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The Total Film Interview - Val Kilmer

Val Kilmer is mumbling. "I'm not too sure what day it is," he stutters, looking knackered. "I know yesterday was Friday the 13th. What day's today?"

If you believe the legends, then now is not the best time to be interviewing Mr Kilmer. After a whistle-stop tour of the Far East, he flew into the UK less than 12 hours ago, his body clock screwed to hell. The hot-headed, perfectionist prima donna of a zillion tabloid stories should be preparing to rip Total Film's head off right about now...

But what do the tabloids know? The Val Kilmer who shuffles into a London hotel room is as nice as pie. He's pudgier than usual (having added a few pounds and a huge bushy beard for his role as King Philip in Oliver Stone's Alexander) and he's chain-drinking cups of coffee in an effort to wake up, but otherwise the actor's on genial form.

He generally is these days. Kilmer has come a long way since his debut in 1984's Top Secret!. He's earned admiration in the likes of The Doors, Tombstone and Heat, scorn for turkeys like The Saint and Red Planet, and pure hard cash for blockbusters like Batman Forever. He's also left a string of tales of on-set spats, disgruntled directors and unhappy co-stars in his wake.

"They try and tag things on you, but I've been lucky," he shrugs. "It's a system, we all know how it works and I've made my employers millions of dollars, so I guess I've worked in Hollywood successfully."

He's perfectly happy to talk about all of that, to scotch rumours, put records straight. And why shouldn't he? Despite all the stories (most of which Kilmer vehemently denies), he's as successful and in demand now as he's ever been. He's just finished work on Alexander, has been promoting David Mamet's thriller Spartan, and he's here today to talk about the well-received Wonderland, which sees him taking on the role of real-life porn star John Holmes in a multi-viewpoint tale of murder and addiction. "I thought it would be a challenge to make someone that horrible likeable," he says. "He's not unlike Richard III. Every single thing that Richard does is awful, but he's just fun to watch."

Fun's not a word you'd associate with a movie where people get beaten to death with lead pipes. Nor is it a word often associated with Kilmer, but it comes up an awful lot in the conversation of a man who is clearly enjoying life right now. Acting's fun, the people on set are fun, life with his kids is fun. Even Total Film's fun. "Thank you, it's been fun," he grins at the end of the interview. Cheers, Val - we enjoyed it too...

How did Wonderland first come your way?
They kept sending the script, but I just said no each time. I wasn't interested in playing this guy. Everything about him was so unpleasant. It only really changed when I met Sharon Holmes, his wife, and then Dawn, his girlfriend.

Holmes maintained this relationship with both of them. They knew each other and had become friends - in some ways closer to each other than with John. Despite his rapid descent into addiction he maintained his affection for them. I don't know if you can have perverse chivalry, but he was definitely perverse and he definitely maintained this chivalrous ideal towards them. He was a really caring guy and he was really charming. Listening to them, I really felt for this lost addict...

How do you go about playing real people? Do you have a particular way in?
No, it's different every time. With regards to Wonderland, I was raised five miles away from where they lived, five miles away from Wonderland Avenue. I'm exactly the same age as Dawn, so when we talked about something that happened to her when she was 15, I have the same memory of what was on the radio and so on. My 1974 is exactly the same as hers. So I have that sense of the history and the places. I didn't have to 'research'. And I've played drunks a couple of times, in The Doors and Tombstone, so I didn't really need to research the subject of addiction.

You are famous for doing your research, though...
Yeah, I'm like that. If I go to a place, I'm very interested to know everything about it, so it's not just for the acting. But in terms of acting, the less you have to be concerned about when you're on set or in front of the audience, the better.

Didn't you once say that for every minute you spend acting, you need a day's work preparing?
A day's work or more! I always try to look for those things that every character has. Some spine, some core of truth and sometimes... Well, I was afraid when I was younger of not being able to express it in words; I thought that maybe people wouldn't understand if I couldn't express it in words. But it's not important that you're able to talk about it in interviews. It's just important that you're able to do it.

