CelebrityChristian Slater Isn't Mr. Robot, He's Mr. Nice Guy
The man who made anarchy cool in Heathers has also gone through dark days—decades, really—filled with drugs, fuck-ups, and work no one remembers. Now Christian Slater is starring in the smash hit TV show Mr. Robot, in maybe his darkest role yet, and all Taffy Brodesser-Akner wants to know is: what happened to the brooding rebel heartthrob of her teenage dreams?
Christian Slater smiles big and bright, his cuspids rubbing across each other gently as he considers his next move. We've just finished riding the Wonder Wheel maybe 10,000 times—you can ride the Wonder Wheel unmolested all day if you're Christian Slater—and now maybe we've got time for one more ride? Why not? "It's so amazing here," he says.
It is amazing here. It's a beautiful spring day, and the Wonder Wheel was such a trip—"There's fsociety," he'd said, pointing at an arcade, as we dangled over Coney Island beach—and it filled him with good memories of his first day shooting Mr. Robot: "We were just having a great time. I was getting to know Sam [Esmail, the creator of Mr. Robot]. I was getting to know Rami [Malek, its star]. And it was sort of a perfect—it was a day exactly like this."
At Coney Island, the only thing more iconic than the Wonder Wheel is the Cyclone—the great old wooden rollercoaster—but when I suggest it, Christian Slater smiles even bigger, then shakes his head and says no. The Cyclone, it turns out, is a little too much for him. Maybe back in the day. No longer. But I persist. C'mon, I say back. It'll be fun. No, he says again, and he never loses his smile as he explains it to me: "We can choose to get on this lovely Ferris wheel, have a nice relaxing ride, get in the stable car, enjoy the view, have a nice conversation—or we could have chosen to be wild and crazy and gotten on the Cyclone. I've done that. I've ridden the Cyclone."
So instead we get hot dogs. Christian Slater eats two of them, and says they are the best hot dogs in the entire world.
This is not how I imagined interviewing Christian Slater was going to go back when I first started imagining it, when I was let's call it 12.
To understand why, you have to go back back back to that era, long before Mr. Robot, the TV series that has revived his career, and picture what it was like in the Reagan-Bush dark ages of the late 1980s. Zoom in on 1989, a year that gave us movies like Driving Miss Daisy and The Karate Kid Part III, a year when none of us had the internet yet, some of us didn't even have VCRs—some of us, I fear, weren't even born yet?—and so there were real barriers to finding the thing that every disaffected teenager so badly needs: a true subversive. Then this little high school satire called Heathers comes out, starring Winona Ryder, patron princess of disaffected late 1980s teenagers, and the guy who plays her boyfriend, a sociopathic clique-killer in a trench coat and sunglasses and drinking a Slushie, is dark and funny and radiates microwaves of danger-sex. For the next few years, each of his subsequent roles, from the confounding (Kuffs) to the absolutely I-will-fight-you-if-you-dispute-this perfect (Pump Up the Volume), tries to bank on this same angsty, unnerving charm. I watched that Christian Slater and became radicalized by him, or as radicalized as someone looking for a soul inside a movie theater could ever get.
It wasn't an act. Christian Slater was for real. Off-screen, he was just as dangerous. He once doubled down on an IRL arrest by refusing to pull over during a police chase. Another time, while he was getting arrested for assault, he got extra arrested for going for the arresting officer's gun. He tried to check a bag with a loaded gun through JFK security (pre-9/11, but still, this is why TSA exists, for these exact moments). He drank too much, drugged too much, punched people too much. He reportedly dated aaaall of his co-stars: Patricia Arquette, Samantha Mathis, Winona Ryder. He broke Winona's heart! Why would you break Winona's heart? Wasn't she perfect? (We were all very conflicted about whose side to be on.) He was as reckless and unhinged as a rebel without a cause should be. That's why, in all of my fantasy interviews with Christian Slater—and I am not really exaggerating that much when I say that the prospect of a Christian Slater interview may have propelled a young, soulless Gen X'er into this specific career here in front of you today— I never imagined a moment when we sat like yuppies in an amusement park surrounded by families and not even smoking one cigarette. In the Christian Slater interview of my dreams, he and I are on day three of an interstate crime spree by now.
