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Val Kilmer explains his ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ return and ‘authentic friendship’ with Tom Cruise

A man in glasses and a scarf smiles at a man facing him.
The heroes return: Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise in “Top Gun: Maverick.”
(Paramount Pictures)
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The Iceman cometh again, this time as a friend. And as Val Kilmer tells The Times, “I can’t believe how kind the whole world has been. ... It’s very humbling.”

The box-office standout of the summer season so far, “Top Gun: Maverick” has already become Tom Cruise’s biggest domestic grosser and blown audiences away with its aerial action sequences. But perhaps the most memorable — almost certainly the most moving — scene in the film is the quiet reunion of onetime rivals, now closest of comrades: Capt. Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Cruise) and Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Kilmer).

The moment is informed by years of friendship both in the script and in real life — and by Kilmer’s real-life health struggles.

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Iceman, who has throat cancer in a reflection of Kilmer’s own diagnosis, communicates with Maverick via typed words on a screen. When that’s no longer enough, he uses his struggling voice to connect with his friend of 3½ decades.

Some of the best acting work in the sequel happens because of returning star Val Kilmer. And not just Kilmer’s acting work.

“Very personal and moving” are the words Kilmer used to describe how playing that moment felt to him.

Kilmer answered emailed questions from The Times about the scene, his relationship with Cruise and how he’s doing after years of cancer treatment and surgeries. He said the onscreen reunion had been in the works for years but no reunion was necessary offscreen, as the two actors had remained friends since meeting on the original “Top Gun” (1986).

“We talked quite a bit about what was best for the story and I think they got it right at the end,” wrote Kilmer of Cruise. “We are in touch and exchange Xmas gifts every year!”

As to the scene itself, Kilmer acknowledges he was the one typing the words on the computer screen as Iceman “talked” to Maverick.

“We actually shot it twice,” he said via email. “First time was in San Diego. They wanted to make a wardrobe change and we ended up with the scene you see in the movie with the computer.”

After one of the takes (we only did a few) I noticed that both Tom and Val had tears in their eyes. It felt like a genuine moment between two old friends.

— Joseph Kosinski, director, “Top Gun: Maverick”

Being mostly unable to use his voice is a huge adjustment, of course, for one of Hollywood’s more expressive actors. Vocal transformations have highlighted his appearances in such films as “The Doors” (in the deep baritone of frontman Jim Morrison), “Tombstone” (in the aristocratic drawl of Doc Holliday) or “The Saint” (in a host of guises of varying nationalities). The key component to that “Maverick” scene, then, had to be that other, less heralded acting skill: listening.

“That’s exactly what acting is, reacting,” Kilmer wrote. “Being in the moment.”

When asked what help he appreciated most during the scene, though, the answer wasn’t technical or about extra time: “A couple of dear friends came by set!”

Also by email, director Joseph Kosinski said, “[Kilmer] is completely present in the scene and able to convey so much emotion without saying a word. I remember noticing that with his introduction in ‘Heat’ — so much said with just one look.

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“When working with an actor of that caliber, you try to create a space for them to do their best work, then get out of the way and let them create.”

Kosinski agreed with the perception that Kilmer and Cruise raised each other’s game: “You’ve got two masters at the top of their game playing the most iconic characters of their careers. I think there is a lot of Maverick in Tom, and Iceman in Val, so what you are seeing onscreen is an authentic friendship that has lasted over 36 years.

“After one of the takes (we only did a few) I noticed that both Tom and Val had tears in their eyes. It felt like a genuine moment between two old friends.”

One young man in a military uniform raises his fist to another as others look on.
Things change: 36 years ago, Iceman and Maverick weren’t exactly BFFs. A scene from “Top Gun” (1986) in which Iceman (Val Kilmer, left) confronts Maverick (Tom Cruise).
(Paramount Pictures)

It wasn’t all heavy, though:

“When we weren’t shooting, they were sharing funny stories with [producer] Jerry [Bruckheimer] about making the original film,” said Kosinski. “I think at the time they were a bit competitive with each other, but now it’s something they can just laugh about.”

Kilmer wrote, “Tom and I get along really well. We giggled like little kids in school between takes. I consider him a real friend. We shared intimate stories and challenges about our different lifestyles!!”

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Since the film has come out, apart from its box-office laurels and generally enthusiastic reception, Kilmer’s cameo has been one of its most universally praised elements. Justin Chang’s review in The Times voices a typical response: “In one fictional moment, he gives us something unmistakably, irreducibly real, partly by puncturing the fantasy of human invincibility that his co-star has never stopped trying to sell.”

Kilmer says the flood of affection has been surprising: “I can’t believe how kind the whole world has been. I get hundreds of fan letters every week. It’s very humbling.”

The 62-year-old actor says he’s nowhere near done. “I’m so great,” he writes of his physical and emotional wellbeing. “Feeling stronger everyday. My dream is to play Frankenstein with Werner Herzog directing. Right now we are in a conflict because he wants to modernize it and I want to keep it classic! Also working on an exciting project that gives artists a place to learn and share their creative talents called Kamp Kilmer.”

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