Christian Slater is in Miami and I’m on his speaker phone. I can’t hear waves lapping on the beach, but I have no trouble imagining a warm breeze caressing palm trees as I sit in a dingy office with no window.
Being a movie star, nice work if you can get it. “It’s beautiful and sunny here I have to tell you,” Slater says in that unmistakable drawl, when I say that it’s snowing in Edinburgh. “I was in Denmark yesterday, finishing the Lars von Trier movie [Nymphomaniac],” he says. “It was freezing there – snowing and the whole bit. I’ve been in Miami a long time so the change was quite refreshing. For about ten minutes. And then it got annoying again.” He laughs.
It’s fun talking to Slater. He’s hyper and refreshingly open. He’s in a reflective mood (“it could be the jetlag,” he reckons) and happily that means he doesn’t seem to be watching the clock, eager to cut me off as soon as my allotted minutes are up. It’s unusual and it makes me like him. I don’t often find myself feeling the need to big up Hollywood types, but as Slater talks about wondering whether every movie is his last, or being a Hollywood survivor, to hoping that this year is going to be a good one, I kind of hope that he’s right.
As I waited for the time to call him I read about his 2012 film Playback being the lowest grossing movie at the box office. It took $264. It wasn’t down to him, of course, but Hollywood is cut-throat and that’s not helpful. Or maybe it’s because as I read about him, the focus always drifts away from the acting and towards the brushes with the law which culminated in his spending 59 days in jail and more time in rehab in 1997, or his high hopes for TV shows that weren’t picked up for a second season (Slater’s had three in recent years). Being a movie star, it’s a tough gig.
That said, it’s pretty much what Christian Slater was born to be. He comes from showbiz stock. Born in New York, his father (Michael Hawkins) was an actor and his mother (Mary Jo Slater) an acting agent. Slater landed his first job on TV when he was seven. He made his Broadway debut opposite Dick Van Dyke in 1980 and his first big screen appearance in The Legend of Billie Jean, five years later. By the late-Eighties he was a heart-throb after his performance as gun-toting JD in Heathers (1988), opposite Winona Ryder, and his role in the Tarantino-scripted love story gangster flick hybrid True Romance (1993), with Patricia Arquette. Slater was edgy on screen, racking up Jack Nicholson comparisons with his wayward eyebrows and scowl, and wild off-screen, cementing his bad boy reputation. It was not an easy act to sustain.
“It’s tricky when so much is handed to you at such an early age,” he says. “If you don’t have a strong foundation or a lot of sane people around you, you can be in a lot of trouble. We see it. I’ve certainly lived it. But you grow up and realise that everyone around you is important, you’re not the centre of the universe, as much as everyone wants to make you feel at certain points like you are, you’re not. Everybody matters and you better remember to say please and thank you.”
It sounds like a lesson hard won, the kind of thing you wish you’d known at the time and fear you might have learned too late.
Having just got back from Denmark, Slater is full of his experiences of working with Von Trier. The controversial Danish director (infamous now for being made persona non grata by the Cannes Film Festival after an ill-advised comment about Hitler, intended as a joke, at a press conference) is known for pushing actors to their limit, but for Slater, working with him was, he says, a happy experience.
“It was lovely. He’s a lovely man. I couldn’t have enjoyed the experience more – it was very creative and special. It’s nice to work with a director who’s compassionate with actors. I love to be challenged, I love to be directed. When someone has enough confidence in themselves to say, ‘try it this way’ or ‘slow down, we’ve got all day’. It made me feel very safe and comfortable.”
Slater’s no less complimentary about Walter Hill, director of action flick Bullet to the Head in which he plays a corrupt lawyer who ends up tied to a chair opposite a displeased Sylvester Stallone. “Working with Walter was like drinking the cleanest, freshest, wonderfullest water of all time,” Slater says in unbridled Hollywood hyperbole. “He’s a real professional, no nonsense. He knows action movies so he knew exactly what it was, what we were doing. It just felt great to be working with a real don – a guy who’s been doing this a little bit longer than I have, which made me feel more comfortable. He’s another of these guys who trusts the actors he’s hired to do what they were meant to do.”
Slater had never worked with Stallone, but he’d always wanted to and at one point he did have the chance. “I backed out,” he says. “I kick myself in the ass for having done that. I was just a young, dumb kid and got scared. I don’t know what the hell I was doing.”
I can’t help but feel that Slater is a man who quite often has that sense. It’s tricky to get a handle on him as an actor at a certain point of his career because the fact that he started when he was seven means that although he’s only 43 it feels as though he’s been around forever. By the time he arrived at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2004 to star in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (“like a rock concert every night”) his career was already heading in a different direction to where it had once looked like it was going. Surely, though, he feels proud of some of his work?
