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Val Kilmer says he’s not ‘difficult’

‘Wonderland’ star has a reputation for being hard to work with

Val Kilmer isn’t a bad guy. He just plays one on screen. His Method immersion into whomever he’s portraying is the reason he’s had a reputation as a cantankerous actor, says Kilmer, currently starring as the late porn star John Holmes in “Wonderland.”

“Interesting characters are troubled characters. The only problem I’ve had in my business,” he maintains, “is very few people — unfortunately, very vocal — confusing the difficult role that I play with me. I play these guys, but I’m not like them.

“I’ve been accused of being difficult to work with. But that’s like saying the football player’s out of breath ’cause when he comes off the field having caught a hundred-yard pass he shouldn’t be out of breath. He’s not out of shape; he just went and did his job.”

His run-ins with Joel Schumacher (“Batman Forever”) and the late John Frankenheimer (“The Island of Dr. Moreau”) rate as Hollywood legend.

But Kilmer thinks his bad rep has faded: “I have a new attitude of fighting it, too. Before I thought my work would just speak for itself.”

Now he speaks up for himself if he feels assailed and has others speak up for him, too.

Homicide capital?
Take last week, for example: The Pecos, N.M., resident was quoted in Rolling Stone magazine as saying he lives “in the homicide capital of the Southwest” and that “80 percent of the people in my county are drunk.”

Kilmer quickly met with Gov. Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations known for playing peacemaker in disputes worldwide. Afterward, Richardson said Kilmer loves the state, averring: “This is a great New Mexican.” Kilmer also took an ad out in The Santa Fe New Mexican, proclaiming: “I love my state and Pecos where I live.”

In an interview with The Associated Press (before the Rolling Stone comments became public), the 43-year-old actor extolled the state where he’s lived for 20 years with a dewy-eyed affection.

He speaks of it as “a healing place,” where he enjoys spending time with his children (from ex-wife Joanne Whalley), where he aims to preserve the environment, and where he recently lobbied the state Legislature to pass incentives to get more movies made there.

He goes on so long about how much he loves New Mexico that he finally apologizes for the long digression.

He also digresses about having the “the soul of a New Yorker” (a Los Angeles native, he was one of the youngest students ever admitted to New York’s Juilliard drama department and lived in the city for several years) and about the California recall. When it’s suggested the conversation should finally turn to his new movie, he says: “Nah. That’s all right. I’d rather talk politics.”

An examination of suffering Kilmer turned down “Wonderland” at first because he didn’t care for the subject and was looking for a comedy. But a phone call with Lisa Kudrow, who plays Holmes’ estranged yet strangely loyal wife, Sharon, helped change his mind. They’re both from the San Fernando Valley, and their memories of the Laurel Canyon murders were part of the allure.

By the early ’80s, Holmes no longer was Johnny Wadd, who by some accounts had sex with 14,000 women in 2,000-plus hard-core movies; he was a junkie sycophant who pitted two drug gangs against each other. (“Boogie Nights” was loosely based on Holmes’ life.)

“I suddenly saw a worthy story and began to understand a reason to do it — which is a very keen examination of the consequences of excess,” Kilmer says. “In this story, if you do drugs, you suffer.”

Known for exhaustively researching roles, Kilmer laughs that he didn’t watch any Holmes movies “because he wasn’t a very good actor and I wasn’t going to learn that much.”

Co-producer Holly Wiersma says the filmmakers wanted Kilmer to play the porn star (who died of AIDS-related illness in 1988) because he had managed to humanize less-than-sympathetic, real-life figures such as Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” and Doc Holliday in “Tombstone.”

“Holmes is not very likable in the script so there has to be something about him that’s charming,” Wiersma says. “Without his charm, it wouldn’t have worked.”

Holmes perpetually screws up and continually apologizes, particularly to girlfriend Dawn (Kate Bosworth).

“He was not a good actor, but he was a world-class hustler,” Kilmer says. “And the difference is ... there’s some sense of satisfaction that has to come because the hustler figures out what you want and gives you this relative impression that you got it.”

Kilmer himself hasn’t been a world-class hustler when it comes to his career, explaining:

“I’m very lucky in that I haven’t cultivated fame. Which, from what I’ve seen of my contemporaries, takes an enormous amount of time. I have a lot of respect for people that do it and they’re successful at it ... especially people that aren’t such talented actors.”

Bad-boy image
With the exception of Tony Scott, no director had worked with Kilmer more than once — a fact that helped forge his reputation as a troublesome trouper.

But that’s changing, notes Kilmer, whose early films included “Top Gun” (he was Iceman to Tom Cruise’s Maverick), “Real Genius” and Ron Howard’s “Willow.”

He’s again working with Howard (in “The Missing,” set for November release) and Stone (“Alexander,” which is still filming).

Wearing a full beard these days since he’s playing Philip, king of Macedonia, in Stone’s epic, Kilmer has a half-dozen movies in the can or in postproduction.

“I’ve really worked with some great people this year — Faye Dunaway, Sam Shepard, Neve Campbell, Tommy Lee Jones, Cate Blanchett. What a list,” he says, smiling, as if he’s lampooning the unctuous logrolling actors can display in such interviews. “I’ve got nothing else to say. I’m just going to repeat their names over and over again.”