A funny thing happened when Val Kilmer started suggesting that he just may run for governor of New Mexico next year.
He was serious.
At least he’s serious enough to reportedly hire a political strategist, to seek out the advice of lawmakers among the state’s congressional delegation and to push back as the state’s journalists mine celebrity profiles and tabloid coverage.
Any other celebrity candidate would have to trudge the same road, but if Kilmer does choose to run, he’ll certainly test the limits of a star seeking elective office. That’s not just because he’s had a colorful — at times crazy — career, playing roles such as Batman and Jim Morrison and even Moses, but there’s also the sheer chutzpah of it all.
Arnold Schwarzenegger preceded his run for governor of California with a campaign for after-school programs. Sonny Bono was mayor of Palm Springs before he was elected to Congress. Jesse Ventura was mayor of the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Park before he won the governorship of Minnesota.
By contrast, Kilmer, 49, has no comparable political credits. In fact, the idea of Kilmer in elective politics is just as surprising among Hollywood’s political class as it is elsewhere.
The owner of a sprawling, 6,000-acre ranch near Santa Fe, N.M., Kilmer first signaled that he was seriously thinking about a bid shortly after the November election, when he outlined his reasoning to New York Post columnist Cindy Adams.
He told her, “It’s been my home 25 years. I really love my state. Poor, hardworking, decent people: Native Americans, carpenters, artists, expats mixed in with hundreds of the world’s smartest physicists at Los Alamos. I’ve always thought of myself as functioning as a candidate for them.”
He added, “I know I’m not yet qualified for the job. It’s not like I need fame. If that’s what it’s all about, I wouldn’t live in New Mexico. But I don’t want to be a train wreck. I have to see if people will put up the money for my run. I have to think about putting my acting on hold. Being famous as a movie actor is one thing, but they take no prisoners in politics. I have to think what this might do to my kids.”
During the presidential campaign, Kilmer contributed to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s White House bid and then to the independent candidacy of Ralph Nader, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He was to appear at a rally with Nader at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, but he dropped out at the last minute because of a scheduling conflict.
His interest in politics was apparently enough for him to land a spot on Lt. Gov. Diane Denish’s transition team late last year, when it looked like she would succeed Gov. Bill Richardson. Although Richardson dropped out of consideration as President Barack Obama’s commerce secretary and never vacated the governor’s mansion, Kilmer was part of an economic stability team that helped prepare a report for the lieutenant governor.
As it turns out, if Kilmer decides to run, Denish would be his chief rival for the Democratic nomination, and that very prospect has been enough to create a stir among some of her supporters.
On Feb. 22, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 480, which represents New Mexico film and television technicians, went ahead and endorsed Denish in her bid, even though the primary is not until next year.
Jon Hendry, the business agent for the local, said that while Kilmer is a “smart guy” who was “very helpful” in lobbying for film production incentives in New Mexico, among the most generous in the country, “we just don’t think he has the experience here that we need.”
“If he wanted to run for lieutenant governor and get four or eight years of experience, we would be all for him.”
More troublesome for Kilmer is an archive of tales cataloging his mercurial reputation, stories and anecdotes that New Mexico reporters have been mining for weeks. Much has been a rehash of his clashes with director Joel Schumacher on the set of 1995’s “Batman Forever” and stories from the set of 1996’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” which still ranks among Hollywood’s most infamously troubled productions. (Marlon Brando was a co-star.)
More damaging has been what Kilmer has said over the past few years. In a 2005 Esquire profile titled “Crazy Things Seem Normal ... Normal Things Seem Crazy,” he talked of the method of his craft and told writer Chuck Klosterman, “A guy who’s lived through the horror of Vietnam has not spent his life preparing his mind for it. He’s some punk. Most guys were borderline criminal or poor, and that’s why they got sent to Vietnam. It was all the poor, wretched kids who got beat up by their dads, guys who didn’t get on the football team, couldn’t finagle a scholarship. They didn’t have the emotional equipment to handle that experience. But this is what an actor trains to do. I can more effectively represent that kid in Vietnam than a guy who was there.”
When the interview resurfaced, Kilmer denied he said it, but Esquire editor David Granger released a statement to the Web site Military Money Matters, noting that the interview was recorded and “absolutely accurate.”
Surely if he gets in the race, there will be more to come, but that is missing the point.
What scares his potential opponents is that his fame will trump his foibles. Schwarzenegger survived claims of inappropriate behavior on movie sets. Al Franken, in all likelihood Minnesota’s next senator, endured despite wild comments he made in the past as a comic and Air America host.
Moreover, “it’s not that hard” for a celebrity to be seen as a serious candidate, said Dean Barkley, who managed some unconventional candidates’ campaigns, including that of Ventura and Kinky Friedman’s 2006 gubernatorial bid in Texas. Barkley garnered 15 percent of the vote last November in his own independent bid against Franken and Norm Coleman.
He thinks Kilmer could have a shot if he spends his time raising money and wooing the rank-and-file Democrats in the state, all while choosing two or three important issues to hammer home.
“Running as an outsider, without political baggage, is a positive,” Barkley said. “Let’s face it. You can’t do much worse today than the political elite.”
To put it another way: These days, crazy seems normal and normal seems crazy.
Ted Johnson is managing editor of Variety and author of the blog Wilshire & Washington.