Val Kilmer thinks it's funny when the response to the mention of him playing Mark Twain -- an outsize real-life character if ever there were one -- is one of puzzlement.
"I've had some friends say it seems odd that I'm playing Mark Twain, and I ask 'Why is it odd?' and they look at me like that was an odd thing to say," Kilmer says. "It's another role. I didn't think it was odd that Daniel Day-Lewis was playing Abraham Lincoln. Nor did I think it was odd that Kevin Spacey was doing Richard III or any other role."
Perhaps it's odd because Kilmer, who's now 53 and made his Hollywood debut three decades ago in the fabulously zany comedy Top Secret!, has always been hard to pin down. He had his breakthrough role two years later as the bad boy of Top Gun, and in the '90s and 2000s played several iconic characters, from rock star Jim Morrison ( The Doors) to American West legend Doc Holliday ( Tombstone) to Batman ( Batman Forever). He even played artist Willem de Kooning in Pollock.
Truth is, he has always considered himself a character actor, and has, for the most part, avoided tabloid scandal, despite having once been regarded as one of Tinseltown's biggest sex symbols.
"I don't have a persona as anything but an actor," he says. "The limited perception of how I'm perceived is not in relation to stardom.... I don't know what I would be called in those Vanity Fair articles where everybody gets some kind of label. I've always been an outsider."
His next role: film director and producer, which led him to playwright and theatrical producer.
"Ten years ago I started looking for an American story, and trying to be as classic and as personal as possible, looking for a character that represented a subject or aspect of human nature that I would be able to stay passionate about for several years, because that's what filmmaking requires," he says.
That's when, in looking into Twain's life, Kilmer learned of the author and humorist's relationship with Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science and the respected Christian Science Monitor, a controversial faith healer, and one of the few self-made female millionaires of the 19th century. Although Twain never met Eddy, he openly criticized her and even wrote a book, Christian Science, which many feel is one of his few misfires. Later, in a roundabout way, he came to respect her, admitting that "few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example."
Kilmer had found his American story, one that he considers relevant today.
So he began writing the script for a film, which he's also directing and producing. He'll star as Twain. The as-yet-untitled film is currently referred to on imdb.com as Mark Twain and Mary Baker Eddy.
But if he's going to get into the role, he figured, what better way than to explore it onstage? The result is Citizen Twain, which has had workshop productions in California and is now touring as a work in development. The one-man show plays Dallas' Wyly Theatre at the AT&T Performing Arts Center for four performances this week.
The play's words come direct from Twain's writings. The set is a simple wooden stage, which could symbolize a raft, like the one on which Huckleberry Finn and Jim make their journey down the Mississippi. The rest of the staging includes a large moon and the use of projections from a system called 3-D video mapping, which Kilmer says has been used in arena-rock concerts and for dance and opera productions, but not much, if at all, for theater.
Delving into Twain
Of course, when doing a one-man play about Mark Twain, the seersucker-clad elephant in the room is Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain Tonight!, which Holbrook has been touring around the world for half a century, changing it slightly to use different material from Twain's endless supply of bon mots and clever social and political commentary.
"I am lucky to know Hal, and really lucky that he has given me his blessing to continue with this project," Kilmer says. "He certainly deserves the respect to be seen as who he is: the most important living person in relation to Mark Twain."
For nearly a decade, Kilmer has plunged into deep research of Twain, reading everything by and about him he could find. He frequently visited the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Conn., pored over the Mark Twain papers at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, Calif., and after discovering the Mary Baker Eddy angle, researched her life, too.
"The story itself of who they were and what they were accomplishing, from very different writing techniques, is remarkable," Kilmer says. "They're both self-made; they were both taken out of school by their parents at 12 years old. Part of the remarkable accomplishment of these two great Americans was to believe in themselves and believe in America."
And that set Kilmer thinking about bigger, philosophical questions, about the frivolity of humans and the mad quest to achieve.
"The capacity to love is enormous in these two characters," he says. "I wish I had it in the everyday way that these two people do. I know Twain is often called a cynic, but you can't read him and not understand his enormous care and concern for the human spirit; he really loves people."
Although Kilmer has been known for movies, he, like many film actors, started in theater. In fact, his performance in a play at L.A.'s Chatsworth High School, in which he played opposite Mare Winningham, has been cited by classmate Kevin Spacey as his inspiration to pursue acting.
Of course, when you become a bona fide movie star, it's tough to find time for the stage, especially when you're involved in giant studio films that take up years of your life, from the initial table reads to the press tours when it's released. After Kilmer's movie stardom faded a bit, even he admits that the appeal of doing "movies of questionable quality," to keep money coming in, is undeniable.
In his 30s and 40s, he had a ranch in Santa Fe, and even tried to start a theater there. In 2005, he returned to the stage, starring in a revival of The Postman Always Rings Twice in London's West End.
"Not to be grand, but it's like when you're really hurting and you haven't been to church in a long, long time, and you just go on a whim some Sunday morning," Kilmer says of his return to theater. "It's not even your faith, but you see a sign and you pull in, and the sermon is exactly what you needed to hear that day and your life improves. That's kind of what me standing on stage as Twain is like. It's a perfect remedy for my life right now."