Polo Magazine Cover - October 1999

The Enigmatic

Val Kilmer

Opens Up

Polo Magazine, October 1999

By Chris Kelly
Photographed by Kent Barker

I take a seat on the deck porch of a sleepy grocery store that doubles as a café for the residents of Tesuque, New Mexico, population too. At the Tesuque Market, locals leave their bicycles unlocked and their dogs tied a few steps from the front-porch picnic area while they order they enchiladas "Christmas style" (topped with molten tributaries of red and green sauce). I'm content to soak up the small-town bohemia as I wait to rendezvous with Val Kilmer's assistant, Mark Masters, who is going to lead me to Kilmer's home in the nearby hills north of Santa Fe.

I'm relieved to be bypassing the typical interview scenarios that often play themselves out briskly in a suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel or over salads in a West Village health-food restaurant. My hope is that hanging out with Val at his home will give me a balanced measure of the man branded "Psycho Kilmer" and "Bratman" by the press but described by his longtime New Mexican friends as "courteous," thoughtful," and "smart."

Joe Hoback, who manages The Pink Adobe café in Santa Fe and has known Kilmer since his pre-Doors days, told me, "Val is very laid back. He's a great father, and we love to get our children together. But Joel Schumacher, who directed Batman Forever, once said that "Val is the most psychologically troubled human being I've ever worked with." And, in 1996, Entertainment Weekly ran a cover story on Kilmer titled "The Man Hollywood Loves to Hate."

Of course, Hollywood's' spectrum of a person's character is about as vast as the twist in a martini at Spago. Actors are either good guys (Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, and Matthew Broderick), naughty but charming (Hugh Grant, Ben Affleck, and Ewan McGregor), or bad boys (Christian Slater, Johnny Depp, and Leonardo DiCaprio).

Click on the photo for a larger viewSo, just who is Val Kilmer? Well, I already knew that he was open enough to allow me into his home. In the past, Kilmer has declined requests for at-home interviews. In fact, a year earlier he had agreed to an interview with Cosmopolitan on the condition that the meeting and photo shoot take place on a friend's estate in nearby Santa Fe. An while Kilmer fiercely guards the privacy of his home, he agreed to POLO's request.

Maybe it was the horse connection that unlocked the door. Kilmer grew up with horses on a ranch that was once owned by Roy Rogers, and at the last Academy Awards, he made a live, unrehearsed appearance with one of Trigger's descendants who clattered about wildly in a fit of stage fright as Kilmer carried off the moment with an easy smile. For more than a decade, Kilmer has kept horses on the property he owns new his home, spending hours riding over the rugged, mountainous terrain. "I'd be in a bad western on a good horse any day of the week," he once said.

A young guy sporting a baseball cap, baggy shorts, and T-shirt bounds up the steps of the Tesuque Market and says, "Hey, I'm Mark. Ready to go?" I jump into my rental car and follow his pickup truck along winding dirt roads and turn-offs that I would have significant trouble retracing. Kilmer's home is adobe, naturally. Every house in this part of the country is adobe. But his adobe house sits on 27 acres of prime property with a commanding view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Val Kilmer, one of the most private and engimatic actors in Hollywood, is revealed in an exclusive interview at his home in New Mexico

Masters leads me along a stone path gardens blanketed with day lilies, fennel, honeysuckle, mint, Mexican sunflowers, peonies, and ethereal fern-like plants called "love in a mist." A pair of small brown jack rabbits lope by as Kilmer pads out to this back porch barefoot and tan with his sun-streaked hair pulled back loosely at his neck. He's waiting for me. A good sign as far as movie stars go. He hasn't trotted out a Prada-clad personal secretary with herbal tea and excuses, hasn't waved to me from a window with a cell phone in hand and a persistent finder jabbing in the air to signal, "Just give me a minute." Despite the fact that the 39-year-old Kilmer is in the midst of writing a screenplay, producing a movie, and preparing for an upcoming role in a file about the first manned spacecraft on Mars, he is as prompt as an Eton schoolboy. And, for the record, there's not a personal secretary, maid, gardener, cook, or bodyguard on premise. Kilmer's entourage consists of Masters, who grew up around Tesuque and looks more Patagonia that Prada.

