© Photo by Sherri Tilley
Ranked as one of the
Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time, Val Kilmer is known for playing iconic characters on screen such as Jim Morrison (The Doors), Doc Holliday (Tombstone) and Batman (Batman Forever). An accomplished stage actor as well, Kilmer now stars in his new play Citizen Twain, a solo stage show which brings to life the legendary Mark Twain, a man considered to be the world's greatest storyteller. Val sat down with The Flash List for a casual, unconventional, funny, and thought-provoking conversation about acting, Amadeus, Nirvana lyrics, having Bob Dylan as a fan, the American way of living, the Bible, and more.
[Pre-interview chitchat about Twitter ... and cats.]
VK: I had a mystifying tweet. It can't be a prank, but I just don't understand it. I'll show you. See this really silly photo with me in front of the Wyly? I don't know why, and I can't get an answer yet; 361 retweets. I could understand if it a pigeon landed on my head, but nothing happened! It just says
The Odd Couple in the background, and that's enough to set them off. It's the most retweets I've gotten for no reason.
VK: I want to eventually have a cat on stage. And then twit it. It wouldn't work [at the Wyly Theatre] 'cuz we're in a thrust [stage configuration] and the audience is all around. But if I brought a cat out, it would just be a nice little weird moment. And people would applaud just because the cat's there. I don't know why, but they like to applaud for living things.
TFL: One of our goals is to encourage first-time theatergoers.
VK: Great, because that's exactly what I want to do with my play. The theater community has always been very kind to me, and I developed I think what I can properly call a gift. I think you can learn to act and do movie acting, but there's something about the theater; it's live and unfiltered and you could say raw or pure. It can't be taught, but it's a kind of communion without getting too fancy about it that's a really rare experience. When you go to a movie, it's what you and then the collective audience are creating on their own in relation to something that's not going to change. But theater changes depending on the weather and what day it is; and it's truly a creation of the audience and the performers together. And that makes it really special and a theater experience that's memorable; like, everybody's been to a pop concert. The ones that pop into your mind when I say 'pop show' or 'rock show' that you think of first are because it hit that chord ('chord' literally) of the sounds and the performances that are completely unique in your life. You know you're witnessing something that you can't see or feel in any other way. So it makes it really precious.
TFL: Is that why you're attracted to the music of Led Zepplin?
VK: How did you know I liked Led Zepplin? I actually do a Nirvana song at the beginning of the play! Mark Twain sings
Smells Like Teen Spirit. But I say, instead of
Here we are now, entertain us; I feel stupid and contagious, I have Mark Twain saying [hilariously recounting in the voice of Twain],
Here we are now, enter-Twain us; I feel fabulous and outrageous.
TFL: Tell us about your classic line,
I'm your Huckleberry.
VK: I practiced that a lot. But it's good writing; it sort of takes you to a moment where even though you don't really understand what he's saying, you sort of do; and that's always great as an actor. I like it because it's just a totally unique line whereas a lot of great, memorable lines aren't poetic like that; it's just the story leads up to
Go ahead, make my day, or
I'll be back. Those are great moments; the words are really simple. But
I'm your Huckleberry is both. It's 'you've met your match'; but it's also strange like, 'this guy's not from here'. I still don't know why it's so popular.
TFL: After you researched and accumulated all of the information about Mark Twain, how did you decide which direction you wanted to go with it?
