Val Kilmer – At First Sight – Interview with Mr. Showbiz

The actor formerly known as Batman and The Saint talks about playing more down-to-earth roles, how he found love At First Sight, why he’s on the outs with Kevin Spacey, and much more.


By Kevin Maynard

VAL Kilmer wants you to like him. Having come off a string of high-profile action duds (The Saint, The Ghost and the Darkness), a major sci-fi fiasco (The Island of Dr. Moreau, after which director John Frankenheimer swore he’d never work with the actor again), and a bitter divorce from actress Joanne Whalley, the notoriously difficult actor seems eager to show his kinder, gentler side.

Kilmer can currently be heard as the voice of Moses in DreamWorks’ animated family epic The Prince of Egypt. It’s his latest shot at slipping into the shoes of a cultural icon, something the actor does with surprising ease. After all, his best (and most flamboyant) performances—Jim Morrison in The Doors, Doc Holliday in Tombstoneare startling impersonations of real-life historical figures.

But Kilmer’s latest role is infinitely more tricky. At First Sight is an intimate love story with a twist. “What if you fall in love at first sight and you can’t see?” the actor says. In the film, he plays Virgil Adamson, a blind masseur who is convinced by his architect girlfriend (Mira Sorvino) to undergo experimental surgery to regain his sight. Based on a true story documented by Dr. Oliver Sacks, At First Sight sometimes succumbs to sentimentality but Kilmer’s sensitive, nuanced acting manages to skirt the goo.

Clad in a Hugo Boss leather jacket and purple-tinted John Lennon shades, the actor chatted openly about playing blind, playing Batman, and playing with his kids.

Was playing a blind person a big challenge?

It’s probably the hardest role I’ve ever played. The premise couldn’t be more simple and yet more complex: What if you fall in love at first sight and you can’t see? The fact that it’s a true story doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that Titanic‘s a true story. It’s a love story. Take the love story out and you’d have nothing. And I think it’s really Mira’s character’s love and belief that inspires Virgil to see. The way that we tell the story is that she made him something he was not.

Mira Sorvino said you made her role easier because when you were playing the character blind, even though you would react to her, there was nothing in your eyes. Can you talk about how you achieved that?

It was a lot of work. There are things that seem effortless to us that for Virgil take a lot of effort. Just keeping his clothes neat, making sure his shirt’s tucked in. These are things that even when we can see, we still mess up. I’m always doing that. But for Virgil it takes a lot of practice. I went to New York really early on to rehearse for the role. I spent quite a bit of time with my eyes closed in my room or with contact lenses on where I couldn’t see. And then I went out on the street and in the subway.

Did you go out by yourself?

Yeah. By myself and with friends. It was actually harder with friends. It was very frustrating. They’d say, “Watch out!” But they didn’t say “Watch out for what?” If a dog was loose, they wouldn’t tell me what direction he was coming from.

Did people on the street try to help you?

Some did and some didn’t. It’s a very deep experience to stand on the street and ask for directions, knowing someone’s standing next to you but they won’t answer. They don’t want to bother. It’s an awful kind of pity. It’s as though there’s something wrong with you because you’re blind. And for a lot of blind people I talked to, it’s a question of pride. It’s hard to admit that you’re lost. Children don’t like to get lost, but imagine being in that condition as an adult. It’s very tough.

Did you use any blind people as inspiration for your character?

My friend Michael. He’s a sculptor in Santa Fe [N.M.] who lost his sight in Vietnam from a hand grenade. I’ve known him for years, so it was easy to work with him. He has a miraculous spirit and a great sense of humor. He says, “My first date. It was a blind date.” He can tell jokes for hours.

Another inspiration were Shirl and Barbara Jennings, the real-life couple the film is based on. They’re so in love and so attentive to each other. It was wonderful to watch. I also became friends with a blind masseur in White Plains.

What did you learn from him?

