In his new comedy/action film "Kuffs," which opened Friday, Christian Slater steps into dangerous territory for an actor. He breaks the "fourth wall" and talks directly to the audience.
Conventional acting wisdom says an actor must ignore the audience or camera. But the technique has been tried before on stage ("Our Town"), TV ("Moonlighting") and in the movies ("Ferris Bueller's Day Off"). It takes an extremely likable actor, such as Bruce Willis or Matthew Broderick, to pull it off. Mr. Slater, 22, is hoping audiences like him enough to let him get away with it.
"I always go after the challenge in a role, and that was the challenge of this role," said the actor, who plays a high-school dropout who inherits a private police force in San Francisco.
"The trick to doing it in a movie is to get real close to your cameraman. There's got to be a lot of trust between you and the man looking at you through that little tube. If he buys it, the audience will buy it. The important thing is to make the whole thing look comfortable.
"But this isn't really the first time I've broken the fourth wall in acting," he added with a laugh. "When I was a kid appearing in 'The Music Man' on stage, I was breaking the fourth wall all the time. But I didn't know any better; I didn't know you weren't supposed to wave to your mother in the audience during every scene."
"Kuffs" is Mr. Slater's 12th film in six years and the third -- "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" and "Mobsters" were the others -- to be released in the past seven months.
His latest movie, which is heavy on laughs despite some violence, was a needed change of pace for the young actor. He found himself caught up in the controversies surrounding those other two films.
In "Robin Hood," critics complained about the film's lack of historical accuracy and about the actors' accents (mostly Kevin Costner's). In "Mobsters," critics complained about everything.
"One of the main reasons I decided to do 'Kuffs' was that I didn't have to worry about being historically accurate or accents," Mr. Slater said. "I could just relax and play the character."
In defense of his previous two projects, Mr. Slater noted that "Robin Hood" has grossed $300 million at the box office, so stories that refer to it as a failure are exaggerated.
As for "Mobsters," he conceded that it didn't turn out as well as he had hoped, but added that there was a good movie in there somewhere.
"I just saw 'Bugsy' the other day and I loved it; it was a great movie," said Mr. Slater, who played Charlie "Lucky" Luciano in "Mobsters."
"That's the kind of movie I hoped I would be in, but our movie ended up in bits and pieces all over the world. They had different versions flying to Japan, Europe and every other place. There were extended versions, shortened versions; all kinds of weird versions.
"In my opinion, audiences never got to see a full film. Somewhere in all that mess, there was a legitimate story. It was there in the script."
Mr. Slater, the son of casting director Mary Jo Slater and actor Michael D. Gainsborough, has been acting professionally since he was 7, when he appeared on the daytime soap "One Life to Live." His father was on another soap, "Ryan's Hope," at the same time.
Two years later, Mr. Slater went on the road for a year in a national touring company of "The Music Man." He later appeared on Broadway in "Macbeth," "David Copperfield" and "Merlin."
At 15, he made his film debut in "The Legend of Billie Jean" and followed that closely with "The Name of the Rose," in which he appeared opposite Sean Connery.
The release three years later of "Heathers," the dark cult film about murderous teen-agers, turned Mr. Slater into an actor to watch in the future. Then, "Pump Up the Volume" made it official: Mr. Slater was hot.
His name is shouted by squealing fans at premieres, his picture appears on the covers of magazines and he reportedly dominated a yet-unreleased Cosmopolitan magazine poll of the most popular young actors in Hollywood.
He is so hot that filmmakers wanted him to parade around in his underwear during "Kuffs." The actor, who does appear shirtless in the movie, put his foot down on what he saw as a gratuitous skin show.
But while Mr. Slater was able to control the situation in this case, he said he knows that with increased star status come more responsibilities and pressures. He said he's aware of it, but not necessarily anxious to hasten it.
"This certainly has been a wonderful year and I'd be an idiot to complain, but I think I'm a long way from being one of those superstars who carries entire pictures on their backs.
"I really don't want that; that's too much pressure for me right now. I'm too young to have a studio rely on me. Let Costner do that kind of stuff. I don't even want to get to the point where it's up to me how a movie does at the box office."
When he finished filming "Kuffs" six months ago, Mr. Slater announced that he was going to take some time off to rest and spend time with his family.
"Doing three films, back to back to back, was too much; I was exhausted and I needed a chance to rest and to spend more time with my family. I also needed to find other things to entertain myself with besides work.
"What these six months did was teach me patience. I plan to make acting a lifelong thing, not just something I do when I'm young. I need to nurture this career, and that means taking the time to look for the right projects."