The Two Christians

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Did you ever get the feeling that everything in America is completely fucked up?
You know that feeling that the whole country is like one inch away from saying
‘That’s it, forget it.’ You think about it. Everything is polluted – the environment,
the government, the schools, you name it. 

-Pump Up the Volume, 1990

You wanna talk about reality? We haven’t lived in anything remotely close to it
since the turn of the century. We turned it off, took out the batteries, snacked on
a bag of GMOs while we tossed the remnants in the ever-expanding dumpster of
the human condition. 

-Mr. Robot, 2015

Christian Slater is binary. He is both a one and a zero. There is him, then there is the him inside him. Depending on where he is, the one and the zero switch places. On screen he is a zero, the other side of him a one. The other side of him being the “beast” that has gotten him arrested four times – the beast that has also made his career. His most iconic roles—Jason Dean in Heathers, Hard Harry in Pump Up the Volume, Clarence Worley in True Romance, Mr. Robot in Mr. Robot—are all the dark sides of a split personality; Slater’s favorite being the one in which he plays both sides of this split. In Pump he is “that anonymous geek” at Hubert Humphrey High, a wall-hugging loner with a gift for words, but by 10 o’clock he’s a foul-mouthed anarchic pirate radio star. “They’re both parts of me,” Slater told USA Today at the time; because on a good day he was a mild mannered actor, on a bad one a lewd drunk. He was famous, but also infamous, sane, but also crazy. His life depended on the first, his livelihood on the second – the beast was his curse but also his blessing.

*

Thirty years ago Daniel Waters was looking for the “reincarnation of James Dean” but settled for Jack Nicholson’s second coming instead. In Heathers, the first-time screenwriter cast 18-year-old Christian Slater in the role of Jason Dean (J.D.), the id to Winona Ryder’s ego who encourages her to systematically kill each member of the most popular clique in school. “I had just seen The Witches of Eastwick and the way Jack progressed in his character was brilliant,” Slater told The Orange County Register. “He is a master at playing those type of characters and, frankly, I wanted to see if I could do it.”

Slater plays J.D. primarily with his eyebrows and his mouth. Those raised black tee-pees are so powerful they cause Ryder to crash into her past, while his first words—“greetings and salutations”—are a sing-song orgasm from the seventh circle of hell. His hair, dyed the color of a dead crow, cuts off at a vampiric widow’s peak and, paired with his pale skin and black trench coat, transforms him into the kind of wicked that dominates every teen girl’s masturbation fantasy. As J.D. says, “The extreme always seems to make an impression.”

But a closer look clips his wings. A closer look unveils Slater’s pronounced hunch, which recalls a scavenging bird of prey, but an unthreatening one, a young turkey vulture like Beaky Buzzard from Looney Tunes, say. It is as though, for all his bravado, J.D. can’t even emerge from his cloak long enough to do more than fire a couple of blanks. Not to mention Slater’s tic of rubbing his hand behind his neck, his bashfulness showing through a character that has none. He himself called out these peccadilloes a couple of years later. “I watched Heathers again the other day and it bothered me,” he said in 1990. “The movie’s great and I’m proud of it, but my performance shows a complete lack of confidence. Maybe that’s why I sounded like Jack Nicholson throughout the movie.”

Off screen he found liquid courage and the year Heathers came out he clocked his first DUI. “I think from birth I was insecure and fear ridden and never felt comfortable in my skin,” Slater told Rolling Stone. “When I started drinking, at nine, I felt the warm rush of centeredness come over me. Just a real peace. And that was all I ever really wanted, just some kind of inner peace.” He wasn’t sure where the fear came from, but his home life wasn’t particularly telegenic. Slater’s mother was casting exec Mary Jo Slater, and his father actor Michael Hawkins, the star of Ryan’s Hope, and the duo did not get along. He was the “mediator between these two lunatics,” he told The Evening Standard in 2007, until they divorced when he was five. Slater previously implied that his father was temperamental but recent reports diagnose Hawkins more seriously as a schizophrenic. “My father has a lot of personality, a lot of different personalities, too,” he told The Globe and Mail in 1990, “so having him around as a role model was influential in my performance in Heathers.”

