Val Kilmer

Playing Cowboy

Cowboy & Country Magazine Magazine
Summer 1999

By Johnny D. Boggs
Photographed by Michael Neese

Val and TriggersonVAL KILMER is 20 minutes late. That leaves me wondering if I've been stood up. After all, articles about Kilmer often include adjectives such as temperamental, difficult, fiery and unpredictable. Five, minutes later, Kilmer parks a black Land Rover on Santa Fe's Canyon Road and apologizes profusely for his tardiness - "I had trouble getting out of the house; this morning" - before we, sit clown on a restaurant patio.

He's carrying a cell phone and a well-used daily planner, dressed casually except for the pair of Lucchese boots ("a present for myself"), and sips decaffeinated orange tea over the next 90 minutes.

Temperamental? Difficult? Fiery? Unpredictable? The 6-foot, 39-year-old actor certainly doesn't come across that way, especially when he's talking about two things he holds dear: his family and the West.


Every third movie he's done has made $100 million, and he's starred opposite MarIon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones. But you won't find Val Edward Kilmer in Beverly Hills or Newport Beach. It's really not surprising that he chose to live in the Tesuque hills near Santa Fe, New Mexico, instead of Hollywood. "We used to come here when we were kids," says Kilmer, who was raised in California and spent about 10 years in New York. "There's a calmness here, a very healthy environment." Which is why he moved here in 1984.

CLICK FOR A LARGER VIEW"It really doesn't matter here if you have money or you don't," he says. "It's really your character. Are you a good person." Sure, there are people who have gotten away with it...who have brought that kind of greed and attitude, and they're still here, but it's really not what this town's about.

"There's something really positive about the tri-cultural community. Everybody's been getting along for quite a long time now. There are, racial issues here like everywhere else, but the artists, Native American, white and Hispanic, all get their inspiration from each other, and that's a feeling I really enjoy."

"CAN ROY COME OUT AND PLAY?" Val Kilmer enjoys the history, too. His grandfather prospected for gold in the Apache Mountains, and his grandmother was once shot with an arrow. Kilmer grew up in Chatsworth, California, on those stories as well as the tales about another pair of Westerners. After all, Chatsworth is Roy Rogers and Dale Evans country.

"That was great fun," he says. Not to mention surreal. "Trigger was stuffed in the recreation room, where you could see him through the curtains, and Roy's Cadillac was suede throughout with inlaid silver dollars all over it. The car had saddles for bucket seats, a Winchester for a steering wheel and giant horns on the hood." It was probably the car Roy rode in for parades, but it was also his personal vehicle, Kilmer says. "You'd see it at the market." Then there was that fateful day...

"I had five girl cousins and two brothers, and there was always a small army of us goofing around with some of the neighbors' kids." One day, Kilmer was dared to knock on the front door of the Rogers' home. "I just choked, you know," he recalls. "I was probably seven or eight, and Dale answered the door and said, 'Hi, darling.' She had a much more Southern accent than I remembered on TV. I said, 'Can Roy come out and play?' She said, 'Well, I think he's a little busy now.'

'OK,' I said, and ran away."

So it was only fitting that during this year's Academy Awards, it was Val Kilmer, decked out in a black cowboy hat and string tie, who led Triggerson, Trigger's grandson, on stage in a tribute to Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and the B-Western movie heroes.


While at Chatsworth High School, Kilmer excelled in acting. When he was 17, he became the youngest student admitted to the drama department at New York City's prestigious Julliard School. He performed Shakespeare, played a West German radical in "How It All Began," an off-Broadway play that he co-wrote, and made his Broadway debut in 1983 in "Slab Boys" with Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon.

He made his film debut in 1984's Top Secret! and established himself with his portrayal of Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone's The Doors (1991). Other films include Willow, Rue Romance, Top Gun, Batman Forever, Heat, The Saint and The Ghost and the Darkness. More recently, he played a blind man whose sight is restored in an experimental operation in At First Sight, and performed the voice of Moses in the animated Prince of Egypt.


Val - Cowboy at HeartDeep down, though, Kilmer would rather be playing cowboy.

"I'd be in a bad Western on a good horse any day of the week," he says. "It's such a fantastic genre of film."

Kilmer has done his part in breathing life into the old genre. He played William Bonney in Gore Vidal's 1989 TV movie Billy the Kid and, in one of his favorite roles, Doc Holliday in the 1993 hit Tombstone. Kilmer credits director and screenwriter Kevin Jarre, and co-star Kurt Russell, who played Wyatt Earp, with the success of that film.

"Kurt was so positive about the project and so much fun to work with," Kilmer recalls. "He's not credited, but he was really one of the producers." Kilmer and Russell even joked about doing a Tombstone prequel - not because the filming was so enjoyable. Jarre, the original director, was fired, and his replacement, George P. Cosmatos, didn't care too much about detail ("I think I got nine or 10 shots out of my six-gun," Kilmer says). In addition, the air conditioning (in Tucson, Arizona, during the summer) went out, rains plagued production, and there was a lot of frustration.

