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Val Kilmer Is, I Mean As, Mark Twain

04/11/2013 10:53 am ET | Updated Jun 11, 2013

Val Kilmer was not at all what I expected. Come to think of it, I wasn't sure what I expected when I arrived at the Wyly Theatre in Dallas, TX to interview Kilmer. He's in town workshopping the one-man show he is currently developing, Citizen Twain. He recently performed the piece at Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge, CA on April 6. From April 18-21, he can be found at the Wyly.

"We're [on] like a big Broadway tour now with a set and everything," Val Kilmer said with a roguish smile as we sat down to talk. "Want to see pictures?" He showed me photos of the set on his phone and then we began chatting like old friends. Not always the case when interviewing celebrities. At all. But Kilmer proved to be charming, incredibly intelligent, and completely taken with Mark Twain, the subject of his new show.

As we talk, Kilmer slips in and out of "playing" Twain. (Italics throughout note when Twain is "talking.")

"Mark Twain is as big as America. He really is. I'm not an American. I'm the American. He is an honorary founding father. He contains, in one point of view, everything that's great about us. We're original, impish, sacrilegious, and we don't obligate ourselves to history. The American novel starts with Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain created a new type of literature and not a lot of people can say that. Not a lot of people can say they're absolutely original and completely self-made."

In an instant, he goes from talking about Twain to discussing women's rights -- both in Twain's time and now. "Women at the time... Thank goodness we've changed. Women were still not respected. Now it's not a secret. Everyone knows it. We're just doing it because we can." How do we change things, I ask. "You have conversations," Kilmer says without missing a beat.

There is something so intriguing both about Kilmer and Twain. At first, it's hard to imagine the two as having anything in common. But the more I listened to Kilmer, the more I saw it, the more I understood Kilmer's fascination with the multifaceted author. Like Twain before him, Kilmer wants to understand the world and is not afraid to share his observations, observations that might be uncomfortable but are, nonetheless, startlingly true.

"Mark Twain is the spokesperson or narrator of our story [as Americans]. Artists, radical storytellers, or speakers about equality. It's about more. It's about being American. It's one of our definitions. We started with this huge lie of race where we didn't start equal. We had the gigantic fairytale that wasn't really American. Twain stopped pretending."

It is that sense of pretense that neither Twain nor Kilmer have interest in or tolerance for. What's the point of telling a tale if it doesn't reveal our truth? Entertainment is fine. But art with meaning is far superior.

"Twain writes the biggest-selling book in U.S. history. The sequel is a sure-fire hit. But he doesn't finish it for years and years and years. Then he takes one last trip down the Mississippi and sees the failure of the Civil War. Racism has only been addressed on paper. All this blood, all this pain has not made our country better. Now it's not just sweet and funny. It becomes important. That's why he's remembered, because he knew what great art was."

Kilmer's understanding of Twain is remarkable, not just because he understands the man and his work, but more so because he has the incredible grasp of context. What did Twain's work mean at the time? What does it mean to us now? What can/should we be learning from a man like Twain and the writing he did?

"If we had to pick a narrator for the story of the U.S., he would be chosen. Jefferson [was] brilliant but exclusive about what he's interested in. With Twain, I think he understands everyone's point of view so much. It's that he's so warm. That's what I've enjoyed so much as a writer. Mark Twain is a rascal. He is Huck Finn. If there's a window and we're in church too long, he'll try to climb out the window. Please forgive me if you're having trouble hearing me in the back. I'm dead. I don't recognize it but I realize that."

I asked Kilmer about the "War Prayer," a lesser known piece by Twain, one of his last works, about an old stranger who walks into a church where the people are praying for the young men from their town who are going off to war. They are praying for their success and the old man reminds them what else that means they are praying for.

O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it -- for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! - Mark Twain, "The War Prayer."

"It's a cliff, like the Grand Canyon," Kilmer says of "The War Prayer." "You can end with that but you can't begin with that. It's a definitive Twain short story because you think you know where you are. Are you sure you know what you're praying for? He is applying the absolute truth of it. No, we don't want that but we're at war and we do want to succeed. Is that wrong for a mother to pray for her son? It might work well as a film. It is important. But it's a like his joke about God." And, with that, it's as if Kilmer, in front of my eyes, becomes Mark Twain, not just voice now, body language and all. If Christ were here there is one thing he would not be -- a Christian. It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand."

Regardless of the topic, Kilmer was astute and delighted to discuss anything. His excitement when talking about Twain and the way the world worked in Twain's time compared to the way the world works now is infectious. It's as if he's channeling Twain himself, the consummate conversationalist.

Kilmer on racism:

We know how to live. We know how to have a good time. We know how to be respectful. We know the benefit of it. Then we're just lazy. Why do women get paid less money? It doesn't make any sense. We have a black man in the White House and we're naive enough to see racism is over. Jackie Robinson is here so we're fine. Also how the world views us, like they're patient parents and they're waiting for us to grow up.

Kilmer on knowledge:

We all know more. My kids know more than I did at their age. We had to search more to find the truth. We have a much more level playing field now. Twain was the colossal coward. I joined the Confederacy. I fought hard. I found for two weeks. I was halfway across the Rockies and it was too late to correct the maneuver.

Kilmer on slavery:

It wasn't dishonor to love those ways. He had a way of understanding how someone lived. He could see without judgment not whether it's right or wrong, but how life was. Materialism, the way we're attached to things, that's a kind of slavery. It keeps us away from things that really matter. Mark Twain had a way of telling stories that shifts your consciousness away from labels. I hope I'm able to do that in these small areas of writing.

Kilmer on his writing and career and kids:

I dicked around too much. I did choose to be a responsible parent. They don't love me enough though, which is why they're bad kids. They are con men. My daughter, who is 21 -- has been 21 for about 16 years now -- and my son is a real bum. He's enviable and he's figured out how to do nothing and people have encouraged him how to do that. He's truly happy. He's Huck Finn. He was the only person, boy or man, in our village who was truly happy. He was careful and not attached to anything. He's either like a Zen master or he's high as hell. He's so calm, partially because he has a hellion sister who drives [crazy] him all day long. So he has nothing left for the rest of us. He has been an inspiration for that character.

I asked him once. "Why can't you succeed in school?" Because he's really bright.

"I just can't think there. What do you..." He acts like he's thinking about it. He's hustling me, Kilmer explains.

''I can't do that..." he said.

"What? learn?" I asked.

"Yeah. I can't do that there. Thank you, dad, you've helped me to identify that."

"Ever?" I asked.

"I don't think so."

Upcoming performances of Citizen Twain:

Wyly Theatre in Dallas, April 18-22

Del E. Webb Center for the Performing Arts in Wickenburg, AZ, May 3-4

Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, June 28-July 28

For more info, including "underground" locations and an engagement on London's West End in the fall, visit www.valkilmer.com.