Kilmer's voice is soft as if he's shy, his eye contact strong as if he's sure. His body language is caffeine-free, as fluid and mellow as reggae music. The two of us settle in on the porch, from which I see Super-Soaker squirt guns stacked by a stone fountain and a large sandbox landscaped with dump trucks, shovels, and plastic dinosaurs courtesy of Kilmer's children, Mercedes, 7, and Jack, 3.

Kilmer Family Art ProjectWe relax into a pair of wooden chairs that look like fantasy thrones from a children's book. Bird feathers sprout from the back and jewel-toned fabric and tiles are glued randomly on the brightly painted wood. Kilmer runs his hand along the arm of his chair. "I painted these with my girlfriend and children on a whim. The chairs were old, and I was going to give them away ... but then I decided to have a fiesta." Kilmer also points to the flower beds, where oval shaped rocks he's decorated with his children peek out like so many African masks.

Kilmer who has been divorced from actress Joanne Whalley since 1995, is a dad who loves to do things with his children. His own parents divorced when Kilmer was 9, and he and his two brothers were raised primarily by their father, Gene, an aerospace equipment distributor who made and lost a fortune developing real estate. This may explain, in part, why Kilmer is comfortable in the role of singe parent. "My children don't have a nanny, and I love it," he says proudly. "My daughter has a pony. All three of us ride together. They love it so much that I can't get them off their horses. They're fearless.

While there may be no nanny, there is a feminine influence in the Kilmer household. The woman in the actor's life is Jaycee Gossett, 20, a lithesome blonde described by Kilmer's friend and co-screenplay writer, Jeffrey Joseph, as "one of the sweetest people in the world - really down to earth." When I mention Joseph's comments, Kilmer looks uncomfortable, as if I've opened a closed door without knocking first. After being linked over the years with high-profile women such as Michelle Pfeiffer, Cindy Crawford, Ellen Barkin and Cher, Kilmer is now involved with a non-celebrity, and he makes it telepathically clear to me that, out of respect for Gossett's privacy, he has no comment about their relationship.

Click for a larger viewThe awkward moment evaporates quickly in the afternoon heat as we quietly survey the botanical playground before us. Kilmer sighs like a man fresh from a massage. "We should all live where we feel the best," he says. "Where we pray the best. Where we have the strongest relationship to life."

A small bird with jet-black feathers and a crimson breast glides onto a nearby tree limb and perches close by as if to join the circle of conversation. "Look," Kilmer says with a laugh. "It's almost like Ireland. I mean how could you conjure up leprechauns until you're in Ireland? Once you feel as though you've just seen something down low, like an elf. There's that same thing here - it's kind of impish."

Kilmer's voice comes across with the incandescence of burning incense. His words rise up slowly ... then hang in the air. "I've seen people come out here for a weekend and get very antsy. ‘What do you do here?' they ask me. For a while, people can successfully avoid confronting themselves. Obviously, judging from the popularity of alcohol and drugs, people are still trying to convince themselves that there's some way out ... some way to escape. But there's something out here that encourages you to see yourself. There aren't many distractions. I love to backpack, camp, and ride. I ride and ride and then come across one Ponderosa pine. In Colorado, you may pass a million pine trees just driving to where you're going. Here, when you encounter a tree, you know that it deserves to survive - it's made it. There's nothing to detract from simple beauty here, no giant payoff with a lot of tourists trampling through to see it. There's a kind of humor in the terrain out here, like the tough, shaley rock with a perfect purple bouquet growing out if it."

The simplicity of Kilmer's place is not unlike the ranch in the San Fernando Valley where he was raised. Kilmer, who is part Cherokee, grew up around Native Americans and spend his childhood catching rattlesnakes and riding horses: "I rode cutting horses and rodeo horses, but the ones we owned were dude ranch horses," he says. Kilmer also loved to explore the nearby caves with his older brother, Mark, and his younger brother, Wesley, who tragically died at 16 during an epileptic fit in the family swimming pool.

Val KilmerDespite his upbringing in the great outdoors, Kilmer was inexplicably drawn to acting and, in particular, the theater. "I studied acting haphazardly without a lot of discipline," he says, "but I read a lot of books and studied Shakespear." At 17, Kilmer made a move that would forever change his life: He struck out for New York and auditioned to win a coveted spot in Julliard's drama department. While the other Julliard hopefuls recited passages from the classics, Kilmer took a risk and performed his own monologue, I wrote my own piece because I couldn't find anything that would be fresh, "Kilmer says, looking past me toward the mountains as he replayed that moment in his mind like an old home movie. "They'd heard everything and I knew that, so I decided to do my own thing and see how it went."

