Vman 35: Lightning Jack
How the fresh-faced, Hollywood-raised, music-crazed Jack Kilmer is taking the film industry by (quiet) storm
How the fresh-faced, Hollywood-raised, music-crazed Jack Kilmer is taking the film industry by (quiet) storm
In the coming-of-age genre, many young actors have broken through with the type of auspicious performance that foreshadows a career to be watched and obsessed over. Who can forget River Phoenix in Stand by Me, Corey Feldman in The Goonies, Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused, or Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High? For 20-year-old Jack Kilmer, it was the Gia Coppola-directed Palo Alto that introduced his guileless talent as a then-teenaged actor—achieved at least partially due to the fact that he’d never aspired to perform.
“I love the film, and his performance in it is so incredibly natural and unforced,” says Matt Bomer, the comparatively experienced film and television star, appearing with Kilmer in this season’s ’70s crime caper The Nice Guys. “He’s open and charming. I’m massively jealous because there are actors who train their entire life to get the kind of naturalistic performance he gave in that film. The fact that it was his first acting job is really incredible.” Co-starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, The Nice Guys moves Kilmer further center in terms of mainstream cinema fare, closer to the stardom that appears to be zeroing in on him like a drone on the heels of his performances in The Stanford Prison Experiment, Len and Company, and the Kristen Wiig miniseries The Spoils Before Dying. As he prepares to promote his first studio picture and to begin his first sci-fi film (EXO, also starring Bella Thorne), Kilmer pauses to talk with Bomer about finding passion in the last place he ever thought: the family business.
MATT BOMER How did you go from being a carefree music- and art-loving teenager to a film star?
JACK KILMER How I got into acting was through my friend Gia [Coppola], who cast me in Palo Alto. I’d never studied acting before, but both my parents [Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley] are actors, so I was used to the schedule. This curiosity and this enthusiasm was born from Palo Alto. I’m so lucky; a lot of people don’t get to do what they want to do.
MB You fell in love with it from the experience of it. Almost an inside-out kind of way.
JK And it’s really helped me understand what my parents have been doing their whole lives. When you grow up you always wonder why people devote themselves to things. I’m starting to understand what my parents have been obsessing over.
MB It’s going to be a rite of passage for you, initially, that people ask you about your parents because they’re both really fantastic artists. Do you feel like your upbringing was pretty removed from the business, and kind of standard, all things considered?
JK Both of my parents live in their own bubble of…they live in their own world. For example, when my mom or my dad takes on a role, they’ll spend a lot of time doing research—character research, if you will—hours reading, sometimes late into the night. There’s no real time limit; you never know when inspiration’s going to hit you, you know what I mean? It was difficult as a kid to understand that my parents were working when they were at home studying for a role. But they really are. You’re working all the time when you’re preparing for a role, I think. Even when you go out with friends, it’s in the back of your mind.
MB And do they offer you counsel in terms of your career?
JK Their guidance is more concerning etiquette, or the manners that you should have on-set. They know I learn best on my own—I was always kind of quiet in class, at school. I wasn’t, like, participating in the group discussion. But, yeah, they’ve given me great advice. They want me to not be so concerned with fame and success, and to just focus on making captivating art.
MB You know, there’s so many films and shows that I’ve been a part of that are not age-appropriate for my kids. I used to feel guilty about it, and then I had a great actor tell me that my kids will ultimately respect me more when they grow up if they knew that I was choosing projects that I was passionate about. Was there a great deal of transparency about that in your home?
JK I remember seeing a bit of this movie on TV that my mom was in when I was a kid, this London Cockney-thug kind of film. My mom was slapped, and I remember being so horrified at seeing that. That was an early thing I had to get my head around—that it’s fake. How old are your kids, may I ask?
MB My oldest is 10, and then I have twin seven-year-olds as well. And they’re all boys. So they’re very curious. They like to watch me go over my lines and ask questions.
JK And I guess there’s a whole other conversation that, if you’re in the public [eye], you have to have with your kids. When someone at school says to one of your sons, “I saw your dad on TV, doing something or other…”
MB Yep, I’ve definitely had that one; that one has begun. You remember seeing the marketing as well. You remember seeing your parents on a billboard.
JK Well, my mom is from Manchester, England. She’s a very working-class woman. She always approached the press very coolly, and very businesslike. She says, “That’s what I do. That’s work. And when I’m at home, this is my place where I relax.” My dad actually had a bit more fun with it. He and his friends would come up with fun ideas to promote films. He did this one movie called
Wonderland, and he created this entire installation and then he put that on tour with the press. For the film, he took this massive art installation to Japan with him.
MB Alright, now I want to talk about you. One of your films that I really enjoyed is The Stanford Prison Experiment. I know that was a project that was gestating for a really long time, so it was nice to see it come together at the right time, with this amazing cast.
JK I’ll tell you about the first day of the shoot. I’d never met any of the cast before, and you know how you think, Who are these people I’m about to spend the next 10 weeks with—in a prison cell? But I ended up making these awesome friends. I mean, for Palo Alto I worked with a lot of young people as well, but a lot of them were nonactors. I mean, I learned so much from Emma Roberts, and Nat [Wolff], but Stanford was like…I kind of found this group of kids that were as weird as I am. The weirdness that went on behind the camera really added some great on-screen camaraderie.
MB It’s palpable. Was it an intense set? Were people staying in character between set-ups?
JK Everyone definitely had their role in the prison. As I would imagine you would in like, San Quentin. We were actually in a blank room with each other for a month straight. We were literally chained—our ankles were chained. It kind of drove everyone a bit mad.
MB Did working with these actors affect the way you dive into a role?
