One of the most prolific actors of his generation, Kilmer shares the backstory of his new one-man show, Citizen Twain.
Actor Val Kilmer
Tavis: Any actor who decides to embody Mark Twain not only has to measure up to that man’s larger-than-life persona, but he also has to compete with Hal Holbrook’s masterful portrayal of Twain.
But up to the challenge is Val Kilmer, who’s turned his obsession with the man credited with writing the first great American novel, “Huckleberry Finn,” into a powerful new one-man show. Let’s take a look at a scene from “Citizen Twain.”
[Clip of live stage performance]
Tavis: So I told Val Kilmer a moment ago, before we came on the air here, that I was excited about coming to see him when this play opens here in just a matter of days in Los Angeles, and Val said to me, “Well, I think it’s worthy of being seen,” which isn’t always the case in this town. So why is this worthy of being seen?
Val Kilmer: Well, I don’t mean this town necessarily, just that it’s rare to have really great material, and Mark Twain was so prolific. I’d even call him a profound thinker. He’s probably the most-quoted American, and as a scholar said – although he said I could use it as my own thought – I love this idea that Mark Twain is an honorary Founding Father.
His sensibility is so distinctly American, so original, and he’s so funny, and about such a wide range of subjects that are important. The most important that he conquered that is sadly still with us, race.
He turned facts into art in humorous style, conveyed something profound about where we were at as Americans after the worst thing that had happened to our nation besides allowing our nation to begin with slavery – the Civil War – this great masterpiece, “Huckleberry Finn,” and with humor and love.
Like Shakespeare said, held a mirror up to nature. He showed us who we are in such a loving way; I don’t really think you can be as racist, if you’re a racist, after you read that book.
He finds a way to reassure us that who we really are is okay. That’s really important. So that’s why I said because it’s timely, and sometimes plays are great just for a laugh or something, a diversion. It can be just fluffy entertainment that has a place, because life’s tough. But this, I think it’s a good word, “worthy.”
Tavis: How does his – you used the word “profound” a couple of times now, and I don’t disagree with you at all about that word as a description for Mark Twain. But how does his profundity speak to you as an artist?
Kilmer: Well, I think I could just maybe rephrase what I just said. He found a way to be not just commercially viable but wildly, mythically successful with – and being original.
So he just had a kind of wildcat, wildcatter kind of confidence that’s in a way, distinctly American. No obligation to history, or acting like it, even though he was a real student of his craft. I think for me personally, he’s just reassuring that things that we all believe as artists or creative people.
It’s important to be yourself. What art does for everyone, helps you understand yourself and in a distilled way, whether it’s a painting or a scene in acting or a joke. It distills something about everyday life that can be important to you.
Mark Twain, for example, I mentioned “Huckleberry Finn” He had a surefire hit with “Tom Sawyer,” but he went back to work and put it away for many, many years because he hadn’t come up with something that was valuable enough for him.
He took a trip, I think it was his last trip, down the Mississippi again, and he saw what’s really the failure of the Civil War, that tragically, all our racism was still alive and well and needed addressing.
So he finished out the story, addressing it more head-on than I think he originally planned, and created a masterpiece.
Tavis: I want to go back to Mark Twain specifically in just a second here, but you mentioned that he had a surefire hit, puts it on the shelf, does so some more work. How did you know – because you’re not just the star of this; this is your baby.
Tavis: This project, every piece of it is you. How did you know that you had gotten this ripe and ready for the stage?
Kilmer: Well, it just becomes a threshold. This is a lot of aspects of my development of telling the story about Mark Twain is kind of backwards from tradition. I started and wrote this movie about Mark Twain and Mary Baker Eddy, a genius, another genius, a contemporary of Twain’s that he was obsessed with.
Tavis: You should explain who she is, for those who don’t know.
Kilmer: She founded – she was an author.
Kilmer: But she founded a religious called Christian Science.
Tavis: That’s right.
