Gear (May 2000)


He nearly lost out to DiCaprio – now Christian Bale is ready to make a killing as the Wall Street maniac in American Psycho

Being famous is a strange thing. It’s sort of like having an all-access pass to the world. You get to do things other people will never do, meet people other people will never meet, and go places other people will never go. It’s like being a member of a special club – and membership, as the people at American Express have been saying for years, has its privileges. What no one tells you is that there are degrees of fame, an intricate and vaguely Darwinian system of fabulousness that you, as an aspiring famous person, must traverse. The is something that Christian Bale is learning.

Bale and I are in Serena’s, a bar in the basement of New York’s famed Chelsea Hotel. We’re also early. Serena’s isn’t opened yet and the bar’s staff, strewn across its dark opium den-ish decor in various stages of disarray, smoking cigarettes, folding napkins and tightening their aprons, appears a little unsettled by our arrival. “We open at six,” says a man from behind the bar who’s cleaning some glasses.

I check my watch. It’s 5:45. I explain that we’re doing an interview for a magazine and ask if we can sit down. Our glass-cleaning man appears unmoved.

And then, from around a corner, emerges Serena, the bar’s owner who, despite being British, moves and talks like a character from a Tennessee Williams play. “Interview?” she says. “Who’s being interviewed?”

I gesture to Christian and he shrugs in acknowledgment. Then Serena takes over.

Serena: So, why are you so interesting to be interviewed?

Bale: I’m an actor. I’m in a movie.

Serena: What movie are you in?

Bale: It’s called American Psycho.

Serena: American Psycho. Who’s in that?

Bale: Willem Dafoe, Reese Wkherspoon, Chloe Sevigny.

Serena: I think I’ve heard of that.

Bale: I was also in Velvet Goldmine, Little Women, Metroland.

Serena: I see. Do you know Minnie Driver?

To elaborate, Bale is the Welsh-born, Oxford-bred actor who you probably first saw – if you’ve seen him at all – as a wide-eyed 13-year-old in Steven Spielberg’s 1987 epic, Empire of the Sun, and probably last saw as a sexually confused, glam-rock-loving journalist in director Todd Haynes’ 1998 film, Velvet Goldmine. Though he appeared in Newsies, a strange Disney musical that Bale claims didn’t start out that way, and Su’ing Kids, a World War II period piece about, a group of dancing teenagers in Nazi Germany, Bale’s adolescent appearances were few and far between. Then came Velvet Goldmine, his official entry into the world of edgy adult roles, a film in which he does drugs, talks dirty and has sex with Ewan McGregor. It was important for Bale – a move away from family-oriented fare like Newsies, and one which, through its strong critical reception and fierce Bowie-digging fan base, cemented him as a gifted actor with eccentric taste and extraordinary talent. Now 26, Bale’s sort of famous, having amassed a disproportionately large cadre of fans based on his relatively short resume.

Other useful information: Bale’s dad is a commercial pilot and his mom’s a former circus performer; he owns a Triumph; and he once got in a bar fight in Scotland but can’t really remember much, except that it was a pretty good fight. Also, he loves animals.

Which brings us to American Psycho. Bale is the star of director Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial 1991 novel, chronicling the extracurricular activities of an investment banker, Patrick Bateman (Bale), with a penchant for killing people, mostly women, in new and interesting ways. Set against the aggro-ambitious backdrop of 1980s Wall Street, Ellis’ book has been heralded as a Great Gatsby for the Me Decade, an artistically daring and satirical look at consumer culture that cuts to some hard truths about the excess of the era. It’s also come under fire for its graphic depictions of sex and violence and altogether mean-spiritedness.

Harron’s film, even before it was made, met with the same kind of criticism from people wondering why a 46-year-old pregnant woman with a reputation for feminist politics would want to make a movie about a monster like Bateman – and, to be fair, Bateman is a monster, randomly violent, perpetually agitated and wholly uncaring. But what Bale and Harron, and Ellis before them, have had to answer for most frequently is the strange dichotomy that is Bateman: how a supposedly well-crafted character can be so inconsistent, moving easily between eloquent soliloquies on the relative merits of Phil Collins or East Side living and gouging out the eyes of a homeless man’or carving up a business acquaintance. Which is what makes Bateman such a disturbing character for so many people – the way he hedges the tenuous line between being a one-dimensional slasher whose every turn of the knife drips with irony and the utter believability of his attitudes toward life, love and the pursuit of the happy Reaganite ideal.

