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Fans packed the crowded room Saturday at the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo for a chance to ask veteran film actor Val Kilmer about his diverse body of work. They weren’t disappointed either, as for an hour, as the star of such films as Batman Forever, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Tombstone showed off an impressive ability for comedy as he answered questions and offered up amusing anecdotes about his career.
Moderator Nathan Raban, head writer for The A.V. Club, kicked off the discussion by asking Kilmer about his current passion project Citizen Twain, a one-man show about Mark Twain that he’s writing, producing and starring in.
“For many years I’ve been looking for a movie to direct and a story to tell that would keep me engaged. It can take a long time to make a movie sometimes. So I was looking for a story about America, and I finally settled on this idea of a dual biography about Mary Baker Eddy and Mark Twain,” Kilmer told the crowd. “Twain was a brilliant and eccentric character who spent several years involved with her writings. What interested me was how similar and different their lives were. They’re both really strong and self-made characters that were kicked out of schools when they were 12, and they went on to create whole new styles of writing and, arguably whole new styles of communication.”
Kilmer said he’s finishing up his script and has thoroughly enjoyed the chance to write Twain as a character. The actor adopted a hilarious but dead-on crotchety Southern gentlemen-style accent when he offered up one of his favorite Twain quotes, “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.” He then explained that after finishing his first draft he needed to start preparing for the role. “So I started portraying him on stage. That’s how he got his start,” Kilmer explained. “He did a little bit of writing, but he really got going on stage. He was sort of our first stand-up comedian.”
He then asked for questions from the audience, and immediately the subject turned to his experiences making 1995’s Batman Forever. “The cast was pretty amazing, and we spent a lot of time hanging out,” Kilmer recalled. “So I got to know some pretty interesting people. It was sad, though, because Jim Carrey had just lost his father and I lost my father right before I did Tombstone. So we talked quite a bit.”
Kilmer also offered up his thoughts on his Batman costume. “The suit takes an hour to get into, and you can’t do it by yourself, and then you can’t hear because there are really no earholes in it. Also you can’t turn your head and you can’t go to the bathroom by yourself. Plus, you fall over quite easily. It was like wearing a wetsuit that was several times tighter than one anyone else would wear, and then when you add the cape it’s almost psychedelic. Then I realized one day what wearing that suit was like. It was, ‘Oh! This is what being old feels like,’” the actor joked. “No one really listens to you any more. You can’t really talk or hear. You’re always falling over and someone has to help you go to the bathroom and get dressed.”
Later a fan asked for his thoughts on director Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. “They are doing what I hoped we would do, but didn’t do,” the actor replied to much laughter and applause. “Directors like Spielberg and George Lucas don’t wonder what kids think. They go ask them. That was my suggestion: ‘Why don’t we talk to the people who really love Batman?’ I had my own childhood memories of Batman, and when you think of what Bob Kane dreamt up, which led to so many stories and is still entertaining us decades later, you realize a billion dollar business has sprung up from that one idea he had. It’s really phenomenal.
“I think because of Tim Burton’s success on the first film and Nicholson being so amazing that they kind of got carried away with the idea of the bad guy being immune to rules somehow,” Kilmer continued. “In the original film the Joker gets the hell kicked out of him and thrown off the bell tower. He suffers, and that sort of went away. Things became cute. It’s entertaining, but I think what they’re doing with the Batman films now is more in the original spirit of the character.”
The current Batman films are partly inspired by Michael Mann’s epic Los Angeles crime film Heat, which Kilmer co-starred in with Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. When a fan told Kilmer that it was one of his favorite films, the actor thanked him and then revealed that his agent told him not to do it.
“I said, ‘Why not?’ And he said that I had just done Batman, so why play the third lead? I said, ‘You don’t think I should be in the poster in between DeNiro and Pacino?’ Kilmer joked, “My agent said, ‘No. Why?’”
Another fan followed up by asking what it was like to film the intense street shootout in Heat. “I believe the schedule was six Sundays, because we could only shoot that on Sundays. I believed we ended up doing 13. Somebody added up the rounds that we shot and you could almost build a pyramid out of them,” Kilmer joked. “It was really exciting to film because the guys that designed it do hostage retrieval. So what you saw, how you move forward and things like that, were real procedures. I think it made you feel really involved in the shootout. Michael Mann was great.”
Asked about The Saint, the 1997 film that presented author Leslie Charteris’ Simon Templar character as a master of disguise, Kilmer revealed there was one charade that didn’t make the cut.
“There are lots of black doctors in Russia. They come over from Africa to get their degrees and they can’t get home and can’t get jobs there in Russia. So they’re almost like how actors are often waiters. Having been to Russia a bunch of times I thought that was a great character. So I did the makeup test and I wrote a character where I would be an African doctor, but I was a waiter in one of the clubs and that’s where I go to talk to a Russian mobster. I looked like Arthur Ashe though and they didn’t like it, and they cut it,” the actor joked. “So instead they had me look like Rade [Rade Serbedzija Kilmer’s co-star in the film] with the beard.”
During the ’90s and early 2000s, when he was making movies like The Saint and 2004’s Alexander, Kilmer developed a reputation for being difficult to work with. “Now that I’m older I really regret some of the times where I had strong opinions, like with Oliver Stone, where I was really trying to convince him of a particular part of the story that I thought was important and wasn’t in the movie,” he said. “Now that I understand how hard it is to make movies I wouldn’t do that again. I didn’t realize I was adding to the long list of stuff that a director has to get done in a day.”
That old reputation and his penchant for dramatic roles are some of the factors keeping Kilmer from landing roles in comedies. “I’ve been trying to get comedies for years, but they won’t give them to me,” he said. “I am going to do a thing with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant in their new comedy Life Is Too Short. And for the four of you here that saw MacGruber, me, Will Forte and Jorma [Taccone, director and co-writer] have some stuff that we’re cooking up.
“Plus I’ve got a short for the Mark Twain play that Jack Black has agreed to be in, and I’ve written a part for Werner Herzog, who will play a black widow. It’s a scene about ants, and it’s so absurd. Twain has this theory about how ants are overrated. Everyone talks about how industrious they are, and it’s a big lie,” Kilmer joked. “They kill each other and they’re really dumb. So me, Will Forte and Jack Black are going to do that as a skit.”
Kilmer also plugged another vehicle that allowed him to exercise his comedic skills. “I just made a film with Harmony Korine called The Fourth Dimension where I’m a motivational speaker but I’m an idiot,” the actor said with a laugh. “There’s always some sort of hustle where they want you to buy their DVD or book or something. This guy doesn’t care about any of that. He’s just an idiot, but he has tons of enthusiasm.”
The Q&A closed out with a question about what comedic actors Kilmer would like to work with. “I’ve been talking to Owen Wilson, and he’s not talking back,” the actor joked. “No, he’s a friend and we’ve talked about doing something together. And I mentioned Jorma Taccone and Will Forte. Plus, I like the idea that Adam Sandler is quite a legitimate singer and Jack Black is a friend. So I thought wouldn’t be fun if we did a comedy about a real band? We could really sing and do some goofy stuff.”