Christian Slater used the word "foundation" many times in our interview—and that's no coincidence. It certainly seems to be on his mind these days. After a 20-year career that has rocketed him from showbiz kid to teen idol to Hollywood misfit, Slater is re-evaluating a lot these days.
"My mistakes do happen on a grand scale and very public level," Slater once told USA Today. "They're humiliating, embarrassing. But if nothing bad happens to you, you'll just continue to act ridiculous." The interview was from Dec. 14, 1997 —a mere five days after Slater was sentenced to three months in jail for assaulting a girlfriend and a police officer, as well as for cocaine abuse.
The year that followed was a landmark year in Slater's life and in his acting career. Following a bit of jail time, he headed back to Broadway after 15 years offstage to appear in Warren Leight's Side Man. He played Clifford, the sensitive young man who narrates the story of his jazzman dad, telling the story of his parents' troubled marriage.
"Going back to the stage was a great experience," recalled Slater in a recent interview with Back Stage West, "being a part of an ensemble and just reintroducing myself to what it is I really do love about this business, and that is: getting to tell interesting stories. I just hadn't done it in so long, and I really did love every second of it—to feel the energy of the audience and to even feel them rooting you on."
Since then Slater has been taking things slow. He has gone into what he called an "observational" phase of his career—a time to sit back, examine, and reflect. "Today I'm definitely more willing, more able, more ready to take on more and carry a little bit more than I have been in the last few years. I've really been choosing smaller roles in movies and wanting to be a part of an ensemble, part of a group. I've been easing my way back into this business and also building a life for myself outside of this career. I have a really remarkable and beautiful family today, and I'm really grateful for that. And I think that helps me as a person and as an actor. It just gives me a foundation for life, which is really important."
Now the proud parent of two children, Slater currently appears in John Woo's heart-wrenching war film Windtalkers, about Navajo code talkers in World War II. Slater plays Sergeant Peter Henderson, one of the only characters in the film who is culturally sensitive to the new American Indian recruits from the outset.
Patch of Heathers
By all outward appearances, Slater has cleaned up his act. What's most impressive, perhaps, is that he doesn't claim to have it all figured out yet. He's still rediscovering who he is and what he wants to do in his career—and perhaps that's precisely what makes this phase in his life all the more exciting for him.
Slater talked a bit about some of the personal confusion that came with the success of Heathers and the danger of becoming "someone" before you even know who you are. "I started very young in this business," reflected Slater, "and right away I had some notoriety from playing certain bad-boy characters. When I got in trouble was when I tried to live up to that image—because I'm really not that. But I think I really kind of got confused with who I am and what I'm about. So I've been spending the last few years defining myself and who I am and what I really do love in life, and the types of projects I want to do, and the type of person I want to be. It's been a really interesting process."
His role in Heathers was indeed pivotal—one that led to later roles as outcast characters such as high school shock jock Mark Hunter in Pump Up the Volume. In Heathers, he played the iconic Jason Dean (J.D.), a murderous, sociopathic outcast—both sardonic and a little sweet. He was cast in Heathers after an audition with Winona Ryder went better than expected. Said Slater, "They just liked the take I had on the character. I think Winona and I had a connection. There was a real nice chemistry there. I was really kind of amazed."
He said he had no way of knowing that Heathers would have the impact it did. "I really don't know what the formula or the recipe is for movies," said Slater. "When I read the script, I thought, 'Yeah, it's interesting—I don't know.' It just seemed a little dark. I wasn't really sure about it. You really don't know how things are going to go. You can't really predict it; you've just got to go with your gut and do the best you can, and that's really what I've tried to do as much as possible."
It was in Heathers that we first saw Slater's distinct acting style emerge—one that has resulted in many comparisons with Jack Nicholson. It was a definable persona that we saw again in Pump Up the Volume, even in later characters like Clarence Worley in True Romance—the sly, violent outlaw, lightened with an occasional dose of tenderness.
Asked whether he viewed himself as an actor who tries to change himself for his roles, or whether he changes his roles to suit himself and his performance style, Slater seemed refreshingly unsure.
