THE SALTON SEA directed by D.J. Caruso, written by Tony Gayton, produced by Eriq La Salle, Ken Aguado, Frank Darabont and Butch Robinson, with Val Kilmer, Vincent D'Onofrio, Peter Sarsgaard and Deborah Kara Unger. 120 minutes. A Darkwoods/Humble Journey Films production. A Warner Brothers release. Opens Friday (April 26). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 75. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
And you thought Russell Crowe was moody? Try Val Kilmer. Though by the early 90s he was considered by many to be the most gifted actor of his generation, he also got reams of bad press. Joel Schumacher, his director in Batman Forever, called him "damaged goods" and "one of the most psychologically troubled people I've ever worked with."
John Frankenheimer, who directed him in The Island Of Dr. Moreau, promised, "There are two things I'll never do: climb Mt. Everest and work with Val Kilmer again."
Even the freckle-faced and most amiable Ron Howard said working with Kilmer in Willow was the worst experience of his career.
Kilmer is an enigma. Other directors and co-stars contradict these verdicts, praising his work ethic. They say he's intense, professional and obsessive about getting things right.
I've always been a fan of Kilmer's flamboyant acting style. His sickly, heroic turn as Doc Holliday in Tombstone was wonderfully peacocky, and he audaciously channelled Jim Morrison's spirit in Oliver Stone's The Doors.
In his new film, The Salton Sea, Kilmer stars as heavily tattooed police snitch and crystal meth addict Danny Parker, who's trolling L.A.'s drug scene in hopes of finding his wife's killer. It's a classic Kilmer performance, full of mannerisms, martini-dry witticisms and squinting intensity.
"Danny enjoys his pain," says Kilmer, who was last seen in the underappreciated sci-fi flick Red Planet. "It's part of his dogma for living after enduring the death of his wife."
Kilmer has dropped by Toronto to promote The Salton Sea. He's never been shy about talking to the press, but he's learned his lesson about being too honest. He hired a personal publicist after the Batman Forever debacle, when Schumacher publicly dissed him, and he's less controversial now, but that doesn't make him any less charming.
In person, he's quick, actorish and very funny. You feel like you're sitting with Hamlet by way of the class clown. At one point, he leans over my tape recorder, smiles and mutters, "You can just edit this into your story: me, I, I, I, me, me and me some more. That's my interview."
He doesn't stay on any subject very long, but you can get his attention by talking about what he loves best -- his two kids, Mercedes and Jack, and his craft.
In The Salton Sea, Kilmer co-stars with another consummate pro, Vincent D'Onofrio, with whom Kilmer hoped to bond, especially when it came to sharing ideas.
"I'm really interested in acting," says Kilmer, "and I enjoy his work. I make a point of seeing everything he does. I wanted to talk to him about acting, but he doesn't talk about it. I don't know why, but he doesn't.
"I worked with Sam Shepard in Thunderheart, and I remember that one of the reasons I helped him get the job was because I thought he could help us with the screenplay. But he's the most non-intellectual writer I've ever met. I thought he was kidding or he was screwing with me, but he doesn't know how to explain it; he just writes.
"De Niro can be extremely articulate about acting, but when it gets close to an acting moment he shuts up -- he doesn't want to mess it up," notes Kilmer of his experience with De Niro in Heat.
"I want to find out if an actor is interested in doing something different, trying something else. But if they can only get there using a very formal, rigid way, then so be it. You have to respect that process and not try to change it."
Kilmer knows what it's like to change. He's on that path himself, even in the way he now handles interviews.
"I used to think my obligation was to explain things I'm not required to, things that have nothing to do with my job. Ten years ago I would have tried to explain why my movie Red Planet didn't work. It doesn't, but sci-fi guys love it, and that's great.
"As for my career, I'm reading a lot of scripts and I'm ready to make more movies. For quite some time I would stay away from things I had already done and try something else. That kept me interested in making movies. I was meticulous about that, probably to the detriment of my overall career.
"I don't think I'll do that any more."
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