Flaunt (April 2000)


On the first sunny day in three wintry, wet weeks, the garden within the walls of L.A.’s famed Chateau Marmont is bursting with color. Fuschia-and-white flowering azaleas pop out of huge, green mounds, while pink camellias take refuge under the shade of tall oak trees. If this was a scene in a film, a dark cloud would pass in front of the sun as a visibly agitated Christian Bale flings open the weathered doors leading to the garden, wearing jeans, a sweater, blue suede athletic shoes, and – most noticeably – a frown. “Thought you’d cut half an hour off the interview by being late, did you,” I suggest, jokingly. “I’ve had a terrible morning,” replies the actor, tersely “Shall we sit outside?” I ask, gesturing to a rattan chair next to a table in the corner of the patio. The actor takes a seat, and just upon settling in, springs to his feet and exclaims, “I think I’m going inside to initiate some service. I need some coffee or a coke or something.” Bale returns to the table, waiter in tow, juggling a tray supporting two large, white, ceramic bowls with lion’s heads on each side for handles. He places the steaming lattes with silvery accoutrement on the table. “I’ve just seen your new film, American Psycho, and I think it’s the best work you’ve done so far,” I try, foregoing the comedic tone. He smiles and lights a Marlboro. The sun peers out from behind the clouds.

Christian Bale’s got reason to smile. With 20 films under his belt, including Empire of the Sun (age 13), Newsies (18), Portrait of a Lady (23), and Velvet Goldmine (24), he’s worked with such directors as Jane Campion, Kenneth Branagh, Steven Spielberg, and Todd Haynes. The 26-year-old, Welsh-born actor recently completed the coveted lead role (Leo DiCaprio opted for The Beach instead) in the Mary Harron-directed film American Psycho, adapted from the Brett Easton Ellis novel of the same name. Psycho is a tale of the excessive ’80s, about a seemingly perfect, obsessive, yuppie stock exchange trader, Patrick Bateman, who is, by the way, a crazed serial killer. American Psycho, the movie, is stirring up the same controversy as its original incarnation due to its violence, intensely dark tones, and sex. Recently the film’s higher-ups heard the dreaded dictum from the Motion Pictures Ratings Association that plagues so many “edgy” movies these days: You have to cut a certain scene to get the film from an NC-17 rating to an R-rating. The questionable no-more-than-a-minute-long scene involves Bateman and two prostitutes he’s hired for a little not-so-casual sex.

What was so offensive about the sex scenes in American Psycho?

I was told that the general practice when approaching the Board with a graphic scene is always to put in more of the scene than the director really wants. Then, when they do ask them to change it, they can change it, and it actually remains the way they wanted it in the first place.

All this stink about a little rear-entry sex?

I don’t actually know the specifics. I know that I had to change two lines. Apparently changing “asshole” to “ass” makes a difference (as in “Show me that asshole”). I was told that the “asshole” had to be dropped out because the way it was said, “asshole,” sounds a bit like a prolapsed rectum. Also the line, “Don’t just look at it, eat it,” had to be changed to “Don’t just look at it.” I think it’s a great line. I don’t think it’s everybody’s cup of tea, but I hope that one stays in. Initially, it was surprising, but was really actually sort of predictable. I don’t think that any of the movie needs to be censored, but if anyone is going to take objection, it’s always about sex, not violence. I’m also unsure exactly what part they’re objecting to because they said “the tone” was unacceptable. In the book, the two prostitutes were orgasming like crazy and having a hell of a time. We decided that this was all in Bateman’s mind – he was appearing in his own porno film. These are prostitutes, they’re doing their job. They’re not likely to be getting a great deal of pleasure from it, so they have bored, blank faces. It seems that if they’re going to pick a bone, is the bad message really that prostitutes don’t necessarily orgasm with their clients? That’s a bad message? I have a sneaking suspicion that some studio thinks it’s damaging to kids.

American Psycho isn’t a kid’s movie.

That’s the actual point, the main problem. Growing up in England, I always forget that the American ratings are very different. Here, an R-rating means that anyone can see a film as long as they’re with someone who’s 17. That doesn’t sit well with me. There are 12-year-old kids who could deal with this movie, but as a general rule, I wouldn’t be happy if I saw a 12 year old walking in to see American Psycho; it’s not who we made the movie for. Initially, when I heard NC-17,1 thought, what’s the matter? But that’s going on the English ruling where nobody under 18 gets in; it doesn’t matter who you’re with. It definitely puts you in a spot because the distributors, and even myself, don’t want NC-17 if that means that it can only be released on, say, 50 screens instead of 900, which is what it’s supposed to be. And, as a NC-17 movie, a lot of theaters won’t show it and a lot of newspapers won’t advertise it – then, there’s almost no point in releasing the movie.

