Helen Slater interview: Supergirl, Smallville, Ruthless People, making music and more

She was still in her teens when she flew to Britain for a year to become Supergirl in the film of the same name. And she spared us some time to talk about becoming the girl of steel…

Supergirl is a film that, as we found when we mentioned it on our Twitter feed (twitter.com/denofgeek), many of you have fond memories of. And rewatching it in advance of talking to its star, Helen Slater, I found it hard to disagree. It’s no classic, granted, but it’s a fun, fascinating movie, the ilk of which would never be made now.

So, one Thursday afternoon, we rang its star, Helen Slater, and she happily talked us through the production, and what happened since…

Reading into your background, the impression I get is that it was music that was your first passion. Is that right?

Well, I would say yes, but I don’t know if it’s more than acting. But it’s so personal, and it’s such a different thing because I’m writing it. It lives in a different category in my brain, but I certainly love acting as well.

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You’ve put a couple of albums out…

Yeah! I’m making my third album right now, which I’m really excited about.

Whenever I’ve spoken to people who’ve written music, it’s the writing part that really gets into their heads. That it’s such an intensely personal thing to do. It’s almost the scariest thing that you can put out…?

I think so. You feel so vulnerable whenever you’re writing anything, be it music, or a short story, or poetry. I mean, this is my opinion. It’s kind of almost like when you do it, you are vulnerable to the world to a certain degree. You have to have faith, not in a religious sense, that it’s okay to do that. Otherwise, it’s so vulnerable, you feel so exposed.

In the Internet age, too, do you find the world is a bit nastier to those who are putting themselves out there, who are taking the greater risk?

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I can only speak for myself, personally. For me, the experience of writing music as an independent artist, selling it on CD Baby, people buying it because maybe they recognise me from the film, it’s been very positive for me. It hasn’t been a huge money-making experience. I would love that. But I don’t think what I do as a singer-songwriter that I’m in that mainstream anyway. For me, I haven’t had any bad repercussions.

In fact, it’s been overwhelmingly positive. Not just from fans of Supergirl. That’s so nice, but it’s never going to be – I don’t want to say never – but right now, staying home, raising a kid, I can’t take it down a road yet to see if it’s financially viable. Until then, it lives in this very small, positive experience for me.

I wonder if that’s one of the huge positives, that you don’t need to do it financially? You’re doing it purely for the love of it?

I do feel very grateful. Although I have to say that, although I try to do it on a shoestring, even with that I’m so aware that it costs money to be mixing, to get the studio time. I’m very conscious of that. It’s not garage band, I’m not doing it on my computer. I use a lovely little studio. It’s not too expensive relatively, but I feel very mindful that okay, it’s my love, I can afford it, but I don’t feel I can be like let’s throw $10,000 at this. It has to be done on a budget, and that’s part of it too, to a certain degree.

Many of my musician friends are always in that feeling of saying I want to make the next record, I just don’t have the money right now. I do feel grateful.

You have a young daughter?

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Yes, she’s 15, which is tenth grade.

The reason I ask – without wishing to get too personal – is I’m a father of a daughter, and role models bother me.

I’ll come to Supergirl more shortly, but I went back to find another major female superhero role model that’s been on the cinema screen in the last 20 to 30 years. And I’m coming up with Catwoman, which has quite a fetishist approach, as opposed to anything like Supergirl that plays things straight. Was that something you were conscious of, and are you conscious of it bringing up a daughter?

You know, I never thought of it until you said it right now, quite honestly. In terms of positive teenage female superhero figures. That’s an interesting point.

I do feel very mindful of my obligation as a mother to make her world safe, to be there, to keep a dialogue going.

The other thing that struck me going back through your career is that you seem to have stumbled across some quite important mentors. You’ve cited Peter O’Toole in the past?

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Yeah. He did. I had been through [New York] Performing Arts High School, and studied Shakespeare before. I’ve told this story before, but I really feel like I can’t say it enough. I’m from New York City, I’m good with my hands. We’re very animated, you know? And he had me do Juliet for me, because I had one of her monologues to revise for high school. And he had me imagine I was holding two dandelions in my fingers, just to ground the energy down and let the poetry speak. That was such a powerful moment. I still remember feeling like I was in a masterclass.

The thing that struck me is that, if you look down the cast list of Supergirl in particular, it’d almost be a Harry Potter film today with the number of British thespians in there. There were people in there who were, by turns, brilliant, erratic, some with high profile problems. And you’re placed in the midst of that in your first major film role. You always seem quite affectionate towards the experience, though?

I do have very fond memories. Faye Dunaway, Peter Cook, Peter O’Toole, Brenda Vaccaro. They did that back then, and they do that now too, you’re right, with the Harry Potter movies.

For me, I was plucked from my New York City life at 18 and lived in England for a year. I met these incredible friends, felt like I was acculturated to the highest degree. Just to be around the accent for a year! So, it did have this very fairybook quality to it.

