No, Christian Slater wasn’t reluctant to do Lars Von Trier’s sex movie “Nymphomaniac.” “My fiancee was concerned,” he says, “because she’s not an actress and not remotely interested or involved in this profession. She’s never dated an actor before, so to hear of the project raised some red flags for her.”
Then again, Slater was one of the few in the cast who didn’t have to do the naughty stuff. He plays the father of the lead character, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg as an adult and Stacy Martin as a teen/young adult), a sex addict who relates her history of banging to a stranger (Stellan Skarsgard). Slater keeps his clothes on, save some hospital gown malfunctions.
He still had reason to be scared. Von Trier has a reputation as an intimidating monster, one he himself has cultivated and fed to a hungry press. But despite Bjork vowing never to act again after his “Dancer in the Dark” and Nicole Kidman running away from the sequel to “Dogville,” most actors have nothing but kind words for him. (Kidman has even said she’d work with him again.) Slater is no different.
“I found him to be very gentle and wonderful,” he says. “The scenes that I had to do were very gentle scenes. We shot some of it in his backyard. We used the area of forest he used to play in when he was a kid. I think he felt very sentimental about it.”
Slater’s material is atypically earnest and warm for Von Trier, and they add an important texture to a film that’s alternately comic and unpleasant (albeit not to the extreme of, say, “Antichrist”). “I’m very happy that those scenes are in there. The movie needs that sensitive, softer side. You need to understand that this girl did have some kind of deep, intense emotional background.”
Slater shot his footage over four months, coming in and out of a production that was much more wild when he wasn’t there. “I would hear about these stories about what they shot, the sexuality, the prosthetic that Shia [LaBeouf] had to wear — these crazy, insane stories,” he recalls. “But what was funny to hear was when they shot the first sexual encounter scenes, and then by the end they couldn't have cared less; they got desensitized. ‘Oh, let's just get naked again.’ [Laughs] But me, I would just shoot these sweet scenes with this 12-year-old girl.”
For Slater, his “Nymphomaniac” performance is kind of new big break. He first came to attention in films like “Heathers,” “Pump Up the Volume” and “Young Guns II,” usually playing smirking wiseacres who seemed to be doing Jack Nicholson impersonations. (In person he's more boyish and endearingly excitable.) His career has tapered off over the last 15 years — he’s mostly seen in DTV fare these days — but his “Nymphomaniac” turn is both prominent and revelatory, revealing untapped maturity and kindness.
Not that he was completely aware of this at the time. “Quite honestly, I didn’t know what we were doing,” he says. “[Von Trier] gave me no clear-cut direction how to communicate any of this stuff. I was making it up as I went along. He allowed improv moments. I think the thing he was most concerned about was slowing down — taking my time and not rushing through it.”
The whole experience was a kind of rebirth. “It was very unusual,” he says. “I kind of had to retrain myself.”
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