No Wooden Nicholson
CHRISTIAN SLATER WOULD LIKE TO INVITE YOU TO TOUR THE DOWNSTAIRS OP HIS three-bedroom, Spanish-style house in Los Angeles. Over here is the Batman memorabilia. And over there is the stuff from Star Trek, including, on the wall, a framed shirt once worn by Captain Kirk. The sacred garment, signed by Trek star William Shatner, is among the 24-year-old Slater’s most prized possessions—right up there with his 1961 Cadillac and his new Porsche—and considering his reputation as a smoldering, stubble-faced gangster of love, that is a bit surprising.
Is this really what he’s into? Doesn’t the winner of the MTV Movie Award for Most Desirable Male have any pastimes that are not quite so, uh, nerdy? Slater considers the question, then lets loose one of his patented leers. “Just the usual,” he says. “Sex toys.”
More than anything, Christian Slater loves to play. Though he is dead serious about his movie career and has been ever since he made his film debut at age 15 as a boy on the run from a murder rap in 1985’s The Legend of Billie Jean, he brings to each project what Allan Moyle, who directed him in Pump Up the Volume in 1990, calls a “built-in glee factor.” His characters may be morally messy rebels, but they smile a lot, and their eyes flicker with mystery and mischief. A generation of young female filmgoers is under his spell, convinced that his 1989 Heathers is a classic and that this year’s Untamed Heart was a box-office smash.
He is, in a word, cool: way beyond caring that Cosmopolitan once named him Hollywood’s Most Promising Male Star. “They vote you Greatest Kisser, Biggest Muscles. I try to distance myself from all that malarkey,” he says. Even Slater’s mother, Mary Jo, a Hollywood casting director, doesn’t quite understand the commotion. “Sometimes I look at him and think, ‘They’re making such a fuss over my little boy,’ ” she says. “Somebody tell me, ‘Why?’ ”
What it comes down to is the perfect grunge-generation look, plus grace under pressure—but not so much grace that you can’t feel the pressure building beneath Slater’s wild shock of sandy-brown locks. (“Christian has great hair,” notes fellow young star Brad Pitt, laughing. “Really good hair.”) Give him a chance to do battle with the bottle, and he will lose big time but live to tell the tale. Cast him opposite a beautiful woman, and he could very well fall in love. He is vulnerable; he is a man of action; and he is, this evening, desirous of spaghetti and meatballs. Patricia Arquette, playing a hooker with a heart of gold in his current hi I movie, True Romance, can hardly stand it. As she says to him al a pivotal point in the surprisingly touching story of two young losers lugging a suitcase full of cocaine and fleeing the law and the mob, “You are so cool.”
Slater has never been more in sync with a movie persona than he is with Clarence Worley, the crazy-yet-lovable comic-book-store clerk he plays in Romance, a movie already flush with weirdos (including Pitt as the ultimate drug-hazed loafer). Like Clarence, he says, “I once didn’t feel I could be an exciting personality if I wasn’t screwed up. My motto was: Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse.” Screenwriter Quentin Tarantino remembers thinking, when he met Slater, that the actor was eerily close to the man-child he’d envisioned. “Christian’s this knock-around, goofy kid, with a real sweet side he keeps hidden.”
Slater mirrors the character in another way too: He is a child of divorce who has problems with his father—played in the movie by Dennis Hopper. Yet there is at least one basic difference between actor and role. Clarence, when we meet him, hasn’t done much lately except hang out and go to martial arts movies. Slater, meanwhile, has packed a lot of living into his two-dozen years.
One of Christian’s earliest memories growing up in New York City was watching his father, who now uses the stage name Michael Gainsborough, on television. Gainsborough, who was starring on ABC’s Ryan’s Hope (his stage name then was Michael Hawkins), had an important scene on the soap that day, and Slater, 5, was deeply-impressed. “My father’s head was stuck in an oven and he was dying,” he says. “I couldn’t figure out what was happening, and I started flipping out.” Later, after Dad explained it, Slater was hooked on the business of make-believe. He didn’t get his start though until four years later, when his mother was a guest on The Joe Franklin Show and the host, spotting Christian in the wings, called him onto the set. Director Michael Kidd, who happened to be watching, wound up casting Christian in a Broadway revival of The Music Man, starring Dick Van Dyke. An off-Broadway role as an unlucky” teen in John Guare’s Landscape of the Body led to his first movie.
