Last week, actor Val Kilmer surprised us all by announcing on Facebook that he would be returning for a Top Gun sequel. The surprise wasn’t so much that Hollywood would make a Top Gun sequel as it was that Kilmer would be asked to return; only the most dedicated Kilmer fans (this does include me) would dig into his recent string of VOD genre movies on Netflix and see an actor deserving of a blockbuster resurgence. Do a search for “Val Kilmer Oscar” on Google and you’ll get about 1,500 responses. A search for “Fat Val Kilmer,” on the other hand? Quadruple it. Kilmer is far removed from his days of the serious method actor who played Doc Holliday in Tombstone or Jim Morrison in The Doors. Now he’s the punchline in everyone’s Batman rankings.
And if you followed my instructions and performed this (admittedly non-scientific) measurement of Kilmer’s reputation, you may have also noticed a few banner ads for the upcoming holiday film Victor Frankenstein. This modern reimagining of the Frankenstein narrative ‐ think Mary Shelley with a Guy Ritchie vibe ‐ pits James McAvoy’s Victor Frankenstein and Daniel Radcliffe’s Igor against both man and monster in nineteenth century Europe. Somewhere along the way you might also have encountered the first trailer for Now You See Me 2, with Radcliffe serving as the millionaire-slash-mark for Jesse Eisenberg’s merry band of magical miscreants. Two movies, each with Radcliffe playing against his chiseled type as either the villain or the comedic relief.
What, you might ask, do Val Kilmer and Daniel Radcliffe ‐ the washed up star of Curtis Jackson movies and the face of Hollywood biggest blockbuster franchise ‐ have in common? Easy: the only role they’ve consistently turned down is that of the Hollywood leading man.
There is probably no better article on the state of the modern leading man than Mark Harris’s 2013 essay for GQ titled “The New and Improved Leading Man.” In the essay, Harris breaks down the components of a leading man ‐ what it takes to be the critical and commercial anchor of a film ‐ into a series of easy-to-understand criteria. Hollywood leading men should be relatable yet mysterious; attractive and surprising; funny and calculating about the progress of their own careers. And at one point or another in both of their careers, each of these attributes easily applied to both Kilmer and Radcliffe. Kilmer was the mercurial star of The Doors and Tombstone, but also the lead in a big budget action films such as The Saint and Batman Forever. Radcliffe, meanwhile, has spent almost as much time being Harry Potter as he has being himself, starring in eight feature films spread across more than a decade. If either actor had focused on consolidating power as a Hollywood star, they likely would have kept pace with their more bankable contemporaries in the years following their biggest roles.
Neither actor did. I’ve written about my love of Kilmer before, but the twists and turns of the actor’s career have never failed to fascinate me. In interviews, Kilmer speaks of his inability to create a leading man ‘persona’ earlier in his career that would have given him access to more mainstream roles. “I never cultivated a personality,” Kilmer told Chuck Klosterman in a 2005 interview for Esquire. “Almost everyone who is really famous has cultivated a personality.” Years later, Kilmer would share this same regret for an issue of Vanity Fair. “I actually regret not having created a persona years ago like all of my wise contemporaries [did]. (…) When I say each one of these [names], you have a very instant opinion about a very particular kind of character.”
While Kilmer and Harris are worlds apart in their theoretical rigor, they both agree on one thing: the ‘leading man’ persona is less an intrinsic quality of some actors and more a conscious approach to building a public image. To his credit ‐ or detriment, if you’re his agent and/or publicist ‐ Kilmer has never expressed much interest in playing the game. The actor turned down starring roles in movies as diverse as Blue Velvet, Interview With a Vampire, and The Matrix, inadvertently giving Keanu Reeves the genre career that Kilmer could easily have taken as his own. Meanwhile, Radcliffe ‐ who was issued the standard former-child-actor narrative out of the gate ‐ has refused to be neatly categorized as either a blockbuster star or a serious artist. Rather than dive into Serious Films™ by Serious Filmmakers™, Radcliffe has flittered between gothic horror and comedy, between action movies and supporting cameos. Both men possess the talent too be a Hollywood lead, but both men were also more interested in playing roles than being a star.
And while this interest in playing the character actor may have cost Kilmer millions in his bank account ‐ and put a small dent into Radcliffe’s pile of Harry Potter “fuck you” money ‐ it has undoubtedly led to more interesting work. While we tend to gravitate towards the earlier roles of Kilmer’s career, his three-year range in the early 2000s ‐ his druggie informant in The Salton Sea, his John Holmes in Wonderland, and, most importantly, his soldier in David Mamet’s Spartan — paint a far more interesting picture of the actor than any more traditional art film or blockbuster cinema. Here was an actor who was unafraid to take risks with his public perception, who might even enjoy the act of deconstructing his status as Hollywood leading man. Similarly, Radcliffe has demonstrated curiosity as an actor and a gleeful sense of humor towards his days as Hollywood’s boy wonder. It isn’t many people who would sign on for the role of Igor in a blockbuster adaptation of Frankenstein, especially when the main role of Victor Frankenstein was there for the taking. And late this summer, Radcliffe began work on Swiss Army Man, a movie about a man who off into the woods and becomes best friends with a dead body. In keeping with his alternative approach to acting, Radcliffe has described the film as having to the potential to be “one of the best things I ever do.”
With Hollywood actors locked into increasingly longer contracts ‐ and fitting their smaller projects into the gaps between shooting schedules ‐ it’s become easy to view the role of Hollywood Leading Man as, in and of itself, a full-time gig. So even if their films aren’t as good as the ones they leave on the table ‐ or perhaps especially in that case ‐ it’s important to celebrate the careers of actors like Val Kilmer and Daniel Radcliffe, as different as they both might be. Each man had the chance to be a Hollywood leading man square in their sights and let it go in favor of more interesting and character-driven fare. Here’s to the actors that just want to act.