Kilmer: He, in the last 10 years of his life, really thought a lot about her and her beliefs, and wrote about – the only person that he wrote a book about. So I was looking for a story to tell to finally direct a film, which I’ve always been interested in doing, and I came on this way of telling a story about America and things I’m passionate about through these two amazing characters, Mark Twain and Mary Baker Eddy.
So that took about 10 years, on and off. It’s hard to turn down big movies, and I had a lot of things happening at the same time personally as well that made it difficult to just transfer my interests into writing and directing.
It’s easy for some people. For me, it took a long time. Plus they were difficult, complicated characters. So I finally got this story in good enough shape. I took on creating the character of Mark Twain on stage because I love the theater.
There are several sequences in the movie where he’s on stage, because that’s how he started. He was a newspaper man and he got a job as a correspondent to the Sandwich Islands, and he came back to San Francisco and his stories were so funny a friend said, “You ought to rent a stage and tell your stories on stage as a lecturer.”
In many ways, he’s the first stand-up. I kind of forget what year, eighth grade teacher told you about Mark Twain. He’s not really a quaint guy. Very radical, same spirit of Redd Foxx about race or Richard Pryor or now Chris Rock or Louis CK, these really deep-thinking men that are also really funny and a bit nasty.
Tavis: Not Twain.
Kilmer: Yeah. (Laughter)
Tavis: Not Mark Twain.
Kilmer: Yeah. He said, “When my book was first published, it was banned at the library in Concord, Massachusetts – one of the happiest days of my life.” (Laughter) Not for using the “N” word over 200 times, but for describing what people that treat people like – oh, and he said, “They call my book trash. I believe not for using the “N” word, but for describing what treating people like trash implies.”
That’s quotes from the play, not from Twain. But what I try to do in the play as well that’s different than what Hal Holbrook has done for all of these years is go for a more maybe behind-the-scenes version, a more 3D version of the character, so it’s really a character study.
Hal Holbrook has presented him as a lecturer and sort of a particular aspect of his character.
Tavis: I’m glad you said that, because I was waiting for you to conclude, because I owe you an apology. I read something at the start of this conversation that I really don’t believe, and I approve of this copy when I read it.
I should have looked at it a little bit more closely, because I know what the intent was, but I don’t believe that artists compete against each other, and I suggested at the top of this that anybody who takes this role has to compete with Hal Holbrook.
I read that, and for the last 10 minutes I’ve been really uncomfortable with my own words, (laughter) because I don’t believe, again, that artists have to compete. So forgive me for saying that, number one.
But it does raise the question when somebody has portrayed a character for so long and so well, how you find – my word, not yours – the courage to not be intimidated, to try to give us a more complex, multidimensional character, when everybody knows the Hal Holbrook Mark Twain.
Kilmer: Sure, and also, which he’s been very kind about, and even supportive of what I’m doing. In the screenplay and what I intend to direct is a very specific point in his life.
He’s dying and Mrs. Eddy represented not just to Mark Twain but to the nation and the world some very radical ideas about God and man, and I call it a love story because I think it’s – that that is her life story. It’s about love, about understanding love in a profound way, and as a primary synonym of God, and that Twain was both in love with her ideas and hated her tenacity.
Many things where he was just jealous as a writer. She was a millionaire, and he won many fortunes and lost them by his own hubris. So I think that it – anyway, the film represents to me, through these two great Americans, a quintessential story about understanding America, where we’re at now.
We’ve had a very forceful, kind of bombastic – not kind of, but an aspect of our character and how we present ourselves to the world is very physical and loud.
We came on strong, with genius and courage declared our independence, and immediately a kind of prowess that is rare in human history and still leading the world with that kind of consciousness.
But we’ve moved into what in this film is how I’m looking at it is more the feminine side, or the way Mrs. Eddy would look at solving a problem is with more sensitivity than the way Mark Twain would go about it.
Tavis: And not shock at all. Yeah.
Kilmer: Well, some of her thoughts were quite radical, but the sensitivity that women in general represent about problem-solving or strength or endurance or even battle – a different way of looking at the world that is now our destiny.