But this Christian Slater—this one showed up early for our first interview at the dog park near his house on the Upper West Side with his cute dog, whose action he would occasionally narrate in adorable doggie talk. Early! He followed me on Twitter, all by himself, since he does his own social media. His timeline is a list of gracious and generous retweets of press that Mr. Robot is getting. This Christian Slater looked me in the eye and nodded exuberantly and wanted to talk about stories of mine that he'd read before we met. He'd prepared for our interview! And there I was, shaking my head all over again, because Christian Slater is not supposed to be early and prepared. Christian Slater is supposed to make me wait in the June sun while his publicist sends not-really-apologetic e-mails that he's running a few days late. Christian Slater is supposed to sit there with sunglasses that don't come off and treat me with vague contempt and maybe threaten to flip a table if I ask the wrong question. Christian Slater is not supposed to be wonderful.
So here is the news, here is the big reveal: Christian Slater is no longer Christian Slater. He has been replaced by an affable fellow, also named Christian Slater, who smiles and listens and makes sure to get enough sleep and always goes to his meetings. He is someone who makes Good Choices now after many documented years of making bad ones, someone who has decided that any remaining darkness in his soul can be played out through his characters onscreen—someone who at age 47 is delighted, but mostly relieved, to be alive to witness the quiet but pointy peak of his long career. It's wonderful news, really. It's great to make good choices!
I want to be clear that I am very happy for Christian Slater. What a delightful two days we spent together. We shared French fries and even ketchup and developed our own private jokes. But happy as I am for him, I am also absolutely gutted over the experience. Christian Slater, the rebel of my youth, the man who sparked anarchy in my virgin heart, has turned out to be a really nice, gentle, responsible adult, and I couldn't be more disappointed.
By the time Mr. Robot debuted last summer, Christian Slater had endured such a formidable string of TV failures (on the heels of an even longer string of movie failures) that the always subtle New York Post dubbed him a "show killer." There was little reason to hope that a show on the USA Network, a channel I've only ever watched on JetBlue when the E! channel wasn't working, would end the streak. Instead, Mr. Robot, a smart and moody thriller—a little bit Kubrick, a little bit Matrix—about a 28-year-old hacker named Elliot who tries to erase global debt by crashing the financial system, turned out to be the most original new show of the year. It wasn't just that it tapped into the very current fury over wealth distribution and privacy paranoia, but with its dark, fixed, motionless shots, it felt eerily like the show is staring back at you. And then there was Christian Slater in a title role, a logical extension of the persona he created in Heathers and Pump Up the Volume: dangerous and alive and a little/a lot sinister. A true Christian Slater role.
The show's first big twist was that Mr. Robot is Elliot's dad. (Sorry, but you've had a year.) The next was that his dad is dead and that Mr. Robot is a figment of Elliot's imagination (ibid). As good as the show is, evidently some people saw these twists coming. But I wasn't one of them. I've tried to figure out why, and what I've come up with is that the idea of Christian Slater being old enough to have an adult son was—still is—unfathomable to me.
From his Heathers debut, he was drawing comparisons to Jack Nicholson (the bubbling menace, the eyebrows, the hairline) and pretty soon he was being accused of outright trying to be Jack Nicholson. But in fact, the first actor Christian Slater ever tried to copy was Yul Brynner. Slater was just a boy, living in Hell's Kitchen with his mother, and she was dating a theater prop master who took Christian to the theater with him every night. Christian thought he had the best seat in the house: in the wings just off-stage. Every night he'd watch Yul Brynner die in The King and I, every night he'd watch his hand drop—"every night at the exact same moment"—and that just sort of stayed with him. Years later, when he performed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest on stage in London (guess which role he played), he stole that. "The greatest artists are the most inspired thieves," he quotes, but neither of us can remember who said that.