The director, Mary Harron, changed it from a gory horror story by adding a sick sense of humor.

When I read the book, I see a sense of humor, but I may be a bit biased because I read the script before the book. And when you read a book, you are running your own perfect movie in your head. It’s not just a black comedy, it is disturbing and chilling. It shouldn’t be written off as humorous; there definitely is a sick humor about the whole piece.

American Psycho gives a definite nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s sense of humoristic horror.

Mary actually asked me to watch a few Hitchcock movies – Frenzy and Shadow of a Doubt – just because she’s a big fan of Hitchcock. I believe she’s also a Stanley Kubrick fan, and certain people have certainly mentioned resemblances to Clockwork Orange. If anything, the lighting, the minimalism, and the whiteness. It was done so well by Andrzej Sekula [director of photography], that I feel slightly nervous just looking at the images of it – not in any way scary, but just empty It’s sort of that feeling when you’re in a fluorescent-lit room and you just can’t get comfortable. Gideon Ponte was the production designer, and I think he did an incredible job. This was, by Hollywood standards, a low-budget movie – I think it was six million dollars. It was very intentional that Bateman’s apartment look as if it was lifted from the pages of an interior decorating magazine.

Bateman’s daily beauty ritual was hilarious and quite familiar.

It was quite literally a face mask, psychologically as well, him putting on his mask for the day Everyone can relate to that in some fashion, whether it be attempting to get through a particular situation by putting on a brave face. With Bateman, that’s all there is, 24 hours a day. He doesn’t get back to his apartment with a sigh of relief, “I’m me again.” With him, there isn’t a “me” to fall back on. One thing that was interesting in playing Bateman is that he says he’s an abstraction of himself, and he really is. That was one of the reasons Mary thought I should play him: I never once questioned the motivation of why Bateman had become this monster, and a lot of actors approached it from that point of view. Bateman, at age five, was not important to the story – you don’t need to know any more about him than you do at the beginning of the film through the end of the film. I couldn’t begin to tell you anything about him before that; he is such a façade. He sort of just appears from nowhere. Because of that, there was a very different approach to playing the character than usual. Typically, you want to disguise the fact that you’re giving a performance. His stylization and shallowness meant that I didn’t have to hide that I was giving a performance because Bateman is performing the whole time. In a sort of weird way, in order to get those physical aspects – his facial preparation, his workout routine, his obsession with his physical side – I actually had to adopt some of his characteristics in order to achieve that. The psychology I could fake, the physicality I couldn’t fake, obviously. It’s not just an actor’s vanity Bateman wouldn’t be Bateman if he didn’t have the six-pack abs. I had to become obsessed with that myself in order to achieve the character. There was no choice. And the “body thing” begins to take over your whole life. You start to become obsessed with it – facials, going into the sunbed, manicures, eating the right things. It gets to the point where if you miss one day, your body starts to feel terrible because your body craves it after a while. I did a real crash course because I had to do it in just a couple of months, but I found myself unable to help looking at someone else and going, “Oooh, they should work out more” or “They’ve really worked on their shoulders.” Really, sort of boring questions begin to come into your mind all of the time. I just happened to immerse myself in it totally.

The Dorian Gray approach to looking good is a big business now.

There’s a difference between looking good and taking it to the obsessive, narcissistic extreme. To Bateman, his image of what he looked at as a successful man is somebody who is obsessed with counting calories and wanting to make sure that his six-pack is showing. Bateman is the Dorian Gray of the twentieth century, and there are quite a few similarities between the two books. I can’t imagine Robert Mitchum sitting down at the table and saying, “I can’t eat a baked potato at seven o’clock in the evening – that’s something you do earlier in the day, otherwise it’s going to store fat.”

Well, you know, no one ever grows old in Hollywood.

That reminds me of that billboard lady in Hollywood, Angelyne. She’s really about 70, isn’t she?

At least. Tell me about filming the sex scenes in the movie.

