Val Kilmer: 'Lord, I'm never going to read this tripe!'

After topping the A-list in the 90s, the actor retreated – but he’s back with an unlikely interest in art and a Twitter account filled with star-studded anecdotes

Few actors capture the myth of the mysterious artist better than Val Kilmer. He’s a southern California kid who grew up to become a poet, a playwright, and an A-list star. He’s also a hard man to get hold of. For months, I had been trying to track him down for an interview, only to discover that he rarely speaks to the press because of recent news items regarding his health.

Ironically, Kilmer is more visible now than he has been in years, stealing the show in Terrence Malick’s music drama Song to Song, appearing alongside Michael Fassbender in upcoming Jo Nesbø thriller The Snowman, touring the country with screenings of his one-man Mark Twain stage performance, and continuing to share hilarious, offbeat celebrity encounters through his entertaining and growing Twitter account.

That’s where I first learned of his artwork, which he makes in his spare time at his home studio in Malibu. He does a little bit of everything: golden tumbleweeds, cubes with the word “God” sprayed on them, resin-coated abstracts featuring loud, colorful splotches that look like neon oil spills. Most intriguing are the recreations of characters he once portrayed on screen, often accompanied by some of their famous lines (“Chicks dig the car,” “I’m your huckleberry,” etc), which he scrawls in large, thick handwriting.

Reproducing your most iconic work through rainbow-hued stencil paintings is a bit odd, even for an actor who seems to enjoy accentuating his eccentricities. By revisiting these roles via sellable art, was Kilmer cashing in? Was it some meta-commentary on society’s current nostalgia addiction? I had to find out.

After several back and forths with his lawyer’s office, along with a trip to Pasadena to speak with a polite but firm assistant (“Yes, we have received your interview requests” and “Please just leave your contact info and we will get back to you”), I finally received word:

Hi, it’s Val. Is this the right email for our interview?



Here are a few of the things I learned during our back-and-forth exchange: he once watched George C Scott drink a bottle of vodka in under an hour (“I can’t drink water that fast”); he thinks writers in Hollywood are treated poorly (“Why has Amazon taken over Hollywood in five minutes? Because they only [have] one objective: make the customer happy”); he once watched Marlon Brando eat an entire turkey (“God love him”); and, yes, he signed off every message with “Love, Val” (which means the only two people who have ever ended emails to me with the word “love” are my mother and the Iceman).

Today Kilmer finds himself in a transitional phase, brought on by a variety of factors, including age (he’s 57). He was also recently treated for cancer (something he confirmed to fans during a Reddit AMA earlier this month), a process that left him with a temporarily swollen tongue. “I’ve been able to make more [art] while my voice recovers,” he says. When he returns to full strength, he’ll dive back into the project he’s been working on for two decades: a movie about Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy and her detractor Mark Twain. For now, though, his focus is on an art exhibition he has coming up in New York City on May 20 at the Woodward Gallery.

One of Val Kilmer’s abstracts.
One of Val Kilmer’s abstracts. Photograph: Val Kilmer

Kilmer traces his artistic approach back to his childhood in the San Fernando Valley. “My little brother was a legitimate genius and he was born with a paintbrush in his hand – it poured out of him at a high level – so I was exposed to a very unusual vision of how ‘easy’ it is to make things that are beautiful,” says Kilmer, adding that art is, essentially, his life blood: “If I’m not creating, I start to die a little.”

He recalls making his first piece at the age of three (a finger painting), and though he didn’t end up having the same artistic gifts as his brother, he was still compelled to do something creative with himself. Mostly this involved, as he calls it, “mimicking others,” and he would soon develop a love for Shakespeare. “I knew what artistic talent was because it was everywhere I turned for some reason,” he says. “Something in that LA water in the 60s!”