In 1980, when he was nine, he joined a traveling revival of The Music Man. He was always accompanied by a family member or family friend, but maybe his chaperones weren't so on the ball, because at the same time he first began to drink. That's right: Christian Slater was nine fucking years old when he had his first drink.
He had his first love scene in 1986's The Name of the Rose, with Sean Connery. He also had an off-screen love scene (better known just as sexual intercourse) with his-costar—not Sean Connery; a Chilean actress named Valentina—when he was 16, which he confirmed with wiggly raised eyebrows during an interview many years ago. Pump Up the Volume was the first script he was sent following Heathers, and the Jack Nicholson comparisons continued, giving him a useful role model for the life he was living: a bacchanalia of intercourse with thousands of women at once (this from my imagination) and smoking that never led to cancer. He reached his real Christian Slater peak between 1993 and 1996: a lovesick loser hero in True Romance, which put him on the map as an adult actor; and a brief, ill-fitting, high-grossing stint as an action star in John Woo's Broken Arrow.
Early in 1997, though, he was arrested for assaulting his then-girlfriend and a police officer, all while under the influence of drugs and alcohol; he checked into rehab, followed by three months in jail. As soon as he got out, he had to do the press for Very Bad Things, a movie about a bachelor party gone so off the rails that a sex worker accidentally gets killed by Jon Favreau. Christian Slater plays the Christian Slater character in the movie—slick, cunning, trying to Machiavelli his way out of trouble—and none of the beat reporters at the junket can resist trying to connect the dots. You can go back now and read the clips, though they will make you very uncomfortable—"cringe-worthy stuff, agony," he calls it now: all these jocular questions about jail and Christian is mortified. Jail is serious, he keeps saying. It's horrible. I don't even want to think about it, much less talk about it publicly. Can we please talk about the movie? Not long after, his career stalled. He did a few direct-to-video movies and a lot of things you've never heard of. He laid low for a while.
His press clips from this period started to take on a different tenor. He was no longer achingly honest or achingly vindictive or achingly personal in interviews. He became someone who is so disarmingly grateful to be working and getting interviewed for it that it's almost disconcerting. He gave long lists of names of his costars and directors, saying how great they are when really what you're asking about is the drama. He was cooperative and eager and nice.
"It's more a testament to just being honest with yourself about where you're at," he says. "It's like, we've tried it as many times as it takes your way, and eventually, hopefully, if you're lucky and fortunate enough, you get to the point where it's like, okay, my way—it's not helping me, it's not helping anybody around me, it's not really creating any happiness for anybody else in anybody's world. So am I going to be humble enough to admit defeat and try a different way?"
And suddenly that was him, out the other end and into another phase of his life and career.
In a way, he's forthright now about his dark years—he doesn't pretend they didn't happen, and he blames no one but himself—but they are also a locked door. He'll talk in limitless detail about how he's grown, but only in the vaguest terms about what he's been through, and who he's been through it with. The naked candor is gone. See this comparison chart I've made you below:
Why so much partying and sleeping around?
1998: "I lost myself, and a lot of characters I played I have latched onto some of their identities, just because I was so lacking in anything of my own. I was so out of touch with what was going on within me."
Today: "I was a 17."
Were you a bad boyfriend? Were you a bad person?
1994: "I had such a lack of respect for women that I just treated them as a hobby, trying to live up to the supposed image of Jack Nicholson and all those guys who were womanizers."
Today: "I was just a kid."
Does it bother you to be compared to Jack Nicholson?
1994: "I was partying with the daughter of somebody famous and she gave me his number, so I called him at three A.M. and said, 'I'm a huge fan of yours. I just did this movie Heathers and it's sort of a tribute to you.' I just went on and on. Then I heard the phone click and I thought the guy had hung up. I was embarrassed so I just kept going on about how we were going to play tennis together. I took a breath after ten minutes of non-stop speaking and he went, 'Uhhh?' And then I just hung up."