It was as daunting to me initially as it would be to anybody If I was asked right now to stand up and strip off, I wouldn’t do it. It’s like jumping off a building, and just before you jump, the thought of doing it is nerve-racking. Once you do it, you’ve done it, and there’s actually quite a high. In American Psycho, with the sex scenes, Mary just said to me I should choreograph the different sexual positions. I drew little stick figures on a piece of paper showing a variety of positions, and it was like ordering sushi. She said, “Okay, we’ll have that one, two of those, one of those.” We also had a closed set with only people who absolutely had to be there. She rolled the cameras and basically we did it as long as we could before we started laughing. I’ve found that sex scenes always end in laughter. We did it about three times until we were laughing so hard we had to stop.

As you know, you are huge on the Internet, and the fans on your Website and in your fan club seem to be pretty young. How do you think they will react to American Psycho?

How young? There are a lot of Newsies fans. But certainly there are a lot of different fans coming to the Web page, although I don’t really go on it myself. I’m told about things that are going on, and I go on it from time to time.

Are you talking about the “official” Website?

Yeah, yeah. There are many different ages of fans. There are Newsies fans, and Little Women fans, and then the films Metroland and Velvet Goldmine, which brought in a whole different slew of fans. Likewise, I’m sure American Psycho will bring another horde of different ages or mentalities. I hope that throughout there’s an intelligence that is the common thread. There are also fans of the book that are waiting for the film. I know that a lot of people are also awaiting some extreme violence – actually seeing it.

Does a violence-seeking fan make you nervous?

I wouldn’t say they were my fans; they’re more a fan of the book, which I view as a very intelligent and a very misunderstood book. Some people say it is misogynistic, but to me they’re confusing the book with the character. Others read it as a complete shockfest, and those are the ones who view it just as a horror movie.

How are so many people upset already when no one’s seen it?

A lot of people haven’t read the book, but think they know an awful lot about it, and a lot of their opinions are based on the reviews of the book. I think that’s unfair in that they focused on the graphic violence and often gave excerpts from those portions of the book. There was this whole satirical side to it, and it really is an intelligent book. That it is relying on sex and violence as a completely titillating experience, it’s really not. It’s almost an absurdism that he’s a serial killer. It’s an analysis of an era and man at his worst, not a serial killer.

Are people obsessed with their looks that much?

Vanity and obsession with youth, absolutely Bateman was, of course, written as an exaggeration, everything about him is an exaggeration, and slightly absurd. Christ, there are a lot of very exaggerated, slightly absurd people walking around. Hollywood is a particular focal point for it. There’s actually a great correlation between Hollywood and what we’re showing in the movie, especially with the celebrity factor of Hollywood. There’s this very dodgy ground that every actor finds himself on at some point, suddenly playing it careful. It’s an awful thing when you see it starting to happen to great actors. Suddenly the celebrity side kicks in more than their creative side. They begin using words like “bankability” and all that. I mean, sure, be savvy about the business side of acting, you have to, it’s your living, but not at the expense of the acting. The Ken-doll-look, which we went for with Bateman, for instance, it’s completely plastic, inhuman, unrecognizable really to anyone outside of a small group of people in Hollywood. Having said that, I’m not indicting people looking good on screen. Absolutely, I want to see Ken Loach movies, Gummo’s or whatever. A good actor is anybody who is always prepared to make a fool of himself. That goes for looks. It shouldn’t always be about looks. There’s something to be said for going to the movie now and then to look at beautiful people. I like doing it as well.

Actors get paid very well to make fools of themselves.

There is a very small group of actors that get paid a lot. I’m totally happy with what I get paid, and I’m a working actor, and especially working in movies, there’s never bad pay. The majority of actors are out there doing incredibly foolish things for little or no money too.

Isn’t there one scene in every movie that you dread because you’ll feel silly doing it?

I tend to find that if you don’t have any sort of proper communication and trust with the people you’re working with then, yes, you dread it. If you do have that trust, you look forward to it because it becomes quite a kick that you’re going to be doing something that frankly could go very bad and could be quite embarrassing. With Bateman, I was never nervous about any scene whatsoever. There’s a whole feeling of failure on certain scenes when you do have to step up to the plate, and if you really don’t go balls-out with it, it’s not going to work. It’s a horrible feeling if you can’t do that, and it’s such a fantastic feeling if you do go over that edge. You get your heart going, and it’s a high, a complete buzz. It’s similar to when actors who have done theater – which I haven’t – talk about the immediate reaction from acting on stage.