I don’t like to say I regret anything, it’s not my style, but I do quasi-regret that the script didn’t connect as much, and that it didn’t go on to be bigger.

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I talked with comic book writers about this over the years, and even in my anthropology class – I’m working on a college degree right now – we talk about whether there’s something about a super girl that isn’t quite landing. Why don’t we see more than that? Did they fashion her too much on Superman, they didn’t know how to make it more? I don’t know the answer to it.

I kind of fear that if the film was done now it’d be a very different beast, and it would be sexualised, which, in my view, would be the wrong way to go.

I think you’re right. Even when we’re on Smallville, and I’m about to go to Vancouver next week to shoot that, that Laura was very sexualised. They had her in ripped off t-shirts, cut-offs, very sexual in Smallville, which is television. I can’t imagine what it’d be like on the big screen.

I rewatched Supergirl yesterday, and have been reading to see what people say about it now. And it gets far more affection now than it did first time round.

I think that’s true. I’ve done some of the conventions over the last few years in England and the United States, and the fans are so lovely about it. I’m not saying it’s for everybody, but for some people, it’s so nice to hear them talk positively. I really appreciate that.

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I think it’s a fascinating movie. I think it’s very much a product of its time, but that’s not really a bad thing. I thought there was a real theatrical ensemble in the early stages, and it’s comfortable taking a lot of time to set things up. Again, I’m not sure it would go that way now…

It is becoming old fashioned…

And my impression at the end of it was that it was fun. I think that’s a reaction that’s not enough for many people now, though. What are your thoughts on it?

I haven’t seen it in quite a while, but I can just say that I, having a daughter, and thinking of what films she can watch, because we’ve been pretty strict about what she can see, I am aware that that would have been a good movie. There’s no blood or anything.

Has she seen it?

I don’t know if she’s seen it all the way through. She’s a little funny about that stuff. Very sweet.

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For her, it’s unique. Who else can go to school and say that her mum’s Supergirl!

Yeah! But she’s so not that kind of child at all. She’s not flashy, very humble, and down to earth, which I’m very happy about.

One thing that does come through whenever you talk about Supergirl is that there’s real affection for both the Salkinds, and also for director Jeannot Szwarc.

Well, look what Jeannot did! He cast me, and what a great break to have him choose me.

Was it true you were the first to audition?

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Yes.  Lynn Stalmaster [casting] is actually on YouTube talking about casting the movie. He talks about narrowing it down to eight girls. He talks about how he wanted to take the same approach he did with Christopher Reeve for Superman, and had me come in.

I think part of my having gone through Performing Arts High School, I was very bold. I had made a cape and a skirt. And I went in with glasses as Linda Lee. I was a little bit fearless. I don’t know if I would have had that if I hadn’t been through Performing Arts.

I do have to ask: do you still have the costume you made for yourself? It’d be worth quite a bit on eBay now, I’d wager!

No! [laughs] It’s funny, I wouldn’t have even thought of it! I’m sure it just went into some Goodwill bag.

Was it just one audition you had to do, because it took several months before you were cast?

No, I think there were two or three, because it ended with a screen test in England. There were two auditions in New York City, and then the screen test in London, if I remember that right.

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And that was prolonged?

I think I auditioned in either September or October of ‘82, and I don’t think I got the part until November, I want to say. It was a couple of months.

Were you aware you were always in the running?

No, I think I was very unaware. I find now, as I get older, I’m more aware of where I am when trying for things. But back then, it was just one more audition. It was something bigger than something else.

It’s a time where there’s less public interest in the casting process too, whereas now there seems to be a furore over who’s been called in for an audition.

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Yeah, yeah.

When you got down to the shoot itself, you talk about working with Peter O’Toole. And what I love about him in Supergirl is that it’s like he’s come in from a different movie altogether, a bit like Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. He’s clearly having a whale of a time.

[Laughs] Oh, yeah. Right, right!

I think when you have that much talent, and you’re even doing something like a comic book movie, you can’t really calm it down. It’s him!

I understand that you got to spend time with Christopher Reeve when you got the part. Was there anything in particular he passed on to you?

We were both at Pinewood Studios at England. I don’t know if he was just getting ready to work on Superman III, I can’t quite remember the timelines, but he was there.

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I can’t tell you specifically he said this, he said that. But the feeling was so warm and kind, and then we became friends when we got back to New York. I got to spend time with him, which was super-nice, no pun intended. But the feeling was very kind of brotherly, protective. I was only 18 and he was older. He may have been in his 30s by then.

You had a lot of protectors in the Supergirl universe?

I feel that way. My trainer took very good care of me. I felt very fortunate.

The beautifully bonkers production has left a mark too. We’ve had the cast of the satanic beast in the London Film Museum over here….

