The Core Of Val Kilmer's Top Gun Character Came To Him In A Vision

In last year's documentary "Val," Val Kilmer talks about his Broadway debut in "The Slab Boys." He was originally cast in the lead role but got bumped down to second lead when Kevin Bacon was suddenly available. Then, when Sean Penn also became free, he was relegated to the third-best part. You can still hear the resentment, but then the proud professional takes over as he quotes the old adage: "There are no small parts, only small actors."

I always found a disconnect between Kilmer's sun-kissed good looks and his pouting aloofness. It was like he thought he was the smartest guy in the room and was waiting for everyone else to catch up. The documentary makes some of these contradictions more understandable: As a precocious talent, he was the youngest person ever accepted by the Juilliard School's prestigious Drama Division at the time, driven in pursuit of excellence by the tragic death of his brother. 

He was very serious about his stagecraft but soon found himself fast-tracked to Hollywood, and there is a clear sense that Kilmer found some of his movie roles beneath him. Another telling moment is when he reminisces about first laying eyes on his future wife, Joanne Whalley, is a West End play. He wanted to approach her, but felt too ashamed because he was only making "fluff" like "Top Secret!"

Fate eventually brought them together in "Willow," but first came "Top Gun," where Kilmer played the film's nominal villain and second banana to Tom Cruise, whose career was about to go supersonic. I'm always surprised by how little screen time he actually has in the movie, but like the man said: There are no small parts. And Val Kilmer was determined to become a big actor.

So what happens in Top Gun again?

Pete "Maverick" Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is a hotshot pilot whose flying ability is only matched by his whopping ego. "Top Gun" opens with him and his buddy Nick "Goose" Bradshaw (Anthony Edwards) flying patrols somewhere over the Indian Ocean when they encounter two enemy MIG fighters. During the skirmish, one gets a missile lock on Maverick's wingman, Cougar. Maverick scares the hostile planes away with his showboating methods, but the episode freaks Cougar out so much that he needs to be talked down to safety.

Cougar quits, leaving Maverick and Goose's infuriated commanding officer with little choice but to send them to Top Gun in his place, where they will train for air combat alongside the best pilots in the Navy. They quickly establish that Maverick's main rival for the school's top trophy is Tom "Iceman" Kazansky (Kilmer), so named for his ice-cold lack of nerves at the stick.

Maverick wastes no time ruffling feathers with his risky flying moves and flagrant disrespect for the rules, landing him in trouble with his senior instructors, Jester (Michael Ironside) and Viper (Tom Skerritt). He also chats up Charlotte (Kelly McGillis, also a former Juilliard student) a civilian aviation expert working with the Navy, and they embark on a steamy affair.

Maverick's ability is clear for all to see, but his risk-taking and lack of teamwork cast serious doubts over whether he's an asset or a liability. After tragedy strikes, can he pull himself together and realize his potential?

Val Kilmer went all-in on playing Iceman

When Val Kilmer discusses "Top Gun" in his memoir, he writes as though Iceman was a small part in a Shakespeare production rather than an '80s action movie, quoting Ezra Pound and name-checking acting masters Stanislavki and Suzuki. Although it was a thinly written part, he took it very seriously: Just watch him in scenes when he's in the background, trying to act the hell out of every smirking glance or whispered comment to his buddies.

Kilmer used the techniques he learned at Juilliard to explore Iceman's character, putting more than many actors would have troubled themselves with for a part with a handful of lines. He even went down the Method route, stoking up a rivalry with Tom Cruise on set and effectively splitting the cast along the same lines we see in the movie: Maverick and Goose versus Iceman and his bros. He even claimed to have visions (via "I'm Your Huckleberry"):

"I became so obsessed that at one point in my trailer I actually saw — the way Macbeth saw the ghost of Banquo – Iceman's father, the man (my imagination told me) who had ignored his son to the point where his son was driven to prove himself as the absolute ideal man. So real was the elder Mr. Kazansky that I saw him take a chunk of ice and chew on it like a wild dog (which inspired my improvised ice-chewing and teeth-chomping moment in the film)."

It might all sound a bit mad, but going that extra few hallucinatory miles paid off. Val Kilmer fully embodied Iceman, making him one of the most memorable movie characters of the '80s. And way cooler than Maverick.