Christian Slater: Born Again Christian
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 fuck 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." Almost to a person, Slater's colleagues proclaim his "sweetness," declare his promise, attest to his--well, "fuck-ability," if you will.
But don't let's all lean back on our collective pillows and light cigarettes just yet, shall we? After all, nearly every year, like a bloody ritual, yet another promising, good-looking boy-man gets sacrificed on the celluloid altar. Most often, an Eric Roberts, Maxwell Caulfield, Kevin Bacon, Matt Dillon, or Johnny Depp fries or fizzles. A few of these contenders fade and come back reinvented as more durable versions of their former selves. Rarely, a Tom Cruise not only survives the blast, but transcends it. At the moment, it's Slater's turn to feed the fire. Audiences will judge for themselves, after catching him as a rascally sidekick to Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, in 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, if not the world, 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. He ticked off moviemakers by not showing up for work. He partied hard, alienated friends, distanced co-workers, and worked overtime to spread his rep for being bad news. He drew jail time and five years probation for two driving drunk arrests within two years. Then, self-redemption: addiction treatment and public acts of contrition in interviews. He regained his driver's license, dropped fast-lane friends, and asserted his autonomy by looking outside of his family for career direction. And he showed up for big roles.
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. The car looks fine, he looks a little ragged (oh, alright, movie star ragged) in post-Brat Pack, politically correct mufti: serious black sun-glasses, a letterman jacket, showy boots, jeans. A nasty head cold puts an added layer of texture onto the rubbed-raw voice that fools some into mistaking him for older than 21. Some of the carousing shows, not unflatteringly, in his wide open face, but more in the bracing sardonic streak that cuts the boyishness.
"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 fit-ting 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 shit, 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, rattling the ice in his cupful of soda, "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, chasing artery-clogging junk food with count-less Marlboros, raking back his tumbledown hair, 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."
And he looks it. What's more, on Mobsters, in which he co-stars with Patrick Dempsey and Richard Grieco, there's been talk of bad blood, fistfights on the set. (More about that later.) Still, you figure, he's young, he'll recover. But the more he talks the more he convinces me, now that he has aligned a CAA agent, high-powered business manager, and personal publicist to help win him stardom, that he was a happier camper when his career was a tad cooler. "I used to concentrate on one fucking 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 fuck 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," he says, drawing on another cigarette. "This fucking business is brutal, pressured, so full of abuse. You could be destroyed."