LI: It’s good to see you.
VK: It’s good to see you, too. Thanks for coming out to Malibu.
LI: It’s beautiful here. I’m glad you talked me into it.
VK: Sometimes, I wonder what I’m doing back in Los Angeles, but when you look out there… How can you complain when you see a whale cresting, matter-of-factly, as you make your breakfast?
LI: That happens?
LI: So, what are you doing back in Los Angeles, and what do you mean by back? Where have you been?
VK: Well, I was born here, in the Valley, and grew up here. But when I was supposed to be here full time as a working actor, I felt more comfortable… elsewhere. After 10 years in New York, I moved to New Mexico, which is where I’ve lived for the past 25 years.
LI: You said something to me once that has stuck in my head, I’m paraphrasing: “Live where you pray best.”
VK: Yes, I believe that. I learned a long time ago that place matters to me, on many levels, and maybe more than it should, but it is generally counter-productive for me to resist it. And it’s really that simple: where do you pray best? Which is another way of saying: Where [a]can you trust your own thoughts and your own intentions? Everywhere, hopefully, but it isn’t always that easy. Sometimes, you have to help yourself along.
LI: And this is what led you to New Mexico…
VK: I fell in love with the land and with the very old fashioned idea of leaving a physical legacy for my children. A stunning[b] place, with a magnificent forest of trees, and a magnificent river.
LI: “Trees and swift moving water, the best things on earth.” (Czeslaw Milosz)
VK: It is hard to argue with that, isn’t it? My sense of love for that place made it my most important project; it really was that, a “project.” You might have noticed that my acting career, by comparison, has been a bit… erratic.
LI: Let’s say… eclectic.
VK: Eclectic! I love acting, and doing it well matters to me. But I have never taken my career seriously. My only ambition was to grow as an actor. My only “business plan” was to get lucky. I thought I would try that strategy a second time, which as you can see was not irrational; it worked once. But once is more than generous for any lifetime. So, now I’m going about things a little differently.
LI: Which is why you are back in LA… I’m starting to understand. So, let’s talk about your play. You recently completed a sold-out workshop of your one-man show about Mark Twain, called Citizen Twain. It was a big success. There were standing ovations every night, without exception.
VK: Were you there every night?
LI: I came for the ovations.
VK: Why, thank you.
LI: The first time I heard that you were playing Mark Twain, and on stage, I thought it might be a joke. Your joke, mind you, some elaborate gag you constructed that I had already fallen for in ways that I didn’t yet understand.
VK: (laughs) Wait until you hear the punch line.
LI: But then, I read the text and found out what you were up to.
VK: From a “taking the career seriously” perspective, I really wanted to get back to basics: creating a character and performing in front of an audience. But I had other motivations for choosing Twain, specifically. He is a universe, and he is also a kind of American authority figure. He can say things to America that other people can’t say, in a way that can truly be heard.
LI: The humor makes a difference. Your show is a laugh a minute, maybe even literally one laugh per minute. We should check that.
VK: Thanks. If you play Mark Twain and[c] he’s not funny, you are definitely not playing Mark Twain. That was the biggest challenge, in some ways. Writing and performing jokes that can come out of that brilliant delivery system he constructed: the friendly, avuncular truth-teller.
LI: Hal Holbrook has portrayed the character of Mark Twain for many years now.
VK: The great Mr. Holbrook has been playing Mark Twain on stage since Elvis released his first record.
LI: Who’s Elvis?
VK: He was a Viking. No longer with us.
LI: Wow, that is a long time. (laughs) Have you spoken to Mr. Holbrook? How does he feel about what you are doing?
VK: Yes. I admire and respect him immensely. He sent me a very sweet note giving me his blessing.
LI: How is what you are doing different from his show?
VK: Our show is contemporary; it takes place right this very minute, and Twain addresses us directly about our world, as well as his own, and the many things that are still bugging him about how we treat each other. He has had 100 years post-death to think on it. Our Twain speaks to us from the beyond. Hal’s play is set 100 years ago as a lecture and is 100% Twain material. I have written a bit more into mine.
LI: When I first saw you perform the show, I had the immediate feeling that everything you had ever done and the best of what you strive to be as a person have gathered into this character. I was really knocked out by the performance.
VK: Thank you.
LI: If someone were to imagine the rock star, Jim Morrison, and the gun-slinging drunk, Doc Holliday, fused into a stand-up showman with the wit, authority, and words of Mark Twain, well, that’s an approximation of what they can expect with your portrayal. It’s truly alive, an electric performance to go with many electric performances in your erratic career.
VK: I think you mean eclectic.
LI: (laughs) Eclectic.