A lot, because Virgil has the same job in the film, so it was my good luck. He read the script and was very soulful and insightful. He had a lot of interesting ideas. For instance, he was very attached to his seeing-eye dog, so he was always lobbying for more dog scenes. It’s a very important relationship for a blind person. There was a line toward the end of the film where I say that my dog has been put out to pasture, and some of the focus groups that saw the film were very upset. Irwin [Winkler] almost re-shot the scene because people were upset that it sounded like the dog was dead. Also, in another example of just strange good luck, he had met a woman who didn’t know he was blind, and they had their first conversation on the phone. And we talked about the oddness of when you tell someone you’d like to date that you’re blind. Sometimes he’ll wait until he gets a feeling about them because he feels like they might cancel.

You said it was especially hard to play Virgil after he regained his sight. Why do you think that was?

It’s hard to describe. If Virgil closes his eyes and feels a table, he knows what it is but it’s very different when he sees it. It was hard to accurately capture that physical state. Because the absolute reality is that it takes much longer to regain sight than we could dramatize on-screen. What we filmed is as realistic as we could make it, but Virgil just couldn’t have learned that quickly what a door looks like. I’d tell Irwin, “I can’t do that.” He’d say, “Why?” and I’d say, “Because I can’t see it.” He’d say, ‘Well, OK, can’t you just do the scene anyway?” We have that scene where Virgil first comes back to Amy’s apartment and is surprised to see the balloons she put up. But the reality is that he would have found the sight of the bed equally bizarre. It would be a much longer process for him to understand what he sees. But it would have been distracting from the love story.

As Virgil, you captured the way a blind person might physically hold himself. Did you find that these physical characteristics were common in all blind people?

The two extremes are you’re either very rigid—which the masseuse was. He’d talk about it. It was a problem for him because it made people very nervous. There’s also this rocking thing that blind children do. But kids just don’t care what you think. We had Virgil go to both extremes so Irwin could pick and choose what he wanted in the film. I even rock a lot now. It feels good. [Laughs.]

You had a few scenes working with blind children. What was that like?

Some of them handle it better than others. There was this one black boy who was just angry. It was tough to watch him because you could tell. Some see better than others so they don’t want to be treated like they can’t see. In some ways it was really exposing, because we’re really not that different than they are. If you take the physical blindness aspect away from the film, it would be the exact same film. Just a story about a guy from out of town who’s never seen New York before. When I moved to the city, I was 17, and it took me an hour to get from 64th Street to 72nd. I felt like one of the Beverly Hillbillies.

Your character Virgil is more comfortable living a quiet life in the country than he is at living in New York City. Are you similiar off-screen?

Yeah. I’ve been living in Santa Fe, N.M., since 1983. I’ve been going back and forth between there and New York.

Are you still a celebrity in Santa Fe, or are you able to be a more anonymous type of guy?

They don’t care about actors there. It’s an artistic, multicultural community. There’re a lot of eccentric characters out there and people who make enormous contributions to their community. If you’ve been to Santa Fe, you’re kind of stuck with the tourist aspects of it, but there’s a feeling underneath and a soul to it. It comes from the quality of the lives of the community. I’m grateful to expose that to my children, because I think it’s vanishing out of our culture everywhere. Even New York. Since I was there in the 1970s things have changed.

In the new Guiliani-family-friendly city?

The Hungarian section of the East Village has vanished. Even in Greenpoint, where most of the signs are written in Polish, it’s now gentrified.

What are you working on next?

I have a film that will be at Sundance called Joe the King. Frank Whaley wrote it and directed it. He’s a great actor and comedian. He asked me to play his dysfunctional alcoholic janitor father. This is Frank’s real-life story of his childhood. The kids in the film are fantastic. It’s reminiscent of The 400 Blows. It’s terrific.

You went to Chatsworth High School with Mare Winningham and Kevin Spacey. Do you still keep in touch with them?

No, I have no idea what Mare’s up to except I just saw the other day that she has a new record out. And Kevin stole money from my dad, so I don’t talk to Kevin.

In high school?

No. College. We went to Juilliard, and he knew my dad well from high school, and he hustled him. He told him that the school was going to kick him out because he used up his student loans so my dad wrote him a check. Even though Kevin knew he was gonna quit. So he hustled my dad for the money.