I just don’t understand how someone can get “that buzz” doing the same lines every night for months.

I don’t know either. I just worked with Toni Collette again on Shaft Returns, and now she’s doing this musical on Broadway. Potentially, she’s going to do that for a year! I find that very, very daunting. I can imagine thinking, Okay, I’m going to sign on to this for a month, but beyond a month, I’d start thinking, Christ, can I keep this up? It’s like playing sports every night, there’s some real stamina required for that. There are plays that have been going on in England for 30 years. Ohhhh, listen. I went and saw Siegfried and Roy in Las Vegas recently. They’ve been doing that show for 30 years; when I went it was their thirtieth anniversary. They’ve been there at the Mirage doing two shows a night for 30 years! They were just going through the motions, and they looked tired! They looked like they should have stopped 20 years ago.

Everyone calls you a cult actor. How does one become a cult actor?

I don’t know. I have no idea. Maybe it just requires a lack of business savvy.

You only work on projects you’re deeply interested in…

I hope to choose movies that I would want to see. When you take a movie role it’s quite a commitment. You’re committed to a part that you have to be interested in for the full five months. If you take a part that you’re mildly interested in, that’s a long time. Actors have got to pay their bills like anybody else, but ideally I can kill both birds with one stone.

You’ve killed 20 birds so far; American Psycho is your twentieth film.

Really? I don’t have all of them at home.

Have you seen all of your films?

Yeah. The most fulfilling thing is actually working on the set, feeling like you’ve nailed a scene, like you’ve really gotten it. It’s actually great to see the movie, but I’d say that was a secondary excitement to actually getting it right on the day. I can’t resist. I’ve had a couple of notions now and then, “Maybe it’s not a good idea to see the movie,” but it lasts about two minutes. I can’t resist; I have to watch it. It’s also because I always think that I’m participating in the director’s movie, and I want to see that it all works, how they made the movie, that I understood what they wanted to make. It’s like a huge jigsaw puzzle, and I can’t resist wanting to take a look. I generally prefer seeing it by myself. American Psycho I saw on video by myself, and the first time on big screen was at Sundance. I think it doesn’t matter too much because when I see one of my films for the first time, I can’t just sit back and watch it and be objective about it. First, because I’ve not been involved with the editing and things have been changed, scenes have been moved around. So, I’m looking at that, being surprised, going, “Oh, scenes are gone, cut,” and it takes a few viewings before you can sit back and attempt to watch it like somebody else would.

What about someone else’s movie?

With that, I tend to watch it for the enjoyment, unless an accent is really terrible. I prefer to be able to immerse myself in it so that, “Does it take you? Do you feel anything? Do you think?” Whatever it is, rather than looking at it from a technical point of view.

I just saw The Next Best Thing last night and couldn’t help but watch Madonna’s acting abilities… or inabilities…

I think that’s always a difficulty, someone like Madonna is always going to have to be exceptional in order to forget that it’s Madonna. She’s so famous, not for characters that she’s played, but for her or for the performance that she gives of herself. That’s what she’s known for, so we’re so aware when she’s being someone else. It’s a tricky thing. My experience with American Psycho has made me think that I don’t want to wait a year and a half to get a movie that I really love made again. Why didn’t I get it made immediately? Because I wasn’t well-known enough. I said to myself, “I’ve got to sort this out.” You’ve got to reach a balance. The more people know about you, the more likely that that side of the film business is going to accept you and want you to do a movie. But the more they know about you, then what happens is what happened with you when you saw The Next Best Thing. Everybody sits there and looks at the celebrity. It’s a tricky thing to get people to still believe in your characters even though they’ve been watching you for years.

Will you do a big blockbuster movie?

I sort of think that Shaft Returns is that. It’s a big Paramount movie. John Singleton directed it and Samuel Jackson is in it. It’s a big action movie, and I’ve never done anything like that. I haven’t seen it, but I hope that it’s well worth it. I have no sort of allegiance to “Oh, I just want to be an indie actor.” I want to do good scripts. I don’t care if it’s an independent project. I think that if an actor is talented enough, he can do anything. He can do a movie because it’s just going to be fuckin’ huge and he can get a big payback from it. I can understand that. To me, there’s too much importance put on it. Do what you want to do. It’s your life. I’m not going to get on a high horse and say, “I hate actors who do that.” We’re acting. We’re not going to war or anything, we’re acting.