After listening to recitations from Ibsen, O'Neil, Shakespeare, and Brecht, the judges were intrigued when a kid from the country passionately delivered lines he had the guts and talent to pen himself. They rewarded Kilmer by making him the youngest student ever to be accepted to the program. With one deftly choreographed move, Kilmer entered the pearly gates of one of the world's most prestigious performing-arts school. He began working with gifted classmates like Kevin Spacey and Mare Winningham and learning from the legendary John Hausman who paid visits to keep up with the students' progress. ‘I was confident and I was lucky," Kilmer recalls. "But it was very hard for me because my younger brother had drowned just before I started school. I was fortunate to have the challenge of Julliard to occupy my mind.

Writing and acting continued to be Kilmer's driving forces, and he went on to write the play How It All Began with his Julliard classmates. The play was produced at Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival with Kilmer in a starring role. Two years later, Kilmer made his Broadway debut alongside Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon in The Slab Boys. Smaller movie and television roles followed for a few more years until Top Gun swooped across the big screen and became Kilmer's breakout hit. His portrayal of "Iceman" Kazansky, a cocky F-14 pilot, generated enough swagger and sensuality to nearly upstage the special effects, not to mention the star, Tom Cruise. Oliver Stone took note and consequently cast Kilmer s legendary rock-satyr Jim Morrison in The Doors. His richly nuanced performance was so riveting, so painfully close to the bone that, to this day, there are those who are convinced that he wasn't so much acting as playing himself. Kilmer was so determined to make his performance authentic that he even sang all of Morrison's vocals. It was as if he had summoned up the charismatic and tormented Morrison from his Parisian grave in Pere Lachaise.

As a result of his growing reputation for delivering authentic and detailed performances, Kilmer was cast as a part-Sioux FBI agent in Thunderheart, and his masterful interpretation of Doc Holliday in Tombstone added aristocratic and eccentric dimension to the sickly gunslinger. He even took the kitsch out of the Caped Crusader and delivered up millionaire Bruce Wayne with enough mystery and animal magnetism to help catapult Batman Forever into orbit, helping it earn more than $200 million worldwide. And, in a tour de force of diversity, he played a violent bank robber in Heat, s sophisticated master of disguise in The Saint, a blind massage therapist who regains his vision in At First Sight, and the voices of Moses and God in The Prince of Eqypt.

Kilmer's successful acting career provided him the money to return to the ranch life he loved as a child. It's clear that Tesuque is not a getaway destination for Kilmer. There's no New York apartment or Malibu beach house - Tesuque is home. Although his neighbors include Gene Hackman, Ali McGraw and James Taylor, Kilmer's friends are the locals he's known for years. "I've lived in Tesuque since 1983. It's a small town, so it's kind of vivid when someone comes in and spends a lot of money and throws a bunch of parties. Everyone will go and drink their champaign, but they're not interested unless the newcomers have something to offer besides money." Kilmer points out that celebrities have been coming to New Mexico since the turn of the century. "Sure, there are movie stars here, but to the locals the bottom line is still, ‘Are you a good person?'"

In Tesuque, Kilmer can buy a couple of sacks of groceries or head into Santa Fe to shoot the breeze with Rosalea, the octogenarian high-priestess of the Pink Adobe café, without being objectified. The place is devoid of paparazzi, anxious autograph seekers, and graduates of Joan Rivers school of journalism.

Among Kilmer's close friends is New Mexico sculptor Michael Naranjo, a Native American who was blinded and lost the use of his right hand in Vietnam. "His work is really strong," says Kilmer, "but when you find out that he's blind, it becomes even more interesting." Then there's Ed and Mary Gavin, a couple in their 90s for whom Kilmer has deep affection. "A few years ago the Gavins took me to a party and introduced me at their guest," Kilmer says, laughing. "Everyone there was from an older set. ‘Where are you from?' they asked me. ‘Tesuque,' I said, and left it at that."