Was it like, a thousand bucks?

No, it was tuition. It was like, $18,000. My dad thought we were best friends so he wrote him a check. I ran into Kevin years later, and he had made some movies and probably won a Tony by then. I said, “Congratulations. You’re doing great, but you ought to pay my dad back. I don’t have much to say to you till you do that.” He sent my dad a thousand dollars and some sad-song letter that was all lies. And my dad died, [about] 1992 or ’93, right before I started Tombstone. So I’m gonna have to [have Spacey] pay for the college education of my children.

[Kevin Spacey’s publicist responds: “Ten years ago Mr. Spacey repaid in full an $800 loan, with interest, made by Eugene Kilmer in 1979 to help towards his first year’s college expenses. He has always been grateful for the opportunity this afforded him and feels strongly that without the generous support of Mr. Kilmer, and many like him, he would never have achieved the success he has today. He is particularly grateful to Val for having suggested he apply to Juilliard in the first place.”]

What was it like working on The Prince of Egypt?

Oh, it just gave me quivers. It was just an amazing group of artists. I don’t know if Jeffrey [Katzenberg] really got credit for [having] the courage to make such an unusual breakthrough animated film. I can’t say enough about it. It’s a classic.

Any trepidation about playing the character of Moses?

No, because the three directors on that film and Jeffrey really created a warm feeling of collaboration. They were so thorough about everything. I didn’t really have concerns because they had talked to so many religious scholars. [That’s] the kind of thing that an actor usually has to do himself. [Pauses.] That’s the most bacon I’ve ever had in my whole life.

Did you see ever see Batman and Robin?

Half of it. The same half everybody else saw, but I had to turn it off. Especially when I saw a picture of that silver bat suit. Wow. It was hard enough wearing the black one.

Do you see yourself doing more independent, small-scale films in the future?

I would love to do a movie just like this every year. I’ve really been fortunate in that nothing I’ve done has ever prevented me from doing anything else. That happens all the time, unfortunately. It depends on who you are and the kind of rhythm in which you work. Bruce Willis comes to mind. If [he’d taken] two and a half years off after he did Hudson Hawk, he probably would’ve been in trouble. But he just loves to work, and that’s his rhythm. I’d like to work more on projects that don’t take so long to do. Even Heat. I didn’t play the lead in that [movie], but it took forever. I started it the day after Batman Forever, and it just took [nearly] as long—about four and a half months. It took about 14 days total to do the shootout scene. Every Sunday, forever. Go down to L.A. and blow it up. It must’ve been really weird for the people working in the area. Thousands of rounds of bullets. He [director Michael Mann] had 11 cameras on that [scene].

Now that your divorce is over, are you more comfortable talking about it?

The last couple of years have been pretty difficult because of my divorce and custody issues. That’s something I never talked about in the press because I didn’t think it was the right thing to do. Now that the trial’s over, I don’t feel so bad about telling the truth of it. I never lied. I just didn’t think it was appropriate to talk about. That was really a damaging time; to say that I can’t co-parent my children is pretty vicious stuff. But, unfortunately, that’s what happens with divorce.

Your ex-wife, Joanne Whalley, is British. So does that mean half of the year the kids are raised in England?

They live here. That was one of the dramas going on. But there were certain periods of time when it would have been legal for her to just take the children, which was really terrifying.

So they have to stay in this country even though you have joint custody?

Yeah. She could move. But the kids have dual passports. All children in the United States who have a foreign parent do until they turn 18. [Pauses.] I can’t remember the question. Did we answer it?

Are you a real hands-on dad off-screen?

Yeah, I am. My kids really deepen my sense of gratitude for having what I have. They also really energize me. Just over Christmas my 7-year-old daughter took up skiing. My 3-year-old son is fearless, so I thought he would really jump on it too, but he didn’t. He’ll usually do anything she does, but he was very happy just staying in. But [when] I was a kid, I really appreciated that my parents didn’t push things on us. And the mountains aren’t going anywhere.