask her what her favorite Val Kilmer movie is, she says, "Oh, probably Batman Forever, but only because it seems like it was secretly made by Andrew Lloyd Webber."
For the first forty-five minutes of my visit, the five of us--Kilmer, his two kids, Pam the ranch hand, and me--occupy the main room of the house and try to make casual conversation, which is kind of like making small talk with friendly strangers in a wooden airport. Mercedes has a lot of questions about why Kilmer is "advanced," and Val mentions how much he enjoys repeating the word advanced over and over and over again. He tells me about an Afterschool Special he made in 1983 called One Too Many, in which he played a teenage alcoholic alongside Mare Winningham (his first girlfriend) and Michelle Pfeiffer (a woman he would later write poetry for). I mention that he seems to play a lot of drug-addled drunks, and he agrees that this is true. In fact, before I got here, I unconsciously assumed Val would be a drug-addled drunk during this interview, since every story I've ever heard about him implies that he's completely crazy; he supposedly burned a cameraman with a cigarette on the set of The Island of Dr. Moreau. There are a few directors (most notably Joel Schumacher) who continue to paint him as the most egocentric, unreasonable human in Hollywood. As far as I can tell, this cannot possibly be accurate. If I had to describe Kilmer's personality in one word (and if I couldn't use the word advanced), I would have to employ the least incendiary of all modifiers: Val Kilmer is nice. The worst thing I could say about him is that he's kind of a name-dropper. Beyond that, he seems like an affable fellow with a good sense of humor, and he is totally not fucked up.
But he is weird.
He's weird in ways that are expected, and he's weird in ways that are not. I anticipated that he might seem a little odd when we talked about acting, mostly because a) Kilmer is a Method actor, and b) all Method actors are insane. However, I did not realize how much insanity this process truly required. That started to become clear when I asked him about The Doors and Wonderland, two movies in which Kilmer portrays acutely self-destructive drug addicts. Late in Wonderland, he wordlessly (and desperately) waits for someone to offer him cocaine in a manner that seems excruciatingly authentic. I ask if he ever went through a drug phase for real. He says no. He says he's never freebased cocaine in his life but that he understands the mind-set of addiction. The conversation evolves into a meditation on the emotional toll that acting takes on the artist. I ask him about the "toll" that he felt while making the 1993 western Tombstone. He starts talking about things that happened to Doc Holliday. I say, "No, no, you must have misunderstood me. I want to know about the toll it took on you." He says, "I know, I'm talking about those feelings." And this is the conversation that follows:
Me: You mean you think you literally had the same experience as Doc Holliday?
Kilmer: Oh, sure. It's not like I believed that I shot somebody, but I absolutely know what it feels like to pull the trigger and take someone's life.
You understand how it feels to shoot someone as much as a person who has actually committed a murder?
I understand it more. It's an actor's job. A guy who's lived through the horror of Vietnam has not spent his life preparing his mind for it. He's some punk. Most guys were borderline criminal or poor, and that's why they got sent to Vietnam. It was all the poor, wretched kids who got beat up by their dads, guys who didn't get on the football team, couldn't finagle a scholarship. They didn't have the emotional equipment to handle that experience. But this is what an actor trains to do. I can more effectively represent that kid in Vietnam than a guy who was there.
I don't question that you can more effectively represent it, but that's not the same thing. If you were talking to someone who's in prison for murder and the guy said, "Man, it really fucks you up to kill another person," do you think you could reasonably say, "I completely know what you're talking about"?
Oh yeah. I'd know what he's talking about.
Let's say someone made a movie about you--Val Kilmer--and they cast Jude Law in the lead role. By your logic, wouldn't this mean that Jude Law--if he succeeded in the role--would therefore understand what it means to be Val Kilmer more than you do?
No, because I'm an actor. The people in those other circumstances don't have the self-knowledge.
Well, what if it were a movie about your young life, before you became an actor?
I guess I'd have to say yes.
Okay, so let's assume you had been given the lead role in The Passion of the Christ. Would you understand the feeling of being crucified as much as Jesus?
Well, I just played Moses [in a theatrical version of TheTen Commandments]. Of course.
So you understand the experience of being Moses? Maybe I'm just taking your words too literally.
No, I don't think so. That's what acting is.
