Why life's better when you play it straight: Christian Slater
A balmy afternoon in the Eden Roc Hotel in Ascona, Switzerland, and Hollywood bad boy Christian Slater is sitting by the lake, contemplating the media hounding of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton. As an older statesman of the bratpack generation, he has looked on at their travails with a weary but sympathetic sense of recognition.
"It is something that comes with the territory," he says of the relentless media scrutiny of Lohan and Hilton's private lives. "It has got to be intolerable at times. It is very difficult, as well, when you are in the process of formulating who you are. These girls are having a lot of pressure put on them - it has got to be excruciatingly difficult. It requires growth and a willingness to get some good people around you who hopefully can help you maintain some level of sanity. It is hard when you are in it to see what is really going on. You almost need a friend to reach in and pull you out of there."
Slater's own exposure to media interest began very early. His mother, Mary Jo Slater, is a casting agent. His father, Michael Hawkins, is an actor. Slater grew up in the business. He was born in New York on 18 August 1969, and appeared in Broadway shows and in films before he was even a teenager.
Look over Slater's career and you can't help but notice two different stories running in tandem. On the one hand, there is the work... and then, there is the famously troubled private life. The actor's biography reads like something that might have been dreamed up by Kenneth Anger for a latterday version of Hollywood Babylon, his chronicle of Tinseltown scandal. It is a story of drug busts, arrests and brushes with the authorities, culminating in a short spell in prison. A high-school drop out, Slater decamped from New York to Los Angeles to pursue his acting career in the late 1980s. Since then, his rap sheet has been almost as extensive as his film and stage credits. Even the most cursory glance through the cuttings throws up tawdry stories about arrests, drug-induced rampages, fights with girlfriends and scraps with cops.
At one stage, he spent more than 50 days in jail. A couple of years ago, he was charged with groping a woman's backside. (The charge was later dismissed.) Throughout his three or more decades in the business, he has always managed to keep the gossip columnists every bit as busy as the film and stage reviewers.
The relaxed and affable figure giving interviews in Ascona doesn't conform to his image as instantly combustible hellraiser. When you put it to him that his private life has been on the colourful and reckless side, he shrugs. "Thank you!," he chuckles at being reminded of his misdeeds.
Perhaps, he suggests, his problems were an almost inevitable consequence of becoming a movie star when he was still in his teens. "Finding balance in life is tricky. Being an actor young is great in many aspects. If you can handle it and you've got a good, solid foundation, then my hat is off to you and it's wonderful. I, at a very early age, received recognition for certain kinds of portrayals and certain kinds of performances. For example, Heathers and Pump Up the Volume were two films I was extraordinarily grateful to be a part of. As a result of not knowing myself very well at that time, I ended up trying to live up to an image - an image that people project on to you. It can be very confusing and make you feel off-balance all the time, which is very, very scary. I had a sense of 'oh, my God! What the hell is going on?' It was overwhelming. I was 17, 18... it was too much too soon. I was overwhelmed. I was like a deer in the headlights."
He adds that like many other young actors, he felt that turbulence in his private life could give an extra intensity to his professional work. " In a way, it is helpful. It is exciting to be an artist and to delve into the darkness, even in your personal life, and to roll around in that for a little while. It helps to have experienced all of that stuff. If you can survive, it can help make you a more rounded person," he says. " Listen, Tony [Hopkins] is the best possible example of someone who came from that world. He was surrounded by people like Richard Burton and Laurence Olivier who were notorious for certain behaviouristical qualities. He has managed to survive it. There is certainly a belief system that a lot of artists subscribe to that you should suffer for your art and put yourself through a lot of torment and pain. There have been times when I have completely agreed with that."
In the end, though, Slater has concluded that acting in a movie or a play isn't really a matter of life and death. He repeats that he now likes to see himself as "a goofball" and that his greatest happiness comes from spending time with his two kids. Nor do filmmaking and chaos and excess always have to go hand in hand. Slater waxes enthusiastic about the way that a director such as Clint Eastwood works, hiring the best possible collaborators and making even the most ambitious films without fuss or self-indulgence. "He takes a project, understands what it is and just shoots it. You don't hear any crazy or chaotic stories coming out of that. They just make the fricking movie. It's not brain surgery. It's storytelling. "
In a few weeks' time, Slater will be back on the London stage, playing a ruthlessly Machiavellian movie producer in a dramatised version of cult 1990s indie film, Swimming With Sharks. "I will be tearing apart my assistant, treating him badly and basically portraying a nightmare Hollywood person," Slater says cheerfully of the role (famously played in the film version by Kevin Spacey.)
