Poised on the brink of mainstream stardom with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Mobsters, Hollywood’s former bad boy Christian Slater isn’t sure whether he’s a hot adult property or still an irrepressible teen prankster.
An agent once confided to me her personal litmus test for what makes a star a star. “It’s simple,” she explained.
“Do you or do you not want to f** them?” By that standard and a few others, Christian Slater has much of Hollywood breathing hard. Ask anyone. Denise Di Novi, who produced Slater’s 1989 film Heathers, lauds the “incredible intensity level that separates him from everybody else.” Michael Lehmann, that film’s director, asserts that “very few actors his age can play as wide a range.”
Audiences will judge for themselves, after catching him in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, that $50-million fable, and as relentless “Lucky” Luciano in Mobsters, a $23-million kid gangster flick, whether he’s got the stuff to make the leap from teen phenom to grown-up star. Hollywood is watching, and Slater’s Pump Up the Volume director Allan Movie voices what sounds like collective industry wisdom: “He’s got Nicholson’s mystique and Mel Gibson’s looks. How can he fail?”
Well, until just over a year ago, Christian Slater seemed hellbent on doing precisely that.
On the day I meet Slater, he zooms into a burgers-and-grease-emporium-in-a-railroad-car on the Sunset Strip in the black Saab that two Decembers ago got close and personal with a couple of phone poles during a police chase.
“I pulled some wild stunts, slept through entire days,” Slater tells me as we begin to talk about his recent past. “I was on a real self-destructive course, staying up all night partying or sometimes just staying up all the night— like the time I had to loop Tucker with Francis Ford Coppola, do a wardrobe fitting for Heathers, finish an episode of ‘L.A. Law’ and missed two out of the three.” Slater is the first to admit it was angry, self-destructive behavior. When he mentions a People magazine interview that quoted Winona Ryder as saying that her Heathers co-star so “scared” her that she once locked herself in her trailer, he says, “I was actually scary,” and describes his non-sober self as “not the most positive guy in the world, a monster in some ways. Maybe I was born with anger, or whatever. Maybe it was the weird, scary roles I was playing. I was dealing with a lot of sh*, desperately trying to find out who the real me was. When I finally just stopped trying to fight for something I wasn’t, I just sat back and said: ‘This is the guy I’m stuck with. I’ve got to be happy with it or why go on?’
“I got treated,” he says, quietly, “and I retired from drinking. I’ve been to a couple of AA meetings and it’s pretty good. This last year I’ve gotten to know people I can respect, who have a good head on their shoulders. That’s where I’d like to get to: to just enjoy myself.”
Up close, Slater says he can feel the difference now that his career has heated up. “I’ve made a big mistake,” he says, chin in his hand, “one I’ll never do again. I used to beg my agent: ‘Just keep me working or I’ll go crazy.’ Well, be careful what you wish for. I went straight from Robin Hood to Mobsters and right after this, I’m doing a movie in San Francisco, and I’m bushed.”
“I used to concentrate on one f**ing project at a time,” he says, earnestly, staring off. “Now, at the advice of people—damn good advice—I’ve done one movie after another that will really get seen by the public.” He sighs. “I can’t have future things on my shoulders when I’m supposed to be concentrating on one thing at the moment. I try and stay in the moment as much as possible, because, if I project too far, I f** myself up completely. Fear gets thrown in quite a lot. I don’t want to worry about being as good as I was in my last movie or knowing whether I’m being judged or on the US magazine ‘In and Out’ list. I’ve just got to take things one day at a time.” “This business is brutal, pressured, so full of abuse. You could be destroyed.”
He sounds conflicted about making the move from irrepressible teen to responsible man. On the one hand, he assures me that he is now “disgustingly safe,” having been upright, sober, and accident-free for well over a year. On the other, he often just can’t help letting things rip…
Consider his rap on making Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. At first, it’s new Christian. He can’t say enough about the “outta sight, amazing fun” he had working with Morgan Freeman or with Kevin Costner, “such a real guy, a warmhearted personality who definitely has what it takes to be Robin Hood.” And director Kevin Reynolds, a close friend of $8-million star Costner, is “a sweet guy, who depended a lot on the actors, which is great.” But let’s get earthbound here. This is a project Morgan Creek Productions and Warner Bros. rushed into production to preempt two other studios’ Robin Hoods. Breakneck pre-production and a frenzy of locations in England and France helped put the show weeks over schedule and millions over budget. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, the film’s Maid Marian, recently described to me the shooting as “anarchy, the right hand never knew what the left hand was doing.”
