Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.
Every generation has its iconic bad-boy actors, the handsome young men who play rebels and outcasts, fighting the system and taking down the man. We mere mortals in the audience could never pull off the charismatic nonchalance that they embody so effortlessly — but by digging their performances, we can at least live through them vicariously for a couple hours.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the definitive bad boy was Christian Slater, who was more caustic than the Brat Pack pinups, a wised-up riff on the teen characters who populated John Hughes movies. He was the acting equivalent of Nirvana, expressing a Gen-X cynicism about the world that insisted that everything sucked. Irony and detachment were his thing, although he often played young men with big hearts underneath. He came across like a young Nicholson, but as if he was partly mocking that sort of old-school, movie-star charisma. He was a mallrat with a poet’s eye.
Christian Slater is no longer that guy, and it sounds like he’s very happy about it. How could you blame him: The longtime actor turned 52 this summer, and in 2018 he reflected on the edgy persona that bled into his personal life. “I definitely spent a lot of time beating myself up, living with useless emotion, guilt and shame,” he said. “Feeling tortured, and justifying that because the examples I had were other tortured actors. You put that on yourself and think that’s how you’re supposed to behave. There was a level of imitation going on.”
But the performances were genuine, and anyone interested in what brooding, introspective young men were up to at the tail end of the Reagan era would do well to revisit Heathers, Pump Up the Volume and True Romance. That moment wasn’t going to last because youth itself doesn’t last — fashions change and definitions of cool evolve. Other variations of Chriatian Slater came along to take his place. But for anyone who grew up at the time, he was always our patron saint of hip. We could never be him — and as we learned more about his offscreen antics, maybe sometimes we were grateful we weren’t.
Slater started acting as a kid, which made sense since his dad was an actor and his mom a casting agent. He did soaps. He did Broadway. Even as an adult, he fondly remembered that feeling of being on One Life to Live in his childhood. “I was, like, 8 years old, playing a kid who had hurt himself on a skateboard,” he recalled. “I had, like, three lines. I did the lines and everybody in the studio applauded — I was immediately hooked after that. I was like, ‘This is the life for me.’”
It wasn’t long before he made the leap to movies, landing roles in high-profile projects from Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Name of the Rose) and Francis Ford Coppola (Tucker: The Man and His Dream). But 1989 was the pivotal year, and I’m not talking about The Wizard or Gleaming the Cube, although those movies have their nostalgic defenders. In March of that year, Heathers came out, introducing the world to J.D., the motorcycle-riding teen who’s not part of the lame popular crowd at Westerberg High — and that attracts the attention of Veronica (Winona Ryder), who’s joined the cliquish Heathers friend group but sees in him a cuter, more soulful companion.
Years later, Slater owned up to what everyone recognized at the time: He was doing a Jack Nicholson impression.
“Having just seen ‘Easy Rider’ and ‘One Flew the Cuckoo’s Nest’ [and] ‘The Witches of Eastwick’ … there was a great deal of Jack Nicholson in my brain, there’s no doubt about it. I was obsessed and impressionable and loved his work and performances in all of those movies and was such a fan, and was just absorbing a lot of what I saw in the movies. There were other movies and other actors that I saw, Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, but there was just something about Nicholson that just really spoke to me and I loved. And I got the opportunity to a certain degree to do a bit of an homage to him…
“It was certainly a very conscious channeling. And I think it made sense, as a young actor you’re looking for an identity. You’re looking for who it is you want to be. And I think inevitably you’re gonna attach yourself to somebody you admire and try to emulate that person. And even imitate to a certain degree. And then as time goes on, you begin to discover your own identity and then you can make things your own eventually. But it is a whole interesting process and journey that I’ve been on, discovering who it is I want to be, and what kind of actor I want to be.”
It was a very good impression, but the mimicry worked on a deeper level, too, suggesting that J.D. himself wasn’t nearly as confident as he appeared — that there was always something of a performance going on within this posturing teenager. Of course, Veronica doesn’t pick up on that initially — she’s insecure, too, so the attention he pays her makes her feel cool — which is why Heathers is, in part, about learning that nobody really has their act together in high school. In a way, we’re all emulating and imitating, trying on personae because we haven’t figured out who we are yet.
Beyond that, though, Slater brought a smiling menace to J.D. that made him stand out from the hunks that roamed other 1980s teen movies. He wasn’t a dopey punk or a class clown — he wasn’t lovable like that troublemaking Ferris Bueller — but, rather, a genuinely distrubed individual who locked into the undercurrent of darkness that only occasionally surfaced during that era’s youth films. Slater was only 19 when Heathers came out, but he felt mature — you could see him having a long career. He may have been paying homage to Nicholson, but he carried himself with a raw authenticity.
