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Role Recall: Christian Slater on channeling Jack Nicholson for 'Heathers' and replacing River Phoenix on 'Interview With a Vampire'

(Photo: Everett Collection)
(Photo: Everett Collection)

Christian Slater admits there have been moments where his heart wasn’t in the business. “I’ve been into it, and I’ve been out of it, and I’ve been excited about it, and I’ve been confused about it. And I think that’s all part of what’s been an interesting tapestry for me,” Slater told Yahoo Entertainment in our latest Role Recall interview. “It’s been quite a ride.”

You’ve gotta expect some bumps in the road over the course of a career that started at age 8 (on the soap One Life to Live). Slater, now 49, has experienced highs (cultural touchstones like Heathers and True Romance) and lows (some brushes with the law, a seemingly fading popularity before mounting a comeback on the TV hit Mr. Robot). His latest film, The Wife, is a clear high in his book because it gave him a chance to work opposite all-time great Glenn Close. “She’s just somebody that I’ve admired and respected for so long, and somebody that I’ve certainly grown up with,” said Slater, who plays a biographer chasing the story of the Close’s Joan Castleman and her Nobel Prize-winning author husband (Jonathan Pryce). “So to get the opportunity to work with her, it was exciting and anxiety-producing as well. You just kind of feel a little overwhelmed in her presence. But then you get to work with her and find out she’s this wonderful, open-hearted, lovely, supportive, generous human being.”

As The Wife hits theaters, Slater looked back at Heathers, Pump Up the Volume, True Romance, and more.

The Legend of Billie Jean (1985)

At 15, the New York City native made his film debut in this drama, looking far from Manhattan as Binx, the bleach blond brother of Helen Slater’s titular rebel. He took to his co-star.

“It was nerve-wracking, exciting … They dyed my hair blond. That was weird. I was learning how to ride a motor-scooter in that movie. I was working with Helen Slater and at the time she was Supergirl. So when you talk about mad crush, I had a mad crush on her. That was a hard one to get through. I was madly in love with her … I thought because we had the same last names we should’ve been married, ya know? That’s where I was going. Everybody else was thinking we were related, I was thinking we should be married.”

Despite the fact that it was his first movie, Slater was confident in his abilities. It worked for the role, but the actor admits his young swagger would eventually get him in trouble the more famous he got.

“I was a cocky kid, to a certain degree. But I was playing a cocky kid, so that certainly played into that. It was the ’80s. It was a different time, I was a kid, I was excited to be working on a movie. It’s the start of the possible direction of an unhealthy ego [laughs]. Going in the direction of being indulged at that particular age is not necessarily a recipe for, you know, a healthy foundation. You’re going to have to learn some things, and get through it, and realize that you’re a human being. But at that time, you think you’re invincible and you can pull anything off.”

Heathers (1988)

Slater drew comparisons to a young Jack Nicholson after his breakout role in this dark teen thriller, which made sense: It was a direct emulation of the screen great.

“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…

“I can’t deny it. 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.”

Pump Up the Volume (1990)

Slater is not afraid to play favorites in his film roles: He’s partial to this edgy teen drama, in which he starred as Mark Hunter, aka “Hard Harry,” an anonymous pirate radio personality who helps turn an Arizona high school on its ear.

“That’s my favorite. I love it. That was a great time. To have been given the scripts of Heathers and then to find Pump Up the Volume directly after was like finding a diamond in the rough. That was a great part and one that I worked very hard on. And it just said so much that was relevant and is still relevant today. Even more so. The stakes are even higher nowadays, and that’s really, really scary, but the truths that Hard Harry was talking about were so prevalent and so relevant. He was talking about bullying, he was dealing with homosexuality, he was dealing with racism and lack of diversity. The issues were unbelievable, so I just felt like it was a beautifully written script.”

Sam Esmail, the creator of Mr. Robot, has compared the series to Pump Up the Volume.

“I was certainly thrilled and honored to hear that, that he had even seen that movie. So that was cool. But like I said, the stakes have only gotten higher. Now we’re not just dealing with the wrongs that are happening in a school like Hubert Humphrey High, now it’s the United States of America, it’s the world in which we have to deal with these issues.”

True Romance (1993)

“The careers that have been launched out of that movie!” Slater exclaims at the mention of his beloved 1993 Bonnie and Clyde-esque thriller written by a young Quentin Tarantino and directed by the late Tony Scott. In addition to featuring Patricia Arquette, Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, and Christopher Walken, the film also co-starred relatively unknowns Brad Pitt, Samuel L. Jackson, and James Gandolfini in early roles.

“You don’t know when you’re in the middle of it that it’s going to have the sort of following that it now has. I was extraordinarily excited, again working with an actress that I thought was just phenomenal and extraordinary, Patricia Arquette. Still brilliant and I may get the opportunity to work with her again in the near future, so I’m really excited about that. Making this movie, I’ve got Val Kilmer playing Elvis in the background, and all these guys. But it was pretty remarkable to be a part of something that has had such a life and has [launched] so many other people.”

Slater has said it’s the film his people most like to talk about — which is why it sounds like he wouldn’t be opposed to reprising the character of Clarence Worley someday for a sequel.

“It does have a following. We were in Washington, D.C., and one of the journalists was dressed up as Clarence, so that was fun. I loved that. He had the Elvis shades on and I got to try them on again and they looked pretty good. I was not upset with how they looked. I feel like if we were ever to make a sequel, it would be all right.”

Interview With a Vampire (1994)

Slater reunited with Brad Pitt a year later for this adaptation of Anne Rice’s classic novel. He took the role of vampire interviewer Malloy at the 11th hour, replacing River Phoenix after the actor died of a drug overdose at the age of 23.

“It was awkward. It was uncomfortable. It was hard. How to replace somebody that died in that way, and somebody that I admired greatly. I thought we’d be in this business forever and we’d be competing for the same roles and doing all these things and instead that tragedy happened. So it was very, very sad. I tried to deal with it in the best way that I could. It didn’t feel right taking money for it, so I ended up donating the money to charities and things that he was involved with. That took the difficulty out of doing it. It made it feel like it was more in honor of him. It made me feel better about it.”

Vampire was one of the films that would launch Pitt into stratosphere — even if it often was a miserable experience for the man playing Louis de Pointe du Lac.

“I think it’s similar to being around Rami Malek now. It’s amazing when an actor in a role come together and the timing is just right and somebody fits a part so perfectly. It’s a wonderful, interesting phenomenon to see a trajectory like that start to happen and take place. And to get to be a part of that is always very exciting. In a competitive business, it’s also maddening as well [laughs]. No, it’s good … He was not happy. I think it was grueling. It was probably a five-month shoot, so I could imagine you put those contact lenses in, you have those veins painted on your face every day … I think Brad and I shot all of our scenes in London together, and he was not happy. He did a great job, and I think he used a lot of that energy. If I were to be bitten by a vampire and I didn’t have the full story like in that movie, yeah I’d be pissed off. So he was probably channeling that. And he did a brilliant job.”

The Wife is now playing. Watch the trailer:

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