Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be married to Christian Slater? Of course you have: The ’90s embodiment of that untamable “bad boy” (or, fingers crossed, boyfriend!) you don’t bring home to your parents, it’s understandable that most hot-blooded American teens have at least imagined trading Barbie’s Dreamhouse for a black Corvette and driving off into the sunset with J.D. from Heathers. With Netflix’s Stranger Things putting Winona Ryder back on the map during the same months of Slater returning for Season 2 of USA’s breakout techno-thriller Mr. Robot, it almost felt like a programming conspiracy to keep 2016 as the summer of Heathers 2.0 (quite possibly for an audience demographic too young to get the reference). Luckily, Slater, now 47, does not disappoint in the intriguing marital details department.
“I got my wife a taxidermied raccoon” is the first thing the actor says as we sit down in the back of Fig. 19 on the Lower East Side. He’s wearing black on black, and the years haven’t changed that delightfully puckish grin as he leans in to spill. “She’s asked for a pet raccoon, but come on! They aren’t traditional pets! The risk was too great.” Hence, Slater bought his wife what was, in his mind at least, the next best thing: a stuffed, dead version of the pet she’d been asking for.
“It…didn’t go over well,” Slater says with a laugh, his eyebrows arching up over the rims of his glasses, exactly the way you are picturing it in your head, right now. So, where’s the little guy living these days? “We still have it,” he says. “It has now taken a symbolic place in our home…as if this was a hurdle that we got over.”
As a reporter, it’s hard to ask for a better intro into the domestic life of a subject than a story about dragging home a dead animal to the horror (and eventual delight) of a spouse. But this is Mr. Robot we’re talking to. Of course he’s going to bring the good stuff.
The trick with Slater—who, in addition to having a career resurgence on network cable’s most subversive anti-corporate thriller, is also currently starring this month in King Cobra in his second cinematic collaboration with celebrity Loki, James Franco—is to not ask too many questions. When pressed on specifics of any sort, Slater tends for the vague. For example: What in Hollywood still surprises him? “Certainly, it’s been interesting to see how television has evolved. All these new platforms for these talented people to go to is great.”
Or later, when asked to try to parse the difference between public perception of “Christian Slater” and the real deal: “It’s hard to determine. Certainly…It’s tricky. Wow. When am I not myself?”
‘We spend a lot of time running around, trying to find a lot of exterior things to fill that void we have within ourselves. That thing we didn’t get that we needed growing up, from our parents, from whatever it is, from our careers. We’re all looking to fix that wound, for lack of a better word.’—Christian Slater
These are not the easiest questions to begin with, but Slater tends to take even the most concrete points and move them into the realm of the existential. While talking about his Cobra character—based on the real-life tragedy of Bryan Kocis (named “Stephen” in the film), a gay porn director charged with filming underage boys before being murdered by rivals in the adult entertainment business—Slater is able to abstractulate on his relationship to the character. “Life can be really challenging,” Slater says, explaining his sympathy for a man charged with one of society’s biggest taboos. “We spend a lot of time running around, trying to find a lot of exterior things to fill that void we have within ourselves. That thing we didn’t get that we needed growing up, from our parents, from whatever it is, from our careers. We’re all looking to fix that wound, for lack of a better word.”
It’s the perfect answer—a little too perfect, right?—because it lets your imagination fill in the details of what drew an actor with his own well-documented rap sheet to a dark, complicated role without revealing anything personal at all. But as his son (and doppelganger) Elliot in Mr. Robot might say: It’s an illusion. I don’t know what motivates a man to become an active participant in mainstream stardom after almost two decades of studious avoidance, opening himself to the inevitably of journalists dredging up his youthful indiscretions under the defense of nostalgia. All I know is that it’s certainly understandable why Slater, who even at the height of his fame, had a complicated relationship to his own celebrity, would 20 years later be a seasoned pro at evading the too-personal questions of nosy reporters.
If this all sounds frustratingly vague, it’s because it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s not rewarding. Take, for example, when we’re talking about the way the internet has changed pornography. “There was all that judgment out there,” Slater says, speaking about the players in the King Cobra saga. “The shame, the seediness of it, the sneakiness of it.” Slater shakes his head. “I remember back when you had to…years ago, it was so humiliating, having to go into these stores and buy a VHS tape or something and hoping you pick a good one.”
“Did you just shove one under…” (I mime stuffing something under a large trench coat, which I assumed the actor wore at all times throughout the late ’80s and ’90s.)
“Oh, my God, yes…And then you get the unmarked bag and…” Is Christian Slater actually blushing? “Well, there was so much stuff like this that was covert.”