What happened to you around about the turn of the century? You seemed to disappear for a few years...
I'd worked a lot around the time of The Saint and Batman. It was like a two-year period where everything I did had to be as far away as possible from my children. It was like some cosmic law. I was in Australia, Africa, Russia... So I missed some really crucial years of my daughter's schooling. And I just didn't want that to happen with my son, so when he started school a couple of years ago, I just took more time off.

But you're back now, and working with Oliver Stone again, on Alexander. Has he changed much since the days of The Doors?
Oh, man! I guess he has, but the effect he has on everyone is the same. He's definitely the main part of the day, when you're around him! But I think he's more mellow now, if that's a word you can apply to him - he goes like a rocket. He's more calm now, I guess, which is a pleasure to be around. Although I think the pressure on him with Alexander is at least as great as it was on The Doors. At that moment The Doors was the most expensive film he'd ever made.

How long were you on Alexander?
Oh, before we started shooting. And then I was there, whenever the hell it was... Monday? Tuesday. What's today again? Saturday? Right, I was this close to Laos on Monday. I came and went twice. I was there in Morocco, here in Pinewood and then out in Thailand.

Anyway, if Anthony Quinn and George C Scott had a child, it would be King Philip. He was huge; everything was big with the guy. He was a huge drunk and he had a lot of wives. It really felt like theatre - having to stretch the muscles in your back for your lungs because your voice has to fill up a whole room. It was just fun to do.

It must have been odd playing Colin Farrell's dad!
Well, I'm playing a king and his dad, which is odd. My kids still don't get it - it doesn't compute that I could be playing Colin Farrell's dad. But the character Philip was my age at the time that the scenes were set. It's a little strange, but it was probably harder for Angelina [Jolie], who's playing his mother and is the same age as Colin.

Not thinking of yourself as an elder statesman yet?
What does make me feel older is hearing myself say things that only old people say! [Laughs] "Kids today don't have any discipline! They don't put any time in!" Actually, it doesn't happen so much in acting, because acting's just acting, you do it or you don't. But in or around anything to do with my kids or being a parent, I find myself saying things like, "Turn that racket down!"

Speaking of racket... The Doors reformed recently. Would you have sung for them if they'd asked?
Um, I don't think I would tour right now, but hey, it's theatre! Under some circumstances it would be fun to do!

Is Jim Morrison your favourite role of your career?
No, I have a fondness for a lot of roles. I really enjoyed the challenge of Jim Morrison, but I work as hard if it's a small role as a large one. I don't really have a favourite. Doc Holliday was fun, though. It was fun to not carry the burden of being the lead. All those responsibilities, but yet still have cool stuff to do. It's fun to shoot everybody and have such a cute girlfriend.

Are you pleased with the way your career's gone?
I've really been blessed by having done the kinds of stories that I've done without having to be a businessman. I've been lucky. Dustin Hoffman did a Volkswagen ad. I've never had to do that kind of dues-paying. I've paid my dues, but differently. I've been lucky about work.

But things have been said about me in the press that have hurt personally and hurt me in the business. Things that aren't true. It's upsetting. I don't like having to go and meet a director and have to talk about somebody's gossip. Just ask my friends like Jeffrey Katzenberg or Michael Mann or De Niro. They'll say, "No, he works hard - there's no story about that stuff."

You got an awful lot of bad press on the set of The Island Of Dr Moreau...
Well, it hurts. To take two things: [Marlon] Brando and I have been friends for a long time, so they said we weren't. I got along great with the crew, so they said I lit some guy on fire. Exactly what wasn't the case. And they said that I was irresponsible. I would go to the set on days when I wasn't called to try and make it better.

Whenever you do a film, people look for the bad stories about you...
All actors go through a certain rhythm. Even if you're big and powerful. Take Tom Cruise. They've tried to tag things on him, but he's very passionate about his career so he doesn't let it happen. He'll throw a lot of money at lawyers.

