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!”