VK: Thank you for the kind words.
LI: It’s a punk rock Twain; he’s here to stir things up. But there is also a deeply spiritual component. A kind of pivotal element of the show is Mark Twain’s relationship with the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, who he famously antagonized in the press and to whom he feels compelled to apologize.
VK: He wrote a book about Mrs. Eddy that is most probably the worst book of his career. He was obsessed and uncharacteristically inaccurate and unkind. Late in his life, he confessed to his daughter that he regretted these antagonisms. This fact is what sparked in me the thought that in the play, Twain, in his “new” consciousness, feels compelled to apologize for this wrong-doing. It is a rich, dramatic situation. Twain used his gift, his eloquence, his gift of words, and his authority as a truth-teller and public persona to attack someone who was, at least from Twain’s point of view, in service of the same cause to which he gave his life.
LI: And what was that cause?
VK: In a word?
VK: Love. He was an artist working at the highest level. He wrote a book, his masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, that put America on the world stage for literature. It’s almost as if, if you start reading that book as a racist, you cannot finish it and still be a racist. So, he is a voice of truth and a voice of equality and a voice of tolerance. Which means he is a voice of love; so was Mrs. Eddy.
LI: And you never quiet the love message.
VK: You never quiet the love message. Never.
LI: So, he must apologize.
VK: He must apologize, and reform, just as he insists that we as a nation must apologize for our treatment of the Native Americans, which to this day has still not happened! He enlightens us about race, hypocrisy in government, the sensationalism of journalism… the list goes on and on…
LI: Why is it so hard for us to say we’re sorry?
VK: Let’s start with each other. I’m sorry, Lawrence.
LI: I’m sorry, too, Val.
VK: Doesn’t that feel… right?
LI: It does. And long over-due. I have been waiting for you to apologize to me since the day we met.
VK: I wish I could tell you that you were the first person to say that.
LI: (laughs) Is there a lot of blood on the tracks?
VK: That’s a great Bob Dylan record… talk about a genius. Anyway, in all seriousness, though, I do feel like I owe some people, certainly in the business, an apology. Particularly those who had the misfortune of knowing me when… well, when my approach was a little less gracious. I’m fairly sure I didn’t show enough gratitude to my employers, and I’m sorry for that.
LI: It’s not too late.
VK: This intense work on developing this character also brings a lot of clarity. I’m not proud of this, but I’m a better person when I’m preparing for a role, when I’m studying a role.
VK: I have more discipline. I’m focused. It is also what I do best. Mrs. Eddy said something to the effect that… I’m paraphrasing, but the gist of it is, If you know where your spiritual center is, and you neglect it, peace will always allude you.
LI: You have to do the thing that you do best as many hours of the day as possible. It’s your obligation; it’s respectful, if you will.
VK: Yes, exactly. It seems to me that every step forward in my life has been one that brings me to a better understanding of this: that you do your thing every day the best that you can, and you approach any success at it with humility. In my play, I have Twain say, “Do what you like to do so well that someone will pay you wages for it.”
LI: Rockefeller, when asked about his secret to success, said something like, “That’s simple. You get up every day. You go to work. And you strike oil.”
VK: That’s the get lucky part.
LI: And now, it’s back to work. So, being here, back in California, is it just for the work? Or, do you find that you now pray best right here in the City of Angels?
VK: The ocean helps.
LI: I’m glad you’re back in town, and I’m glad you’re back to work. Not that you really stopped working. But for some reason, this feels like a come back. Why is that?
VK: I truly put my heart and soul into my ranch these past years and have been nurturing the Twain character in a kind of isolation. Literally, moving back to LA is a big, big change. But I’m happy here now, and performing in a live theater is absolutely unbeatable. It is something I have done my entire life and have a gift, it seems, for sharing thoughts live. The audience and I have an intimacy that is, I believe, rare, most times out. It sounds corny to say, but the theater is sacred; something transcendent can occur, and when it does, everyone grows. It’s a true communion. This is what Twain was after.
LI: Your take on Twain is inspiring.
VK: It’s all him; he’s inspiring.
LI: Who are you, and what have you done with the actor?
VK: Ha! Twain has this line about compliments, “I do love compliments, yet I’m often embarrassed to say what I think to the person when I get a compliment. I so often feel that they have not gone far enough.”
LI: That’s more like it!
VK: (standing up) Hey, look!
VK: Look straight out there… do you see it?
LI: Will you look at that?! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a whale so… clearly.
VK: You see, and we’re going to complain? I don’t think so.
LI: You’re still lucky.
VK: I am. We are.
LI: Thanks, Val.
VK: Thanks, Lawrence.
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