I keep asking Kilmer if he is joking, and he swears he is not. However, claiming that he's not joking might be part of the joke. A few weeks later, I paraphrased the preceding conversation to Academy Award--winning conspiracy theorist Oliver Stone, the man who directed Kilmer in 1991's The Doors and 2004's Alexander. He did not find our exchange surprising. "This has always been the issue with Val," Stone said via cell phone as his son drove him around Los Angeles. "He speaks in a way that is propelled from deep inside, and he doesn't always realize how the things he says will sound to other people. But there is a carryover effect from acting. You can never really separate yourself from what you do, and Val is ultrasensitive to that process."
Stone says Kilmer has substantially matured over the years, noting that the death of Kilmer's father in 1993 had an immediate impact on his emotional flexibility. "We didn't have the greatest relationship when we made The Doors," he says. "I always thought he was a technically brilliant actor, but he was difficult. He can be moody. But when we did Alexander, Val was an absolute pleasure to work with. I think part of his problem with The Doors was that he just got sick of wearing leather pants every day."
Kilmer and his kids are playing with the cats. Because there are two of them (Ernest and Refrigerator), the living room takes on a Ghost and the Darkness motif. While they play with the felines, Val casually mentions he awoke that morning at 4:00 A.M. to work on a screenplay, then went back to bed at 6:00 A.M. I ask him about the movie he's writing.
"Well, it's a woman's story," he says cautiously. "It's about this woman who was just fighting to survive, and everything that happened to her."
I ask him if this is a real person; he says she is. "Her first husband died. Her own family took her son away from her. She marries a guy because he promises to get the son back, and then he doesn't. He's a dentist, and he won't even fix her teeth. She ends up divorcing him because he gets captured in the Civil War. She meets a homeopathic guy who's probably more of a mesmerist hypnotist. For the first time in her life, at forty-two years old, she's feeling good. But then she slips on the ice and breaks every bone in her body, and the doctor and the priest say she should be dead. But she has this experience while she's praying and she gets up. People literally thought they were seeing a ghost. And then she spent all this time trying to articulate what had happened to her. How was she healed? That's what the story is about: the rest of her life. Because she lived until she was ninety and became the most famous lady in the United States."
His vision for this film is amazingly clear, and he tells me the story with a controlled, measured intensity. I ask him the woman's name. He says, "Mary Baker Eddy. She died in 1910."
It is not until the next morning that I realize Mary Baker Eddy was the founder of Christian Science, and that Val Kilmer is a Christian Scientist.
"Well, I am trying to be," he says while we sit on his back porch and look at the bubbling blueness of the Pecos River. "It is quite a challenging faith."
There are many facets to Christian Science, but most people concern themselves with only one: Christian Scientists do not take medicine. They believe that healing does not come from internal processes or from the power of the human mind; they believe it comes from the Divine Mind. This belief becomes more complex when you consider the circumstances of the Kilmer family. The son of an engineer and a housewife, Val had two brothers. Over time, the family splintered. Val's parents divorced, and he remains estranged from his older brother over a business dispute that happened more than ten years ago. ("We have a much better relationship not speaking," Val says.) His younger brother, Wesley, died as a teenager; Wesley had an epileptic seizure in a swimming pool. (Val was seventeen at the time, about to go to school at Juilliard.) I ask him if his brother's epilepsy was untreated at the time of his death.
"Well, this is a complicated answer," he says. "He was treated periodically. There is a big misnomer with Christian Science. People used to say, 'Christian Science. Oh, you're the ones that don't believe in doctors,' which is not a true thing. It's just a different way of treating a malady. It could be mental, social, or physical. When Wesley was diagnosed, he was given medical treatment. When he was in school, they would stop the treatment. Then periodically, he would go back and forth between Christian Science and the medical treatment."
I ask him what seems like an obvious question: Isn't it possible that his brother's death happened when he wasn't being treated, and that this incident could have been avoided?
"Christian Science isn't responsible for my little brother's death," he says, and I am in no position to disagree.
His daughter walks past us. I ask Val if he would not allow her to take amoxicillin if she had a sore throat; he tells me that because he's divorced, he doesn't have complete control over that type of decision. But he says his first move in such a scenario would be to pray, because most illness comes from fear. We start talking about Scientology, which he has heard is "basically Christian Science without God." We begin discussing the definition of religion; Kilmer thinks an institution cannot be classified as a religion unless God is involved. When I argue that this is not necessarily the case, Val walks into the house and brings out the Oxford English Dictionary. The print in the OED is minuscule, so he begins scouring the pages like Sherlock Holmes. He pores over the tiny words with a magnifying glass that has an African boar's tusk as a handle. He finds the definition of religion, but the OED's answer is unsatisfactory. He decides to check Webster's Second Unabridged Dictionary, which he insists was the last dictionary created without an agenda. We spend the next fifteen minutes looking up various words, including monastic.
