It’s not easy for any child to watch their parent battle a serious illness. But it can be an even bigger challenge when that parent is also a public figure with an innately curious fanbase. That’s the situation that Jack and Mercedes Kilmer have lived with for the past few years as their father — Top Gun star Val Kilmer — has waged a public and private battle with throat cancer. Kilmer’s health struggles, which have affected his ability to speak, are put on full view in the highly personal new documentary Val, premiering on Aug. 6 on Prime Video. His adult children associate produced and appear extensively in the film, which includes footage of the actor at some of the lowest moments in his illness.
“It’s incredibly difficult,” Mercedes Kilmer tells Yahoo Entertainment about watching her father in those moments. “Especially for him because his work is his voice. [Because of] his training as an actor… he has such a natural faculty for speech, and I don’t think he honestly would have survived… were it not for his dedication to developing that muscle of his voice.” (Watch our video interview above.)
Since Kilmer now speaks with the aid of a voice box following his recent tracheotomy, Jack Kilmer acts as his father’s voice in Val. The younger Kilmer narrates his dad’s life story as it plays out via home movies shot by Kilmer on his various movie sets, alongside new footage filmed by directors Leo Scott and Ting Poo. “He’s such a force of nature,” his son says. “He’ll be at his lowest in the hospital cracking jokes, and having the whole staff in fits of laughter. We were more worried about people’s reaction [to his illness] than actually going through the process with him, but people ended up being just nothing but supportive and cool.”
Raised as a Christian Scientist, Kilmer told The New York Times last year that he initially was reluctant to seek medical care after he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2014. In that same interview, he suggested that his children ultimately convinced him to pursue treatment, and also attributed his healing to prayer as opposed to medical procedures. “I prayed, and that was my form of treatment,” he remarked, adding that he considered procedures like his tracheotomy to have “caused my suffering.”
Asked what those early conversations about seeking medical treatment were like, his children offer a somewhere different account of what happened. “We both have always respected his beliefs, something that’s deeply important to me is bodily autonomy,” says Mercedes Kilmer. “I’ve always wanted him to get better and I’ve always, really cared what’s going on with his health, but I deeply respect the way that he’s dealt with it and I respect his right to heal however he feels is best.” Adds Jack: “I mean, who wants to go to the doctor? It sucks, you know?”
But Val isn’t just a chronicle of Kilmer’s health struggles: it’s also a first-hand account of his film career, covering such favorites as Tombstone, The Doors and, of course, Top Gun. The actor had a camcorder with him throughout the shoot of Tony Scott’s 1986 favorite — which recently celebrated its 35th anniversary — and that never before seen footage of Kilmer partying alongside a young Tom Cruise, Anthony Edwards and Rick Rossovich provides some of Val‘s most memorable moments. And the filmmakers tease that there’s even more they couldn’t include. “There’s several hours worth of that material,” director Leo Scott says. “It’s very iconic. We probably could have made a half-hour version of that if we wanted to!”
Perhaps that Top Gun-only cut of Val can precede the release of the highly-anticipated sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, which is scheduled for a November release after being repeatedly delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. Top Gun producer Jerry Bruckheimer already promised Yahoo Entertainment that Kilmer will reprise his signature role as Cruise’s onscreen nemesis, Iceman. “No spoilers, but he’s in the movie,” he teased last year.
Kilmer’s kids can confirm their father’s appearance since they were on set when he filmed his cameo. “We were this close to Tom’s face,” Jack remembers. “He came up and hugged me and just looked me right in the eyes. It was very surreal!” Mercedes recalls how thrilled she was to see her father reunited with the Top Gun crew. “It was really beautiful… I had never seen all of the behind-the-scenes stuff of Top Gun, but my dad filmed all of it, and you can see the guys horsing around on set. And they’re all exactly the same when they’re together now.”
As for what the future holds for their father, the siblings suggest that he’ll find other creative avenues beyond the big screen. “Acting is just one of the things that he does,” notes Jack. “He thrives in doing a lot of other creative things.” Adds his sister: “He never stops working, never! He has a lot of stuff in the works. As for acting, he can’t perform the way that he used to, but everything he does is kind of an extension of that. And you see that throughout this film: this collage of different characters and identities makes up the person that he is.”
Val is currently streaming on Prime Video
— Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by Jason Fitzpatrick