Val Kilmer on Playing Mark Twain, His Crazy Song to Song Cameo, and Coming Up With a Sick Burn About Rudyard Kipling

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Val Kilmer. Photo: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

Val Kilmer doesn’t really want or need to prove himself to anyone. His recent roles show a commitment to finding characters and collaborators who will bring out his best performance in him, a remarkable position that many other actors simply cannot afford. Citizen Twain, a one-man play written, directed, produced by, and starring Kilmer as Mark Twain, proves his commitment to that ideal. After seven years of researching a film script about Twain and his complex relationship with Christian Science–founder Mary Baker Eddy — Kilmer is a Christian Scientist — Kilmer decided to take his research and apply it to a one-man show that would help clarify his version of Twain as a character. Now Kilmer is touring the country with Cinema Twain, a filmed presentation of Citizen Twain that screens in Manhattan on Friday night at the SVA theater. In advance of the showing, Vulture talked with Kilmer over email about the challenges of playing Twain, acting in Song to Song, and recovering from Batman Forever.

The idea to play Twain originated from a movie idea about Mary Baker Eddy and Mark Twain. But it seems that you tried to do a one-man show because you felt you needed to get more insight into the character. What’s that process of getting into the character’s skin been like?
Well, his writing is like music — so conversational and seamlessly constructed. When you see his transcripts, you can see how he labored for weeks and even years for the right rhythm to a section. I also had so many objectives — to offer a complete character to the audience — so I had to include his arrogance, and vanity, and genius, and childlike wonder, and silliness, and genius. I also wanted to give enough of a personal history that you felt like you got a peek at the “real” Twain. And I wanted to keep it short; the hardest thing to do with Twain is to edit him. There’s literally a dictionary of his humorous quotes. I mean, if you look up “ant” it’s the funniest darn thing you ever read about ants.

I also wanted to offer a sense of Twain’s spiritual quest, which I’m proud of as almost no biographer had even made a slight attempt to uncover that. I wanted to reveal not just Twain’s prowess for storytelling, but his genius for spontaneous wit, and flat-out stand-up comedy. I’ve always loved stand-up but gave myself the luxury of becoming devoted to it until the play felt like a happening.

Citizen Twain is not a linear narrative. It’s more discursive and tends to shift back and forth in time and theme to suit the character’s restless train of thought. But the play is also a comedy, and you’ve likened him to a stand-up comedian as well. Which stand-up comedians did you take cues from?
Lenny Bruce. Moms Mabley. Richard Pryor. Whoopi [Goldberg]. Lily Tomlin. Jon Stewart. Dave Chappelle. Steve Martin, when I was a kid. George Carlin. Groucho [Marx]! His brothers. Zero Mostel. Lewis Black. Louis C.K. … although he was very mean to me on a podcast years ago. Comedians go for the moment, and reality be damned. C.K. assumed I was a standard douchey film star just because I recorded some songs.

You did about seven years of research for this part, including poring over Twain’s letters and manuscripts at the University of California, Berkeley and other colleges. What parts of your research revealed Twain’s character to you the most clearly?
Simply bearing down on the big questions: What and who is God to me? What’s at the core of Twain’s soul? What does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to be a real artist? Twain is an honorary founding father, so I was very much interested in his love of humanity and specifically Americans. He perhaps did as much as President Lincoln did to confront racism in our lives. We owe him a solemn debt. And he did it though love, and compassion, and art. So, you bet he would have something loud to say about cutting the NEA.

How do you relate to Eddy’s spiritual beliefs, or is that not even a factor when you consider her relationship with Twain?
I’m a student of hers so I guess the most accurate answer is simply that I relate very strongly to her beliefs. Twain had — as we all do — to figure out his own shortcomings, and doubts in relation to her radical, one might say, “super trust” in the Bible, and what she called “primitive” Christianity. Which is another way of accepting that prayer can heal every ill, physical, and mental.

