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Ties that forever bind

January 26, 2003|Robert Abele | Special to The Times

The actor persistently refused to read it, however. No matter that other talent was lining up to take parts (Kudrow, Bosworth, plus Dylan McDermott, Josh Lucas, Janeane Garofalo, Tim Blake Nelson and Carrie Fisher) or that indie stalwart Lions Gate was passionate about it, or even that Kilmer's own people wanted to see it happen.

The sordidness of Holmes' world was enough to keep Kilmer away, as well as more than 20 other actors who flirted with the role, including Matt Dillon, Christian Bale, Jason Patric and Gary Oldman. Frustration settling in, Wiersma and Kilmer's agent Cassian Elwes collaborated on a bait-and-switch to nab Elwes' client. They offered him the small but flashy role of Palestinian-born racketeer Eddie Nash, tried twice in court as the guy who greenlighted the killings. Kilmer bit.

"So he reads it and goes, 'Don't you think I should play John Holmes?' " recalls Wiersma, laughing. "Then he's like, 'But we have to go into pre-production today because I have another movie.' So in September it just happened." (Eric Bogosian took the part of Nash.)

Meanwhile, during the 10 months Kilmer was being pursued, Cox was doing his best to bolster his movie's cachet by getting the two key women in Holmes' life involved. A trip to Dawn Schiller's home in Northern California went so well that she helped get Sharon Holmes -- the porn star's first wife, whom she'd stayed in touch with -- to become a de facto advisor too.

Recalls Cox, "By the time I did sit with Val, I was ready to put John Holmes' wedding ring in his hand and say, 'This is how deep the rabbit hole goes, all the way down.' " Sharon's and Dawn's commitment, Cox knew, would convince Kilmer that "Wonderland" wasn't a rehash of a porn star's wretched doings. Cox told the actor, "There's a confession going on in this film."

Watching their younger selves

In the backyard of the house, where video replay monitors and an assortment of directors' chairs are arranged in a semicircle, Dawn Schiller and Sharon Holmes sit and watch their past lives unfold. "Cathartic doesn't cover it, you know?" says Schiller, 15 when she met Holmes and now a fortysomething mom working on her real estate license, but dressed nostalgically today like an ageless love child in a psychedelic-print top and jeans.

"This was some traumatic stuff for me at an early age, and I've had to process some big things, but this is part of the stuff that molds me today," Schiller says. "This is about facing who I am."

Throughout the shoot, Bosworth has frequently and happily consulted with Schiller about you-were-there details. Says the actress, "She wasn't just this cracked-out girl dating John Holmes. She was an innocent in a not so innocent world." Bosworth says the best insight Schiller has given her is into "how much she loved him, in spite of everything. She's an inspiration to me, because she proves that strength and goodness can conquer anything."

The movie will end with Holmes spiriting Schiller out of California, but the rosiness of the real love story ended abruptly after, with Schiller a battered and paranoid emotional hostage in Miami who eventually turned Holmes in to the authorities. Sharon Holmes, seeing a victim of her husband's poisoned charm when she saw one, made sure she and Schiller nurtured each other back to normalcy. "I consider her my daughter, my one and only child," says Sharon, whose short-cropped white hair and near-toothlessness give her the mien of a hard-lived grandmother.

"The best thing I could say that happened out of my relationship with John is Dawn. But I was mature. I can understand her falling in love with him. I never saw the vicious side of him, but she did. She got the good and the bad. I had the good and I chose not to have the bad."

After the morning's shoot, Kudrow exchanges a few words with her real-life counterpart, who tells the "Friends" star she has the "iron maiden" part of her down. "I was nervous until she said that," says Kudrow, who detects a fierce sense of obligation in Sharon's decision to stay married to a man whose profession repulsed her. "She said that armor was the only way to get through it. You just have to be stoic."

As for how Kilmer approximates the man they last saw roughly 20 years ago, Schiller and Sharon Holmes agree on his authenticity. "Initially I was amazed," says Schiller. "Then I was creeped out."

"It freaked me out," adds Sharon. "It really did spook me."

Jokes about Holmes' ghost became something of a game during shooting. When Schiller's cell phone rings nearby as Bosworth is answering a reporter's questions about her, the "Blue Crush" star quips, "See, John Holmes is sending down messages."

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