Christian Slater: The Responsible Romantic
Christian Slater, young enough to take over for River Phoenix in Interview With the Vampire and old enough to play Kevin Bacon's lawyer in Murder in the First, talks about taking responsibility for everything from preventing his coffee from getting too creamy to avoiding the home-wreckers who are out to destroy his relationship.
In Hollywood, when I meet someone indoors and they still have their sunglasses on, I always silently count how long it takes them to remove their shades and give me a look at whatever goes on behind them. The longer it takes, the more annoyed I get. I don't care who it is. In Christian Slater's case, I'm still counting. Over the course of two lunches at Kate Mantilini, he didn't remove his sunglasses once. He may still have them on, for all I know--they may be a permanent part of his head, like the futuristic visor LeVar Burton wears on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," one of Slater's favorite shows.
So what manner of movie star shades are these? Oakley, Matsuda, Persol, Randolph Engineering, Calvin Klein? Actually, 7-Eleven. Slater sports charmingly low-tech cheapies--punky black plastic wraparound shades with violently violet lenses the color of Liz Taylor's eyes if she were a demon in your nightmare after a dinner of heavy sauces. You can get these specs for nine bucks in most convenience stores.
"But they don't offer any protection," I point out.
"They had that little UV sticker on 'em," Slater protests. "They make everything look great." He peers out the window. "Really wild."
Since Kate's is just about the last restaurant in Beverly Hills--and perhaps the world--to allow smoking, we are smoking. To be honest, we are here in the first place because Kate's allows smoking, and Slater, he likes to smoke. Unless you hear otherwise, please imagine us smoking continuously from here on out. As he smokes, Slater pours cream in his iced coffee, tastes it and makes a face. He signals a waiter amiably: "I put too much cream in this. I lost it, man." The waiter heads off to get a new cup. I tell Slater he's being a difficult star now. "Am I really?" he asks, with genuine concern--willing to believe that I might know more than a star does about how stars should act.
"No, no," I reassure him quickly. "I've seen worse."
"I mean, I ruined it," says Slater, of the java. "It's my fault. It's not like they screwed up in the kitchen."
"Okay, take your responsibility for it," I say.
"Yeah," Slater says with satisfaction. "I'm the guy that did it."
Christian Slater is big on shouldering the burden these days. The one-time hard-drinking teen idol is 25 now, old enough to know that Hollywood is brutal on young talent, and that the line between rebel and fuck-up is a thin one. "I have to live with myself--the choices I've made," Slater says quietly. "So I can be pretty hard on myself. I mean, life is a damn tricky thing. I'm really trying to set up my own rules--create my own game here in life. It's not easy to play it well." Slater's weary grin and smoke-cured voice somehow give this platitude the ring of a hard-won truth. Platitudes are what stars utter when they don't want to say anything, but they're also what we all repeat to ourselves like a mantra when insecurity threatens to sabotage our better instincts. Part of Slater's vast appeal, onscreen and off, is that he struggles like the rest of us, and admits it.
For those used to seeing reports of early Slater antics--run-ins with the police from drunk driving, etc.--it was darkly ironic to read last fall that he had stepped into the "interviewer" role in Interview With the Vampire after River Phoenix died suddenly of a drug overdose. "My own life could have gone that way," he said at the time. He donated his entire Interview salary to two of River's favorite charities.
"The mood in Hollywood when Phoenix died," I remind Slater, "was depressed and very, very weird."
"Well, they didn't give it much power on the set," Slater says. "I'm grateful for that, because that would have made it really uncomfortable for me. I was nervous about it--wasn't sure how people would feel or I would feel. But [co-executive producer] David Geffen was great. He said, 'Don't worry. It's all gonna be fine. This'll be fun for you.' And it was one of the greatest experiences. I felt no pressure at all."
I have to admit, I tell Slater, that I don't quite buy all that "it could have been me" business he came out with when Phoenix died. Underage drinking and driving, while not a good sign, is not the same thing as overdosing on Valium, heroin and cocaine. "Some of us escape it, some of us don't," Slater says bluntly. In other words: I'm missing the point. It's not very 12-Step of me. But I repeat: Slater and Phoenix were not drinking from the same well. "We didn't really have a great deal in common," Slater allows. "Similar in age, similar looks, I think--but he was a vegetarian, he had many more beliefs than I did--the family had the whole spiritual thing. If we'd met, we probably wouldn't have been great friends.
"I've spoken to his mother," Slater continues. "Heart Phoenix--she's a really sweet lady. She's managed to turn it into a beautiful thing somehow. She believes that River is still here. She almost feels he has more power now than when he was alive. For her, he's become everything."
Yeah, but ... the guy's still dead. "It's a shame and it's a crime, but ... drugs are an attractive thing," Slater says. "To be able to have some kind of escape--it's just heaven. There are moments when I'd like to get the hell out of this deal and run from my life, but I don't."
If Phoenix is the ultimate tragic failure of his acting generation, Slater's Interview With the Vampire compadre Tom Cruise, who occupies the older edge of the generation's span, is its ultimate burgeoning success. Slater was suitably floored by Tom. "To be able to cope with the stuff he's got to deal with, it's unreal. I don't know how he did it-- if he picked the right role model--but he seems to know everything. I learned a lot from him. He commands such respect on the set. I loved that."
"Did Cruise enlighten you?" I ask. "Give you the key to surviving Hollywood?"
"We didn't talk about that," says Slater. "We talked about life. We spent a lot of time alone together driving across the Golden Gate Bridge. The guy just seems incredibly together. I don't know exactly how old he is. I think a lot of it comes with age and experience."
"He's 32," I say.
"Observing how things worked with him kind of changed me a little bit. That's the way I'd like to do it. He's right on the money, man, a really sweet guy."