By the mid-90s Kilmer found himself at the top of the Hollywood pyramid with turns as Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s The Doors, Doc Holliday in Tombstone, and Bruce Wayne in Batman Forever. During this period Kilmer also developed the unfortunate reputation of an irascible malcontent, perpetuated by alleged altercations and mood swings on the set of Batman and The Island of Dr Moreau. But the actor says those rumors were always unfounded.

“I guess it started around The Doors,” he says. “I was trying to do something very challenging, in addition to just being faithful to the character and to Oliver Stone, who is amazing and amazingly tough. So on top of those two heavy shadows, I was trying to sing all the songs live! Which was a massive undertaking, and we did it, but in order to hold the fort I didn’t afford myself much time to ‘be me’. So we would improv a lot and I just started calling [the actors] by their [characters’] names, and people started saying I was insisting on being called the character, which wasn’t true. But maybe from there an idea developed that I was too demanding about acting standards.” Later on, he adds: “I’m sure I could’ve been more diplomatic but all I’ve ever tried to do is deserve the privilege of being able to entertain for a living.”

Part of that entertainment, which includes his movie-themed paintings of Doc Holliday and Batman, is a need to re-connect with his audience. But, again, current and former A-listers don’t typically celebrate past roles in this way – particularly those who try to maintain some semblance of artistic integrity in the face of stardom. So why do it?

“I’m not one for looking back but I can’t go through an airport without someone saying ‘I’m your huckleberry.’ It’s just part of my life,” says Kilmer. “When I paint Doc Holiday, I’m not thinking about the real character or what I created out of him, but more just using the elements as a jumping off point, like the frenzy of the violence in his life. A lot of what I’m exploring is the exact opposite of relating to the character or any memory of him. It’s kind of like acting: you don’t try to be the character, you are.”

Once I flew all the way to Australia just to talk to Cate Blanchett. Her husband met me first. Or, instead, I guess, to be accurate.

— Val Kilmer (@valkilmer) March 24, 2017

I’m not sure that quite explains why he re-explores these roles through art, but in response to a separate question regarding his much-lauded Twitter account, he perhaps reveals the answer: “I’ve always had a healthy awareness of the zero that is fame, and fought my pride when I have struggled with some aspect of it – and now it’s all just humorous to me,” he says. “Maybe it’s just growing up or because I’ve achieved a dream that I thought for quite a while perhaps wasn’t my destiny.”

In other words, he’s just having fun. That seems to be the approach with his abstracts (“You throw some paint out that doesn’t work well together, and some time and pain and patience, and suddenly some harmony emerges,” he says, with a self-deprecating addendum: “Lord I’m never going to read this tripe!”) and his social media presence, where he tells fans about the time he tickled Lou Reed, or asked Jimmy Page to play with his girlfriend’s hair, or filled Angelina Jolie’s plane with gardenias. Posting these encounters – along with his art and selfies – is a way to have a better relationship to the people who have supported him for years.

“I am taking time to share my life with fans,” he says. “People have always been so kind to me and supportive and I never involved myself with any of that. I lived in the Pecos wilderness for 25 years – mud and log cabin, firewood-fed hot tub by the river, horses and buffalo, fishing, reading a book on a mountain top, sweating in the sweat lodge ‘cause it’s relaxing. It’s [now] suddenly a real fun thing to talk to the whole world at the same time.”

This approach allows Kilmer to do what he does best: tell stories to the masses. And while he still occasionally gives off a shaman-like mystique, he is also one of the few unfiltered stars we have left in a world of manicured press releases. For example, he’ll gladly tell you every major star who owns an original Kilmer painting: Ryan Gosling, Robert Downey Jr, Ozzy Osbourne, Sharon Stone, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Michael Mann; “I love to name drop,” he says, “and I’m not even kidding.”

Val Kilmer and Bob Dylan in Masked and Anonymous

Speaking of which, before we end our correspondence, he has one more story to tell, about how he became friends with “greatest American poet alive” and Tombstone fan Bob Dylan.