A year later, he followed it up with Pump Up the Volume, a Rebel Without a Cause for a new age. Slater once again portrayed an outsider teen, Mark, who feels alienated from his classmates — that is, until he transforms into his pirate-radio doppelgänger, Hard Harry, who plays cool college rock and sounds off about the injustices he sees around him. Decrying homophobia and bigotry, Hard Harry becomes a hero — he’s like a sane Howard Beale, expressing the pent-up frustrations and fears of his fellow high-school students — while also putting a face on the telling-it-like-it-is rebel we all secretly wish we could be.
“I like to think of him as a combination of Lenny Bruce and Holden Caulfield,” the film’s writer-director Allan Moyle once said of Mark, “so, when we met Christian, I finally saw the character come alive. Christian has an ineffable blend of innocence and power that makes him thrilling to watch.”
Like Heathers, Pump Up the Volume dug into the anxiety and depression endemic to high-schoolers. Although the 1980s featured lots of films about young people, few talked about suicide and mental health, but Slater’s movies did, and he was able to convey the complexity of feeling messed-up and confused. J.D. was troubled but also evil, while Mark was a sensitive good guy — they were mirror images of one another, both needing the outside world (especially their families) to recognize that they were struggling. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that the modern teen drama — whether it’s Euphoria or Gossip Girl — in some ways is taking a page from these two movies’ portrayal of youthful angst. They’re unconsciously channeling Christian Slater.
Neither film was a smash, but they put Slater on the map, and soon he was starring in bigger movies. They certainly weren’t better, though, with apologies to anyone who wants to make a case for Young Guns II or Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. While those blockbusters raised his profile, it always felt like he was the one doing them the favor. (Basically, those movies were capitalizing on Slater’s indie-cool status to make their projects seem hipper.) But especially in Prince of Thieves, he seemed out of place. He couldn’t pull off the period feel — although several in the cast (including its star) couldn’t, either — and his slightly aloof manner made it seem like he was above the material. The truth is, he was, but he didn’t seem really comfortable in a studio film until 1993’s True Romance, based on a Quentin Tarantino script, in which he played Clarence, who goes on the run with his true love Alabama (Patricia Arquette).
We couldn’t have known it at the time, but True Romance was the end of Slater’s moment as the next big thing. Fittingly, it was a scruffy, somewhat disreputable film — a story of pimps and drugs and violence and Hollywood sleazebags — but the movie perfectly captured 1990s cinema’s freewheeling energy. That was a decade driven by outlandish genre pieces — it was the age of Tarantino, after all — and True Romance felt very much like a Gen-X film in its hipster tone and mashup vibes. Plus, the movie allowed Slater to bring a more grownup sensibility to the bad boys he played earlier in his career, giving us an Elvis-loving misanthrope who digs kung-fu flicks and wisecracks. “He is someone who definitely is not the norm, to say the least,” he later said of Clarence. “I would say this is one of those true ‘live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse’ movies.”
Slater’s ability to play fatalistic characters was very much in keeping with a pop-culture zeitgeist that embraced disillusionment. Whether it was Nevermind or Pulp Fiction, the early 1990s exuded a smart-ass irreverence that rejected anything that smacked of the mainstream or status quo. Of course, all generations go through this — out with the old, in with the new — but the contempt Slater’s characters exhibited went beyond youthful restlessness. It was as if the men he played knew the deck was stacked against them from the start. Forget for a moment that they were actually pretty privileged white guys — they saw their lives being demonstrably less promising than their Boomer parents’, and so their sense of rebellion was partly born out of a frustration that the future didn’t look too bright. Why get excited about growing up when there’s nothing to look forward to?
Unfortunately, that recklessness also came through in Slater’s personal behavior. He got arrested for drunk driving at least twice in the late 1980s. He was arrested a few years later after he tried to bring a gun onto a plane. Then, in 1997, he was arrested for punching his girlfriend, Michelle Jonas, later saying that he had been under the influence of heroin and cocaine. (Here’s but one grim detail from that story: “Police say Slater was confronted early Monday by officers in a stairwell of the condo where he was partying in West L.A. The actor tried to grab an officer’s gun from the holster but was subdued with a hold that left him unconscious, police said.”) Just as troubling, he was arrested in 2005 for allegedly sexually harassing a woman in New York. (“Basically he grabbed a woman’s behind on the street,” New York Police Sgt. Mary Doherty said, noting that the star was “intoxicated at the time.”)