Perhaps noticing my eyes glaze over as he spouts the party line, Slater’s reminiscences turn slightly less up-beat, slightly more, I suspect, Christian. “The fact that there were so many Robin Hoods out there, we were forced to rush right in. Four weeks [pre-production time] to do a film that massive? Suicidal. I went in saying, ‘I’ll play any part to be in this,’ but—you know the instinct you usually get to do a project?—that really wasn’t there. It was the chance to work with some really great people. I had a tough time with Will Scarlet. He was never the character I wanted him to be. I wanted him to be tough, but he sort of became…” He breaks off, shrugging, waving his hand dismissively. Slater wanted to play jaunty like, say, Indiana Jones, while Reynolds demanded such touches as his soulfully crying, James Dean-like. Or, as one of Slater’s previous directors put it: “They clearly did not get Christian—their loss.”
“With a fairy tale story, you just sort of go in and try to do the best job,” says Slater. “I was so out of it on the movie that, from day to day, I didn’t know what was happening. On scenes where I wasn’t sure what to do, I would go to [Costner’s] trailer and he’d help me out. We’d walk off together and go over the scene a million different ways. [Costner] said: ‘It’s not an easy position to be the guy because it’s all on your shoulders.’ I learned that that’s true. It’s really your ass.”
Slater relocated in 1987 to Los Angeles, where he began to win industry attention for his performances in a series of movies little-seen by the public: Tucker, Gleaming the Cube and The Wizard. Finally, in Heathers, Michael Lehmann’s stylish offender about suicide, homicide, and the tyranny of teenage cliques, he played “Jason Dean” with almost lethally seductive charisma, and his career took on a new heat.
About this time, Slater’s wild rep came into focus. He embroiled himself romantically with his Heathers leading lady. “I didn’t know much about Winona at the time,” he says, “but we were together in every scene, every moment and we just started hanging out, enjoying each other’s company.” And stuff.
But Slater blanches at the mention of Ryder’s having portrayed their romance, in Rolling Stone and Movieline, as one giant spoof-o-rama. “I fell in love with the girl,” he says, huskily. “I really didn’t know we were playing a game. We did do something once, like a couple of lunatics, when we were doing a thing at Lincoln Center and got the idea to tell the whole group of people we’d gotten married. And then, we were going to do it, like, that night. We went to a couple of parties and I got pretty out of it and we just lost track of what our initial plan was. That’s a blessing for both of us because we were definitely way too young to be married.
“I love the girl,” he continues. “I think she’s a great actress. I’d work with her again in a second. She’s very hot. Extremely sexy. I guess, in a way, we did sort of play some games with people. I was, like, in a fantasy world with this girl. It was real for me. I didn’t take her to the Academy Awards just for the image thing of it. I wanted to be with her. I liked her. I wanted to date her. Hang with her.” He cuts himself off, rubbing his nose with the back of his hand and smiling slowly. “This is starting to sound like the pitiful lover. Hey, she’s young. I’m young. I think we both needed to slow down, definitely not rush into anything. It’s great what’s happening with her and Johnny Depp, that she’s met somebody that’s really terrific.”
“If I make a move now, like raise my eyebrows in Young Guns II,” he snarls, “some critic says I’m doing Nicholson. What am I supposed to do, cut off my eyebrows?”
Slater continued to romance his leading ladies on Pump Up the Volume, about a shy high school misfit who reigns by night as the king of pirate radio. The relationship he developed with co-star Samantha Mathis apparently ended, however, just as soon as the director yelled “Cut!” after their last love scene. Ryder? Mathis? Does Slater aim to become this generation’s romancer of leading ladies as Warren Beatty was to his? “If the script is great,” he explains, leaning conspiratorially over the table, “you get such great chemistry going. You get to say all those things you never would normally. Once the script isn’t there anymore, it’s like, ‘F**, I’m not that character I was playing.’ And the other person is like: ‘What’s this? Who are you now?’ So, you sort of just go, ‘Well that was fun, wasn’t it? You go on with your life, I’ll go on with mine and hope that we’ll get to do this again.’ “
“I don’t go out to do a scene thinking, ‘Boy, I’m going to be really sexy now,’” he says, looking abashed. But can a guy whom Kazan calls “basically sweet, with a mischievous streak and a devilish look” dazzle in the kind of role that has been a starmaker for actors from James Cagney to Andy Garcia?
A violin case with “Lucky Luciano” inscribed on a brass plate—a gift from Rick Kurtzman, his CAA agent—sits displayed.
Though Slater talks about going after roles with such directors as Peter Weir and Spielberg, for the time being he will have to content himself with playing a modern-day San Franciscan in Gun for Hire.