It's no picnic becoming a 19-year-old movie star. At 12, Christian Slater broke down crying on the set of The Invisible Boy when the script called for him to take off his clothes. At 14 he begged a cruel movie executive not to make him pull down his pants for the camera while filming Twisted. When he was 15, he had to parade around in a dress, lipstick and a wig in The Legend of Billie Jean. Slater spent most of his 16th year trying to hide a monk's tonsure shaved for The Name of the Rose and went through the embarrassment of exposing his altogether for that film's nude love scene.
“I've done some ballsy shit, man,” he says. Slater looks happy but a little rumpled, as if he just woke up from a long nap. He is having lunch at Ivy at the Shore, a chic L.A. restaurant not far from his apartment. Advance screenings of his latest film, Heathers, a black comedy about high-school murder and teen suicide, have gotten very good reviews. Slater plays the lead, a bad boy named J.D. who seems to have learned to talk by watching Jack Nicholson movies. (“Fifteen or 20 years ago,” says Heathers director Michael Lehmann, “a kid would have done it as Marlon Brando or James Dean. Nicholson is the psychotic hero of our decade.”) Slater has gotten a lot of attention — much of it praise — for his gravel-voiced portrayal of a gun-toting young man who reacts to high school the way Dirty Harry reacts to bank robbers.
Slater says his Nicholson take in Heathers was a tribute to the man he thinks is “the best actor around.” And that was a risk. If people don't understand it, “the hell with 'em,” Slater says, shrugging. “I don't care. I did it. Fuck it. I had fun doing it.” Such nonchalance dissolves, though, when it's suggested that Slater will surely hear from Nicholson. “Do you really think so?” he says. Even in real life, Slater's speaking voice stays pretty close to Nicholson's. But at times like this, when he's excited, he reverts to the diction of a trained actor. “If I met him, I don't know what the hell I would do. I would probably die.”
He leans back in his chair, takes a bite of his crab cakes and returns to cataloging his onscreen embarrassments. “There's a scene in Heathers where I'm lying on the ground after a strip croquet game,” he says, “and they wanted me to show off some body. I said, 'No, no, no, I'm not showing off any of my things — no heinie, no nothing. None of that.' I've already put myself out on that line. I didn't have to do it again.”
Slater showed off a few of his things in The Invisible Boy, wearing a body stocking. That wasn't so bad. But in his next film, the never-released Twisted, there was a scene that wasn't in the script that called for him to be chased by a babysitter. The babysitter was told to catch up to Slater sometime after the second lap around the couch, grab the back of his pants and pull them down, just a little. One movie executive told the 14-year-old it would “work for the film.” Another told the sobbing Slater he had to do it because he hadn't written into his contract that he refused to do nudity.
Slater's hand hits the table. “I think I was drugged and kidnapped for that film,” he says. “I had a guardian appointed, but maybe she was working for them, because she didn't support me in any way. I tried to call my mother, and the line was busy.”
The son of stage actor Michael Hawkins (the original Frank Ryan on Ryan's Hope) and casting director Mary Jo Slater (who carried him onto the stage of a theater where she was working when he was three months old, raised him over her head and announced, “This is your life, my son!”), Slater grew up in New York and attended the posh Dalton School until an appearance on The Joe Franklin Show with his mother when he was nine led to a chance to go onstage with Dick Van Dyke in a revival of The Music Man. He switched to the Professional Children's School after that and began his nervous climb toward stardom. He got roles in Broadway productions of Macbeth and David Copperfield, played Oliver in summer stock and began landing those embarrassing movie parts. His career picked up speed in 1987, when he moved to Los Angeles with his mother (his parents had split up when he was small; his father also moved to L.A., where he's active in local theater). That year, he was cast in Francis Coppola's film Tucker as Preston Tucker Jr. Last year, he starred in a skateboard movie called Gleaming the Cube, which got mostly terrible reviews — for everything except Slater's earnest performance.