Slater, who started acting as a kid in Boy Scout and toy commercials, believes he was too young, his identity too fractured, for the fame that followed J.D. “It’s certainly helpful to get discovered a bit later when you’re more of a fully formed human being,” he said in 2007. “I mean, to go through your teens in a public fashion, it’s phenomenal because you haven’t nearly done all the things you need in order to discover who you want to be.” He was anxious already, but after Heathers doubly so, and he consolidated himself with a cocktail of coke, alcohol and ecstasy.

*

“You see, no one wants to hear it, but the terrible secret is that being young is sometimes less fun than being dead.” It could be a Heathers line, but by then J.D. had already blown himself up. Pump up the Volume is a lot less violent than the film that made Christian Slater famous, but is still a darker addition to a genre defined largely by John Hughes’ saccharine take on adolescence. “I like all those John Hughes movies but I always thought they were a little too – well – pink,” director Allan Moyle told The Los Angeles Times in 1990. “They could’ve been tougher.” Where those movies were primarily about what it feels like to be a kid, Pump was more in line with Heathers, emoting primarily through words.

Slater stars as Mark Hunter, an innocuous bespectacled high schooler who has just transferred to Arizona from New York. Unable to connect with his fellow students, he plugs in a radio and an anonymous new persona—Happy Harry Hard-on—to get through to them. “I wanted a marriage between two of my favorite outsiders – Lenny Bruce and Holden Caulfield,” Moyle said. Through his rants about society to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows,” Harry’s pirate radio show becomes an outlet for the students’ collective anger at Hubert Humphrey High. A sort of prototype for the zines and blogs of the ‘90s (and social media now), Harry’s show democratized the marginal voices around him. “Spill your guts out and say shit and fuck a million times if you want to, but you decide,” he says. “Fill the air, steal it. Keep the air alive – TALK HARD!!!!”

Casting one teenager in two roles, however, was not easy. “The actor had to have glee, to be ineffably sweet and at the same time demonic,” Moyle told The Globe and Mail. “I didn’t realize until I’d written the script that guys like that don’t exist.” Then he met Slater. The film captures the actor at the threshold of adulthood, his eyes slightly smaller, his face slightly fuller, his body—head bowed, neck stroked—preserving the youthful tics he would soon discard. As Mark, Slater takes up no space, hugging the walls, peering from beneath his glasses, looking up even at those below him. Then, as Harry, he ups the volume, manspreading and spewing “brains and ectoplasm and cum” all over the place.

But it is between these extremes that Slater makes the greatest impression. Towards the end of Pump, at which point his fellow classmate, Nora (Samantha Mathis), has figured out his identity and he has figured out hers (she is the “poetry lady” who tells him to “talk hard,” making him hard in the process), he has decided to quit his radio show and she appears in his bedroom-cum-studio urging him to go on. He refuses.

Mark: I can’t.
Nora: You can’t what?
Mark: I can’t talk.
Nora: Sure you can talk.
Mark: I can’t talk to you!

He then turns to the mic and slowly, hesitatingly, transforms into Harry before her. In front of her eyes and ours, Slater modulates his voice, his face, his body language, from weak to strong, strong to weak, flashing from Mark to Harry and back again. And somewhere in that transformation the real Slater peers out from within; he is Mark, Harry is the beast inside. Slater likened the character to Superman—“meek and mild on the outside, but a hero on the inside”—and he himself embodied a similar dichotomy. “I felt invincible. I was on top of the world,” he has said of this era, “And then I ended up crashing. That’s what I do.”