I did it on The Salton Sea [in which Kilmer plays an amphetamine addict]. I hired a lawyer for the first time. The press said I was actually doing what the character was supposed to be doing in a scene - basically attacking a director. The lawyer who knows about all this legal stuff said, "They won't apologise and they won't print a retraction," but they printed a retraction and they apologised. He said it was the first time he'd seen that in 13 years...

So do you think you've finally lost that media reputation for being "troubled"?
Yeah. It doesn't come up as much, thank God. Like I say, I've been making a point of fighting back. Like anyone in the public eye has to. It's a strange thing to be punished for working hard or caring. It's strange. Oliver and I were talking about it with Alexander, because it's really something that he got this movie made and no one writes a thank-you note when you do something that's hard to do in film.

Point Break, Blue Velvet, Interview With The Vampire... Do you have any regrets about the films you've decided not to take?
No, it's kind of the opposite. I'm more and more grateful for the films I do do the older I get and realise how finicky our business is. There were quite a few actors who wanted my role in Spartan. Two that I know of - and this is an absolutely true story - left their agents after they didn't get it, and these are guys who are making a lot of money, because they wanted to play that role so much. I don't really have too much of a notion about success or popularity, because I never played that. I never cultivated fame, I never cultivated a persona. Except possibly the desire to be regarded as an actor.

You could have just carried on doing Batman films...
Yeah, but I don't know anyone who's gotten into a cycle of success in that kind of film who has stayed interesting. Even Tom Cruise, who's exclusively been in large movies since he became famous, got to a place where he was not satisfied - though we haven't really talked about it - and took that role in Magnolia. I like that more than his Oscar-nominated role in Born On The Fourth Of July. You have to do things to recharge your batteries. And I picked Cruise to mention because he seems to enjoy everything, and a lot of the time these larger movies are more like work. It's just his nature, but it's hard to do some of these movies. They're not really about acting.

Is it true you were originally cast to play Morpheus in The Matrix?
I wasn't cast - they offered it to me. I'd been mentioned by the studio to The [Wachowski] Brothers and that's really how it came about. The script didn't read like he should be black, it read like he should be different. I think I understood why and it was very flattering to be offered the role. But I didn't think that I could do it as well as [Laurence] Fishburne, because they ended up mentioning him to me.

Any plans to work with Michael Mann again?
We did - with him and Tom Cruise on Collateral. Except films kept getting pushed back and I had to choose. It was just a scheduling thing, but he's a great guy and I really love working with him. So it's only a matter of time until we work together again.

Do you have a favourite director?
No, not really. Oliver, Michael, Ron [Howard], Tony Scott... These guys are some of the most successful directors ever, and they all share a similar quality of being detail oriented. Tony Scott, surprisingly, probably loves actors more than any director that I've ever worked with. The look on his face when he watches an actor in the moment of creation is just wonderful.

Is that why you took that cameo in True Romance, playing the ghost of Elvis who comes to advise Christian Slater?
I wish I was on screen with Christian more! They tried to make me look like Elvis, but I just looked like a drag queen. I just looked scary. That's why I'm out of focus, because I look so scary...

Do you have any plans to direct yourself? We hear you're up for making a picture with Sean Penn...
Well, actually there's a Western I want to do. My grandfather was a prospector, sort of like Walter Huston in Treasure Of The Sierre Madre, this crazy eccentric guy who lived out in the wilderness. It's a story I keep thinking about. He was a very eccentric guy, a truly great adventurer. But I've got an African story, a Russian story… I'd just like to find something near my house again.

I'm interested in directing. It's a hard job to do well, but I have a point of view and that's the main thing. The best directors I've worked with have all had a point of view. It doesn't matter if it makes sense to anyone else but them, but if they have one you can always tell.

One last thing about Wonderland: John Holmes is famous for his, er, 13-inch talent. Was there ever any question of a Boogie Nights-style prosthetic for you in the movie?
No! [Laughs] It's not really what the movie's about anyway, so it never really came up. Except in the occasional joke…