Val Kilmer brings Mark Twain to life

A hundred years after his death, Mark Twain is alive and well and taking up residence in the Inland Empire.

With the aid of two makeup artists and a fake mustache, renowned actor Val Kilmer resurrects the great American storyteller in his one-man show, Citizen Twain, set to hit the Chaffey High School stage November 8, 9 and 10.

Like the man he portrays in his latest production—which took him three years to write—Mr. Kilmer has worn many hats in his illustrious career. None have been more intriguing to him than that of the satirical author he currently brings to life.

“You think of Mark Twain as only a writer. That’s what gets all the attention in the five minutes he gets in grade school,” Mr. Kilmer said. “But for me, he really exemplifies the best kind of American. He makes fun of it, but he has a morality that’s really deep too.”

Becoming Twain was a natural move for Mr. Kilmer, who has long been fascinated by the American author and humorist. Twain’s tales were a favorite in the Kilmer household, he recalls. His father would regale him with the stories of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer in his characteristic southern drawl, making for effective storytelling.

As his father had a knack for storytelling, Mr. Kilmer developed a talent for theatrics, entering Juilliard’s drama program as a teenager. His natural inquisitiveness and general interest in history and research served him well in forging the characters he has portrayed both on the screen and on stage.

The method actor shows the same attention to detail in recreating Twain. In Kilmer style, Citizen Twain is a character study that delves into the many facets of Samuel Clemens and his sardonic humor about love, life and what it means to be American.

“We have a right to be proud to be American, but we are very often overproud and I think Twain’s awareness of our silliness and how bombastic we are is really funny,” Mr. Kilmer said. “He reminds us that during these times where we seem to be divided by our politics, that is not what defines who we really are as Americans.”

Mr. Kilmer has made sacrifices in his quest to redefine his artistic career. Twenty-nine years and more than 50 films after his silver screen debut in Top Secret, Mr. Kilmer seeks to broaden his theatrical capabilities. For him that has meant dedicating the past 10 years to his research for a film project, Twain and Eddy, a story about Twain and Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Church of Christian Science and another important figure in Twain’s time. Though Twain and Eddy never met, Twain often poked fun at Eddy for the success she wrought from her writings about God, a source of endless amusement and jealousy for Twain, he believes.

Mr. Kilmer applies his methodical approach not only to acting, but to his writing as well. His commitment to understanding the characters of his film led him to the development of his one-man show, what he refers to as a walking and talking exploration of his movie’s titular characters. His living and breathing film script has traveled from actors’ workshops to the Pasadena Playhouse and now Chaffey High School and, if Mr. Kilmer has anything to say about it, eventually will grace Broadway and the big screen.

“I do a Q&A at the end of the play and I do mention that I’m fundraising,” he joked. “I have to start mentioning if you donate $5,000 you get to be in the movie.”

For the first time in his career, Mr. Kilmer is running the show—writing, producing, directing and acting in Citizen Twain. In jest, he admits he’s ready to collapse from exhaustion. “I’m doing everything. I want to stop. I want to stop right now.”

In truth, taking on America’s first stand-up comedian, as Mr. Kilmer refers to him, has brought with it new excitement for the veteran actor.

“It’s exhilarating. I have this same kind of physical energy I had when I was a kid about acting,” he said. “It’s just been a daily inspiration. These characters, they love humanity so much and I think I do, but I really don’t. Not that much.”

He explores those differences in his play, touching on racism and sexism and the other dark sides of society in a conversational style.

But while Mr. Kilmer and Twain might have their differences, they also have their similarities.

“I relate to pursuing my art or craft as an individual. I’ve always been confident and almost singular in that aim,” he reflected. “A lot of my contemporaries focus on business or fame and once you kind of get famous, it’s not really very hard to always be famous or make a lot of dough. But I was never interested in doing only that.”

He does, however, remain pleased that so many people remember Nick Rivers from Top Secret.

“It still makes people laugh. I don’t know why, but it’s flattering,” he said. “It’s nice I seem to come up with something every 10 years or so that lasts.”

He hopes Twain will leave an equally lasting impression.

“Mark Twain took on racism and these stereotypes and was successful and independent and still highly regarded,” Mr. Kilmer said. “Even though he broke all the rules, he was still at the top of his field and made people laugh—and laughter translates to love. That’s what I hope to get across in this story.”

Citizen Twain comes to Chaffey High School’s Gardiner W. Spring Auditorium, 1245 N. Euclid Ave., on November 8 at 8 p.m., November 9 and 8 p.m. and November 10 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $30 regular admission or $80 VIP, including preferred seating and a private meet-and-greet with “Twain” after the show. For information, visit

—Beth Hartnett


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