While the "older set" may be oblivious to Kilmer's cinematic status, most folks around here know all about his stature as an actor but judge him by his contributions as a neighbor. And while it's unlikely that Kilmer will ever run for mayor a la Clint Eastwood, he's engaged with the community in ways that are natural extensions of his gifts and ideals. Kilmer is involved with a local wildlife rescue project that rehabilitates injured birds and animals and returns them to their habitat. He has also taken on the nearby Native American Preparatory School as a personal cause. The mission of the school is to provide a top education to the next generation of Native American leaders. In the beginning, administrators found it difficult to generate interest from students and parents on the reservation. Short of taking them on a field trip to the school, there was no way to convey the full sweep of opportunities and advantages for them at NAPS. So Kilmer, the grandson of a Cherokee, took the initiative and produced and directed a recruiting film. According to Charlie Kokesh, a local businessman who assists with career planning at the school, "Val was very generous in terms of both funds and personal time. Neon - Val's favorite horseThe first time I saw the film, I was overwhelmed and impressed." Kokesh believes that Kilmer's deep understanding of the issues surrounding life on the reservation added the critical ingredient of authenticity.

Kilmer keeps a small stable that houses mostly quarter horses but includes a pony for his daughter and a beautiful paint named Neon that is his favorite. His remote location translates into rides offering an Old West kind of privacy: "In all my years of riding up here, I've never come across another rider," he says with a trace of awe. "Never. And part of the fascination I have with horses is the unity between horse and rider that happens out here. Ideally, I'm not commanding the animal, but the horse is doing exactly what I want. It happens every now and then, and it's an unbelievable feeling. In horse-racing, you can see when it happens. And in polo you know it immediately."

Kilmer experienced that connection when he starred in Gore Vidal's Billy the Kid, a TNT madefor-TV movie. "He was an older horse, but he was one of the great ropers in the area," Kilmer recalls. "He was a much better horse than I was rider. I couldn't wait to go to work and get on that horse." As a published poet . . .Kilmer's future riding plans include a five-day trek to Taos that, given his schedule, may have to be put on hold for a while. "I wish I could train my horses myself-I love doing it-but I don't have the time. At least I can ride in the Santa Fe National Forest, where there are no fences. I can get up to the mountains pretty fast."

Kilmer's home is heavy on books, framed pictures of his children, and Mexican church candles. Haunting, rhythmic music breathes from the walls-first African drums, then Gregorian-like chants. The furniture is sparse and set off by Navajo rugs, primitive art, and quirky accents such as a trio of lava lamps, a framed and autographed picture of Roy Rogers, and a stuffed pet cat, perhaps a tribute to Rogers who stuffed his beloved Trigger. "I like odd things," Kilmer says, looking at me with a boyish smile. "I'm very happy with this house. When I bought it, it was a terrible sort of failed solar attempt from the '70s. I should have blown it up."

Instead, Kilmer transformed the house into a warm, earthy home with plenty of windows and skylights that create a seamless fluidity between inside and outside. After the candles are lit in the early evening and the ethereal music seeps into my bloodstream, I feel as if I'm in the small monastery of a very hip, holy man. Kilmer always speaks softly, but now 1, too, have an overwhelming urge to talk in hushed tones.

Kilmer's massive bookshelves are filled with poetry books, which is not a surprise, as Kilmer writes poetry himself and once wrote a book of poems titled My Eden After Burns. It was originally penned for Michelle Pfeiffer-"as a Christmas present," says Kilmer-and remained unpublished until he was acting in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival as Hamlet. To promote the reading of Shakespeare, Kilmer agreed to do a book-signing of Hamlet at The Tattered Cover, a massive bookstore in Denver. "The bookstore people were thrilled, because the book-signing was the largest one they'd ever had," Kilmer recalls. "And people were buying Hamlet, which thrilled me."

On the heels of the successful Kilmer/Hamlet match-up, the bookstore convinced Kilmer to publish My Eden After Burns and have another book-signing. "It was selling really well, but I took it off the market almost immediately because I realized that little excerpts of it would always be used out of context. That was really all writers could do when they were writing about me as an actor."

Kilmer tilts his head to the side for a moment. "Poetry is a very subjective and intimate expression," he says softly. "It's literally your heartbeat. Your rhythm. The song of your soul. It's superconcentrated. It's a dense piece of yourself." Kilmer smiles as he seems to read my mind. To me, his view of poetry is a metaphor for his life. Kilmer is no more a bad boy than he is a choir boy. He's simply a man unafraid to give a dense piece of himself to his work and his life.