"I think I'm in the process of really defining that for myself," he said. "Of course I look for characters I can relate to and identify with. But with Windtalkers, one of the things I really loved about it was the heart of the character. I really wanted to try to capture that as much as possible. I liked playing the opposite side of the coin to Nic's [Nicolas Cage] character, who is definitely a little darker and a little bit more war-weary. I just felt like I'd played a lot of characters who have been kind of outrageous, I definitely had gone out there, so with this role, I wanted to just kind of build a new foundation and a new kind of direction for myself."
Back to School
Over the past few years, Slater has begun looking more seriously at his acting technique. He's begun taking classes, which have enabled him to see some of the areas he'd like to improve.
"I had always kind of relied on my instincts, but I felt like, Why not?" said Slater. "There's no harm in going and observing. There's that wonderful acting teacher Larry Moss who has worked with actors and done a great job. So I went in and participated in his classes, and it was an incredible experience. I picked up some tools that are very helpful."
Being in a classroom required him to take the kind of risks that perhaps his work hadn't—at least not in a while. "We were working on one scene from this play called The Dreamer Examines His Pillow [by John Patrick Shanley]," he recalled, "and I was doing it with another girl who had taken the classes before so she kind of knew the routine and what was expected of her, the level of depth that you have to go to get into these characters. I just remember sitting there in the class and doing the scene, and this girl was just really going out there and I was thinking, Jesus, take it easy. Relax. But at the same time it was kind of great to see somebody give themselves so completely to a character and really devote themselves to it. In the end, that was kind of my note: not to play it so cool. I got to come back a couple of weeks later and have a new take on it, really throw myself into it as well. And I could finally see that that's what's really fun about being an actor: getting away from yourself as much as possible and not relying on a lot of tricks and things that you've done in the past."
Prior to these classes, Slater had never had any formal classroom training. His training came from being the son of casting director Mary Jo Slater and actor Michael Hawkins.
"One of the most helpful things was sitting in an office with her sometimes when actors would come in and audition," said Slater. "I was probably 7 or 8 at the time and just observing, seeing how they were in the meetings, and seeing how they read their stuff, and getting a sense of what I liked and what I didn't. You just couldn't help but pick up on some of that through osmosis, in a way. I always had to sit there and be quiet and just watch. I think all that really did help a lot. Also just going to the theatre with my father. We really did see a lot of shows when I was growing up. That was sort of our life. It was just all about theatre and actors, and it was just a great time to be a kid in New York, in general."
Look of Love
Asked what advice he would give to young actors, Slater spoke from lessons he's learned. "Take your time," he said. "Don't try to rush the whole process; just take it slow. Enjoy it as much as possible. Have faith that everything works out the way it's supposed to. Try not to give in to that panicked feeling of, Oh, I need to work, I need to work, I need to work. I think it is good to go to a class and work with other actors, work on scenes, and keep your instrument alive. Just keep focusing on that, and the rest kind of takes care of itself. Work hard, stay in shape, and be prepared for that moment that is waiting for you to be discovered."
It's hard to see exactly where Slater's career may go as he heads into his mid-30s. He's biding his time now. "I've been writing something that I really kind of like," said Slater. "But I don't really have a specific type of project that I'm interested in. I've been a huge fan of Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy—those are just the kind of actors I've always loved. So anything in that sort of realm. The kind of humanity they brought to the characters they've played is something I respect and identify with."
With Windtalkers, we do get to see that humanity shining through. Having seen him temper so many volatile characters with a boyish, angelic quality, perhaps it's not so surprising to see that Slater can make a pretty good nice guy after all—especially when you look back at what was arguably his first memorable role onscreen. We remember him as a young medieval monk's apprentice in The Name of the Rose, following Sean Connery around, wide-eyed. Even more, we remember the look on his young face when a saucy peasant woman introduces him to, shall we say, the adult ways of love—it's that wonderfully blank and curious look of a person making some pretty important discoveries in life.
Christian Slater has that look down cold. BSW