Life & Culture

Supergirl for ever: actress Helen Slater talks myths and fame

As a teenager, she played the title role in the 1984 movie Supergirl. Now Helen explains why she is going back to college


When I speak to actress Helen Slater over Zoom, she’s about to go off to college. The actress, 58, is researching a PhD in mythology at the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Northern California.

“A lot of my attention has moved towards that because work has become so scarce for women in their fifties,” she says, without a shred of bitterness. “I have been so lucky in being under the wire [in Hollywood] and still being able to make a living at it.”

Slater may be “under the wire” but she’s very well-known to DC Comics fans. As a teenager, she played the title role in the 1984 movie Supergirl.

As the cousin to you-know-who, the movie didn’t quite take her to the heights that Superman star Christopher Reeve experienced, but for a time she was on Hollywood’s go-to list, working in comedies with Bette Midler (Ruthless People), Michael J. Fox (The Secret of My Success) and Billy Crystal (City Slickers).

It’s the role that keeps on giving, it seems. She’s already played Superman’s mother in the popular TV incarnation Smallville and Supergirl’s foster mother, Eliza Danvers, in the television spin-off show Supergirl, which ran for six seasons until 2021. Back in 2009, she even contributed to the 50th issue of the Supergirl comic.

She remembers seeing Laura Vandervoort, who played Supergirl on Smallville. “I’m probably 25 years older than her. But just seeing her [was] that odd experience of, ‘Oh, my gosh, that must have been what it was like when I would walk on a set at 18.’.”

At the time, Slater had just graduated from New York’s High School of Performing Arts —made famous by the TV show Fame.

After working with Matthew Modine and James Earl Jones in a TV special Amy & The Angel, she auditioned for Supergirl and her life changed.

While we’re here to talk about her new movie Confetti, Slater is happy to reminisce. Some actors balk at raking over the past — especially when their most famous role was one of their first. But Slater seems eternally grateful.

She’s a regular guest at ComicCon events where fans tell her stories about what Supergirl meant to them. “It becomes meaningful for them because of where they were in their life. And I have to say, hearing those stories, that’s been very moving. I’m very appreciative of that.”

Her new film Confetti is far from the comic-book genre, although there are definitely some heroes in it. Directed by Ann Hu, it follows a Chinese mother (Zhu Zhu) who brings her dyslexic daughter to America in the hope of getting her the help she needs.

Playing Dr Wurmer, one of those who tries to lend a hand, Slater was immediately drawn to the story because her own father, a television executive, had dyslexia. Likewise, the director based the story on her daughter’s struggles with the condition.

“When it’s super-personal, you can really relate to it,” says Slater. “Even if we don’t connect to dyslexia, personally, we certainly know what it’s like to feel unheard when you’re up against something and you’re not able to get the acknowledgement or validation from the world. So she’s exploring these interesting themes of advocacy — and having a mother advocating for you when you can’t — and that’s a universal theme.”

Certainly, Slater’s interest in myth tapped right into the story. “I mean, that’s a trope or a theme or motif that you find in so much literature, folktales, where the mother figure or a fairy godmother is shepherding the child.

"She would be lost in a way without her mother. It has a fairytale quality to it — a young child who is in the dark, who’s going to follow this path that will lead to her being… not happily ever after, marrying the prince, but there will be just this huge reversal in her story.”

Raised in Long Island, Slater’s own upbringing was “very New York Jewish, which means not religious at all”, she says, with a giggle.

“Honestly, no going to temple. My brother was barmitzvahed. He had an accordion player. It was like the bare minimum. Once I got older, because I’m a mythologist and super-interested in religious studies, now I do love reading folktales and learning more about the traditions and even the Psalms and pieces of literature.

“I identify Jewish as that kind of warmth and humour and the New York sensibility … that kind of kibbitzing and overbearing.

"These are the funny things that I relate to. I have a very overbearing Jewish mother [Alice Joan Slater]who’s brilliant, who went to law school. She’s a nuclear peace activist now, but she’s like a battleaxe: tough and strong. The culture, I guess, is what I celebrate.”

Given her love of comedy and music (she’s written several albums too) I can’t help but ask about her time with the brilliant Jewish comedienne Bette Midler.

Slater grew up listening to Midler’s LP The Divine Miss M “probably 10,000 times”, so working with her was both daunting and exhilarating.

“There’s a scene between her and I in Ruthless People,” she recalls. “I had to be crying and it wasn’t coming along.

"So that’s like the actor’s nightmare. Nothing was working. And I was 22 years old and feeling a little stranded. And she said to me, ‘Let’s do another take where you have to tell me I have cancer’.” Boom: the tears flowed.

In 1989, three years after Ruthless People, Slater married her husband, actor-director Robert Watzke. They have a daughter, now 27, and have been together now for more than 30 years.

So what’s next in Slater’s career? After she completes her PhD she may go on to teach or run workshops, she says. Given she’s part of a huge modern-day myth in terms of the Superman story, it seems apt.

“When you feel like you’re in the dark, there is so much that myth tells us,” she beams. And with that, she’s off for more study.

Confetti opens in cinemas today

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