JK Yeah. I was actually talking about this with a friend the other day, about Ezra [Miller], and how he can walk—roll—up to a film set. When he’s not in character, he’s his own person, such an individual, and then he can completely stop. He’d have these crystals and wear these big headphones and just be in his own crazy world and then as soon as he had to get into character, he’d just snap his fingers and become this completely different person. It inspired me to make my own process because his is so radical.
MB It is such a gypsy lifestyle, being a working actor. You know, you travel from set to set, and you have to really drop your guard, and make yourself available to these people that, at the time, you don’t really know that well. And then you work really intimately with them, and then you have to move on to the next thing. So, sometimes it’s hard to make friends in that process—substantial friendships—that last outside of that.
JK What was it like for you as a young—I mean, you’re still young…
MB No, I’m not.
JK You’re not? You look…
MB No [laughs]. I remember at one point I was working with an actress who was quite young, but had already been around the world multiple times as an actor. And I remember complaining to her that I was never home. She said to me, “Listen, the career you signed up for is a gypsy lifestyle. It is not going to change. So you can complain about it, or you can embrace it. It’s one of the two.” And from that point on, my mindset really changed, and I was able to make peace with having to be away from home for long stretches of time, and also just to give myself the creative space I needed—like you said—to have the character in the back of my head at all times, even when I’m sitting with my family, or out with friends. Because like you said, you never know when inspiration is going to strike. I want to talk to you about The Nice Guys, where you play this great character, Chet, who’s really integral to the plot of the movie. And I think we filmed our scene together at about three o’clock in the morning, but I remember how you were so composed and relaxed and prepared. So much of the film work you’d done up until then was independent films, and now you’re on the set of a movie where I saw more people at craft services and video village than I saw on the entire set of some indies that I’ve done.
JK Well, I’ll tell you, I’d been in a hotel room for like a week and a half in Atlanta before we met. On the night that we met, it was a scene where something really crazy happens to my character and I’ve never done this crazy thing before in any facet. And the film set is massive. There’s a new DP everywhere I look. Anyway, I was just thinking about my lines, thinking about staying focused, but there was a darkness—I had to do something pretty dark that night and so I was just thinking about the dark side. Weirdly enough, even though it’s a big film set, it shrinks pretty fast. Once you just talk to anybody, anyone, and you realize you’re on planet Earth, everything is okay. It was overwhelming at first, and then you were really nice to me and that helped me relax.
MB When you’re working with a talented filmmaker, you’re able to shrink that big world down. I think Shane Black did a good job of that on [The Nice Guys]. One of the reasons I wanted to work with him was the film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which is one of my all-time favorites. As a gay man, Gay Perry [played by Val Kilmer] was one of the all-time great film characters for me. Did you get to meet Shane at that time?
JK When I met Shane I might’ve been 10 years old. What I do remember from that movie is my dad having these meetings…the preparation for that role was so much fun for him. There’s gonna be some really funny moments in Nice Guys, and Shane has a lot to do with that.
MB Oh my god. I had never laughed aloud as much as when I read that script.
JK I love detective stories a lot. Working with Russell Crowe after watching L.A. Confidential was like a dream. That’s one of my favorite movies.
MB So, now you’re an indie darling, you’re working on big studio movies, and you’re a fashion icon. You were just named one of Toronto Film Festival’s Most Stylish Men, and I personally think Hedi Slimane is a genius.
JK He’s a really sweet dude, really nice and kind. When you first meet him he doesn’t really talk that much. But we just had this conversation about music, and at the time he was working on this line for Saint Laurent called Psych Rock. We bonded over our interest in psych rock. Then he invited me to walk in the show and be a part of the campaign. It was wild—it was great. I met a lot of like-minded people through that. He hired a lot of musicians to walk in the show.
MB I understand music is a really big influence in your life. Do you want to perform as a musician some day?
JK Yeah, I do. I have some musical projects that are always going. I’ll kind of drop them and pick them back up, but I’m always playing. I just want to write the best possible songs I can write, and then later I’ll think about sharing it with people. It’s actually helped me with acting a lot. I like a lot of musicians that tell stories, like Tom Waits or Bob Dylan.
MB Do you ever create playlists for your characters? I do.
JK Yeah, hell yeah. That’s cool that you do that, too.
MB Who are the bands that really inspire you?
JK I listened to a lot of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Rolling Stones growing up. All of that revolution stuff. I sort of branched out from there and discovered bands like My Bloody Valentine. Nine Inch Nails was a big one for me.
MB I was at the Golden Globes last year, and it’s a, you know, pretty star-studded affair. I was doing fine and then I saw Trent Reznor. I mean, he must’ve been like, How did one of my stalkers get on the carpet? Because I think I just stopped and stared and he was like, Hey man, what’s up? I couldn’t even speak. We didn’t even converse, obviously, because he realized very quickly that I was a freak and he should go the other way. I wanted to ask: you skate, too, right?
JK Yeah, but in skateboarding if you don’t skate for a month, you lose the muscle.
MB I grew up skating in the suburbs and it was just such a great way to escape. It was mostly just ollying up curbs, and finding a place where we could smoke a cigarette away from everybody. I loved it. Do you have any curiosity about going to college?
JK Absolutely. It’s a strange time to do that, though. I think a lot of young adults who are undeclared are finding out these days that college is harder to navigate than it was for our parents’ generation, especially if you’re involved with the arts. For example: Say you get a B.A. in Visual Arts. You’re kind of limited to what you can do with that degree. But it really just depends on how you work, how you learn...I’d like to do another history class, biology, physics, math. All the things that I didn’t think were as important growing up are seeming really cool to me. Now I’m thinking, Wow, physics…that’s really trippy.
MB Listen, I’m a huge fan and I can’t wait to see all the many things you’re going to bring to us as an artist over the years. Count me in.
JK Ah, Matt, it’s really been a pleasure.