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Fans of Christian Slater on Mr. Robot — or in his many great roles in movies like Heathers, True Romance, and Interview with the Vampire — will want to check out his latest performance: In director Justin Kelly’s King Cobra (in theaters and on demand now), Slater delivers one of his best career performances as Stephen Kocis, a suburban porn entrepreneur who discovered Brent Corrigan (Garrett Clayton) and clashes with rival porn producers (James Franco and Keegan Allen) over control of Corrigan’s contract. (The story is based on the real-life case of Bryan Kocis, who was murdered in 2007.)
Slater chatted with EW about what excited him about the film, how he identified with his character, and the James Bond-style moment he enjoyed while filming the low-budget project in upstate New York.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did this project come to you?
CHRISTIAN SLATER: Well, I’d worked with James Franco a couple years ago on Adderall Diaries and I’ve always been a huge fan of his. And he presented me with this and I got excited by it. I don’t think any of us expected this to be a 2,000-screen, $100-million opening weekend type of release, but I was thrilled that James was supporting a young director like [Justin Kelly] to make this risky, exciting film.
What were you excited by?
I was looking for something to do that scared me. Something that was out of my comfort zone. It didn’t feel stereotypical and there were aspects of the character that I felt I could really identify with. It really spoke to me.
What did you really identify with?
Most deeply with his vulnerability. One line was, “It’s fun to play with who we are,” which is certainly my responsibility as an actor. The other line I identified with was, “Just make me feel wanted.” We have that thing, that void, somewhere within ourselves that we’re looking for some exterior thing to fill. And then the line, “Don’t judge me, I don’t judge you.” Those are some wonderful, very human topics to have incorporated into a character.
Did you have any qualms about the raciness of the subject matter?
There were the sexual aspects of it, which made me a little nervous — and also excited — only because I’d never done anything like it before. I met Justin Kelly in Los Angeles and, maybe he played it ingeniously, but Justin told me that James would be taking on the lion’s share of that — and that immediately ignited the competitive, actor-y nature of myself, and I was like, “Well, I don’t want James to do everything!” That inspired me to not shy away from anything I could potentially do with this film and with this character. There might have been a time where I might not have felt necessarily safe enough, maybe many years ago. But we’ve all matured as the country has matured and I saw this as only an exciting opportunity.
I don’t know how conscious it was, but you play him without any affectation, which was once a staple of even really good gay characters in movies.
Yeah, the things we incorporated were subtle. I certainly wasn’t interested in any type of caricature. I mean, this is a guy who’s been in the closet for his whole life. Even his sister [played by Molly Ringwald] didn’t know. She was still trying to set him up with girls. She’s either in denial or he’s just done such a great job of hiding and covering. There were moments where I felt safer to do things in a subtler fashion, and that worked for the character.
You know it’s been 31 years since your film debut in The Legend of Billie Jean. And 30 years since The Name of the Rose.
It has? Jesus. [Laughs]
And you’ve been part of American movies for so long that it’s almost kind of poignant to see you staring at yourself in the mirror in King Cobra, and you’re seeing — and we’re seeing — a man who’s in his mid-forties.
Well, there’s a human-ness there, yeah.
It’s a performance you probably would have been too young for 10 years ago.
True, and I certainly appreciated that aspect of this. You know, at a certain point, you have to start playing adults and behaving like an adult. When you’re a kid, you’re immature and silly and judgmental. So it’s nice to get to a point and not shy away.
Your performance reminds me of Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights, and not just because of the porn connection. Were there any touchstones that you were thinking of while making it?
In the back of my mind, as we were going along during filming, I had Gypsy. Mama Rose. My mother was a huge fan of Ethel Merman and that musical and so I kept that as an underlying theme in my head. It slipped out a couple of times. I just found out that there’s an outtake now where I did a full-on Ethel Merman impression. It was a bit expensive for our film, but maybe it’ll be on the bonus reel.
But you really went for it? Just belted it out?
Yeah, it was full improv. It wasn’t meant to be used, but when we were doing one of the driving scenes, Garrett and I were just goofing around in the car, and I had that somewhere, easily accessible, in my brain. And he did feel like Gypsy Rose Lee and I felt like Mama Rose. And I was excited and he was my star. So I was just like, “You’ll be swell, you’ll be great! Everything is coming up roses!”
Garrett Clayton is 25-year-old and mostly known as the star of Disney Channel movies. So did the Mama Rose thing mirror real life?
Well, my personal relationship with Garrett was great, though the relationship in King Cobra is delving into a certain dysfunction. So as aware human beings, we tried to stay out of that and not really reflect some of it in our real lives. But I was so impressed with how Garrett basically carries the movie. And his fearlessness made me feel extraordinarily safe. If anything, while we were filming, he took care of me.
Sounds like Justin Kelly encourages a certain spontaneity on the set.
Freedom, without a doubt. It’s so great to work that way. That’s also how I felt when working with Lars Von Trier on Nymphomaniac. There was a great deal of freedom there. Just freedom to allow the camera to roll. He ended up capturing a lot of human, real honest moments, even in between the scenes.
On King Cobra, were you able to ad lib?
Well, yeah, Keegan Allen was walking around in these skivvies and I was actually very curious what was going in there. I was thinking to myself, like, “Geez, is that for real?” So when we were filming our scene, he drops his pants in front of me and I looked up and said, “That’s all you?” It felt like an appropriate question to incorporate into the story. [Laughs]
Where did the filming fall in Mr. Robot’s schedule?
Right after season 1. We had screened at South by Southwest and won the Audience Award there. And actually, right before this, I had done Spamalot at the Hollywood Bowl.
So things, as they still are, were going really well for you.
I guess so. In fact, one night we wrapped on the set of King Cobra and I had to do a panel at the Paley Center in Manhattan for Mr. Robot. And they sent a chopper to get me back into the city on time.
Oh, wow, very James Bond.
Yeah, very 007, but I can assure you, I didn’t get the chopper back to the set. It wasn’t a round trip deal, but well, what are ya gonna do?