Hal Holbrook has been playing Mark Twain onstage forever. What kind of conversations did you have with him about the part? Did he give you any advice? And what did you learn by studying his performances?
What a great contribution he’s made to our culture: 60 years in a row he’s performed his play about Twain before a live audience. He was very kind to me when we spoke of my version, and I told him I was going to make some adjustments so Twain’s words and spirit might be framed in a way that would invite a new and hopefully younger audience. I’m not sure he was entirely in favor of me telling a joke as if Twain was “thinking” it for the first time, which in context might alter the literal quote. Tough to sell to Holbrook, a man who has quoted Twain verbatim for 60 years. But Holbrook was as gracious as any actor I’ve ever spoken to.

What kind of changes did you make?
An easy one is a sequence I wrote which reveals how he was so competitive: like building one of the greatest mansions in the world directly across the street from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s humble home. Just in case you had any doubts about who you might pick as the definitive writer about the plight of the black man in America! So I wrote a series of jokes about a writer, like Stowe or Eddy, that Twain greatly admired: Rudyard Kipling

“Rudyard knows all that can be known, and I know the rest,” Twain wrote. Then I say, “Rudyard is of course [pause] British. What kind of name is Rudyard? Sounds like an accident. Say it with me: ‘‘Rudyard.’ Sounds like disease. What kind of parents would name their child Rudyard? Why didn’t they just name him ‘We hate you?’”

So you see, even someone he truly loved — like Kipling — couldn’t be spared if Twain was onstage. It’s almost like a trance these super needy genius comedians go on. I had dinner one night with Robin Williams and two members of Monty Python, and Robin got so wound up with punchline after brilliant punchline that I literally spat food out my mouth twice. He just had to be the funniest person there that night. And the Brits let him wear the crown. But Twain would have beaten him into sawdust.

When you’re pitching the film project to financiers, I’m sure the people you’re pitching have set ideas of who you are and how they can sell you. You, however, have said that you’re uninterested in developing a personality. What’s the thought process behind making that kind of ideological career decision? How hard is it to just focus on the roles you want to play, in other words? Have there been cases where you took roles just for professional security? I don’t want to say Batman, because I don’t want to put words in your mouth.
Sure, Batman. Although I was lucky, had a good time while doing it, and got along great with Joel Schumacher. He later was, I think, concerned with negative thoughts because I didn’t do [Batman and Robin]. So he fell into a common challenge I had of being thought of as difficult but on a set with literally hundreds of actors and crew for months. I think the fact that there hasn’t been a story about Schumacher’s bad behavior says it all. I mean, were hundreds of people involved in a massive cover up of Schumacher’s lousy behavior? Doesn’t make a lick of sense.

I think time has mellowed him. And [George] Clooney very wittily dealt with the worst movie he’s ever been in, mentioning it during his Oscar-acceptance speech. He sort of squashed that folly for good. Time passes. I regret anything snarky I said about acting with a capital “A” in relation to that giant project or any other. I was insecure when I was younger, and competitive and wanted to be loved for my Hamlet while I waited in line for my decaf, not “Hey, Iceman!” I mean … [Top Gun] is still the best airplane movie ever made, and I laugh myself silly when I see it on TV! It’s just perfect! That soundtrack! Tom’s smile! My haircut! It’s a damn classic.

You currently have a very brief part in Song to Song as a member of the Black Lips. You chainsaw through an amp onstage and throw a powder you say is uranium into the crowd. How did that happen?
Like every other actor on earth, there are directors you just say yes to like a zombie, and follow them to the end of the earth. Who doesn’t revere Terrence Malick or Werner Herzog, or Francis Coppola? There’s only about ten more you can name on the planet worth the title of “Maestro.” And I’m very lucky to have entertained Terrence in some sort of direct way.

My memory was that we were at some sort of Amazon party where we all danced like we were at a [Grateful Dead] concert, you know? Like dancing like you don’t normally dance but hell you’re at the Dead! So you just freak out knowing the dude next to you is even freakier. Plus, I’m all the way in love with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, so that put a little gas in the tank. And it’s hard to say how much I love both Ryan Gosling and Michael Fassbender, who, except for Robert Downey Jr., are just almost unbelievably handsome, and witty, and silly, and manly, and talented. I mean, they’re real live superstars. And Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki], who’s the greatest living cinematographer, period! And I’m on stage, “performing.” Heaven … daze of heaven.

What’s the next step for Cinema Twain and your Twain and Eddy movie project?
Money. Then we make the movie!

Val Kilmer on Mark Twain, and His Crazy Song to Song Cameo