He was Tom Cruise's tough rival in "Top Gun," and the mythical warrior who befriends a dwarf in "Willow."

But in real life Val Kilmer is a soft spoken, classic-trained actor who recently finished playing Hamlet and wishes to get more work on stage."You get a tremendous feedback from a live audience that cannot compare from what you draw from a crew in a studio," Kilmer said in a recent interview.

"On stage you can find out in 30 seconds whether or not you are effective with your ideas. In a film, you have to wait for a year and a half," he said.

A native of Los Angeles, Kilmer, 29, attended the prestigious Juilliard School in New York, where he was admitted when he was 17. While there he co-wrote and starred in a play called "How It All Began," based on a German expose about contemporary terrorism. This student production was later picked up by Joseph Papp for his Public Theater, with Kilmer in the leading role.

Kilmer, who is of German and Swedish descent, subsequently appeared in Papp's production of Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part I," and did the role of Orlando in "As You Like It," at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

The actor then made his Broadway debut in "Slab Boys," which also featured Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn. His film debut was "Top Secret," a thiller filmed in England in 1983, in which he played a caricature of a pop star.

"While filming `Top Secret' in London, I was living around the corner from the Royal Court, and I saw this beautiful actress in a play (`Three Sisters') and I used to go and watch her from the stage door," Kilmer said. "Five years later, this actress was hired to play opposite me in `Willow.' But I didn't recognize her at first. It was only after a couple of weeks that we started talking about work and I realized that this was the same girl that I had had a crush on five years ago."

Kilmer married the actress, British movie and television star Joanna Whalley, last March in New Mexico, where he lives between engagements.

Now they're looking for a place in New York where the stage beckons.