A ‘Citizen’ of the ‘Cinema:’ Val Kilmer’s long journey as Mark Twain comes through San Jose

COLUMBUS DAY the MovieCredit:  NEIL JACOBS Photographer
Val Kilmer brings his portrayal of famed author and humorist Mark Twain to San Jose Stage Company in a screening of “Cinema Twain,” a filming of his one-man play “Citizen Twain.” (Photo from valkilmer.com)

Val Kilmer is one of those actors that spans multiple generations, with transcendent, star-making performances on the radar since the early 1980s. He is a movie star who has the power to disappear into his roles, an actor’s actor that peels back every layer of skin in order to get right to the heart and truth of a character.

It’s hard to forget his gunslinging, southern gentleman charm as Doc Holliday in “Tombstone.” Or his turn as mercurial rock genius Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s 1991 biopic “The Doors.” One of the most meticulously prepared actors around, Kilmer’s career has spanned nearly 40 years, since his later teen years when he was the youngest student at the time accepted to the famed Juilliard School in New York City, a member of Drama Group 10.

The 56-year-old Kilmer is now showcasing his latest work in a film entitled “Cinema Twain,” screening for two nights at San Jose Stage Company on Dec. 29th and 30th. The film has been a long time in the making, featuring Kilmer as 19th century author, humorist and satirist Mark Twain, the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. “Cinema Twain” is a filming of Kilmer’s one-man play entitled “Citizen Twain,” which is written, acted and directed by Kilmer. In the play, Kilmer shares Twain’s thoughts on politics, religion, family and faith over the span of 90 minutes. The screening will be accompanied by Kilmer, who will hold a question and answer session with the audience after the film, with VIP tickets for $50 more to include a meet and greet.

In this email interview, Kilmer speaks about his first experience with the prolific Twain, who penned 28 books, as well as plethora of short stories, sketches and letters before his passing in 1910 at the age of 74. Kilmer also shared what he would like audiences to take with them when they leave the film, and how Twain might react to the most recent United States presidential election:

David John Chávez: What was your first experience with Mark Twain and his work, and what kind of impact did this have on you?

Val Kilmer: Grade school. The impact was literally brought home by our outdoorsman father who would often tell us stories in motionless dialect somewhat passed down verbally since the same time Twain was writing them…

DJC: What has been the timeline for this project?

VK: The play only took three years but the film about and called “Mark Twain and Mary Baker Eddy” has taken 13 years so far. The film “Cinema Twain” that I am touring is a documenting of my one-man play “Citizen Twain.” There! I hope I’ve completely baffled my fond public!

DJC: You have a surreal talent for transforming into the characters you have played. How have you applied that to a Twain that exists in your show during his later life?

VK: Being an actor first my whole being goes into a sort of ‘in the moment’ mode about a character, even when reading the news or watching it (Donald Trump has me spinning)… I still work on Hamlet, which I did 30 years ago. But what I believe I’ve achieved by such concentration is the ability to hit on the most difficult thoughts and transitions of character. I learned when I was a young student that the great power in any performance is in the transition. That’s when an actor has the RIGHT to express his opinion on the subject. Obviously taking on explaining Twain’s opinions or the essence of his beliefs on God, and by all accounts his greatest self-imposed rival, Mary Baker Eddy – a fellow author, a woman, and much more financially successful at the end of their lives – is an attempt to get to the very heart of the man.

DJC: During the journey to get this play developed and performed, what might have been the most frustrating aspect of getting this project done?

VK: Producing. There’s a reason they are all bald. Even the women.

Val Kilmer
I learned when I was a young student that the great power in any performance is in the transition. That’s when an actor has the RIGHT to express his opinion on the subject. – Val Kilmer on preparing a character (Photo by Mark Humphrey/Associated Press)

DJC: You mentioned Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Church of Christ, Scientist, a significant character in the play. What is the significance of this character that is never seen, and how did that shape Twain’s worldview in his later years?

VK: He wrote a whole book about her (his worst) which reveals the importance she held in his heart. He also knew good writing from bad and truth from illusion, but his own pettiness and vanity was being worked out in public, through a dangerous gamble of claiming several known lies about Mrs. Eddy as truth in hopes of drawing her into some sort of public debate on God. He miscalculated,  repented privately to his remaining daughter, and wished he’d had the guts to say so in public.

Most if not all biographers claim Twain as an agnostic or an atheist, citing his always effective hilarious and often accurate observations about the absurdity of most religions’ version of God. But when one reads his extraordinarily beautiful description of Christian Science in some of his articles, and his own repeated admissions to ‘being a preacher,’  it’s hardly fair to make such an assertion. Mrs. Eddy often had the same criticism of modern religion.

DJC: Twain is amazingly diverse, whether it be prose, poetry or social commentary. Are there authors today you feel carry that torch, or is that just impossible with a constantly crowded media world?

VK: I’m not the one to answer that but it’s clear the genius of Mrs. Eddy and Mark Twain respectively is unique.

DJC: When the audience leaves your show, is there anything specific you would like to have them take away after learning more about Twain’s life?

VK: It’s such a brass band good news parade of an invitation to love more and have more empathy for diversity and to not be afraid of our fellow man –  but enjoy how unique, faulty, and entertainingly peculiar we all are. There are deadly serious issues of course, but not being honest about our faults or cursing another for nearly being human isn’t an answer. Ever.

DJC: In terms of harnessing in on playing Twain’s truth in the production, what did you find was the most difficult aspect to create or replicate?

VK: I thought I loved my fellow man as much as Twain. Turns out I don’t.

DJC: Much like William Shakespeare, Twain’s work and world view are timeless and constantly relevant. Based on your research of Twain, how do you think he might react to today’s political climate in the United States?

VK: He would be crying a lot at night, and turn it into the quote of the week and hilarious the next day, exactly like he did 100 years ago. ‘The past is prologue.’


“Cinema Twain” at the San Jose Stage Company
A filming of Val Kilmer’s 90-minute, one-man play “Citizen Twain”
Written, directed and performed by Val Kilmer
Thursday, Dec. 29th at 7:30 pm
Friday, Dec. 30th at 8:00 pm
San Jose Stage Company
490 South First Street, San Jose, CA 95113
Tickets range from $75 – $500
A meet and greet is available for $50 more
For tickets, call (408) 283-7142 or visit www.thestage.org

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