So this, I suppose, is an example of how Val Kilmer is weird in unexpected ways: He's a Christian Scientist, and he owns an inordinate number of reference books.
I ask Kilmer if he agrees that his life is weird. First he says no, but then he (kind of) says yes.
"I've probably made as much money as six hundred thousand or eight hundred thousand people in this state," he says. "It's a crazy thing to say, you know? I live on a ranch that's larger than Manhattan. That's a weird circumstance." Now, this is something of an exaggeration. Manhattan is 14,563 acres, which is more than twice as large as Val's semiarid homestead. But his point is still valid: He's got a big fucking backyard.
Kilmer's self-awareness with respect to his fame seems to partially derive from his familiarity with other famous people. During the two days we spend together, he mentions myriad celebrities he considers to be friends--Robert De Niro, Nelson Mandela, Steve-O. He tells me he dreams of making a comedy with Will Ferrell, whom he considers a genius. At one point, Kilmer does a flawless Marlon Brando impression, even adjusting the timbre of his voice to illustrate the subtle difference between the seventies Brando from Last Tango in Paris and the nineties Brando from Don Juan DeMarco. We talk about Kevin Spacey, and he says that Spacey is "proof that you can learn how to act. Because he was horrible when he first started, and now he's so good." We talk about the famous women he's dated. The last serious relationship he had was with Daryl Hannah, which ended a year ago. During the 1990s, he was involved with Cindy Crawford, so I ask him what it's like to sleep with one of the most famous women in the world. His short answer is that it's awesome. His long answer is that it's complicated.
"Cindy is phenomenally comfortable in the public scene," Kilmer says. "With a great deal of humor, she describes herself as being in advertising. She's an icon in it; we actually talked about her image in relation to the product. And I was uncomfortable with that. We got in a huge fight one night because of a hat she was wearing. The hat advertised a bar, and I had a certain point of view about the guy who owned the bar, and I was just being unreasonable. But I knew we were going to go to dinner and that we'd get photographed with this hat, and I was just hard to deal with. It was a really big deal."
This is the kind of exchange that makes talking to an established movie star so unorthodox. Kilmer remembers that his girlfriend wearing a certain hat was a big deal, but he doesn't think it was a big deal that the girlfriend was Cindy Crawford. Crazy things seem normal, normal things seem crazy. He mentions that he is almost embarrassed by how clichÃ©d his life has become, despite the fact that the manifestation of clichÃ© includes buffalo ownership. However, there are certain parts of his life that even he knows are strange. This is most evident when--apropos of nothing--he starts talking about Bob Dylan.
"I am a friend of Bob's, as much as Bob has friends," Kilmer says. "Bob is a funny guy. He is the funniest man I know." Apparently, Dylan loved Tombstone so much that he decided to spend an afternoon hanging out in Val's hotel room, later inviting Kilmer into the recording studio with Eric Clapton and casting him in the film Masked and Anonymous. What he seems to admire most about Dylan is that--more than anything else--Bob Dylan never appears to care what anyone thinks of him. And that is something Val Kilmer still cares about (even though he'd argue otherwise).
"I never cultivated a personality," he says, which is something I am skeptical of, but something I cannot disprove. "Almost everyone who is really famous has cultivated a personality. I can safely say that no one who has ever won an Oscar didn't want to win an Oscar. I think that Bob Dylan would have loved to win a Grammy during all those years when he knew he was doing his best work. Advanced or not, he was certainly ahead of his time, and he was more worthy than whoever won. . . . Dylan was doing stuff that was so new that everyone hated it. Like when he started playing the electric guitar, for example. He toured for a year, and he was booed every night. Onstage, I could never take three performances in a row and be booed. I just don't think I'm that strong. But Dylan spent a year being booed. They were throwing bottles at him. And he still can't play it! Forty years later, he is still trying to play the electric guitar. I mean, he has a dedication to an ideal that I can't comprehend."
On the banks of the Pecos River, nothing is as it seems: Kevin Spacey was once a terrible actor, Bob Dylan remains a terrible guitar player, and Val Kilmer is affable and insecure. Crazy things seem normal, normal things seem crazy. Gusty winds may exist.