Oh, my god! [laughs]

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There is real affection to it, though, and when we put out to our readers that we were talking to you, there was such immense warmth towards the film and to you. What are you finding when you meet people at conventions?

The people are so lovely. And many of them say that the movie had a big impact on them at the time. They absolutely loved it. That and The Legend Of Billie Jean. Supergirl just had this powerful, I guess, effect. But at the time my feeling was that it didn’t do too well. I hope I get to keep working. Not realising that it was having an impact, and once it started running on television it had a mini-renaissance.

Looking back at the reviews of the time, though, you were the one who was perceived to have come out of the film the strongest. You picked up the Saturn nomination, too. Were you conscious of the reviews at the time?

I was actually more conscious that it wasn’t well reviewed, but maybe that was only in the United States newspapers. I felt sad about it, like “Oh, gosh, we didn’t get it right. I didn’t get it right.”

It was mixed, but my feeling overall was what a phenomenal experience. I’ve had the best time. I wish it had done better. I wish it was received better. And now many years later it seems that it was, to a certain group of people.

Because the plan originally was presumably to do two, three, four of these.

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Exactly. To have a series.

I wonder if a bit of it was that it came at a point when the Superman franchise itself had peaked.

My hunch is that – and this is just my opinion – the Supergirl story… and I don’t know what the answer is, but something about having a girl superhero needs to be different from a super man. It’s too similar in a funny way. I don’t think it should be sexualised, but I don’t know what the answer is. But something that brings it alive and makes it more accessible, maybe?

I suspect there might be an element of truth in that. You see even now that movie executives are still struggling to capture that, that it’s a male template, maybe?

Yeah, yeah. Something like that, I think it’s interesting that television series like Heroes, they’re getting closer because they’re making them real life. They’re ordinary people. But that doesn’t fit into the mythology of Supergirl. They have to be from another planet.

Maybe you need more of the history, to feel more of the values on Krypton. And for that to be the interesting thing that’s brought to Earth, to have those values. I don’t know, never thought about it. [laughs]

Looking back now, though, you seem proud and happy when thinking of the film?

I think even more accurate would be just gratitude. I was very grateful. I feel like I’ve been so very, very lucky in that way in that it’s allowed me to do things that I probably would never have gotten to do.

And it was Supergirl that opened the door to Ruthless People and The Secret Of My Success.

Absolutely, yes. Oh, yeah.

What a pair of projects…

Yeah! [laughs] Very different.

Yet, both interesting, and both far more than the two dimensional comedies that the video covers of the time pitched them as.

Yes, yes. Secret Of My Success had a more complicated storyline too, for sure.

You had to play Supergirl fairly straight, so when you got to do a comedy, do you feel yourself able to relax and breathe out a little? Would you say you have a natural affectionate for comedy, because certainly in Ruthless People

I love comedy! Just love it. It’s so fun, especially if you have chemistry with the people you’re working with.

Mostly, right now, at this age, at this point, I just feel that I want to work, period. It can be drama, comedy. I was doing CSI, and I was weeping every day for the loss of my son.

Television seems to be providing, by far, the most interesting and diverse roles at the moment, too. Would you agree with that thinking?

I would say, personally, for me, I just want to be a working actor right now, and television is more viable. I do a few little independent films that don’t pay much, but with television, it doesn’t pay a lot. But as a working actor you’re getting paid, you’re getting your healthcare taken care of. That way I feel like television is important in that regard.

And you have a theatre passion too?

Yeah, we have a little theatre group in Los Angeles, and we go to the theatre quite a lot. I would love to do a play, I feel a little hungry for that, perhaps not right now. But I do feel I’d like to do something there if something comes up.

You’ve written a musical, too?

I’ve written two musicals! One based on The Ugly Duckling, and one based on children and literature. They’re in very raw form right now. The music’s telling the story. They probably need a little structure, but I do have in mind to have a musical revue on stage, where you just have the songs.

It sounds a little like you’re coming full circle, then? With your training at the start and your love of writing music?

Yeah. I would love that. I would love to do it in a performing art setting where I could give back to the community that helped me so much.

The other way you’ve come full circle too is with Smallville, a seeming alumni club for those involved with Superman!

I have to say I think it’s my favourite job in the last 10 years. It’s so fun, and then when I did the conventions the fans loved the connection. It’s been such a positive experience. They’re so nice over there, and they make me very goddess-y over there! [laughs] Lots of make-up, and beautiful hair.

And the outfit isn’t quite as cold…!

Yeah! [laughs]

So, you’re just doing some stuff on the final season…?

Julian Sands and I are doing an episode. I wish it was more because it was so much fun doing it. But I guess they’ve got it all written. We’re just doing one episode.

And what are you up to next after that?

Right now, I’m off to Vancouver to shoot Smallville, so that’s what’s right now. And I’m finishing my third record as we speak!

Helen Slater, thank you very much!

Find Helen’s music over at CD Baby right here.