Vol. XXI No. 4
December 2005
Batman Returns to His Cave


"I remember these floors," actor Val Kilmer said as he sauntered into Room 304 followed by a gaggle of reporters. "I put a hole in that wall. My first class was in here. My first project play was here … We cleaned the windows in my day, though!" The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Actor and Juilliard alumnus Val Kilmer. (Photo by Jessica Katz)
Kilmer, an alumnus of Juilliard's Drama Division (Group 10), returned to his alma mater on October 21 to speak to the next generation of actors who are going through the same path of training. "We're really glad to have Val here," the Drama Division's artistic director, Michael Kahn, said in his introduction of the actor. "It's really nice, because every time [Kilmer] has a film opening in New York, he comes and spends a little bit of time at Juilliard."

The film that facilitated this particular visit was Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a satiric cinematic love-letter to the film noir genre. The film, also starring Robert Downey Jr., has Kilmer tackling the role of a gay detective (and, as Kilmer is quick to point out, "I'm a detective who happens to be gay, it's not that I go hunt out gay people"). The film opened on October 21 to wonderful reviews.

Kilmer, famous for his work in films such as
Batman Forever, The Doors, Tombstone, and Top Gun, is not a New York City boy. "I found, living in New York, I was just overstimulated. You know, it is the city that never sleeps, so I never slept, and I just didn't really have a sense of myself." Kilmer, in person, oozes the persona of a cowboy through his pores, and the country has been a huge part of his life. Born and raised in the San Fernando Valley of California, he has always been in love with the country. "I always related to the wilderness and spent a lot of time in the wild," he explained, "even in Los Angeles in wild areas. Where we lived was on the outskirts of town and there were bobcats and … I had a friend whose father was a mounted policeman. He wore a six gun and a badge and he would get on his horse in the morning and go ride the Santa Monica mountains." When he finally wound up in New York, Kilmer said, "I remember spending a lot of time hugging the trees in Central Park; I'd go and look at the wildlife here, the squirrels and pigeons. But I'd get out of town whenever I could, jump on a motorcycle and drive around New Jersey."

While Kilmer was in high school, he decided to pursue acting for a living, and when it came time to apply to schools he naturally wanted to go to the best one possible. "I'd heard that RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in London] was the best school, so I put in an application there, but it said you had to be 18 [Kilmer was not] and it didn't occur to me to lie, so I kept asking. I said, 'where's the other best school?' Everyone said Juilliard." Kilmer was accepted to Juilliard, the youngest person to be admitted to the Drama Division. (This record survived until the arrival of current third-year student Seth Numrich, who was accepted at age 15.)

"I had a … unique experience, I hope," Kilmer said, "because I just lost my little brother a week before I started school. So it was quite an emotional time for me, and in a way, the extremely high standards and the activity of the School I'm sure were good for me, because I was forced to really challenge myself about my very life, you know—what I believe about life and death. For me, it was a great way to progress out of that difficult time, to be thrown into such a great school."

During Kilmer's visit, he spoke again and again about how much he respected his teachers at Juilliard and the degree of their passion—especially remarking upon the degree of sacrifice, emotionally and financially, that his teachers made. "I wish I had known how little the faculty got paid here … it's a tremendous sacrifice for most of the teachers … it costs a great deal to give that gift and it's something that's really precious."

Among the classes at Juilliard that Kilmer said he appreciated the most were the Alexander Technique courses. "It's a wonderful technique, because it is a very pure form of analyzing your body in relation to movement … analyzing your body about being, and [Alexander instructor Judy Leibowitz] was one of my favorite acting teachers." These skills, Kilmer pointed out, are integral to the actor's craft. "I had a mean teacher once, who kind of said, 'How dare you think you can act Shakespeare; you don't know how to walk across the room yet' … and in a way, that's true."

Daniel Morgan Shelley, a fourth-year student in the Drama Division, took the opportunity during the short Q&A to ask Kilmer what advice he would give to soon-to-be graduates of the division. "Lighten up!" Kilmer replied, with a grin on his face. He encourages students to fight hard to be themselves, be positive, and make sure they have a support network. "I remember very clearly: we used to have a different entrance with large glass doors," Kilmer recalled of his days at Juilliard, "and we had a woman who I think was 265 years old, a violin teacher, and she couldn't negotiate this door, it was too big a door. And I remember very clearly opening the door for her—and as I'm walking into the foyer, I'm thinking, 'Why does this feel so odd?' … I got to my locker, and I realized that it was the first thing that I'd done for someone else, and I couldn't remember the last time I had done anything for anyone else. And it really affected me, and I had a little mini-breakdown … You just get caught up, like we all do, in your own world, and … you're all by yourself, in a way that you kind of have to be when you are confronting your limitations, and then you rally because of your friends. I hope you guys have friends!"

Ultimately, Kilmer found his experience at Juilliard a very positive one, and credits the School as being where he "learned how to learn" and found great inspiration through the dedication of all those around him. "We're all lucky to be here, because it's a really challenging environment … it's very special." The Juilliard training, Kilmer believes, is a trial by fire for a difficult profession. "It's a very, very hard job, and you have to love it beyond most things you can imagine." In the end, however, for Kilmer, acting is all about one simple, yet immensely challenging task. "You just have to find a way to be yourself in the circumstances."

Geoffrey Murphy is a first-year drama student.

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