In 2017, Slater, who by that point had cleaned up, was asked if he regretted his turbulent past. “No, no. I regret nothing,” he said. “I’ve always taken my work extremely seriously and I think you learn from experience and it’s a process. I started working at the age of 9, I have had an opportunity to grow up in this business, in front of everybody, so of course nobody gets through unscathed. It’s just how I grew up, so everybody has gotten an opportunity to see highs and lows and ups and downs — that’s part of life.”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that these disturbing episodes coincided with a fallow period creatively. He replaced the late River Phoenix in Interview With the Vampire, failing to bring much to the role, and then was largely forgettable in action movies like Broken Arrow. He did guest spots on Alias and The West Wing, but he fell out of relevance, becoming one of those “whatever happened to…” actors. Put it this way: It wasn’t a good sign that one of his most memorable parts from this period was this cut scene from the first Austin Powers where he plays a guard.
Slater kept working, including doing plenty of voiceovers in animated shows, but he seemed to get a bit of a boost from playing a gun-runner on Archer named… Slater, who just so happens to look like the actor. “Christian’s hilarious, and a true fan of the show,” executive producer Matt Thompson once said. “You talk about continuity — I’m always surprised when somebody says, ‘Didn’t that happen in like Season 2?’ and Christian will know. We’ll forget. When we first started talking to him about his character, it was like, ‘We want to call the character Slater,’ and he was like, ‘If you don’t call the character Slater, I’m gonna be mad at you.’”
Then came Mr. Robot, the acclaimed USA series that helped make Rami Malek a star and earned Slater his first Golden Globe award. As the hacker/insurrectionist Mr. Robot, Slater was given his meatiest role in decades, and the fact that he turned out to be a figment of Elliot’s imagination was even better: With his exaggerated eyebrow movements and raspy voice, there’s always been something a little unreal about Slater. “Somehow directors, producers have seen me as sort of an anarchist-type character … devilishly-causing-trouble sort of guy,” he told the L.A. Times. But there was no mystery to fans why that was the case. Starting with Heathers, this was his trademark. He may have shorn the Nicholson out of his repertoire, but like that great actor, he’d been able to maintain an air of eternal mischievousness. You wanted to know what the guy was up to.
Eventually, bad boys have to grow up — although, sometimes, they can simply implode. (Look no further than the cautionary tale Johnny Depp has become.) Slater’s past misbehavior shouldn’t be overlooked or explained away, but he’s now been sober 16 years and married since 2013. “I’m at a place of such utter gratitude to have people interested in hiring me again,” he said this summer. When he does interviews these days, the angle is usually that he’s older and wiser, thankful to have found some stability after a life of madness. (Sample quote: “I guess what I think is cool now is being open-minded, accepting of other people, what they’re into, who they want to be, what they want to do. It’s important. Get involved. Contribute. Give back. I get more energy for being polite and open. Don’t you? I think it makes you feel better.”)
He’s now one of the voices on Inside Job, an animated, Deep State-satirizing sitcom on Netflix. Slater plays the father of Lizzy Caplan’s hardworking tech genius. It sounds like the sort of show J.D. would have sneered at, that Mark Hunter would have railed about. For those who came of age with Christian Slater, nothing the actor does — not even Mr. Robot — will compare to those early films.
In Heathers, Veronica is seduced by the guy, finding in him an old soul trapped inside a teen heartthrob’s body. J.D. turned out to be a sociopath, but before then he seemed like a hero — the sort of guy who saw through the nonsense of suburban life and consumer culture. It’s important to meet non-sociopathic people like him early in life — they challenge your assumptions and encourage you to think for yourself. Whether they’re a high-school boyfriend or a surrogate big brother, they forever shape you. But you tend not to think about them so much later in life. Fashions change, definitions of cool evolve and we start to develop our own worldviews. You don’t need J.D. as an adult — you’ve moved past that. Maybe you’ll see him at the reunion — I wonder whatever happened to that guy? He’s probably gone through some shit: addiction, rehab, a few marriages. Maybe he grew up to be Christian Slater.
Years after the fact, Slater looked back at the infamous night in 1997 when he punched his girlfriend. He was out of his mind on drugs and alcohol, he admitted, and he wanted to destroy himself. “The fight that happened wasn’t between me and the girl at all; it was between me and [myself],” he said. “After the fight, I tried to kill myself by jumping off the balcony. They pulled me back in. I made a mad dash for the door. I was trying to get out of there.” That’s the kind of ugly spiritual darkness not even Slater’s on-screen roles displayed. And now it haunts those superb performances from early in his career.
I can’t be the only Gen-Xer who looked up to J.D. as a kid. Sure, he did some really bad things, but at least he had a sense of himself — at least he knew what it took to be cool. When you’re young, you’re so desperate for those signposts. But Heathers’ second half was a warning about not emulating guys like that too closely. You could say that a lot of Slater’s personal life has sounded a similar alarm.