Today: "Oh, beautiful career. Yeah. Oh, my God, definitely a career that I have admired and who doesn't love Jack Nicholson?"
I guess it's hard to blame him. Just last year, his 80-year old father sued him for $20 million after Christian made an off-hand remark about his mental health in an interview with his Nymphomaniac director, Lars von Trier. He confirms his father was suing him, but won't go any further. "I think there's safety and intelligence in structure and boundaries and parameters," he'll tell me later, which is a very enlightened way of saying "no comment." Hence the gradual declawing of a man who has learned that the quotes you don't say can never haunt you, especially if you replace those quotes with recovery language and feeling words.
Over-sincerity can easily come across fake, but with Slater it feels hard won. His enthusiasm for everything—to be working on a great show with great people, to be sought after after all these years, just to be hanging out at the top of the Wonder Wheel, talking to me—it's all pumped up to volume 12. He's grateful for his wife of three years, the life they have and the children they're planning. He's grateful he and his ex-wife have found a way to be good friends and co-parents for their kids. He's grateful he said yes when Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail came along with this role, and he's grateful that he plays—no, "I get to play"—this "incredible character." He uses the word grateful or some iteration of it 53 times. He uses the word "wow" 27 times. And each time he says wow, I can tell he means it. Leaning back, eyes searching the sky from beneath his wayfarers and University of Michigan hat, palms stretched outward, mind blown at the wonder of it all.
He spent so much time trying to be Jack Nicholson, then realized it wasn't working to be anyone but himself. And then this crazy thing happened. He went to the Saturday Night Live 40th reunion show a couple years ago, and a million people were there, and these harried NBC minders were trying to get everyone to take their seats. And Christian and his wife noticed that the only person who had already sat down was Jack Nicholson.
"Everybody else was milling about, being what they are and doing their thing," Christian says. "But he had taken his seat. And that just said to me: there is the epitome of what an example and a leader should be. 'I'm the biggest star in this room and I am doing exactly what I'm being told. And I'm not fighting against the system. I am going along with it and not going against the grain.'"
Suddenly Jack Nicholson was his role model again.
Sam Esmail—huge Pump Up the Volume fan, by the way—was looking to cast a Christian Slater type when he finally realized he could try to cast the actual Christian Slater. Though he'd heard the stories, too. He'd had the same image of Slater in his head that we all did, so he couldn't believe the generous, thoughtful guy who showed up instead. "He's on another level than anyone in our production," Esmail tells me. "He stays till 2 or 3 in the morning."
Perhaps Slater's down years worked for him. Not only did it give birth to the perpetually gratified and happy new Christian Slater, but it also rid him of a self-consciousness and obsession about the direction of his career. He takes more risks now. This year at the Tribeca Film Festival, he debuted a movie called King Cobra in which he plays the head of a gay porn studio and falls in love with his new young star. It's an extraordinary performance, risky and vulnerable. "Just make me feel wanted," his character says one night when the boy relents, and it's Christian Slater's voice, but it's also not. It's something entirely new.
James Franco, who also stars in King Cobra, and produced it, suggested him for the part after working with him on last year's The Adderall Diaries. "You do enough movies and you just lose patience with some of the bullshit around the edges, and so you don't have the patience—I can understand actors that get that way. But Christian is like the opposite of that," Franco says. "He is always in a good mood, always ready to go, and always good."
In the bright sunlight, high above Coney Island on the Wonder Wheel, I can see something beneath Christian's white T-shirt. A tattoo? He pulls up the sleeve, and yes, there's a tattoo but on it there's a nicotine patch, and we both laugh, because by now he knows I just want to see something dark and ugly and he believes I've found my toe-hold in. "Agh! You caught me!" he says. But no, it's just there because sometimes his character has to smoke and he doesn't want to fall back into bad habits, so he just keeps the nicotine patch going as a fail-safe.
