Val Kilmer fans know the actor as the cocky Iceman in “Top Gun” and as the caped crusader in “Batman Forever.” He’s a masculine, charismatic spitfire with a reputation for being difficult on set.
But they’ll be shocked to see the former heartthrob and action star today.
In the intimate and revealing new documentary “Val,” out Friday, we meet Kilmer, 61, after he’s survived throat cancer. Although he denied being sick in 2016, the actor now lives with a stoma — a hole in his throat used to breathe and speak. Today, talking for Kilmer is strenuous.
So, in the doc’s narrations, his son Jack speaks for him.
“My name is Val Kilmer. I’m an actor,” he begins. “I was recently diagnosed with throat cancer. Though I healed quickly from the extensive radiation and chemotherapy, what followed has left my voice impaired. I’m still recovering, and it’s difficult to talk and be understood.”
Besides his loving offspring, Kilmer has another extraordinary tool to tell the story of his four decades in Hollywood: a trove of videotape that he’s shot since he was a little boy in California’s San Fernando Valley.
While some scenes are what you’d expect — audition tapes, birthday parties, footage of his two kids — the actor also filmed remarkably candid moments backstage during all of his movies. Young actors, such as Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon, then unaccustomed to portable cameras, chitchat like nobody else is there.
“It’s like I’ve lived my life, and it’s sort of all in these boxes,” Kilmer says, looking at his warehouse of thousands of hours of tapes.
He was bitten by the showbiz bug during his California childhood when he’d create short remakes of popular films with his younger brother Wesley, who directed them. Their movies were especially cinematic because they lived next door to the famed Roy Rogers Ranch, where many Westerns were shot, and borrowed the otherworldly scenery.
Kilmer’s life was shattered when Wesley, just 15, died after suffering an epileptic seizure in the family pool. “No more home videos, no more makeshift plays,” his narration says. “My confidant had disappeared into dust, and my family was never the same again.”
The gutted actor moved to New York, where he studied acting at the Juilliard School. In his bedroom, he hung up Wesley’s artwork as a reminder.
Kilmer got his big break in the 1984 film “Top Secret!,” a World War II spy movie parody in which he played a rock ‘n’ roll singer. Coming from a rigorous stage background, he diligently prepared for the role, only to have his hopes dashed immediately.
“I spent four months learning how to play the guitar,” he says. “When I got to set, the director thought it would be funnier if I mimed. They watched me make my fingers bleed, just to see the look on my face when they told me, ‘We like it better when you can’t play.’”
But “Top Secret!” opened the door to one of the biggest movies he’d ever make: 1986’s “Top Gun.” The truth is, Kilmer didn’t care about the gig.
“Believe it or not, I didn’t want to do ‘Top Gun’ at first,” the opinionated artist says. “I thought the script was silly, and I disliked warmongering in films. But I was under contract with the studio, so I didn’t really have a choice.”
He played Iceman, the skilled pilot with frosted hair, opposite Tom Cruise’s Maverick, and he said the duo took their characters’ animosity home with them.
“I would purposely play up the rivalry between Tom’s character and mine off screen as well,” Kilmer says. “And what ended up happening is the actors, in true Method fashion, split into two distinct camps. You had Maverick and Goose on one side, Slider, Hollywood, Wolfman and me, Iceman, on the other.”
After “Top Gun,” its entire young cast enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame.
For Kilmer’s part, he dreamed of working with major directors, and would shoot elaborate audition tapes for the opportunity. When Stanley Kubrick was casting “Full Metal Jacket,” Kilmer not only taped his tryout, but flew to London to personally deliver it. (He didn’t get cast in the film.)
The strategy finally paid off when he was offered the role of Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.”
Like the Juilliard student he was, Kilmer buried himself in the role of the famous frontman. He constantly listened and practiced The Doors’ music. He only wore skintight leather pants, like Morrison, for an entire year.
But the sort of prep he craved was absent from much of the rest of his career. “The kind of acting that I’m really interested in, I haven’t done very much in movies,” he says. A low point was “Batman Forever.”
Kilmer was offered the role of comic book hero when he was in Africa on safari. Just days before he got the call, he had been wandering through an actual bat cave and took it as a sign. But as soon as filming on Joel Schumacher’s movie began, the actor loathed it.
“When you’re in [the bat suit], you can barely move and people have to help you stand up and sit down,” he says. You also can’t hear anything and after a while people stop talking to you. It’s very isolating.
“It was a struggle for me to get a performance past the suit, and it was frustrating until I realized my performance was just to show up and stand where I was told to.”
Another actor who stood where he was told to, much to Kilmer’s disappointment, was his hero Marlon Brando when they made the flop “The Island of Doctor Moreau” in 1996. Brando, indifferent and overweight, was depressed when the director refused to allow him creative input, so he receded. At one point, Kilmer, video camera in tow, walks up to Brando, who is lounging on a hammock outside.
“What’s your earliest childhood memory?,” Kilmer asks.
“Give me a shove,” replies Brando, sounding sedated.
“Do you have any memories from before you could speak,” presses Kilmer.
“Big, big, big shove,” repeats Brando. Kilmer gives up and pushes his idol’s hammock.
Despite a string of failures that followed for Kilmer, he never lost his passion for creating art. In 2017, he toured the country playing Mark Twain in a one-man show called “Citizen Twain” that he also wrote. Kilmer was about to go onstage in Nashville, Tenn., when he lost his voice and began coughing up blood.
He hasn’t worked much since his cancer diagnosis, but he has found the joy in what he’s able to do, like going around America meeting fans.
“I don’t look great and I’m basically selling my old self, my old career,” Kilmer says. “For many people it’s like the lowest thing you can do — talk about your old pictures and sell photographs of when you were Batman or the Terminator.
“But it enables me to meet my fans and what ends up happening is I feel really grateful rather than humiliated because there’s so many people.”
“Val” premieres in theaters July 23 and streams Aug. 6 on Amazon Prime.