So that’s what that movie’s about, and with Mark Twain on stage, he addresses some of the harder questions, but not willingly. I like to think of him as sort of the – it’s not really fair to look at his entire life as a split personality, but he did make up this guy, Mark Twain, who’s got a Betty White fright wig look (laughter) and a Colonel Sanders suit.
These are not accidents. He made this guy up. Who Samuel Clemens is, you could look at him, the more sensible, sensitive, or that genius aspect, and a deep-thinking, very patriotic, very humble American.
So maybe Samuel Clemens is like Thomas Jefferson, and Mark Twain is like Uncle Sam. (Laughter) Sticking his finger in our face, saying, “I want your child.” He wants that laugh when he’s standing on stage.
Like he says, or how I start the play is some quotes of his, some things that I wrote or found, but people start clapping, and I say, “Oh, yeah, I love it, I love it. Give me the compliments. I love compliments. I was born modest, but it wore off.” (Laughter)
“Give yourself a compliment. If you can’t get a compliment in any other way, do like Congress does – give yourself one.” (Laughter) “I could do it right now. Oh, I love the compliments. Feels like angels licking me.” (Laughter)
“Although I’m also embarrassed to say what I think when I get a compliment. I so often feel they have not gone far enough.” (Laughter) He’s a funny guy, and about virtually anything.
Kilmer: I will send you one, so don’t go look for it, but there are dictionaries of Twain quotes.
Tavis: You promise to send me one?
Kilmer: Handy for your occupation.
Tavis: I will (laughter) -
Kilmer: Because you can look up anything – dog, cat. “I like cats. They’re quieter than children.” (Laughter) “Although if you pick up a cat by the tail, you learn something about life you cannot learn in any other way.” Just funny about everything.
Tavis: I’m going to look for my book and if you don’t, I’ll be stalking you backstage at the Kirk Douglas.
Kilmer: I can hand it to you.
Tavis: Yeah, okay, I’ll take that. I want to circle back to something that you said earlier that isn’t so funny, but is still -
Kilmer: Betty White, I know what you’re thinking.
Tavis: No, no, no, no, no. (Laughter)
Kilmer: Betty White. I got a bone to pick with Betty.
Tavis: No, no, no, no. Circle back to something that you said that isn’t at all funny, but -
Kilmer: She stole my Grammy.
Tavis: That’s funny. Now that’s funny.
Kilmer: But we don’t have to talk about it.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. (Laughter) You want to vent about that?
Kilmer: But she did.
Tavis: You want to vent about that?
Kilmer: No, it’s all right.
Tavis: Okay, okay.
Kilmer: Kevin Bacon, too.
Tavis: Here’s your moment.
Kilmer: Two people -
Tavis: Here’s your moment.
Kilmer: – that you can’t – I’m probably the only person who’s been -
Tavis: Who got robbed by Betty White and Kevin Bacon.
Kilmer: I got a beef with Betty – yeah, well. She didn’t have enough love, accolades? She’s got to steal my Grammy?
Tavis: Yeah, okay. (Laughter)
Kilmer: (Unintelligible) she knows what she did, Tavis. (Laughter) She knows what she did. That’s all I’m going to say.
Tavis: I like Betty White, she’s (unintelligible).
Kilmer: Yeah, everyone does. Come see my show, Betty. We’ll talk.
Kilmer: Backstage. (Laughter) Wouldn’t you like to see Betty White and Mark Twain go at it?
Tavis: Yeah. That would be -
Tavis: Betty might upstage Mark Twain.
Kilmer: I’m going to fight.
Tavis: Yeah, she’s -
Kilmer: I’m going to fight.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, that’d be funny.
Kilmer: Betty’s tough.
Tavis: Speaking of fighting, the “N” word – and I hate saying “The ‘N’ word,” but I – because it’s just – part of saying the “N” word -
Kilmer: Kind of makes you feel bad, doesn’t it?
Tavis: Well for me as a Black person, part of saying “the ‘N’ word” takes away the animus and the sting and the meaning of what the word was intended to portray.