In April 1990, at age only 20, Slater was sentenced to 10 days in jail and five years’ probation after a drunken car chase with the police that had him crashing into two telephone poles. Only four years later he was arrested once again, this time for attempting to carry a 9 millimeter pistol onto a plane. Charged with possession, his mugshot is still heavily circulated online, his eyebrows asking “really?” as he poses in what appears to be a varsity jacket.

*

Whatever he did next, Pump up the Volume Christian Slater would always be my Christian Slater—the hesitant mortal achieving brief bursts of transcendence, the regular Joe leaning somewhat irregular. “He’s not an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination,” Slater’s mother told Rolling Stone in 1989, and his interviews, plied with platitudes—“Actors love to be challenged, love to be scared, love to do new things,” he said last year—are what you would expect out of the mouths of the very people Hard Harry and Jason Dean despise. Yet Slater seamlessly performs quick-witted and cerebral, suggesting a deep-seated deviance he simply requires the words to express. Perhaps it goes back to his splintered self; that he only feels comfortable settling into the misanthrope he is if he has the script to live by.  Or perhaps he isn’t a misanthrope at all and merely wants to express the socially acceptable version of the beast inside him. Either way, regardless of the conventional behavior he exhibits off screen, it is this constant return to the smart-ass cynic that many of us hold on to – that Christian Slater is always striving to refine his id is enough to keep us watching.

*

True Romance’s Clarence Worley is the epitome of the ‘90s Quentin Tarantino fantasy. He’s a comic book-loving Sonny Chiba-worshipping geek who’d sleep with Elvis if he hadn’t already fallen in love with a ditzy platinum blonde call girl named Alabama. With the King’s ghostly presence to guide him, the formerly quiet loner takes his cue from a big screen yakuza, steals a suitcase filled with coke and goes on the run with Alabama to the strains of, “You’re so cool, you’re so cool, you’re so cool.” This is Slater’s one unequivocally hip role. In Presley specs, Hawaiian duds and spiky ‘do, he looks the bomb and spews nothing but bon mots (“Do I look like a beautiful blond with big tits and an ass that tastes like vanilla ice cream? You wanna fuck me?”)

Roger Ebert wrote that Slater had a “kind of cocky recklessness” in the film, but the actor himself considered his character “confused, very sweet, very sensitive” – kind of like him. “Clarence did not have a strong family background or a lot of support around him,” Slater told the L.A. Daily News. “The movies, comic books, Elvis Presley – those are the only things he’s gotten any kind of guidance from at all.” Perhaps because of their similarities, Slater plays Clarence with a newfound confidence. Gone is the cowering hunch and the bashful neck rub, here the 23-year-old can even stare down Gary Oldman.

True Romance was for a long time Slater’s most recognizable role, perhaps because the film offers his platonic ideal—the charming devil. In 1993, the year the film was released, Slater even repeated his character’s Elvis quote on the subject of his sobriety. “I once didn’t feel I could be an exciting personality if I wasn’t screwed up,” he told People. “My motto was: Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse.” And while Elvis briefly left the building, he would soon return.

In 1997 Slater was convicted of punching his girlfriend and attacking a cop while high on tequila and coke. “My disease has been in charge, in my opinion, of every decision,” he said a year later. The insecurity that Slater felt as a nine year old had never really subsided and in 1998 he explained to Rolling Stone, “The negative beast that rests between my ears tells me on a daily, sometimes moment-to-moment basis, ‘I suck!’” The alcohol helps because, according to Slater, it “anesthetizes the beast.” After his first two DUIs in the late ‘80s, he had entered rehab, but only lasted seven days. “I didn’t get the full benefit of what that program had to offer,” he said. “And I spent the next eight years feeling empty. Really unfulfilled and confused. Lost. If I’m not doing the right movie or I’m not playing the right role, I’m in that place of fear, feeling insecure.”

