Three weeks before Heathers is due to open on 31 March 1989, Christian and Winona Ryder are about to appear at a promotional screening at a New York adult-school film class. The mostly suburban middle-aged audience is clearly troubled by the movie and its light-hearted treatment of diabolical themes, and many walk out halfway through, muttering their disapproval, shock and disdain.
Backstage, Christian and Winona are worried. She has an idea and whispers it to Christian. When the screening ends, they come out from behind the curtain and sit in chairs on stage, holding hands, and announce that they just got married the previous week in Las Vegas. Some class members applaud while others look befuddled, but Christian and Winona never drop the act or the conceit. Calling each other ‘honey’, their charm overpowers the critics.
A few days later, Winona is striding briskly through Central Park wearing Christian’s leather biker jacket. The zipper won’t fasten, so her hands clasp it shut against the chilly spring breeze. She laughingly recalls the idea of marrying Christian. ‘We talked about how we were going to do all the Hollywood marriage things,’ she later remembers, ‘like stage fights in restaurants, be really reclusive but then leak out everything. He’d cover my face when photographers came near, like Sean and Madonna.’
But, when Christian later went on a talk show and proposed to her on the air, Winona suddenly tired of the joke. ‘People have been calling me about it,’ she recalled. ‘It doesn’t sound too good. Marriage would be fun, but I don’t think I’m ready for it yet.’
For Christian, though, it was no joke: he actually did fall in love with Winona. He and the actress playing the lead Heather, Kim Walker, had been dating since stage school. ‘She was a terrific actress,’ says Christian (Walker died in March 2001 from a brain tumour at the age of thirty-two), and Winona asserts that she and Christian ‘never fooled around or anything during the movie’. But isn’t it possible that they could have, given that it was during the thirty-two-day shoot that they fell for each other? It was the first time, after all, that Winona had become romantically involved with a leading man, but it probably wasn’t the only time. Still doing the gossip rounds to this day are her oft-speculated flings with later co-stars Gary Oldman and Daniel Day-Lewis on and off the sets of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Age of Innocence, respectively. If there is any truth to these rumours, perhaps it wouldn’t be surprising if she and Christian did in fact have an affair during and after the film. According to Winona, however, their relationship didn’t begin until after filming was completed and Christian had broken up with Kim. Even if they had ‘fooled around’ during filming, Christian would have found it easy to explain away, marvelling at ‘the great chemistry you get going on a film set. You get to say all these things to a girl you never could normally.’ Perhaps it was during the strip-croquet scene that the crush began. When both are lying naked, after ‘boning away’ on the croquet set, only covered by the clothing they had supposedly flung off during the match, to many this scene is evidence enough that the chemistry was already present.
As to whether or not they were actually dating, Winona continues, it was ‘only for a couple of weeks, but it was too weird. When you’re really good friends with somebody, it’s hard when you try to make [it] work. It’s bogus. It should just happen naturally. But he broke my heart, or I thought he did at the time.’
Christian, on the other hand, hoped that that wasn’t true. ‘She is a wild woman to work with,’ he still affectionately admits today. ‘She has a naivety, a vulnerability almost, that makes her attractive to be with and to watch.’ She was, after all, the very reason why he wanted to do Heathers in the first place. ‘I loved her since Lucas. She was so cute, so beautiful and so natural. She was very helpful and very professional. I could tell that she and I had some kind of chemistry.’
Winona agrees, ‘We really have great on- and off-screen chemistry. He’s one of the most brilliant actors I’ve ever worked with.’ She can even remember the day he came in and read for the part of JD, his character in Heathers. ‘A lot of guys came in and read the scene where I’m fake hanging, and they would do the whole monologue to me. I was just standing on this chair for two weeks and pretending I’m hanging while the actors do the speech. Some of them just didn’t get the comedy of it, were really being very dramatic about it, and then Christian came in and he was perfect.’
But when one journalist asked Christian about a People magazine interview that quoted Winona as saying that he ‘so scared’ her that she once locked herself in her trailer, Christian admitted that, when not particularly sober, ‘I was actually scary. Not the most positive guy in the world. A monster in some ways. Maybe I was born with anger. Maybe it was the weird, scary roles I was playing. I was dealing with a lot of shit, desperately trying to find out who the real me was. When I finally stopped trying to fight [to be somebody] I wasn’t, I just sat back and said, “This is the guy I’m stuck with. I’ve got to be happy with it, or why go on?”’