Tavis: So I hate saying that, but for the sake of this conversation, and given it’s Mark Twain, I’ll say “the ‘N’ word.”
But here’s why I’m going back to that, because you raised an issue that is still being hotly debated to this day. Classic though it is, as you well know, there’s still debates about whether or not Twain ought to be read, particularly “Huck Finn.” Some school districts are down with it, some school districts are not down with it. To your earlier point, some libraries stock it; some school libraries don’t stock it.
But having played and embodied this character now, do you have a sense of what you feel about this debate about the “N” word 200 times in -
Kilmer: I don’t know if it’s hotly debated. I would think it’s foolishly debated, because language is about intention, right?
Kilmer: Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens, was raised in a community where “nigger” meant an object, it’s property. That’s how I get into it in this story. I have an ex-slave just say it, and it’s a title of a guy. Nigger Jim is Aunt Polly’s slave.
Then he makes a – then he brings it up. So now that word, well, maybe I’ll explain that in my play, Mark Twain is dead and he knows he’s dead, which is something that he wrote about very humorously.
But he’s talking about today, and he says, “You know, Quentin Tarantino used that word over 100 times in ‘Django Unchained.’ I used it over 200 times in “The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn.”
He uses it so often that you understand and forget about a human being. “It” is that – it’s an object in the story, and without language and without the specific use of that language, you just don’t understand as accurately the point.
So to me it’s about what’s behind the word, just like what is very legitimately, hotly, that word, hotly debated right now, with gun laws. That’s a – the subject is fear and violence.
Writing to address that effectively, there’s a common-sense logic that you can’t debate. It’s like when I was younger, when the nuclear debate was on, whether they’re good and bad was the issue.
Now that we’ve relaxed about it, it’s easier for us to accept that yeah, a nuclear bomb explodes both ways. It’s not as a device, and without an agenda behind it. Just analyzing it, just like if we analyzed the gun laws, that there are obvious conclusions to be reached on both sides of the debate, where we’ll be safer.
Our nation has expressed how they feel about that, right? We have polls that will turn into votes.
Tavis: This is so unfair to ask, but what is it that under-girds you, emboldens you, to not shy away from playing these larger-than-life characters, whether we’re talking Morrison or Holliday or Twain or even Batman.
Kilmer: Well, I did play Moses, too.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Kilmer: That was risky. In a musical. I still can’t believe I said yes. (Laughter) I did that here in Los Angeles. That was the last time I was on stage. Well, you’ve got to challenge yourself as an actor, and I just grew up that way.
If you let – it’s very hard to, a hard craft to perfect. You get to a point in any endeavor where you can say the person’s an artist, right? It’s a good aspiration. I don’t use that word lightly, but in order to be an artist and an actor, like tackling the classics in the theater as well as film, there’s lots of discipline, lots of work, physical work put in.
So like the film that I found, this story about Mark Twain and Mary Baker Eddy, it’s something that I know I can and have been passionate about for years and years and years.
With Twain, I really love character acting, and there’s something – think about this. There are jokes that I came across 13 years ago that still make me laugh, and I’ve been doing this all day long, every day, for three years.
Remember De Niro in his basement in “The King of Comedy?” That’s a bit of a – what’s his name, Rupert Pupkin – I’ve been in my basement laughing at my own jokes for about three years now. You go a little crazy.
But it’s been greatly satisfying to get validated out on stage, because the audiences are finding the play worthy.
Tavis: Yeah. Speaking of De Niro, I think I see you every night, or every other night, with De Niro in “Heat” on one of these channels. Great film, by the way.
Kilmer: Is it? Yeah, thanks.
Tavis: But for now, we will appreciate Val Kilmer for the role that he’s starring in at the Kirk Douglas Theater, for those in the L.A. area or you’re coming to town, starting June 28th. He will be there starring in “Citizen Twain.” I will be there, I’m anxious to see it. I’m glad to have you on, Val.
Kilmer: Thanks so much.
Tavis: Good to see you, my friend. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.
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