This is not exactly how or where you imagine Supergirl spending her Saturday nights: Infected by a cold and affected by her industrial-strength intensity, she occupies a corner booth in a smoky and gaudy Chinese restaurant in Corpus Christi, Texas. “I don’t know about this thing—being famous,” she sighs. “I haven’t figured it out yet. It still mystifies me.” Making her screen debut in Supergirl, Helen Slater flies through space, finesses a double life as a schoolgirl and faces down an evil witch played by Faye Dunaway. But as the latest instant star, she is sidestepping celebrity. “I’m only 20,” she says, and you’d better believe it.
Although she looks like the all-American girl, Slater sometimes sounds like the sister from another planet. “The way I spend my time is very isolated and cut off,” admits Helen, who claims she’s never heard of Dynasty or Body Double. “I’m very passionate about philosophy and religion.” But playing a cartoon character come to life posed no ideological compromise. Indeed, it taught her “how to become compassionate every day of your life in every situation. It’s like Zen Buddhists believe nothing is worth anything unless it is useful.” Ever inquisitive, Slater is likely to ask as many questions as she answers. Where did you go to school? Where are you from? Did you like the movie? What is it like to interview people you don’t like? Would you have interviewed me if you were really repulsed by the movie?
For Slater, even the simplest exchange can pose an ethical dilemma. If she discusses the special effects that make Supergirl fly, she might ruin the fantasy for kids. If she answers the inevitable question about her chest, which grew several inches as a result of her preproduction workouts, she might be collaborating on a sexist insult. What she needs, she admits, is a crash course in celebrity. “I think there’s a way to be light about it, which I have to learn.” Given an on-the-spot opportunity, Slater flunks her pop quiz:
“Do you think Supergirl has ever had sex?”
“What a strange question,” she says, stumped. “What do you think?”
“I think not.”
“I don’t think so either,” she replies with relief. As she admits, the problem with being a sudden golden girl symbol is “I take things too seriously.”
That sober quality helped win her the part of Supergirl just six months after her 1982 graduation from Manhattan’s High School of Performing Arts. Sure, donning a dance skirt as a cape for her first audition with the producers helped, but that isn’t what did the trick. “I had faith,” says Slater. “I saw far more beautiful, bustier, more luscious-looking girls auditioning. I don’t think I got it because I’m a brilliant actress. I can’t be a brilliant actress at 20. I just think I loved her more than anybody else at the audition.”
But with Helen, the run-of-the-mill query quickly turns into an existential observation. If you ask if it’s true she flew into a tree during the filming, she replies, “/don’t fly. I’m just on wires.” During one sequence, she says, “I did run face into the tree. The director said, ‘Are you bleeding?’ I said no. He said, ‘Right, roll it again.’ ” Of course, things could have been worse—and were, when the soaring Slater was inadvertently plopped into a pond.
During filming she sought solace from her screen surrogate father, Peter O’Toole, who introduced her to Nietzsche and made her read Shakespeare aloud. “And he did Hamlet for me,” she recalls. “He knew he could send me around the bend in a second. We’d go for walks and he’d say, ‘Tell me about the word “aware.” I want you to tell me truly about the word “aware.” What does it mean?’ ”
For less linguistic advice, Slater sought out her colleague of the cosmos, Christopher Reeve, a veteran of three Superman flicks. “Truly he’s the only person I could share with on a certain level,” she says. One of their meetings particularly brought Slater down to earth. After dinner in New York one night, she says, “this fire truck pulled up to the building across the street. People were screaming. And here’s Superman and Supergirl on a bench across the street. Chris looked at me and said, ‘I guess it’s our night off.’ ” Reeve has served as a career model in more ways than one. Since Superman, “he’s had a hard time,” observes Slater. “I hope I don’t have as hard a time as he had.”
So far she hasn’t. The daughter of a Washington public broadcasting executive and a New York lawyer who divorced when she was 8, Helen grew up in Manhattan with her mother and older brother. In high school she wrote plays as well as performed in them. But it was her Goldilocks look that fostered and financed her independence after high school. With income from Kellogg’s and Juicy Fruit commercials, she skipped college for the New York audition circuit and her own West Side apartment. She has no current boyfriend—romance hasn’t yet interfered with ambition. The lead in Fair Is Fair, the contemporary teenage drama she is now filming in Texas, represents her first earthbound screen role. If Super-girl is a hit, she is contractually obligated to film two sequels. That prospect is no less daunting than filming the first. “What better way to work on yourself than to practice being good,” she says.
Already, the paraphernalia of pop stardom has infiltrated Slater’s isolated existence. There’s a Supergirl storybook and a coloring book. The selling of Helen Slater prompts the most poignant philosophical question of all from her. Leaning forward over her cup of tea, she asks point-blank, “Do you think I’m going to be one of those flash-in-the-pan actresses?” Since this is a Chinese restaurant, the most fortuitous answer comes in a fortune cookie. When Slater opens hers, the message reads: “Happy times and pleasant surroundings await you.”