And then, seeming to contradict himself, Slater adds, “Now with the internet, the access to it, it’s become even more secretive.” Is he talking about the porn industry being more secretive? Or our ability as consumers to watch it in the comfort of our own homes? Or the ability to disassociate with an online identity?
Actually, it turns out, Slater has a lot of feelings about pornography in the era of the internet. “I mean, on the one hand it’s interesting because now we do have so much access and can see pretty much anybody with anything in any way imaginable. But now you see it and can move on from it, it’s not sort of this thing that stays in your brain locked in there.”
The challenge in trying to tease out the “real” Christian Slater over an hour-long interview is not dissimilar to a superfan trying to make sense of Mr. Robot as a show. In both cases, it turns out, half the fun is trying to find the Easter eggs: the erroneous or striking details, the throwaway line, the taxidermy raccoon, that when all compiled, reveal a bigger picture, secret to everyone except you now. Though there’s no promise in either medium—the psycho-cyber thriller show or celebrity cover story interview—that the picture, once revealed, will be in focus and will not leave audiences with more questions than answers.
As Slater himself tells me, “An artist’s job is to bring things to people’s attention and maybe give them new perspective on things.”
He grins, raising those signature eyebrows again. “Now that’s something I admire James Franco for.”
In the spring of 2014, James Franco cast Slater in his movie adaptation of Stephen Elliott’s true-crime book, The Adderall Diaries. Slater was cast as Hans Reiser, a programmer in the center of a high-profile murder case. “I was thrilled to be included in his ensemble of actors that he wants to work with again,” Slater says of the 38-year-old multi-hyphenate, who took on the role of author Elliott in the film. Franco had been a big fan of Slater’s back in the day; he told me that as a skateboard kid growing up in Palo Alto, he had a poster for Gleaming the Cube in his bedroom. When it came time for Franco and director Justin Kelly to find someone to play Kocis, Slater was not the first name that came to mind, Franco told me (he was considering taking the role himself), but he recommended the actor from their time together on Diaries. Franco compared Slater to actor Bryan Cranston, saying, “With someone like Christian, he’s been around forever, and he knows how crazy the business can be and how fickle it can be.”
In King Cobra, Franco plays Joseph Kerekes, an escort trying to steal away Slater’s “twink” star in order to get his own porn production company off the ground. (Kerekes was eventually convicted of second-degree murder in the case of Kocis.) While Kerekes might as well be a spiritual brother to Alien, Franco’s character in Spring Breakers, Slater-as-Stephen (and Bryan), disappears into the performance. Kocis, who was closeted except to close friends and family, is benign and nonthreatening as can be, no more so than in scenes where the palatable unease is a direct result of his niceness. (When he first finds his muse, the boy is 17 years old, and Kocis picks him up at a mall and drives him home, pointing out sights along the way. The very innocuous banter, the lack of anything sordid or untoward, creates a displaced anxiety in the viewer: Something bad is going to happen, right?)
Later, once their relationship is established—both as lovers and business partners in Cobra enterprises—Kocis bursts into song, a riff from Gypsy. “That was an improvised moment,” Slater recalls. “When I grew up, my mother was certainly a huge fan of Gypsy, and in this scene, I was definitely his Mama Rose.”
Slater said he initially balked at playing a character “so outside my comfort zone”: “I didn’t want anything to come off too campy. But that [moment] was too good to resist.”
A similar feeling came two years ago, when Slater first read the script for Mr. Robot, about a young hacker suffering from…well, it’s never exactly clear what Elliot’s mental health problems are, but they include a hodgepodge mix of paranoia, social anxiety, drug addiction, fugue states, antisocial tendencies, hallucinations and more than a smidge of disassociated personality disorder. Slater, playing the titular Mr. Robot, first appears to Elliot as a mentor figure, part of a resistance called fsociety, whose mission is to topple the world’s corporate structure, beginning with the multinational conglomerate ECorp, which owns 70 percent of the global consumer credit industry. (Yes, the E stands for “Evil.”) Later, we find out that—spoiler alert—the man Elliot calls Mr. Robot is not exactly what he seems.
The story goes that when Mr. Robot’s creator Sam Esmail was looking for someone to play the anarchistic parental figure that guides Elliot through the first season, he was searching for a “Christian Slater type” before realizing he could get the real McCoy.
