LOS ANGELES -- Sitting on a couch, headphones on, his blond hair a moussed-up thicket, Val Kilmer looks more like a fresh-scrubbed college kid than the Jim Morrison he so skillfully captures in the film "The Doors" at every point on the continuum from poetic musician to debauched rock star.

Only when the 30-year-old Juilliard-trained actor opens his mouth can you hear echoes of the husky baritone of Morrison, now being immortalized on film in Oliver Stone's epic. Stone didn't just cast Kilmer the actor, he cast his voice as well. Kilmer had the same kind of singing voice as Morrison and he'd sung before on film -- as the unassuming pop star caught up in espionage in the spy sendup "Top Secret!" But just to make sure that Stone was convinced, Kilmer made his own eight-minute video, singing and looking like Jim Morrison at the various stages of his short life.

"I just find it the easiest way to lobby for a role," Kilmer says.

Ask Val Kilmer whether Morrison, one of the most charismatic and tragic figures in rock music, was his most challenging role and he's got a ready answer. "No, Hamlet was," says the actor, who after years of warming up for it, recently got the opportunity to play the sacred role at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival.

But for Kilmer, who's acquitted himself well in a number of respectable if not spectacular films -- "Willow," "Real Genius" -- and who is probably best known for his portrayal of Iceman, Tom Cruise's glowering adversary in "Top Gun," the chance to play Morrison was certainly a coveted shot at a high-profile, mythic role.

"There was nothing that wasn't attractive about it, really," Kilmer says. "I was fascinated even about the things that were repulsive... . You shouldn't be afraid."

Contemporary history has given Jim Morrison, the writer, mixed reviews. There's been a lot of retrospective chortling over earnest lyrics, once praised as brilliant, that now seem hokey. But Kilmer, like Stone, holds Morrison in reverence. "He had an extraordinary intellect," says Kilmer. He speaks respectfully of how Paul Rothchild, who produced the Doors' albums and worked on the film, gave him one of his two copies -- only 50 are extant -- of Morrison's vanity-published book of poetry, "An American Prayer."

"Ultimately suicide's the most selfish thing a human being can do," Kilmer says. "So I find that aspect tragic in the same way that Hamlet's death is tragic."

Kilmer was 9 when Jim Morrison died of apparent heart failure in 1971 in a Paris bathtub after half a decade of self-destructive drinking. He was 27. Kilmer recalls that when he was growing up in the San Fernando Valley community of Chatsworth he had a male nanny who introduced him to the music of Jim Morrison. "He'd just gotten back from Vietnam and he was an art student... . So I had an interpreter."

Of course, Kilmer then had the next two decades to listen to Morrison's music on the radio. The irony of the Doors' fame is that the group's music was never more popular and the royalties never more lucrative than during the '80s. One of Rolling Stone magazine's most memorable covers featured Jim Morrison with the headline, "He's Hot, He's Sexy ... He's Dead." And as far as Kilmer can tell, interest in the '60s hasn't abated. Oliver Stone used literally thousands of extras to re-create the Doors' wild concerts, making the movie as populous as a biblical extravaganza.

"Some of these concert scenes -- I don't know where they're getting their clothes, but there was no block-long costume wardrobe that they would get dressed in," Kilmer says. "A lot of people had that stuff in their closets. And a lot of them were 16 years old."

Ensconced in a hotel suite for a round of interviews, Kilmer is less than three hours away from a flight that will take him to London, where his wife, actress Joanne Whalley-Kilmer (who starred in the film "Scandal"), is rehearsing a play. The couple, who have homes here and in New Mexico, met while filming "Willow" -- they later worked together in the thriller "Kill Me Again" -- and celebrated their third wedding anniversary last month.

Kilmer is having a delicious last few hours in L.A., munching chocolate chip cookies and ordering up club sandwiches for visiting musician friends. Sporting black leather jackets and long hair and looking all of about 15, his friends arrive bearing tapes for Kilmer and wait in the bedroom -- which already occasionally spews forth a publicist and Kilmer's assistant.

Although the film accurately depicts Morrison as overweight at the end -- there's a close-up of his bloated belly -- the already slim Kilmer actually lost weight to play Morrison, who was sylphlike at the peak of his career. A once-pudgy kid, the singer was dramatically thinned by his 1965 summer of drug indulgence.

"I was dieting for months," says Kilmer. "I was down to about 158." He's six feet tall. "I was looking forward to pancake days -- eatin' like Elvis," he says in a low drawl. Once Kilmer got the part he went into intensive training, spending six months rehearsing Doors songs every day at the home he was renovating north of Santa Fe. Morrison had his own fascination with New Mexico -- he lived there when his military father was stationed there -- and the desert.

"Somehow it was a nice combination -- bashing down an adobe wall and listening to 'Break On Through,' " recalls Kilmer. "The Doors helped the demolition and the demolition helped the Doors."

He learned 50 songs for the film -- 15 are actually performed on screen. And there was always the possibility that if Kilmer didn't sound exactly like Morrison, they would dub in Morrison's voice. "But as it turned out, everything live in the film is me," Kilmer says proudly.

"Except for five lines," Paul Rothchild notes. "One is a scream." He won't divulge the others. Stone did intertwine the voices of Morrison and Kilmer, but basically, when you see Kilmer singing in the film, he really is singing. Morrison's voice is used as background music in other scenes.

Rothchild was Kilmer's main guide on his journey to the center of Jim Morrison's mind and music.

"I spent hundreds of hours with him interrogating me about what Jim would think in this or that situation," says Rothchild, who's listed as music producer on the film and who now runs his own company providing music for films and video. "We might have been out to dinner, for instance, and a waiter would do something and he would say, what would Jim have done there? I kept on filling his cup with anecdotes, stories, tragic moments, humorous moments, how Jim thought, what were my interpretations of Jim's lyrics. That became more of the focus of the singing character than actually the mechanics of the singing."