When we speak he is in Switzerland with his latest picture, Slipstream, the directorial debut of Anthony Hopkins, which screened in competition at the Locarno Festival. "I was honoured that I got the opportunity to be asked by Anthony Hopkins," he enthuses. Nonetheless, Slater admits that he was initially a little baffled by Hopkins's screenplay. There were what seemed to be random reflections on bipolar disorder and asides about how sad life is. Slater struggled - as he puts it - to "get a handle" on his role. "I didn't know why I was saying what I was saying, or what the point of it was."
Then, he had his moment of epiphany - what he was really playing was essentially a part of Hopkins's subconscious. "This was an opportunity for me to be Anthony Hopkins's subconscious, conveying to him through the camera with him watching through the monitor something that he needed to wanted to hear," he explains.
Slater plays a flamboyant and very cynical gangster... or, at least, an actor playing such a gangster. It's an eccentric but inventive affair with a warped, dreamlike logic. Slater excels in a role that calls for both James Cagney-like snarling malice and comic self-deprecation. (In the end, his character dies from overacting.)
Slipstream is - at least partly - a satire on Hollywood. Hopkins throws in digs about self-obsessed stars who turn up late on set and behave like prima donnas. He also pokes fun at the culture of celebrity. In the world he shows, a young would-be actress who is caught on camera in a news report about a man going mad with a gun on the freeway relishes seeing her own image on TV. She may only be a bystander, but she reacts as if she has just seen herself in a starring role.
Is Hollywood as crazy as Hopkins suggests? Slater chews over the question. " It can be an agenda-filled town," he says. "People can be selfish-minded in a certain regard. They really, really think of themselves, what they can get and what is in it for them. Not always do they see the big picture. There is a sad element to the town, but at the same time, I have experienced other aspects. There are people there who are good, decent upstanding humans."
His character in Slipstream dies as a result of taking himself too seriously. This is clearly not a syndrome Slater himself has ever suffered from. "I am much more of a goofball than anything else," he happily declares. "Even in moments when I am taking myself too seriously, I fortunately now have people around me in my life who will let me know."
All this self-deprecation risks blinding you to just what a good actor Slater really is. Anthony Hopkins is full of praise for his young star and reveals that he allowed Slater to choreograph - and effectively co-direct - the diner scenes in Slipstream. "It was 20 pages or so," says Slater. "Dante Spinotti [the cinematographer] was shooting with a Steadicam. After we got through the parts that we had rehearsed, everything else was like a surprise. Anthony was surprised ,but he was happy with where I went and what I did."
We shouldn't be surprised by his ability. Whatever the jolts and scrapes in his private life, the quality of his performances has rarely deteriorated. Since his breakthrough roles in Heathers (1989) and Pump Up the Volume (1990), he has appeared in both studio and independent films, amassing some very respectable credits along the way (True Romance, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, The Name of the Rose, etc). Early in his career, Slater excelled at playing rebels with a dreamy side to them. He would have made the perfect Holden Caulfield if anyone had made a movie version of The Catcher In the Rye. More recently, he has won plaudits for his stage work, notably his performance as RP McMurphy in a stage version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. "He has the restless of a caged animal," The Guardian's Michael Billington enthused of his performance. "He catches exactly the bullyboy aspect of Randle and the idea that he is, in Pauline Kael's phrase, "a jock Christ".
Slater has also begun to distinguish himself in character roles, such as the very mean hotel worker he played in Emilio Estevez's Bobby.
For many, his most memorable role was one of his first - as the James Dean-like rebel opposite Winona Ryder's demure Ohio schoolgirl in the subversive teen comedy, Heathers. Like Slater, Ryder has had a chequered career and brushes with the law since becoming a young star at the height of the bratpack era. Slater doesn't see her very often these days, but his affection for her is evident. "We crossed paths briefly in Sundance, but we don't speak on a regular basis," he says, adding, "But I love her. I've never gotten over the crush I had on her then. She is still the woman of my dreams."
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Slater is now 37. He has grown up in the film business and his every false step has been ruthlessly chronicled in the tabloid press. Late last year, his divorce from TV producer Ryan Haddon was finalised. It had been a marriage (like so much else in Slater's life) that was lived in the public eye, with the couple's rows generating plenty of column inches.
Since the separation, he has been linked with several other names, Sharon Stone (his co-star in Bobby) and - more outlandishly - Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's daughter Imogen among them. There have been bizarre stories about him (including one in late 2005 about his falling off a roof during Paris Hilton's Hallowe'en party.) His life, off-duty, remains as colourful as ever. As for the work, his ambition now is just to turn up, do his job " and not take it all too seriously".
Maybe he is no longer the kind of actor the studios turn to for what he calls "the big, blockbustery type movies", but he remains as busy as ever. Alongside his acting, he is keen to refine his writing and filmmaking skills. He has optioned a book, William Viharo's Love Stories Are Too Violent for Me, which he hopes will be his first feature as a director. Anthony Hopkins has already agreed to appear. It's a noirish tale about a San Francisco private eye with a messy private life. Slater will play the detective. "He is a wannabe Sinatra-esque guy. He is a guy who lives in fantasy and has been greatly influenced by the movies."
