The first sign that Val Kilmer may be a little eccentric comes early. He is registered at his Midtown Manhattan hotel under the first name of his younger brother Wesley, who drowned 25 years ago.
Mr. Kilmer is startled when asked in an interview about his alias. "It's a great name," he says slowly. "A family name."
Despite the passage of time, Mr. Kilmer, 42, is still haunted by his brother's death. "He was a genius," Mr. Kilmer says of Wesley, who was 15 and an aspiring filmmaker when he died. His brother was so talented, Mr. Kilmer says, he could have been another Steven Spielberg or George Lucas.
Mr. Kilmer's wistful feelings about his brother sometimes eerily mirror the plot of Mr. Kilmer's new movie, "The Salton Sea," which opens on Friday. He plays a man whose life is changed forever by witnessing his wife's murder at the hands of thugs involved in the crystal methamphetamine trade. The killing takes place near the Salton Sea, a sprawling and spooky saline lake in the Southern California desert.
In the film, Mr. Kilmer's widower becomes a police informant who infiltrates the sordid and violent drug world of the so-called tweakers in an effort to avenge his wife's death. Feeling guilty that he could not save his wife, the man, Danny Parker, is also seeking personal redemption.
"There are several points in the movie where the guy just can't go on," Mr. Kilmer says. "I didn't really get back to earth until about two or three years after my brother died. It's like that Nickelback song, `I'm sick of sight without the sense of feeling.' "
By the end of the film, it's clear whether Parker has made peace with himself. The same cannot be said of Mr. Kilmer.
A character actor with leading-man looks, he is remembered for some powerful performances. He nearly upstaged Tom Cruise as Mr. Cruise's cocky nemesis "Iceman" Kazansky in "Top Gun (1986), delivered 15 songs during his uncanny portrayal of the self-destructive rock star Jim Morrison in "The Doors" (1991) and stole scene after scene as the dying, dyspeptic Doc Holliday in "Tombstone" (1993).
Mr. Kilmer has starred in blockbusters like "Batman Forever" (1995) as well as small, independent films like "Joe the King" (1999), in which he played a paunchy, abusive alcoholic, a role he took on as a favor to his friend, the movie's novice director, Frank Whaley.
Unlike the famously affable Mr. Cruise, however, Mr. Kilmer developed a reputation for being difficult, which in recent years has overshadowed his acting ability.
In 1996, Entertainment Weekly ran a cover story on Mr. Kilmer titled "The Man Hollywood Loves to Hate." The directors Joel Schumacher and John Frankenheimer said it had been difficult to work with him. Mr. Schumacher, who directed him in "Batman Forever," once called Mr. Kilmer "one of the most psychologically troubled people I've ever worked with." Mr. Frankenheimer, who clashed with him on the set of the 1996 movie "The Island of Dr. Moreau," has said there were two things he would never do: "Climb Mount Everest and work with Val Kilmer again."
And yet Mr. Kilmer hardly lives up to that reputation during the two-hour interview in his hotel room before the release of his new film. He is friendly, buoyant and so open that he often volunteers personal details about his life and is quick to laugh at himself.
Still, Mr. Kilmer seems prone to philosophical ramblings. He segues with ease, for instance, from what it was like to meet real-life crystal meth addicts as part of his research, to why Communism failed in Tanzania. "I'll try not to digress," Mr. Kilmer says at one point, before digressing.
For all the criticism he's known, Mr. Kilmer does have high-powered supporters among the people he has worked with, like Jeffrey Katzenberg, the co-founder of DreamWorks (in "The Prince of Egypt"), and the directors Michael Mann ("Heat") and Phillip Noyce ("The Saint").
D. J. Caruso, 36, who makes his directorial debut with "The Salton Sea," says he would gladly work with Mr. Kilmer again but admits that "you have to learn to speak Val."
Vincent D'Onofrio, who plays a cocaine-crazed drug kingpin named Pooh Bear in the film, calls the reports that Mr. Kilmer is difficult "nonsense."
"Every time someone warns me about some actor who's difficult, they turn out to be the most talented one on the set," he says.