“I do,” he says. “I certainly love Heathers and Pump Up the Volume. The movies I get recognised most for – True Romance and Untamed Heart – so look, it’s exciting to have a bit of a back catalogue. But I hope that I have a few more in me. I hope that the best stuff isn’t behind me. I hope there are some things in the future that I can put together to still surprise and wow and entertain some people. That would be ideal.”
Film stars say that they don’t know what they are doing next even when the ink has long dried on the contracts of their next three deals. It’s a stand-by phrase, like “we had such fun on this shoot”, it’s part of the repertoire. But when Slater says it, it rings true.
“Honestly, I’ve no idea. It’s the new year and I’m hoping that 2013 is going to be a good year. I hope Bullet to the Head is received nicely and I hope Lars puts together a beautiful movie.” He pauses. “I was talking to my agent yesterday. I was saying, listen, I have no idea what to do next. Maybe Dancing with the Stars? I don’t know.” I laugh, but he doesn’t and I suddenly realise he might have been being serious.
“I’m sure it’d be a whole new experience. I just don’t know if I’m ready to surrender completely at this moment. I have no idea. I have no idea.”
“When I finish a movie and I don’t know what I’m doing next I often feel like, well, that was probably my last movie. I can be very… uh… I can feed into my fears and anxieties just like the rest of us.” He pauses and I’m not quite sure what to say either.
“Who knows? It could be,” he squeals, joking his way out of it. “It could be the last movie I ever do.”
Obviously there’s a practical side to Slater’s concern. He has two children – Jaden, 13, and Eliana, 11, from his marriage to Ryan Haddon which ended in 2006 – he’s got to earn a living. Call me insensitive, but I’m interested in whether, practicalities aside, if the movie he’s just wrapped was his last, would he actually miss the process of making films, or if it’s just a job?
“Of course,” he says. “It is something that I enjoy. I get great joy from getting the opportunity to do it. There are very exciting moments. But there are also frustrating aspects to the business, there’s a lot of unpredictability that comes with it.” There’s a pause. “I don’t know what I would do if I were to stop acting,” he says. “My fiancée’s dad has an asphalt company so maybe that’s what I’d do, dig ditches.”
He adds: “I’d like to direct at some point. I’d like to do that. I’ve been working hard on putting a project together that I’ve been passionate about for a long time. It’s all about raising money and getting people to part with money. It’s not easy in this economy.”
He describes the project as “a kitchy little story called Love Stories are too Violent for Me”. It’s a book that he read many years ago which he adapted into a screenplay. “I’ve got it storyboarded, it’s further along than a lot of other projects that I’ve been involved with that have been made. We’re moving in the right direction, now all we need is $6 million.”
His professional life might sound a little uncertain, but his personal life is the opposite. Slater left Los Angeles a few years ago and it was, he says, a very good move. “I moved to Miami and I fell in love with it and I fell in love with a girl.” They got engaged at the New Year. It was a great party, he says, with a swing band and lots of friends. “I’ve got a pretty nice set-up here,” he says. “And my kids are happy too, so that’s good.
They live in a small town in Pennsylvania with their mother, but spend time with him in Florida.
“My daughter’s been reaching out a lot more recently and that’s nice,” he says. “Kids are kids, but now that she’s getting a little bit older it’s getting easier to communicate. It’s fun hearing her dramas from school – what this person said and what that person did.”
He must sometimes think that by the time he was the age his kids are now, he’d been working for years. “I give them a hard time about that,” he says. “I’m like ‘C’mon already. Let’s go. Let’s start making some money.’” He laughs. But as to what he’d think if either of them wanted to go into showbusiness, he’s ambivalent.
“My son seems to have no interest whatsoever, which I’m grateful for. He’s interested in being a kid, just being a regular dude and having fun.” His daughter may feel differently. She sang a song at his recent engagement party. “My agent was there and I had to stop him from salivating over her and wanting to sign her immediately. She definitely has some real talent and was the scene stealer of the night.”
Thinking about the chances of his children following in his footsteps reminds him of taking his son to audition for a role in an animated film several years ago. “My mother was telling me, ‘you’ve got to take Jaden, he’d be great. You’ve got to take him to the audition’. I was like, oh god, OK, I’ll take him. So I take him and he was looking at me like, what the hell are you doing, I don’t want to be here, I have no interest in this. I’ve never taken him to anything like that again. I succumbed to peer pressure at that particular moment, you know, living in Hollywood. I’ve been apologising to my son ever since.
“I think it’s good to have as much distance between being a kid and Hollywood, absolutely. It’s not a healthy situation. It’s very rare when it turns out well. It has the ability to confuse things, to mess up the people around the kid. There are too many examples of it not working out to really pursue it seriously.”
He sounds like a man who knows what he’s talking about. “I’m a survivor,” he says, “a grateful survivor. It’s been an exciting journey and I’m grateful to be where I’m at today.”
Bullet to the Head is released on 1 February.