Slater returns to risky roles of his past

September 13, 1993|By Barry Koltnow | Barry Koltnow,Orange County Register

Considering he's one of the hottest young stars in an industry built on image, Christian Slater is looking particularly disheveled late one afternoon on the balcony of a Los Angeles hotel suite.

He's got a scraggly beard and wild hair, his clothes are wrinkled and the eyes are stark evidence of a serious lack of sleep.

"I want to look good when I go out," says an apologetic Mr. Slater, 24, who stars in the film "True Romance," which opened Friday. "Well, I hope at least to look clean. I don't want to offend anybody.

"But image has never been very important to me," he adds. "I prefer to hire people around me who stress out about those things more than I do. They run around like crazy, and I just sit back calmly and say things like, 'Hey, take it easy. I'm wearing this and just stay out of my face.'"

However, the image-makers win another round on this day and, when a photographer appears, the people around Mr. Slater drag him inside, where he is forced to don a new outfit and comb his hair.

"See," the smiling actor says as he returns to the balcony. "I don't have to worry about image. They do."

Actually, there were some very good reasons why Mr. Slater looked a bit unkempt that day. The beard and hair came courtesy of a movie character he's playing in director Barry Levinson's new comedy, which is filming at night. Mr. Slater also was rehearsing for his chores as a host at last week's MTV Video Music Awards show.

In between, he was trying to squeeze in a few interviews to promote "True Romance."

"With all this stuff going on, I haven't been sleeping much, as you've probably guessed," he said. "But talk to me again in two weeks. I'll be in great shape. I'll only be acting again and that's relaxing for me."

"True Romance" is a violent, bizarre and wickedly funny romantic tale of two young lovers who could only be meant for each other. He is a loner who works in a comic-book store and she is a neophyte hooker who falls in love with her fourth trick. We're not tTC talking high society here.

Chased by gangsters, they head out on a road adventure that lands them in Southern California, where all hell breaks loose. The film's quirkiness benefits from one of the most interesting supporting casts in Hollywood history, with five leading men -- Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Brad Pitt, Gary Oldman and Val Kilmer -- taking small character parts just to be in this movie.

"The filming was a whirlwind of insanity, but a heck of a lot of fun," Mr. Slater said. "Each week, a brilliant new person came on the set and it was a blast. I can't describe the things that happened, but let's just say it was outrageous."

The film is important to his career, Mr. Slater said, because "True Romance," along with last year's "Untamed Heart," marks a return for him to the kind of eclectic film roles that distinguished him from the pack of faceless young actors who emerged during the 1980s.

In movies such as "Heathers" and "Pump Up the Volume," Mr. Slater demonstrated a willingness to take on tough roles in riskier, less commercial movies.

Somehow, in his last three films before "Untamed Heart" -- "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," "Kuffs" and "Mobsters" -- he somehow forgot what made him so popular with movie audiences.

"Those three films, which I did back-to-back-to-back with a week's rest between each one, forced me to take a serious look at my career," the actor said. "They made me focus on my choices and the types of characters I like to play.

"I want to do films I can look back on in 20 years and be proud of, and I didn't feel that way with those last three films. In the middle of doing those films, I looked around and said, 'Holy cow, I'm in serious trouble here.' "

Mr. Slater said he can't put his finger on why he got into that trouble. He said it may have been a desire to be in more commercially viable films, or perhaps it was just a series of bad decisions on his part.

Fortunately for him, his popularity never waned during that period. Whatever the reasons for the bad decisions, he said he's back on track with these three films -- "True Romance," the untitled Levinson comedy and a courtroom drama that begins filming in November, in which he plays an attorney.

Mr. Slater seems to have a veteran's understanding of his industry, and his place in it, that extends far beyond his 24 years.

It is an understanding that comes with a lifetime of experience. The son of an actor and a casting director, he began modeling at about the same time he was learning to walk. He began acting professionally at 7 in the daytime soap "One Life to Live," and then jumped to the Broadway stage two years later in a revival of "The Music Man."

He continued working in the theater until 1985, when he made the jump from the footlights to the big screen in "The Legend of Billie Jean." But it was the black comedy "Heathers" in 1989 that proved to be his breakthrough film.

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