Ice Man on Stage
“I was born modest, but it didn’t last.”
“If you can’t get a compliment any other way, give yourself one.”
“I’m not an American, I’m the American.”
Val Kilmer is laughing while he says these quotes, the folksy Southern drawl of Mark Twain replacing the voice known to many as Jim Morrison, Doc Holliday or Batman. When the actor talks about Twain, a classic American figure he has spent more than 10 years researching, it’s hard for Kilmer not to slip into character.
When he brings his one-man show Citizen Twain to the Wyly Theatre beginning April 18, Kilmer will inhabit more than simply Twain’s voice. It’s a total transformation, complete with a prosthetic nose, bushy beard and full Colonel Sanders suit.
“Two of my favorite theaters in the whole country are there in Dallas — the Kalita Humphreys and the Wyly — so I’m very excited to go there,” Kilmer says.
After first workshopping the show in Los Angeles, Kilmer selected Dallas as the second of only four cities to receive the new work, which in addition to headlining he also wrote and directed. The play is a constantly changing piece of art, he explained over the phone from LA, and Dallas seemed like a place that would be receptive to the give-and-take Kilmer expects from his audiences.
“Theater is all about the audience, and Dallas is just the right combination of intellect and Southern hospitality,” he says. “It felt like the right place to start doing the play and touring around. Two of my favorite theaters in the whole country are there in Dallas — the Kalita Humphreys and the Wyly — so I’m very excited to go there.”
But how did this deep fascination with “America’s narrator” come about? While diving into research for a movie project centering on the intellectual battle between Twain and Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, Kilmer was struck by the famous humorist’s wholly original view of the world.
“He doesn't shy away from our faults and flaws, like dealing with greed and racism,” says Kilmer. “In his book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he probably did as much or more as a private citizen. ... It's really hard to imagine someone who contributed more to coming to grips with such an important, crucial subject as racism. He's very grand, and very petty, and very funny, and mean. He really represents America.”
In addition to exploring Twain’s view on everything from politics to death, love, money, watermelons, God, racism and cats during the solo play, Kilmer also participates in a post-show talk-back while his extensive makeup is being removed. Those, he admits, started out as a happy accident.
“We were running late one night [for a meet-and-greet, the proceeds of which allow Kilmer to donate show tickets to veterans], and I said to my brother, ‘I don't know what to do,’ and he said, ‘Just take your makeup off onstage.’ So it was kind of a lark the first time,” Kilmer explains.
“The play is a lot about identity, because Mark Twain is this pen name for Samuel Clemens, and I am using that as a convenience to talk about the difference between the two personas. This is a guy who loved being famous, but he was also a very devoted family man. So this part about duality ended up being a really fun moment onstage when I — and I haven't thought about how to say this yet — when I ‘unbecome’ Mark Twain,” Kilmer says.
“I love talking to people, I'm always trying to make the play better and improve my craft, so I like asking questions and the talk-backs have just been fantastic.”
Kilmer is also aware of his own public persona. An explosive early career — Top Gun, Real Genius, Willow — gave way to more offbeat and experimental projects as Kilmer searched for the right roles with which to challenge himself. This return to the stage allows him to give back to veterans while exploring the life and thoughts of a man he so obviously holds in high regard.
“My whole reason for doing the play is because I care very much about America, and I care about the legacy that I'll leave my children, and the dialogue that comes out of conversations centered around Mark Twain is really honest. There's a particular attitude Mark Twain has about viewing life positively yet realistically that's very healthy.”
Citizen Twain plays the Wyly Theatre April 18-21.