Val Kilmer opens up about battling cancer and his kids' showbiz ambitions

Val Kilmer, 57, is seated on a couch in his Brentwood home, which is spilling from every crevice with his personal art projects. (A spray-painted "GOD" stencil is a recurring motif.) Next to him are Mercedes, 26, and Jack, 22, his two children with ex-wife Joanne Whalley, the English actress who was his co-star in the 1988 Ron Howard fantasy film Willow.

Kilmer is not the screen god he was in '80s and '90s films like Top Gun, The Doors and Batman Forever. A two-year battle with throat cancer has taken its toll, and a procedure on his trachea has reduced his voice to a rasp and rendered him short of breath. Still, when the topic turns to his performer kin — Jack is an actor who has appeared in The Stanford Prison Experiment and The Nice Guys; Mercedes travels in New York avant-garde theater circles — he has plenty to say. "Fame is sort of a mess," says Val. "You get treated differently, but it doesn’t have anything to do with who you actually are." Jack, who inherited his dad's harlequin pout, says acting allows him to try "a little bit of everything, like an experiential dilettante." Mercedes, with a face worthy of a femme fatale, says she "can't remember not being aware" of her parents' fame. "It was about navigating how other people perceived us rather than any kind of reckoning."

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Val Kilmer through the years
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Val Kilmer through the years
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 17: (L-R) Tobey Maguire, Owen Wilson and Val Kilmer attend The Broad Museum Black Tie Inaugural Dinner at The Broad on September 17, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 25: Val Kilmer (L) and his son Jack Kilmer attend a basketball game on Christmas between the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on December 25, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Noel Vasquez/GC Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 16: Val Kilmer (R) and his son Jack Kilmer attend a basketball game between the Cleveland Cavaliers the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on January 16, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Noel Vasquez/GC Images)
MIAMI BEACH, FL - DECEMBER 03: Peter Brant and Val Kilmer attend the Best Buddies Art + Friendship Auction at a private residence on December 3, 2013 in Miami Beach, Florida. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Best Buddies)
SANTA MONICA, CA - SEPTEMBER 25: Actor Val Kilmer attends the 23rd annual Simply Shakespeare benefit reading of 'The Two Gentlemen of Verona' at The Eli and Edythe Broad Stage on September 25, 2013 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 852 -- Pictured: (l-r) Actor Val Kilmer with host Jimmy Fallon during an interview on June 13, 2013 -- (Photo by: Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX - NOVEMBER 02: Actor Val Kilmer acts on stage while filming the new Terrence Malick movie during day one of Fun Fun Fun Fest at Auditorium Shores on November 2, 2012 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Rick Kern/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 16: Val Kilmer (R) and his son Jack Kilmer attend a basketball game between the Cleveland Cavaliers the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on January 16, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Noel Vasquez/GC Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 25: Val Kilmer (L) and his son Jack Kilmer attend a basketball game on Christmas between the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on December 25, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Noel Vasquez/GC Images)
Val Kilmer arriving at the 'Red Dragon' world premiere at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City. September 30, 2002 . Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images
Matt Dillon and Val Kilmer at the Lewis-Tyson Pre-Fight Party hosted by Showtime Networks at The Pyramid in Memphis, Tn. Saturday, June 8, 2002. Photo by Kevin Winter/ImageDirect.
404324 14: Actor Val Kilmer (L) and director D.J. Caruso attend the premiere of the film 'The Salton Sea' April 23, 2002 at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, CA. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images)
Val Kilmer and Nicole Kidman during 1995 ShoWest in Las Vegas, Nevada, United States. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JANUARY 22: Actor Val Kilmer attends the 51st Annual Golden Globe Awards on January 22, 1994 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
UNITED STATES - circa 1990: Actor Val Kilmer. (Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MAY 2: Actor Val Kilmer attends the Liberty Hill Foundation's Eighth Annual Upton Sinclair Awards on May 2, 1990 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
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Shortly after Val's diagnosis, Mercedes was hit by a car in a scary accident that left a scar down her leg. "We were in the same hospital at the same time," she recalls. Adds Jack, "I was just, you know, miserable, distraught, sitting next to these two." Val, a Christian Scientist, says his faith helped him get through those ordeals, and he has undergone chemotherapy to combat the disease. These days, he keeps things light. "I was too serious," he admits of his movie-star moment. "I'd get upset when things like Oscars and recognition failed to come my way." Was an Oscar something he always wanted? "I would like to have more Oscars than anybody," he says. "Meryl Streep must feel pretty good, you know? It must feel nice to know that everyone loves her. It's about being loved."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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