Now Heathers has delivered the big payback: a star-making role for an actor who's never had the same hair color, accent or age for two films in a row and who, as he says, “never said to [the director of Name of the Rose], 'Wait! Stop! Hold it! Let's find another way to shoot this love scene! I'm not showing off my weenie to all these Italians!' "
It's several days before the opening of Heathers, and Slater is thinking about what the movie may do for him. He is sitting anonymously by the Santa Monica boardwalk, aware that this may be one of the last days left in his life when he can hang around a public place without being set upon by fans. “I'm kind of looking forward to that,” he says, and gives a crooked smile. “I mean, I'm dying for it! I think it would be so much fun to have girls chasing me down the street!”
At least one girl, Slater's Heathers costar, Winona Ryder, seems to find him worthy of his dream. “He's a blast,” she says. “He's easy to work with, fun, and he has a great sense of humor. There are a lot of scenes in the movie where I'm mad at him and he's still trying to seduce me, and he made it so tempting. It would be so easy to just fall back into his arms again.”
The chemistry between Slater and Ryder was genuine, Slater says. It was also confused by the fact that Slater's real-life girlfriend was in the cast. Kim Walker played Heather Chandler, the evil rich girl against whom Slater and Ryder conspire. Walker and Slater went steady from their days at the Professional Children's School, and then they arrived on the set of Heathers. Uh-oh.
“Kim's a terrific actress,” says Slater, silent for a moment before continuing. “But then there was Winona Ryder. She's a beautiful girl. She's wonderful, she's talented, she's very energetic, she's very entertaining, she's very funny. So it was difficult for me not to fall in love with her. Having my girlfriend on the set made not falling in love with her much easier. But yeah — that chemistry made it, uh, a … nice working environment. And it made for some interesting moments in my life. Winona and I are just good friends now, too.”
Here Slater's mother has something to add. “I think girls are Christian's major hobby,” she says, laughing. “He concentrates on anything to do with show business and having fun. He's not an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination — he's just a good person. Girls are what he focuses most of his energy on these days. Pursuing girls, sending them flowers, being romantic.” (Slater says he used to keep a diary that was “all about my love life.” He stopped, though, when he found he couldn't read it without thinking, “Christ! Was I really thinking this stuff?”)
Mary Jo Slater continues: “I like Winona. I think Winona's great. She's really bright, even if she is an actress.” Mary Jo pauses to express some concern about the reaction from all of Christian's other girlfriends to what she has just said. “I love Kim,” she says. “She's beautiful and sweet. They were just too young.”
And, hey, if you want to meet attractive women, it doesn't hurt to have a mom who is now vice-president of talent at MGM. Says Mary Jo Slater, “Every time I see Christian, he says, 'Do you know so-and-so? God, do you think I could meet her?' "
“See,” Christian says, “I feel you only live once. And I'm not going to be a vegetarian or anything. I'm gonna enjoy the food that I eat and have a good time.” Such lip licking might be unbecoming in an older actor, but any 19-year-old who did not appreciate his good luck in Hollywood would be a real ingrate. And Slater has not always received such attention. He has, for instance, had the experience of standing next to teen star Brian Bloom (As the World Turns, Senior Prom) and giving his autograph to someone who wanted it only because he was there with Bloom. He's overheard the autograph hound walking away asking, “Who's that guy?”
"And it's like, oh, man, do I really have to explain?” says Slater. “It sounds so egotistical, and then they like you less. I can't wait until they know who I am so I don't have to sit there and politely tell them everything I've done.” Actually, Slater admits, he blew his top at one such unintended insult just last night. A couple of his friends from New York came to town, and they had just seen Tucker on the airplane. At dinner that night with Slater, they talked about the movie, having no idea that he was in it. Worse, with the friends was a young woman who said she hoped to become a director. “And I'm sitting right smack dab in front of her,” says Slater. “And I'm thinking, 'You want to be a director, and you can't even spot somebody you've just seen in a movie?' They're attending Vassar College, so they're in a whole different world. But, of course, immediately I was offended. Naturally. A human thing. So I told her basically that she shouldn't even consider becoming a director.” The young woman responded by jumping up from the table and leaving, climbing over another friend just to get away.