Still, this was no storybook tale of success: Even before Slater’s film career was launched, his parents had split up acrimoniously. And once he got a glimpse of Hollywood, stardom quickly went to his head. When he returned to Children’s Professional School in Manhattan, he remembers, “I had blond spiky hair, and I wore a snakeskin jacket and glasses that wrapped around my face.” By the time he played a supersmooth high school psychopath in Heathers, he was inviting comparisons with Jack Nicholson, a lifelong idol. By now, Slater is a little tired of being reminded of the resemblance. Evoking Jack “was a choice I purposely made in Heathers. I do raise my eyebrows. My voice sounds a little like his. But that’s just me.”
Drinking was a part of him too for most of his teen years. The set of The Name of the Rose, a 1986 film shot in Europe when Slater was 16, was a place, he says, where “the scotch flowed—I couldn’t believe I was in countries without a drinking age.” And the booze continued to pour for years. “I squeezed alcohol dry.”
Slater hit bottom on the night of Dec. 29, 1989. After he and some friends hopped into his Saab and roared away from an L.A. club, police took after him for speeding. Slater, who had been drinking, led a chase down a back alley, finally crashing into two telephone poles. Uninjured, he jumped out of the car and ran. Slater didn’t gel away, even though he tried climbing a chain-link fence and kicked an officer. “I thought I was Batman,” he says. “I had the same mentality—but not the utility belt.”
He was arrested for drunk driving (his second arrest for that offense) and spent the night in jail. Eventually, he was sentenced to 10 days behind bars and served them in July 1990. His run-in with the law brought him to his senses. “You know you have a lot to answer for,” he says. “So either you wake up or continue on the same path and eventually die.” Today he is completely off alcohol. “I learned,” he says, “that I don’t have to be intoxicated to feel okay.”
Getting sober brought Slater closer to his mother, who is now remarried and has another son, Ryan, 10. But Slater’s relationship with his father has only deteriorated as the young actor’s fame has increased. Today, though Gainsborough lives in Los Angeles, the two rarely speak. “That’s upsetting to me,” Slater admits. “I think he needs to be acknowledged by me that he’s my father and had something to do with my life, which I’m willing to do. But for him that’s not enough, and that’s unfair. Nobody deserves full credit for anybody’s success. I have to hold true to myself.”
Following his heart, it seems, often means romancing his leading ladies. “It’s hard for me not to fall in love with the women I’ve worked with,” sighs Slater. “They’ve all been beautiful.” As a teenage actor, he often had platonic crushes on actresses, but on the name of the Rose set, the line between real and cinematic affection began to blur. Slater says that he and the somewhat older Chilean actress Valentina Vargas developed a kind of teacher-student relationship while shooting a seduction scene. “She knew I needed to be guided along through this whole process of lovemaking,” he says. Afterward, for Slater, on-the-set romances became the rule. When he started filming Heathers, Slater was dating one of the film’s three nasty girls, Kim Walker, but ended up having a brief fling with the film’s nice girl. Winona Ryder. And then there was Samantha Mathis (Pump Up the Volume), whom he describes as “a great girl.” As for his relationship with Romance costar Arquette, Slater says, “We got very close—it’s one of those unavoidable things.” The protracted nude love scene they had together was, he says, “really special. I lost sight of the crew being around. It was the first time nothing on the outside really mattered.”
Slater’s lover for the last three years, aspiring screenwriter Nina Huang, 30, probably doesn’t share those sentiments. And that may be one reason why, as Slater says, “things gel topsy-turvy. The relationship thing is tricky,” he says. “We love each other. and we’ll see where it goes.”
The place where Slater goes most often these days is the top-secret set of a movie tentatively called Jimmy Hollywood, a spoof of Tinseltown being directed by Barry Levinson (Rain Man). One of his costars on that film, Joe Pesci, says he liked and respected his colleague—until he found out exactly how old Slater was. “Now,” Pesci jokes, “I hate him.” As Slater continues to build on such successes as True Romance, the general response is likely to be adulation, and not only from teenage girls. But who knows? Someday the world may share his mom’s estimation, which she scribbled in verse on his birth certificate in 1969: “Christian Michael Leonard Slater. There is no one who is greater.”
TODD GOLD in Los Angeles