But why Slater, specifically, for the role? For that, you have to look at 1990’s Pump Up the Volume, the Footloose-meets-Wikileaks of its generation. Instead of Elliot and his split personality, you had Slater as Mark Hunter, who hosts a pirate FM radio station out of his parents’ basement. In school, Mark is shy bordering on somnambulistic, but at night, broadcasting as “Hard Harry,” he unintentionally starts a revolution of town teenagers against adult censorship. The parallels between Pump Up the Volume and Mr. Robot—dual identities, the reluctant figurehead and the interplay of tension between the status quo of “best interests” and nihilistic freedom—are unmistakable.
“The themes we were dealing with in that film are similar [to the show],” Slater admits. “Of course in Mr. Robot, it was on a grander scale, and the technology has certainly come a long way. I was working with a hand radio in Pump Up the Volume. Yeah, no, the access we have to people and the issues we’re dealing with are on a much more global scale.”
But as for the character of Elliot/Mr. Robot and Mark/Hard Harry: “I definitely looked at that, even as we were making [Pump Up the Volume]. The idea of two distinct personalities: there was a Clark Kent/Superman quality, where Mark had this phenomenal social anxiety. He needed to find a way to bridge that gap.
“Mr. Robot and Elliot may be on a similar trajectory hopefully for people to abjure themselves in.”
‘There’s a wisdom that he’s garnered in his life, and that exists in him in a very calm and cavalier way that you can’t help being drawn to.’—Mr. Robot co-star Rami Malek
Certainly his co-star Rami Malek is a fan. “The same way that I think Elliot gets to speak to a generation in Mr. Robot, Christian is kind of continuing what he’s been doing throughout his career, igniting another generation back in the day,” says Malek, who won an Emmy for his performance on the show (becoming the first Egyptian-American to do so) this year. “You’ll hear actors all the time blow smoke about someone they work with and say, ‘They’re family.’ I don’t know what it is about him. There’s a wisdom that he’s garnered in his life, and that exists in him in a very calm and cavalier way that you can’t help being drawn to.”
Calm and cavalier. What a perfectly paired combo and one that succinctly describes what it is that makes Christian Slater so different from the perception of the hard-partying celebrity he was once known as. When talking about Mr. Robot, Slater has a tendency himself to slip into his alter ego, especially when discussing the choices made by Elliot in the second season to remove himself from society and move in with his mother. “I couldn’t believe he chose to live with her,” Slater rages, and now, I finally get why people used to say he sounded just like Jack Nicholson. “I mean, I hate that woman. And the fact that he would choose to be in that environment just made me sick to my stomach. So I was livid and furious a lot of the season. I wanted to get the job done. And I don’t like it when anything gets in my way. I couldn’t believe he chose to live how he lived. I hate that woman.”
Suddenly aware of how vehement he’s sounding, Slater relaxes and unclenches. “I mean, that’s Mr. Robot talking, obviously.”
This tirade only makes sense if you’ve already made it past the big reveal of Season 1: Mr. Robot does not exist at all; he’s a figment of Elliot’s imagination, the pure id who takes on the form of Elliot’s dead father, and who can, Tyler Durden-style, take possession of Elliot’s consciousness at any time.
Slater-as-Mr. Robot is, naturally, pissed. “I think that the relationship is definitely going to become much more combative,” Slater says of his character’s development next season. “From what I understand, after being locked up and having such reins put on me in the second season, I’m going to be an unleashed id. In Season 3 I’ll hopefully be taking over as much as I can because I’m really pissed what Elliot just put me through. I can’t believe he put me through it, the audience through it, and look, the audience is part of the journey, too.”
Slater coughs again, sheepishly. “Sorry, that’s Mr. Robot again, not me.” But it’s appearing like Elliot might not be the only one having a hard time exorcising Mr. Robot from his brain.
Christian Slater—or the idea of Christian Slater, based on his roles, both then and now—is at odds with Christian Slater, the person, who is older now, with kids, and a semi-decent Twitter presence. While he’s grateful for the show’s success, he’s also wary of the themes. What in effect, the internet has done to culture.
“To interact with fans and be in a show that is talking about a revolution, it’s very exciting. Look, it certainly parallels things that are happening in the world: I think people are identifying with Elliot’s character the isolation and loneliness and questioning whether technology is a healthy thing and does it isolate us more? On the surface, it looks like we’re exposed to everything. I don’t know. It really has just sped up the dial. We’ve gone from zero to 60 in .00 seconds. Things are moving at a phenomenally rapid pace. It’s a little scary. It’s hard to catch up.”
Still, there’s an upside to being Christian Slater today, as opposed to before. “It’s nice to walk down the street and not have people say, ‘Hey, Clarence!’ anymore. Instead they say, ‘Hey, Mr. Robot!’ ”