The tattoo is two lion heads with glorious and flowing manes, and of course he names the artists who designed it and goes on and on about how great they are. The lions face opposing directions. "One is looking forward," he says, "and the other is looking back." So I try one last feeble time, asking if he would like to look back, like the lion, and maybe talk about what it was like back then. And one last time he demurs.
I give a frustrated sigh, and he shakes his head, maybe because he doesn't understand why I don't understand that a person can change to the point where the past is irrelevant. But I do think someone can change—I just want to know where he holds that Christian Slater now, if he ever thinks about him, if he still battles him. I need to know, because it feels like as we're getting older and mellowing, something is changing, and it feels important to know that it's still somewhere in there—that yes, we're making different choices, but we're still us. We're still Christian Slater. It can't be that that Christian Slater is just gone. I need him to tell me that sometimes late at night he wakes up and finds the old edges coming to life.
And I don't understand, but I will soon, when I go back over my transcripts, which read like this: Me reminiscing about what a badass he was, him quietly correcting me, so politely that I don't even notice until later. Like when he says:
"I don't know if I've ever been particularly verbal or had anarchistic type thoughts."
"I love getting the opportunity to play those characters. I think in the real world I'm certainly a little bit more soft spoken."
…and finally, a bruiser I somehow didn't fully process at the time:
"Here I am living my life and it's just this calm set of leaves and resting on a nice pool of water, and then a journalist comes in and says let's go, let's stir it up, let's think about things you haven't thought about in 25 years."
What he is trying to tell me is that that was a phase, that he behaved that way because of drugs and alcohol, and because those no longer influence his life, he has reverted back to the person he was all along, the person he would have been had he never taken that first drink at age 9. And what we were watching all those years was not a work in progress; it was the alter-ego of a person battling fame and addiction while everyone watched. He was all reaction; he was all lost boy. That period of his life is not something to be reminisced about warmly as we hang in the air off the Wonder Wheel.
But Christian Slater, who is the real and only Christian Slater, is too polite to tell me any of this explicitly—to tell me that he suffered, that there were tears behind every one of those moments, that it's sort of terrible to be someone with a past, to be born anew and to have that past keep coming at you via assholes like me who sat in air-conditioned movie theaters and spread our ids all over his image. I want to reminisce about this time in his life like it was an off-the-rails prom night, when what I'm really asking him for is to go back to a time that was dangerous and sad. He should have flipped the fucking table. (Christian: I'm sorry.)
And, to be clear: I like this new Christian Slater! I would totally invite him to a barbecue. And because I'm a horrible person, I am comforted by the fact that the old Christian Slater, the one who isn't real, is still available to me: Mr. Robot, the charming sociopath, the guy who could have been JD from Heathers had he survived (or not survived, and ended up being a figment of Winona Ryder's son's imagination), is there for me to watch every week. That's him. There he is, still.
But I don't realize any of this yet. Instead, after two hours on a Ferris wheel, I try and fail to drag him onto the Cyclone. I see an easy metaphor, but Slater—whose dark young adulthood was no metaphor—wants nothing to do with my metaphor. "I think we have to get to a point where life does present you with those choices," he says. "And when you see a Cyclone, I think the healthiest choice you can make—maybe, hopefully, the sexiest choice you can make—is avoid it at all fucking costs."
I sigh and I yield, and we find ourselves in front of Zoltar, who beseeches us in his Unclearistan accent to come to him. Christian inserts a dollar, laughing and game, and we both lean our heads in squinting, trying to hear, as if Zoltar is actually speaking from his mouth. Christian is smarter than I am and realizes first that the speaker is actually near our knees, so we crouch down and put our ears to it, and he waits for his fortune, smiling at me with our faces close together, both of us like little kids.
Here's the fortune Zoltar gives Christian: "Sometimes you can tell a wise person not only by what he says but also by what he doesn't say. Remember, it is much better to say little than to say too much and regret it later." And hearing this, Christian Slater screams "Oh my god!" and he kisses Zoltar right on the speaker and laughs, another good and sexy choice validated.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a GQ correspondent.