VK: Not thinking about it, but while writing the screenplay over and over and over again trying to figure it out, an example sort of emerged of what I was writing that already existed which was Amadeus. In Amadeus, we're all thinking about Mozart right? But the story is about Salieri; he has a beef with God. And the subject of the movie isn't even Amadeus; it's God. Salieri can't understand, he's been so dedicated to music, and it's a holy experience to him, and he's been perfect; and God picks this crazy degenerate punk who cusses all day long, sleeps with whatever walks, is a drunk, and who's completely irreverent. But he's who He chooses to be the vessel of His greatest moments in art. And so it's a revenge story, and it's many different stories. Amadeus has a love story with this common girl, and you just go along with the ride because it's so masterfully told. I want to do a story like that, it's very ambitious, but to try and find a way where you're caught up in the story of America. Like that's set in Vienna, but it can't take place any other place; that's the place where that king was obsessed with music all day long every day, and so was the community, and that's how Mozart grew up and where he found himself. Finding a way into a drama that you're just kind of gripped with moment to moment took a long time, and that's kind of the Mark Twain / Mary Baker Eddy parallel. It seems like it's about both of them, but it's really about America. It's not about Mrs. Eddy's religion although Mark Twain was very very funny about writing about God. In the play, I go on a bit about slavery and I say [stating in the voice of Mark Twain],
The church taught that God approved it and that it was holy thing; the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wish to settle his mind. Parts all over Deuteronomy; Israelites had slaves. It's not those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me; it's the parts that I do understand. That's just funny; and if you read the Bible, which I do, like the Old Testament, I'm right there with him, like, this is tough, this is some darkness. In fact, I don't think I've ever read a more violent book than the Old Testament. So he says a lot of things that even if you're a believer you can look at and find, through humor, a lot of legitimate and valid points that are disarmingly attractive about faith that someone who doesn't have faith might engage you on. I think Mark Twain did believe and had a strong faith, he was very funny, and a lot of times I'm sure sometimes he sacrificed his own morality. Another thing he said that I have in the play is,
If Christ were alive today, there is one thing He would not be, that is a Christian. Whether you're a Christian or not you think,
Why are we all laughing? I'm a Christian and I don't think that it's right to kill people in the name of God, which a lot of jihads, it's fair to say, did; and I think we've grown from those times. ... You know, just looking at history seeing that a lot of people died in the name of Christ, how do you reconcile that? Because that's not the Jesus story, it's not what we read. And so Twain helps because there's something about laughter - I don't know what it is; it's a mystery - but it's an agreement that goes beyond intellectual thinking. Somehow we're involved in agreeing with something that's positive.
TFL: How do you think Mark Twain would be portrayed in the media today?
VK: Exactly as I'm portraying him [he laughs]. There is a conversation, there is a lifestyle, there is a way of living. You know, I don't wake up in the morning and wonder whether I'm an American. We all know who we are, and we have a natural way of getting along. ... We want the same things whether it's your leader or not. If you want the war to end, you're going to work through conservative government or liberal government; you're just going to try to find a way to help serve that cause. It's really how we live. We don't live out of political strategies; we live out of life desires. The conversation that is the theater that is not a highfalutin or fancy thing is a real interaction and that's what makes it really exciting. And it's transportive; you can see things in the theater that are really fun. Maybe it's not as shiny as a video game, but there's something in it because it's more real. It's a more human experience, and might be more memorable.
TFL: Do you feel a quest for truth as a driving force in your life?
VK: Yeah, I have to quote Twain again in the play,
Why do I have to quote fiction to tell the truth? But yeah, looking for the truth of a character and the truth of a story is how I've made a living; and I think however that comes out in the work is one of the things I'm very proud of. Even though I haven't focused on the commercial success, I've managed to pick lots of roles that people still find valuable; so it's hitting some sort of chord. Like even the first movie I ever did Top Secret, probably every time I'm in an airport there's someone, and I can tell who's the Top Secret person. They just have a look on their face like,
You're not going to believe this but I ... and they sort of make an excuse about why they like Top Secret so much. But it holds up right? A really cool group of people that I've met will mention that movie.
TFL: That has to be strange having so many fans that connect with you from so many different directions.
VK: One of my favorites was Bob Dylan who was obsessed with Tombstone. So he came over to my hotel. I was like,
Where are you? I'll come over. And he said,
No, I'll be right there. So we sat and eventually he said [Val musters up his best Bob Dylan impersonation],
Ain't you gonna say anything about that movie? I was so star struck myself. He wasn't star struck, but he was just really, really into that movie. It was very flattering.
TFL: What's the most important lesson you've learned in life?
VK: Well, these days I'm talking about something that I'm not particularly proud of but I've been managing to make a joke about somewhat in the style of Mark Twain. He has such a genuine affection; it's so real, this love story with America. You can't talk about him without that, and it's because he's let that love be the priority. And I feel that, but I haven't really lived that. ... There are simple lessons that Twain reflects about listening and keeping a high standard of being nonjudgmental. He finds everything entertaining which is a gift. But at the same time, I'm sure he needed to have discipline about being respectful of other people's beliefs or at least being funny about it on both sides because you can't really tell if he's a liberal or a conservative and you don't really care, he's so funny about everything.
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