But there is another element to the book that’s overshadowed Ellis’ artistic accomplishments since its release, a dark and difficult element of Bateman’s story that conjures up images of outraged booksellers and raucous protests: its treatment of women, a 400-page process that involves the slicing of tongues from mouths and the nailing of limbs to the floor, the attaching of jumper cables to nipples and cold descriptions of horror and pain and the way burnt flesh stains designer sheets. It’s something even Harron and Bale are skittish about, and which has largely been left out of the movie. “I thought the book was a fascinating portrait of homo-erotic male vanities and testosterone-fueled competition,” says Harron. “Bateman acts like a parody of a teenage girl, preoccupied with clothes and status.That’s really what I wanted to focus on. It’s really about men and fitting in. The other stuff is kind of extraneous.”

“People have to understand that it’s a satire,” says Bale. “If we were to show some of the more graphic scenes from the book on screen, they would have a different effect than they do in print. It’s difficult to portray something on film without glamorizing it. And besides, it’s not a story about investigating the inner workings of a serial killer, and it’s not a straight-up slasher film. Bateman is not a real character, but rather this void that’s filled up by consumer culture. He’s what the culture creates, the logical extension, and 1 think Mary did a good job of conveying that.”

To research the role, Bale threw on one of the wide-shouldered Cerutti suits he wears in the film and spent time with real Wall Street people – stockbrokers, investment bankers and the like – watching them work and watching them play “A lot of the guys I met told me that they got their ideas about what it was to be an investment banker from Gordon Gekko,” he says, referring to the archetypal M&A tycoon played by Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film. Wall Street. “That’s how they dress and that’s how they act. Many of them had even read American Psycho. When 1 told them I was playing Bateman, a lot of the guys were like ‘Hey, man. All right!’ giving me high fives and pats on the back, which was really bizarre.

“The amazing thing is that not much has changed,” says Bale. “These guys are still living the kinds of lives the characters in American Psycho and Wall Street do. It’s just that no one really talks about it anymore. Even the guys I spoke to who are in their 40s now look back on the 1980s with the sort of attitude that, ‘Yeah, I’m glad it’s over. But it was a really good time.'”

The story of how Christian Bale became Patrick Bateman is a story of the kind of freedom fame can afford. While Bale was working on Velvet Goldmine, that film’s producer, Christine Vachon (who also produced Harron’s arty and well-received 1996 film, I Shot Andy Warhol), passed him a copy of a scene from the American Psycho script. Though Bale was initially unimpressed (“It was a scene involving a weird threesome”), he asked to see the rest of the script and it was then that his infatuation with Patrick Bateman began. “He wasn’t a love-able character by any stretch, but he was infinitely entertaining. I just couldn’t stop thinking about him, about what he was going to do next. He was magnetic.” Though Harron says she initially thought of Billy Crudup for the role, Bale’s thoughts on the script were spot-on. “I’m embarrassed to say that I found it very funny and I was actually very worried about telling that to Mary.” In fact, it was the exact response that Harron was looking for. Bale was cast in the lead, a modest budget of $6 million was laid out for the production, and American Psycho was ready to go.

However, around the same time, an executive at the film’s production company, Lion’s Gate, got the idea of sending the script to Leonardo DiCaprio, then riding high on the success of Titanic. they would offer him the part – along with the $20 million salary he would command for his next film – and deal with things accordingly if he accepted. But when DiCaprio s people indicated that the actor was in fact interested, everything began to fall apart. Lion’s Gate hastily issued a press release at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival announcing that DiCaprio had agreed to star in the film and, within days, Harron, who still wanted Bale, was removed as director, despite having spent two years developing the project. Oliver Stone’s name was quickly penciled in as a replacement and he went so far as to hold a reading in his Los Angeles office with DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz and Elizabeth Berkley in attendance. Overnight, a small, edgy film with a $6 million budget became a $40 million mainstream multiplex movie – and all without DiCaprio’s full commitment.