Kilmer was already living in the right environment. Both he and Rothchild have houses not far from Morrison's onetime home in Laurel Canyon. A dark, steep-sided canyon above West Hollywood, it was once the favored enclave of a funky artistic crowd.

Rothchild also took him into the studio and coached him the way he did Morrison. And he rehearsed Kilmer in the quirks of Morrison's voice. "I would help him in some pronunciations, idiomatic things that Jim would do that made the song sound like Jim. One of the most famous ones is the word 'fire,' " Rothchild says referring, of course, to the Doors' phenomenally successful "Light My Fire." "It's really pronounced 'fi-yah.' Jim never said 'fire.' "

Rothchild, a veteran of more than 30 years in the music business, was certainly a close-up witness to Doors history. He produced all of the Doors' albums except the last one.

Kilmer, Rothchild says admiringly, "knows Jim Morrison better than Jim ever knew himself. He's nailed -- to the extent that the Doors themselves had difficulty telling whether it was Val singing or Jim singing. Early on, I'd bring them into a recording studio and I randomly switched Val and Jim and they guessed wrong 80 percent of the time."

Kilmer met with two of the three surviving Doors members, Robby Krieger and John Densmore (who wrote a book about Morrison and the Doors). "They're not big on talk, really -- musicians. But something happens just being with them." Kilmer spent a fair amount of time at Krieger's home here. "With Robby, I'd just go over and jam, whether it was a Doors song or a blues tune -- just hang out, play with the cats."

Keyboardist Ray Manzarek did not participate in the film -- or talk to Kilmer. "I called him four or five times. But somehow it just never worked out," Kilmer says.

He chose not to meet with Morrison's parents, who the rock star sometimes claimed were dead. "I think if there was something that I wasn't cracking, perhaps I would have," Kilmer says. Nor did he meet with the parents of Pamela Courson, Morrison's long-suffering girlfriend -- played in the film by Meg Ryan -- who died of an apparent drug overdose three years after Morrison.

"Meg went and saw them, but I didn't," he says.

Then there were the "many people that Oliver flew in" and the reams of transcripts of interviews with Morrison associates and friends. "If you met 150 people, you got 150 Jims," Kilmer says. "Pick a Jim, any Jim... ."

There were rumors that Kilmer acted like a rock star on the set, sequestering himself from the crew and cast, supposedly insisting that people not approach him. Both Rothchild and Kilmer attempt to explain them.

"There was a memo that went out saying that when Val was in his tent nobody was to approach him," says Rothchild. "All that's true. He didn't do that because he was trying to emulate a rock star. He was doing that because as an actor he needed that space and he didn't need to be besieged by all the people on the set. If he got his character into a certain mental space, the last thing he wanted to hear was triviality from somebody else."

Kilmer said he didn't even know about the memo.

"That, unfortunately, was a screw-up by the production manager," Kilmer explains. "She wrote this letter to the crew and gave it to everyone saying they couldn't talk to me. I didn't even know that for two weeks. I was wondering why they were so quiet. They talked to Meg and Kyle {MacLachlan, who played Manzarek} and everyone and they'd walk right past me. And Oliver said, 'Well, you shouldn't have written that letter.' I said, 'What letter?' So I had to go around to the crew and explain to them."

Kilmer was 17 when he left for New York and the Juilliard School, where he earned a bachelor's degree. "I couldn't wait to get out of L.A. -- Fantasyland. I wanted to be in a real town instead of these giant sets with million-dollar palm trees," he says. "It's just the community is pretty vacuous."

New York, he says, was a welcome shock. "I love Beirut," he cracks. After graduation he stayed to work in the theater, including a costarring role with Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn in the Broadway production of "Slab Boys," but he soon returned to the land of celluloid. "Doing an incredible body of work in the theater doesn't mean you get to do Hamlet. But," he adds with a rueful smile, "carry a gun real well and you can."

Kilmer says he hopes to start a theater festival in Santa Fe, but his next project is a film called "Thunder Heart" set on an American Indian reservation. Michael Apted will direct and Robert De Niro is producing the movie. Kilmer, who is personally interested in American Indian culture and history, plays a federal investigator brought in to investigate a murder.

Rothchild is satisfied with the honesty of the film's depiction of the declining Morrison who, for example, tempted fate by walking balustrades drunk and stoned. "That was a day in the life! It was not extraordinary," says Rothchild. In one scene, a drunken Morrison is making a pathetic attempt to record in the studio while his girlfriend performs oral sex on him. "That scene is so accurate," says Rothchild. "It happened during the second album. And the song was 'You're Lost, Little Girl.' "

Rothchild says, "I hope it comes through how dangerous it was to be with Jim Morrison -- dangerous to be in a car, dangerous to cross a street, dangerous to be in a recording studio, because he could destroy your mind. He pushed buttons on you daily.

"I think the moral is clear at the end of the film -- 'Don't do this,' " Rothchild says. "There might be 100 psychological reasons why this happened, some of which are displayed in the film. But the hard-core answer is access to excess. There are very few people who are strong enough to survive fame. You seek and seek and seek it and then all of a sudden there it is, with all of its adulation and access, and unless you are morally very, very strong, you will succumb.

"If I said to him, 'You know if you do this long enough, it's gonna kill you,' he'd say, 'Yeah, so?' Either, 'It'll never happen to me' or 'Death doesn't scare me.' "

Kilmer doesn't know if you can apply a moral to the film, but he agrees it's at least partially a cautionary tale about the corrupting influence of fame.

"I think fame is definitely a main character in it. Hopefully if there's something kids can draw from, it's not that negative side, but to challenge yourself, to be more committed to a style you're creating."