Part of ‘that shit’, as Christian puts it, started in the same year that Heathers was released. Between Christmas and New Year, on 29 December 1989 – coincidentally just hours after Winona collapsed in Rome and was forced to drop out of The Godfather Part III – Los Angeles police observed a Saab 900 being driven erratically in west Hollywood. The driver was Christian, on his way home from a nightclub and doing 50mph in a 35mph zone. The cops pulled the car over and what happened next established a pattern of wildly unpredictable behaviour that would periodically affect the next seven years of Christian’s life. Instead of simply pulling over, he began a ludicrously short-lived car chase that ended mere seconds after it had begun in a back alley, of all places, with Christian crashing into two telephone poles, abandoning his vehicle, attempting to flee over a fence and, in the scuffle – deliberately or otherwise – kicking one of the officers in the face. ‘I thought I was Batman,’ he said at the time. ‘I had the same mentality, but not,’ he joked, ‘the utility belt.’
Christian was charged with evading the police, driving under the influence of alcohol, driving with a suspended licence and assault with a deadly weapon – specifically, his cowboy boots. And, with another drink-driving conviction from the previous year already on the books, Christian was sentenced to serve ten days in prison, which he served just over six months later in July 1990. This brief sojourn behind bars was followed by a ninety-day stint in a voluntary rehabilitation programme, from which he discharged himself on day seven. For the first few months of the following year, he also attended regular meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. ‘It’s hard enough to be a parent, much less the parent of a movie star,’ laments Mary Jo. ‘When you love someone so much and you see that they’re falling and you’re trying to stop it, you know they have to fall because it’s part of life experience.’
Part of that life experience included some court-ordered community service, for which Christian decided to try working behind the scenes, directing The Laughter Epidemic, a children’s musical that ran at the Westwood Playhouse in Los Angeles, raising $200,000 in the process for the charity the Pediatric AIDS Foundation. ‘People tend to ignore that,’ he complained. ‘They like to focus on the darker stuff. It’s more interesting, I guess.’
Dan Lauria, Christian’s childhood father figure and friend, agreed. It was a period that was a particularly tough one for everyone in Christian’s life. ‘The reason Christian and I get along is because, during that time, I said, “I’m here when you call,”’ he remembers. ‘I didn’t bug him, so I always got the calls after the fact. When he went to AA meetings, that’s when I had to go, just to get him started, until he got his sponsor.’
Although the roots of much of his wild behaviour lay in the time he spent on film sets as a boy, Christian was still indulging in what he called his ‘old-time late nights’. On one occasion, he remembers, ‘It was about three in the morning and I was with this great girl. We were drinking and having a wonderful time when she mentioned to me that she had Jack Nicholson’s telephone number. So I was like, “Great, great. I’ll give him a call.” Well, I got him on the phone and said, “Jack, this is Christian Slater. I just finished shooting Heathers. It hasn’t come out yet, but I do this tribute to you in it.” I heard a click from his end of the telephone line, but I wanted to impress the girl, so I went into a five-minute spiel: “Yeah, we’ll play tennis sometime,” and all that. I finished and paused for a second, and this voice suddenly went, “Eh hah.” He was listening to me the whole time! I don’t know if he thought I was completely insane or trying to impress somebody or what, but I couldn’t take it, so I just hung up on him. I hung up on Jack Nicholson. It was a moment of clarity, like, “What have I done? I’ve just ruined my career.”’
But the soul-searching often gave way to exuberance. ‘I’m very mischievous,’ he says proudly. ‘A couple of days ago, I ran around and stole the doormats from my neighbours. I just wanted to stir things up a little. I still have them.’
According to People Weekly, one of his favourite pastimes was Nintendo, and the Westwood apartment he now shares with an 85lb Akita named Winston could pass for a branch of US toy store FAO Schwarz. ‘I spend a lot of time in toy stores,’ he admits. Indeed, his mother recalls that, after shooting the explicit love scene in The Name of the Rose, Christian ‘went home and played with his Star Wars figures’. For Christian, being a ladies’ man with a boy’s psyche is just fine. ‘Maybe if I have time for myself, I can do stuff like take cooking classes and grow as a person and all that malarkey, but for now I just don’t want to grow up.’
Perhaps Winona didn’t, either. Back in Central Park, she took a seat on a park bench and stared out at the boating lake where, years later, she would film the opening scenes for Autumn in New York with Richard Gere. But, for now, and just a few months away from meeting her first true love, Johnny Depp, she suddenly looked tired. She had been doing Heathers promotions for a few weeks now. Waking up at dawn to do the Today show, for instance, seemed to indicate that, while her fame had finally caught up with her, it was beginning to take its toll.
In the two years prior to filming Heathers, Winona had already made a significant mark on the big screen, from her debut as the love-sick teenager in Lucas to a girl who enters a tender but doomed relationship with a mentally retarded young man (played by Rob Lowe) in Square Dance, playing supernatural comedy in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice and starring opposite Robert Downey Jr and Kiefer Sutherland in 1969. Born in Minnesota and raised in northern California, one of her many goals at the time of filming Heathers was to study literature and history at Trinity College, Ireland, and to devote more of her off-screen time to screenwriting and film-making.