“I took some chances when we met. It’s hard to hang it with someone that makes people faint … I absolutely love that guy. He’s such a genius about everything. And such an imp. Maybe that’s what he likes in me … When I first met him I was way into preparing to play Jim Morrison, which is very hard to describe, but it’s like someone has dosed you … Suddenly you are raging like you’re Hunter S Thompson inside.

“I’m [not] saying I was out of control, or that my research was ever overtaking my real life, but there’s only so many hours in a day so you have to bring your work around with you sometimes. So I was ‘imagining’ Jim-like thoughts, which as I said, was a trip. And Bob Dylan shows up at a huge Carrie Fisher pre-Oscar bash, and he’s wearing gloves and a hoodie and I start to get the impression maybe he isn’t having any fun.

“I was talking to Daniel Day-Lewis, but all I can do is look over his shoulder at Bob on the giant wooden balcony, all lonely and so famous that the most famous entertainers on earth aren’t approaching him… So in some kind of Morrison-inspired bravado, I shout over the entire party, over Daniel Day-Lewis, over David Geffen, over Warren Beatty: ‘Hey Bobbbbbb! Are you an Yma Sumac fan?’ Like that old EF Hutton commercial, the entire party turns to him – for real – and he yells back, after a perfect pause: ‘Yeees I am…’ and that was my ice-breaker.”

Dylan, by the way, owns an original piece of Kilmer’s art, too.


Alex Suskind

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Kilmer to play murder case porn star

Val Kilmer signs to play John Holmes, a porn actor linked to four murders

Staff and agencies

02, Oct, 2002 @10:51 AM

Article image
Why I'd like to be ... Val Kilmer in Tombstone

Wyatt Earp might be the lead, but the infirm Doc Holliday is the real hero, an educated, elegant gunslinger who – most importantly, for a long-term invalid such as Scott Jordan Harris – makes chronic illness look good

Scott Jordan Harris

17, Jul, 2014 @6:30 AM

Article image
Val Kilmer: Michael Douglas apologised after throat cancer scare
The actor has posted on Facebook that Douglas is ‘a classy guy’ after he sent a note to say sorry for alleging Kilmer was ill with cancer

Andrew Pulver

16, Nov, 2016 @11:31 AM

Article image
Curse of the Batsuit: why Val Kilmer found it hard to measure up
Kilmer has told of the alienation he felt on the set of Batman Forever as Michael Keaton discusses his imminent return to the role in The Flash

Ben Child

13, Aug, 2021 @9:55 AM

Article image
The Birthday Cake review – did Val Kilmer get an offer he couldn’t refuse?
The plot’s baffling, but not as baffling as why Kilmer, Ewan McGregor, and Paul Sorvino signed up for the director’s debut feature

Leslie Felperin

14, Jul, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
John Waters: 'I never wanted to be a cult film-maker'
The Hairspray and Serial Mom director talks about exhibiting his provocative artwork and why he enjoys ridiculing the art world

Nadja Sayej

08, Oct, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Val Kilmer denies he has cancer after Michael Douglas claims
Kilmer responds to Douglas’s assertion in an interview that ‘things don’t look too good for him’ by saying he has ‘no cancer whatsoever’

Alan Evans

02, Nov, 2016 @10:09 AM

Article image
Why the world needs Val Kilmer

He could have been another Brad Pitt. Instead he's doing one-man stage shows. Is it time for a rescue plan?

Joe Queenan

10, May, 2012 @7:00 PM

Article image
Don't call it a comeback: the actors set to return to the A-list in 2017
The next 12 months could see stars including Debra Winger, Michelle Pfeiffer and Val Kilmer return to the public eye

Benjamin Lee

06, Jan, 2017 @3:45 PM

Article image
Hear me out: why The Island of Dr Moreau isn't a bad movie
Continuing our series of writers recommending maligned films is a defense of the troubled 1996 adaptation of the HG Wells cautionary tale

Zach Vasquez

08, Feb, 2021 @7:11 AM