In the meantime, Slater (who currently "pretty much lives" in Los Angeles) is preparing for a four-month stint in the West End. He claims to find stage work invigorating (he has likened appearing in Cuckoo's Nest to performing "a rock concert every night") and relishes being in London, even if the constant travelling takes him away from his two children. "I spend a lot of time in London, certainly. I love the people there. I love the theatre there. My kids are in Los Angeles but work seems to have been calling from across the pond."
No, he hasn't embraced mysticism or religion. His new-found sense of calm has nothing to do with Zen. "I've tried. I've investigated. But I've never been much for gurus. I am not much into leaders. As far as having any kind of spiritual connection, I do feel something is running the show. I've done my research in that regard, but it didn't really stick."
Slater doesn't try to brush away his misdeeds, even if he doesn't relish the exhaustive way in which his slips have been chronicled. "The sad thing is the glee society seems to receive from the falling of another fellow human. It's a tricky world. If you are looking for your validation from the exterior, you will end up getting in a lot of trouble. You have got to build yourself up on your own to endure the challenges and struggles that will be thrown your way!" He laughs at his own remarks, as if surprised that he is suddenly sounding more like a self-help guru than a rebellious movie star.
"It's about discovering who you are, which is a continual process anyway, and discovering what it is that makes you genuinely happy. I've pretty much discovered that the true meaning of life is to have as many adventures with my children as possible. I find that I am actually the happiest I ever am when I am with my kids."
Swimming With Sharks opens in the West End in the autumn)
Hits and misses: a chequered life on film Mobsters (1991)
Hoping to capitalise on the popularity of a new wave of teen heart-throbs, Universal signed an all-star cast (including Richard Grieco, Patrick Dempsey and Slater) for this biopic of New York gangsters Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Siegel and pals. The new generation weren't as popular as expected. Whatever happened to Costas Mandylor? Broken Arrow (1996)
Action-auteur John Woo has made a couple of real stinkers since he swapped Hong Kong for Hollywood. The worst of all was Windtalkers, in which Slater took a supporting role. But Broken Arrow, in which he featured alongside John Travolta's cackling baddie schtick, was a high-camp embarrassment too. Bed of Roses (1996)
During the Nineties, Slater had a small sideline in shy, introverted leads for rubbish romantic comedy-dramas such as Untamed Heart and Bed Of Roses. The latter sees him as a bashful florist (bed of roses, see?) trying to win the heart of career girl Mary Stuart Masterson. Very Bad Things (1998)
A gift of a title to its numerous harsh critics, this "very bad film" was a mildly offensive addition to the comedy-thriller genre, in which Slater and a group of blokey chums, including Jon Favreau and Jeremy Piven, accidentally kill a prostitute during a stag do. Hilarity fails to ensue. It's no Heathers. Hard Rain (1998)
Slater has never made a convincing action hero, and his performance as an armoured truck guard in Hard Rain is no exception. That said, not even Morgan Freeman could save this thriller/disaster movie genre hash from barren box office and a critical drubbing. Heathers (1989)
Slater melted the hearts of many an unhappy high-school girl in this black comedy. His character, JD, knocks off Shannon Doherty's clique of popular prom-queen types with increasing relish before he is finally thwarted by his girlfriend, and reluctant partner in crime, Veronica (Winona Ryder). Pump Up The Volume (1990)
Another teen favourite, in which Slater's Mark Hunter is a shy, retiring high-school loner by day, and a lunatic pirate DJ by night. Like Heathers, this is pure teenage wish fulfilment, with Mark's alter-ego Hard Harry causing a riot and getting busy with Nora (Samantha Mathis), the coolest chick in school. Churchill: The Hollywood Years (2004)
This unexpectedly amusing spoof on Hollywood's penchant for rewriting history marked a minor screen comeback for Slater. As Churchill, he romances fellow Anglophile Neve Campbell as Princess Elizabeth, and joshes with British comedy favourites such as Harry Enfield, Jon Culshaw and Leslie Phillips. Robin Hood (1991)
The height of Slater's heart-throb period came courtesy of his supporting role in this box-office smash. Loved by many, loathed by others, Slater's Will Scarlett barely resembles the legend we might recognise from history books. Like co-star Kevin Costner he makes little or no attempt at a convincing English accent. True Romance (1993)
Slater cemented his cult credentials in this Tarantino-scripted genre-bender. Improbably named ne'er-do-well Clarence (Slater) marries hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Alabama (Patricia Arquette) and runs off to Hollywood with her pimp's cocaine, leaving his poor dad to get whacked by Christopher Walken.