Val Kilmer

At First Sight (1999)
Joe the King (1999)
The Prince of Egypt (1998) (voice)
The Saint (1997)
The Ghost and the Darkness, (1996)
The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)
Dead Girl (1996)
Heat (1995)
Batman Forever (1995)
Wings of Courage (1995)
Tombstone (1993)
The Real McCoy (1993)
True Romance (1993)
Thunderheart (1992)
The Doors (1991)
Billy the Kid (1989)
Kill Me Again (1989)
Willow (1988)
The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains (1987) (TV)
Top Gun (1986)
The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1986) (TV)
Real Genius (1985)
Top Secret! (1984)
One Too Many (1983) (TV)

Filmography collage

"Every day was such a trial," Kilmer says. "It was a unique kind of hell. All the audience knows is the end result - and that's as it should be., but the experience of making it is quite different."

His biggest regrets about the filming? "Billy Bob Thornton was running around saying, 'You want to read my scripts? You want to read my scripts?' " Kilmer remembers with a laugh. "And I said, 'Billy, I'm really busy here. I'm sure they're really good, but I'm trying to make this movie.' Now it's Billy who's really busy."


But what about the "difficult" image?

"It doesn't get said by anyone who's very good at his job," Kilmer notes. "I've never heard that said by an actor."

Indeed, Kilmer's most vehement critics are directors, not actors. But Kilmer lacked a publicist and was going through a nasty divorce when he got the bad-boy rap, and the tabloids and Hollywood media devoured his troubles.

Being separated from his children (Mercedes, born in 1992, and Jack, born in '95), he says was the hardest thing he's done in his life, but he won custody, and doesn't have any gripes against Hollywood. "Hollywood's been very good to me," he emphasizes.


And he's grateful that his children love the West.

These days, home is a 6,000-square-foot adobe house on 30 acres where Kilmer lives with his children. There, Kilmer can ride his Quarter Horse or watch his seven buffaloes play.


"I just love them," he says. "They have such a sense of majesty. I was really surprised. I thought they'd be docile like most range animals, but they tend to be playful. I threw a tire in their area to see if the bull would push it around, and he learned to do tricks with it. He throws it from one horn to the other. He knows it's his toy, and if he throws it out the pen, he gets real upset."

Kilmer says he used to have some ducks, but coyotes ate them. "You come up with some pretty fancy stories when you have children," he says. He explained to Mercedes and Jack that they had to give the ducks away, hoping they wouldn't notice "the feathers everywhere."


He also has a 6,000-acre ranch in New Mexico (he keeps the exact location hush-hush for privacy), where he can camp, fish or study geology and anthropology. He does volunteer work for Dr. Kathleen Ramsay at The Wildlife Center, an education and rehabilitation facility in Espanola, New Mexico, that helps injured native animals recover. He also recently did a fund-raising film for the Native American Prep School in Ilfeld, New Mexico.

Val from Thunderheart"I love the attitude of those kids," Kilmer says. "Then can use all the goodwill they can get. These youngsters come from an environment you can't really believe unless you've been around the pueblos-and not like Taos where they kind of clean it up for tourists. This is real life, where virtually every couple of weeks someone is killed or cut up or in a car crash.

"It's just a lot of blood. Alcoholism and unemployment are so high."

Kilmer, who is part Cherokee, played a Sioux FBI agent in 1992's Thunderheart, about corruption and murder in South Dakota in the 1970s. The movie painted a rather grim but realistic look at life on Indian reservations.

"I need to tell more of those stories, and I plan to as a filmmaker," says Kilmer, who has started his own production company, Blessed, and hopes to make non-profit and commercially oriented films. Maybe even Westerns.


Val and Kurt Russell from Tombstone"I'm inspired that the storytelling of Westerns can be more accurate about the real relationships, the historical relationships that whites lead with the Indians or Hispanics or the blacks." He cites Clint Eastwood's Academy Award-winning Unforgiven, where Eastwood's partner is Morgan Freeman. "They never mention race," Kilmer continues. "That was his partner, he was a black guy, and he married an Indian. That was such a normal picture of the world."

What's in the future?

Kilmer isn't sure. He says he would like to direct at some point. "I know I have the energy for it. I must be sick because it's not a fun job, but I know I'd be able to do it well, understanding actors and appreciating them."

Meanwhile, Kilmer wants to continue giving back to his community. "We all have more time in the day than we realize," he says. "If you've got a speedboat, there's no reason you can't enjoy it and still give a little back."


And he wants to spend more time with his children.

Val Kilmer - Family Man"They are all important to me," he says. "My kids are like fish. If they're at a river, they just jump right in. It must be in the genes, but it's not in mine because I get cold. And they're fearless. They enjoy horseback riding. My son's a real daredevil, but he'll wait to see how his sister does because she's older."

Mercedes took up skiing this year, while Val tried snowboarding. "My daughter's faster on skis than I am on a snowboard. She just grins when I say, 'Slow down. Slow down'"

As the interview winds down, Kilmer pulls out his wallet and proudly shows off photos of Mercedes and Jack.

Which isn't something you'd expect from someone with a temperamental-difficult-fiery-unpredictable reputation.