Slater's nights on the town are full of such misadventures. He is frequently given the “I know you're somebody, but I can't place you” treatment. Slater keeps a modest bachelor apartment that he would love to trade for real movie-star digs. When he's not working, he reads scripts, dates and sleeps. Slater loves to sleep. He likes to crawl out of bed at about 4:00 p.m., call a pal and start to plan his evening. Even when working, he gets his REMs. “Christian's a very talented actor, and he was extremely professional,” says director Lehmann, who interviewed lots of young actors for the role of J.D. (Slater paced nervously outside the auditorium, listening at the door to hear what the other aspirants were doing. Most played J.D. as a tortured rebel without a cause. Lehmann was delighted by Slater's sense of irony.) “But Christian sleeps extremely heavily,” Lehmann continues. “He sleeps very deeply, and you have to shake him to wake him up. When we were shooting at night, we'd always check in and say, 'Christian, make sure you stay awake.' He was very funny about it. Once we changed his call time — we needed him earlier. Nobody answered his phone. We had to send someone to his house, and they had to break in because he was in such a deep sleep.”
“Oh, it's amazing!” says TV actor Phill Lewis, one of Slater's best friends. “It's unreal. Earthquakes will not wake this man. I sleep on his couch a lot, and if he's got to wake up early to shoot or rehearse, he sets his alarm and — I swear — it'll wake the whole building, and Christian will sleep through it. I'm in the other room, I hear the alarm, I get up and go turn it off and wake him up. He can sleep all day.”
It's another beautiful day on the Santa Monica pier, where children are building sandcastles on the beach below and a small camera crew is filming a commercial. Slater walks the boards, soaking up the sun, until he stops in front of a fortuneteller's shop and decides to go in to get the lowdown on his future. The old gypsy woman greets him with a half-hearted wave of her hand and offers the back room for a $25 special — crystal ball, palm reading and psychic examination. Slater takes a seat across the table from her, under photographs of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and JFK — the Holy Trinity of séance stars. The old gypsy woman reads the young actor's palms. “You gonna live to be 95 years old.” Slater smiles. “You are happy in the face, but you are very sad in the heart.” She taps her chest hard. He nods.
"You don't like working for the boss. You gonna own your own company. You gonna make a lot of money. This year will be very good for you. Good news gonna come in the mail. I see your friends — they are nice to your face, but they say bad things behind your back."
Slater nods again.
"There is someone had an operation, a relative."
“Yes, you grandmother. You worry for her. Who is this in your family you don't see as much as you should?”
“My mother and my brother.”
“Yes, you mother and brother. Why you don't see them?”
“Well, I'm trying to get used to being on my own.”
“Don't delay. You parents getting older.” The gypsy woman says Slater is going to marry and have four children. He asks if he will ever divorce. She says no. He says that's good. She asks, who is the friend he is worried about — man or woman? Slater says it's a man. That's all the gypsy needs to hear. Now she's sure Slater is gay.
“No, really,” he protests. “I'm not…”
But he can't fool the mystic. The gypsy is sympathetic but stern — he must stop sleeping with men. Slater is flustered, his voice rising an octave above its Nicholsonian range: “No, honest, this guy's just my buddy — we talk about women all the time! That's what we do! I love women!”
“But boys make you more satisfied.”
A few minutes later, Slater is charging down the pier, waving his hands and cursing the fortuneteller as a psychopath. A bum asks him for change, which Slater doesn't have. The bum yanks out a handful of money and brags that he is richer that Slater.
“I know about you!” the bum tells the actor. “Your wife left you because you have ringworm!”
“Jesus Christ!” Slater yells.
This, he says, is why he thinks being a famous movie star would be a big relief. He leans against a railing above the Pacific and lights a cigarette.
Slater has just finished a film in which he plays a young man who becomes friends with a dying astronaut, played by Martin Sheen. In two weeks, he will accompany Winona Ryder to the Oscars and perform a cheerleading musical number dedicated to Oscar winners of the 21st century. He is also competing for a role in a film that he will not name for fear of jinxing his chances. “It has a couple of love scenes in it,” he says, “but if they cast the girl I would like, I don't think I'll have a problem with it.” He cracks another Nicholson smile. “I don't really mind doing love scenes anymore. I think they're kind of fun.
“But I don't want to jump into any kind of film just to make money now,” he says. “Money's important, let's not bullshit, but I want to stay in this business for the rest of my life, and the only way I can do that is to make the right decisions.”
Next weekend he is going to Florida to be a guest on MTV's spring-break special. That should be fun.
“Yeah,” he says. “I hear there'll be a lot of cute guys.”