'Don't make any mistakes. They will never let you forget'
The dangerous looks are the same, but the reputation has changed. Christian Slater talks fame, Stallone, and Gangnam Style
You have to feel a little sorry for Christian Slater. Not that sorry, mind. Now 43, he still retains the impish, slightly dangerous good looks that helped him achieve fame in such well-remembered films as True Romance, Heathers and Pump up the Volume. He has a nice new home in Miami. This week, he gets to square up to Sylvester Stallone in Walter Hills’s hilariously violent (and unambiguously titled) Bullet to the Head. Nice work if you can get it.
He does, however, have to endure endless questions from simple-minded journalists about his troubled years. When he emerged, noting that sly delivery, many pundits compared him to a young Jack Nicholson. But he managed to become an even more prolific bad boy than even that famously dissolute actor. Between 1989 and 2005, he was arrested on at least four occasions. Booze was drunk. A wife went astray. In 1997, he served a spell in prison.
He must know the subject will come up.
“One thing I always tell myself is: this will pass,” he says with apparent good humour. “Things will move on. But it doesn’t necessarily pass with journalists. They will bring it up until your dying f**king day. But it’s part of the deal. They will never let you forget.” You’re not wrong. Let’s talk about something else (for a moment, anyway).
Christian Slater looks to have been marked down for a career in entertainment from before he could speak. Born in New York City, he is the son of Mary Jo Slater, a theatrical agent, and jobbing actor Michael Hawkins. He attended two prestigious stage schools before securing a role in a 1980 production of The Music Man.
“I did grow up in the wings of New York theatres,” he says. “My dad was always doing auditions and he had no choice but to bring me along. Then I got the opportunity to audition and, when I was just nine, I found myself on stage. That was the beginning of this journey. I had no idea what was about to happen. But I had great affection for the business and the people in it.”
That’s good to hear. Looking at that brief biography, one can’t help but suspect he was railroaded towards acting. Did he never long to become a doctor or an astronaut or a train driver?
“Well, the thing about this business is that if you get any desire to do anything else you can always act that role. I am always getting the opportunity to be a lawyer or a doctor or a bad guy. For me, that’s more fulfilling than doing the same thing all my life.” He goes on to explain that, for all his affection for the business, he is reluctant to propel his own children towards acting. At the urging of his mother, he did once bring his son to an audition for a Tom Hanks film. But the unfortunate tyke wasn’t interested.
“I saw the look in eyes,” he says. “I could tell he was uncomfortable. His eyes were saying: ‘What the hell is this?’ So, I decided I would never do that again. I got it. But it was something I really wanted to do.”
Okay. So, his life wasn’t like that of the unfortunate Baby June in the great musical Gypsy. He wasn’t dragged from audition to audition by a fervent, obsessive stage mother.
“No, but that was one of my mother’s favourite movies.” Really? That’s a bit worrying. Is it not? “Ha ha! It is a bit disconcerting. But there is charm in it, too. Come on, it’s a great movie.”
At any rate, the juvenile roles eventually led to adult parts and Slater became a less-fragile James Dean for the 1990s. He swashbuckled alongside Kevin Costner in the hugely successful Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. He gained credibility in Tony Scott’s high-powered translation of Quentin Tarantino’s script for True Romance. You can also spot him in Interview with a Vampire and Broken Arrow. That class of naughty swagger is never out of fashion.
I wonder if he knows when he’s making a hit and when he’s shooting a dud. It must be tricky to gain perspective when you are still knee-deep in dailies. “I can never tell what is going to work and what isn’t,” he laughs. “We live in a confusing world. Did you know that Gangnam Style was going to be a hit? There is so much unpredictability. When something like Gangnam Style is the most viewed thing in the world you just have to laugh. You can’t take too much of this stuff seriously.”
Musing further on his journey, Slater reckons it was Heathers that really nudged him towards proper fame. Released in 1989, Michael Lehmann’s film found him playing a high-school oddball who decides to stand up to the domineering bullies. The film caught a mood that had been brewing quietly in teen psyches for some decades.
“There was a shift in my life at that point,” he says. “Something happened in my universe. All of a sudden I could get a table anywhere. People were much nicer to me all of a sudden. I remember I was happy about it. The effects on the people around me were striking. Everything shifted. Everything changed.”
Now, we find ourselves back where we started. Slater seems to be leading us inexorably towards his succession of public meltdowns. In 1989, he was picked up for drink-driving. In 1994, he was sentenced to community service for trying to bring a gun on to a plane. In 1997, he was convicted of assaulting his girlfriend and was sent to prison for three months. One is minded to ask if all this would have happened if he hadn’t achieved that degree of fame. Might he have been happier as, say, a small-town lawyer in Ohio?
“You know, I would have been an alcoholic lawyer or an alcoholic doctor I think,” he says. “Who knows? Some people are just inclined to that gene. I don’t really know if it had much to do with my profession. That made it easier to enable and to rationalise a lot of my behaviour. But, at the end of the day, if you have that gene and are disposed to that addiction then it doesn’t matter what profession you are in. That’s just how it is.”
In previous interviews, he has been impressively mature about his time in prison. He has never pretended that he was forced to break rocks or trudge the roads in a chain gang. Still, for a man used to the high life, jail can’t have been all that easy.
“Well, the irony is that my life was actually much crazier prior to my being inside,” he says. “Look, you don’t end up in that situation if your life is moving in a structured manner. There has to be a great deal of chaos for you to end up in that place. It’s almost like it’s a personal release. It gets you some distance from the insanity. Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t recommend it. Avoid it if you can. But if you end up in that situation then make the best of it.”
He does seem to be impressively philosophical about the situation. The chaos continued after he left prison. In 2003, Slater’s then wife, Ryan Haddon, was arrested for assaulting him in Las Vegas. They subsequently divorced and he does now appear to have achieved a degree of stability. Slater has, in previous interviews, admitted that staying sober is a daily trial.
“I just want to do my job and be a professional and try not get sucked into the tornado that dragged me down before,” he tells me. Now largely resident in Florida, Slater has appeared in such television series as Breaking In and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Later this year he will turn up in Lars von Trier’s intriguing Nymphomaniac and, opposite Christopher Walken, in Leone Marucci low-budget The Power of Few. This week, we can watch Sly torturing him brutally in Bullet to the Head.
“He couldn’t have been a sweeter guy,” he says of the big man. “One minute I’m being tortured, the next they’re all singing happy birthday to me. It’s a fun business.”
So Slater looks to be back on an even keel. There are, I imagine, a thousand young actors who wonder what they can learn from his experiences. “Ha ha! If I can be any example to anybody, I would say this: don’t make any mistakes. They will never let you forget it. That’s the only advice. Don’t do anything. Ever.” That’s a difficult maxim to follow.
“What can I say? Don’t do anything different. Just don’t do it.”
Bullet to the Head is on general release from tomorrow