According to The Sun, Slater relapsed once again after assaulting his girlfriend. “I found myself at home one night with a bottle of champagne, popped the cork, poured the glass, said ‘God keep an eye on me,’ downed the drink and went on this phenomenal two-year run, “ he reportedly said. He managed to stay out of jail at that point, and for another five years, until the summer of 2005, when intoxicated in the early morning hours of May 31st he “grabbed and squeezed” the behind of a stranger at a New York deli. Though he was charged with sexual abuse and spent a night in jail, his publicist called it a “misunderstanding” and, according to The New York Times, Slater told the cops: “I’m suing you. I’m suing the Police Department. I’m suing everybody.”

*

Hollywood isn’t too concerned with saving aging actresses’ careers but it certainly gives it the old college try for the guys. In 2008 NBC tried to bring Christian Slater back with another Jekyll/Hyde project called My Own Worst Enemy, only to have it cancelled after four episodes. What Daniel Waters had called Slater’s “Huck Finn from Hell” quality was watered down to create a suburban husband crossed with a chip-operated agent trained to kill. The problem was the operative was too smooth, the layman too normal – we wanted Slater as the devil, not 007.

Sam Esmail knew what we wanted because he wanted it too. The creator of Mr. Robot has said repeatedly that both Heathers and Pump Up the Volume were “huge parts” of his childhood and even told Nerdist he “ripped off” the latter to create his new series about the titular anarchist (Slater) who provokes a socially anxious computer geek, Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), to hack “the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent.” “He’s the mouthpiece to your id, and it can come off incredibly corny or annoying or whatever if it’s not the right guy,” Esmail told Yahoo. “But here I get Christian Slater, who couldn’t be more perfect because he played that part…” Elliot repeatedly refers to Mr. Robot’s insanity, but he always seems to be on the right side of unhinged. This is a grown up Hard Harry rather than an aging Jason Dean, claiming anonymity to announce: “The governments of the world and their corporate masters do not want us to speak. Why? Because we unlock truths. We expose villains. We exorcize demons.”

In his first scene, Christian Slater lies prostrate on a New York subway car and says in a familiar cadence, “Exciting time in the world right now. Exciting time.” He looks like a homeless vet, with a salt and pepper shave, dirty cap, aviators, his famous eyebrows barely visible. But the voice is familiar. “[W]hen you come right down to it, at its core, beneath every choice, there’s either a one or a zero. You either do something or you don’t,” he tells Elliot. “You walk out that door, you’ve decided to do nothing, to say no, which means you do not come back. You leave, you are no longer a part of this. You become a zero. If you stay, if you want to change the world, you become a yes. You become a one.”

The words are showy but the performance is not. This is Slater after forty years in the biz, which is not to say he’s lying down on the job, simply that he has the experience to play it low key. He doesn’t shout, he doesn’t stomp, yet he is in quiet command in every one of his scenes. He claims to be Elliot’s prophet and Elliot his god, but it’s Mr. Robot who is running the show. And he’s running it because he has nothing to prove – Christian Slater is Mr. Robot and he knows it. “Pump Up the Volume was a film and character that I really responded to. That was a movie about a guy trying to take down the establishment using a ham radio,” he told The New York Post last year. “I feel Mr. Robot has a similar value. This show is about taking down a global empire. I was an anarchist then. I’m getting to be an anarchist again.”

Towards the end of the series we discover Mr. Robot’s identity. The same way J.D. is part of Veronica, Harry is part of Mark, Elvis is part of Clarence, he is part of Elliot. “Shit, I’m a schizo,” Elliot says in the pilot, foreshadowing the show’s climax – that Mr. Robot is in fact Elliot’s deceased father; which is to say, Mr. Robot is Elliot’s beast. For his most celebrated role, Christian Slater has shrugged off the anesthetic and wholly embodied his id. It almost makes sense that he forgot to thank co-star Rami Malek when he won The Golden Globe, his first ever major acting accolade, last year. Slater, now sober, no longer needs an alter ego to temper his beast, he has wrangled it into submission all by himself.