So when it was announced that DiCaprio was set to star in Trainspotting director Danny Boyle’s film, The Beach, Lion’s Gate, doubting that DiCaprio would ever commit to American Psycho, began to look for alternatives. Harron was reinstated as director, but the producers balked at giving the role back to Bale. “I wanted Christian,” says Harron, “but after Leo pulled out and the budget got so big, they wanted to try a couple other more recognizable actors. I had to make a couple of soft offers to people.”

One of those soft offers was made to Ewan McGregor, Bale’s friend and Velvet Goldmine co-star, who, himself, had just been knocked out of The Beach by DiCaprio. “The amazing thing is that I had just had dinner with Ewan in Los Angeles, and we were talking about how he wanted to do The Beach and I wanted to do American Psycho and we were getting forced out by the same actor,” says Bale. “I told him how much Bateman” meant to me and how I had to make the movie. Then, a couple of weeks later I heard that they offered the part to Ewan. I called him up and basically said, ‘Hey mate, what I said in Los Angeles still stands.’ And, in the end, Ewan didn’t accept the part.”

Only after Harron agreed to cast better known actors in supporting roles – Willem Dafoe as a detective on Bateman’s tale, Reese Witherspoon as his fiancée – was Bale brought back into the fold and, after many months of uncertainty and speculation, American Psycho would be made. “You know, I’m not a wealthy man,” says Bale. “I got paid scale, which is the lowest an actor can get paid, for American Psycho. But this was one of those parts I just had to do. There was never any way I was not going to do it and I waited around, turning down job after job, for the opportunity.

“It’s frustrating when you have the people in charge of money making creative decisions,” says Bale. He pauses for a beat. “Do I think Leonardo DiCaprio s a good actor?” he asks emphatically. “Yes. I think he’s a great actor. Do I think he could have played Bateman as well as me? No. No, I don’t.”

Bale’s splayed out on a couch at Serena’s, downing either his third or his fourth lager of the hour. He’s been busy lately, having just returned from Park City, Utah, where American Psycho was debuting at the Sundance Film Festival and where Bale did somewhere in the area of 100 interviews (“The movie isn’t even out, and I’ve already started lying”). He also just wrapped Shaft Returns, Boyz N the Hood director John Singleton’s reinvention of jive-talking detective John Shaft, starring Samuel L. Jackson. He’s going back to Los Angeles tomorrow, where he lives when he’s not working or hanging out in London, and has cleared his decks acting-wise for the next little while. “I’m just looking forward to taking a vacation, spending some time with my wife somewhere warm,” he says. He’s also becoming more famous: last year he won one of Entertainment Weekly’s online popularity contests, outpacing even the venerable Leo. But what he really wants right now is another beer. As if on cue, Serena stops by to check on us, all smiles and open arms.

Serena: So, how are we gentlemen?

Bale: Quite well, thank you.

Serena: How about Minnie Driver then? Do you know her?

Bale: No. I know of her but I’m sorry to say I don’t.

Serena: Well, she’s my niece and I’m sure she’d be very interested to meet you. You should call her when you’re in L.A.

Bale: I don’t know if I’d feel comfortable doing that. I mean, I don’t know her.

Serena: I’m sure she would really like to meet you.

Bale: I suppose I could call her. “Hello, Minnie? This is Christian Bale. I’m an actor and I met your aunt inNew Yorkand she’s British and I’m British, so there you go.”

Serena laughs, clearly charmed. Maybe this means he will call Minnie and maybe it means that they will meet and revel in their mutual Britishness, travel to New Yorkand clink champagne glasses at the bar at Serena’s, while Minnie’s well-doing aunt looks on adoringly. But from the tiny smirk that’s crept across Bale’s face, it probably doesn’t. Nevertheless, Serena’s still laughing, still smiling and fanning herself with her hand as she exits stage left.

Bale, however, has forgotten to order another beer. He tries to get our waitress’ attention but Serena’s has filled up since we arrived, and his winks and points fail to catch her attention. “I should probably be able to do this,” he says, concentrating. “I’m an actor. I’m supposed to have personality. I’m supposed to be able to get peoples’ attention.”

By Stephen Mooallem.