Mr. Caruso says he had made it a point to understand Mr. Kilmer: "There were times when we'd have to have two- to three-hour discussions in his trailer over a scene. Val requires a director's attention. He wants you to say which pair of pants you like. I had one objective, to get the movie done well, and I would do whatever was required."
He adds: "Val needs to immerse himself in a character. I think what happened with directors like Frankenheimer and Schumacher is that Val would ask a lot of questions, and a guy like Schumacher would say, `You're Batman! Just go do it.' "
Mr. Caruso apparently won Mr. Kilmer's trust. "Val is haunted by his past, about his brother and the accident and stuff with his parents," Mr. Caruso says. "We had long talks about it."
Mr. Kilmer says his relationship with his father, a real estate developer, was sometimes strained. Eugene Kilmer and his wife divorced when Val was 9. "I think he appreciated and loved more readily my younger's brother's talent," Mr. Kilmer says. This even though Mr. Kilmer, who began acting in commercials at 12, was one of the youngest students ever accepted into the drama department at the Juilliard School.
Mr. Kilmer is a man of contrasts. His reputation is that of a Hollywood bad boy, but he is such a doting father to his two children by his former wife, the British actress Joanne Whalley, that he made the cover of Dads magazine in 2000. A lifelong Christian Scientist, he says has never been to a doctor except to have the physical examinations required for movie roles. But Mr. Kilmer can contradict himself.
IN a 1999 interview with Icon magazine, he said he had never used drugs because he was too "sensitive" for them. During the interview for this article, however, he says he almost died once from drug use, when he was a student. "I say `almost' died,' " he says. "I think I would have." He won't say what drug he was using.
Mr. Kilmer credits a Christian Science practitioner with helping him survive and says he has avoided drugs since then.
Mr. Kilmer's response to the directors' complaints about him is also mixed. At the start of the interview, without any prompting, Mr. Kilmer says he was "naïve" in the past and could have perhaps done things differently.
But for the most part he denies being difficult and calls the accusations a "total lie." He says a lot of the grievances stemmed from jealousy. He maintains that friends of his former wife fed Entertainment Weekly damaging information because he was going through a divorce and that they wanted to make it hard for him to get custody of his children. Now on good terms, he and Ms. Whalley share custody of their children, who divide their time between their mother's house in Los Angeles and Mr. Kilmer's ranch in New Mexico.
Mr. Kilmer is almost sanguine about some of the unpleasant things said about him, but he seems taken aback when asked why he thought Ron Howard, known as one of Hollywood's most genial directors, called him "immature" and "frustrating" to work with during the filming of the children's fantasy movie, "Willow," in 1987.
"Poor Ron," Mr. Kilmer says. "I bet he regrets it. I bet he would not say the same thing about me now. Call him up because I bet he'd take the call now that he's worked with Russell Crowe." A spokesman for Mr. Howard said he was on vacation and not available for comment.
Like Mr. Crowe, Mr. Kilmer immerses himself in research for every role, and "The Salton Sea" was no exception. He befriended a crystal meth addict who is also a police informant and videotaped him during a three-hour interview while the informant was high on the drug.
Mr. Kilmer was also helped by what he calls "synchronicities." The movie was shot on location in Indio, Calif., a desert town south of Palm Springs, where Mr. Kilmer spent time as a child. (He was born Val Edward Kilmer in Los Angeles.) Other scenes were filmed near what had been his father's home, in Chatsworth.
The coincidences and the memory of his brother's death and its effect on him and his family enriched his interpretation of the grief-stricken Danny Parker, Mr. Kilmer says. Wesley Kilmer drowned in a swimming pool in 1977, and Eugene Kilmer died in 1993.
"I don't think my dad wanted to die" — after Wesley's death — "but living was a lot more difficult," Mr. Kilmer says. "Not to minimize my family's experience, but in `The Salton Sea,' that is the core of the story. This man is locked into that time."
Mr. Kilmer may not be over the pain of his brother's death, but he says he doesn't dwell on the sadness of it. "Death is an opportunity to understand about life," he says. "I miss him and miss his things. I have his art up. I like to think about what he would have created. I'm still inspired by him."
New York Times, Arts & Leisure, April 2002