Actor Christian Bale discusses his career, and his role in the film ‘American Psycho’.
There’s been so much talk about the American Psycho ratings-board controversy – the sex, the drugs – that we’re in danger of losing the real news: The hilarious, terrifying performance of Christian Bale.
When you play a character as reviled as Patrick Bateman, the protagonist (hero is not the right word) of American Psycho, you automatically take up residence in the center of a storm. And so, while Christian Bale has seen his quarter-hour come and go with each new film over the last decade, the spotlight is currently shining even brighter than usual. First came the initial shock: that feminist director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol, 1996) was adapting Bret Easton Ellis’s novel, infamous for Its fetishistically violent caricature of ’80s vapidity. Then Bale and Harron were temporarily ousted from the project when Leonardo DICaprio decided he’d make a great Bateman. Finally, the MPAA took objection not to the freeflowing blood but a single, satirical sex scene, forcing Harron to reedit the film to avoid a deadly NC-17 rating.
Granted, there’s been hype swirling around Bale for a longtime. His film debut was as big as it gets – especially for a thirteen-year-old kid from Bournemouth, England – when he was chosen as the lead in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987). Every few years since, from the wholesome Little Women (1994) to the fulsome Velvet Gold-mine (1998), tastemakers have declared him this close to celestial heights. Now he’s reached his destination, due less to any controversy than to a dazzling, gleefully charismatic performance: He altemates Bateman’s mild and malevolent masks as easily as the character shrugs himself into Cerruti suits. One of the running Jokes in the film is that no one can remember Bateman’s name. Thanks to him, no one’s likely to forget Bale’s.
Elizabeth Weitzman: How do you even begin to approach a character like Patrick Bateman?
Christian Bale: The general concept in acting is that you try to hide the fact that you’re giving a performance. But Bateman is constantly performing. He really has no sense of self except for a complete lack of self. A lot of other actors had come in and tried to make him really real, tried to plug into the mind of a murderer. But I always felt that he was based on this ridiculous exaggeration that Bret got partly from that yuppie killer, Robert Chambers, but also from looking at people in… well, the back of Interview magazine.
EW: [laughs] Care to explain?
CB: People who other people might look at and think they want to emulate, people who supposedly live this charmed life. Guys who look great, work out, and seem to have lots of money at a ridiculously early age. But what the hell is underneath it all? What if there’s nothing underneath, if they’re just desperate men trying to feel something? I never approached Patrick Bateman as though the first thing about him is that he’s a serial killer. The first thing is that he’s a symbol of the excesses of the ’80s, of capitalism with no trace of ethics or spiritualism.
EW: Is this a movie that’s also about the current era?
CB: I think it’s absolutely relevant to today, although now things are a lot quieter. Some of the guys I spoke to when I was researching the movie told me that it’s still their mission to put their whole lives on hold for ten years just to go crazy earning money. But the difference between Bateman and most of the Wall Street types is that those guys actually do work their asses off. Whether people consider it to be fair that they make so much money, they do generally put in bloody eighteen-hour days.
EW: Do you see the ’80s repeating itself now?
CB: I was sixteen in 1990, living in a little seaside town in England with no sense of this ’80s world that I’ve lived in American Psycho. Frankly, I’m not really qualified to be talking about the state of the ’80s in America.
EW: From your performance, it appears that you know an awful lot about it.
CB: I didn’t really need anything but the book. It’s so richly detailed, there was enough for me to base my entire performance upon. The rest of the research was out of curiosity. I also saw movies that Mary asked me to watch: some Alfred Hitchcock, a couple of Roman Polanskis. But just for the styling. She wanted to make sure we were on the same track as to how she envisioned the movie.
EW: Was Psycho  one of the movies you watched?
CB: No. Obviously there is reference to it, down to [the character] being called Bateman, but the story that I found a closer parallel to was [Oscar Wilde’s] The Picture of Dorian Gray , which is very much like American Psycho.
EW: What parallels do you see there?
CB: The obsessive vanity of the character, his complete embrace of amorality, the indulgence and excess of his companions, and the apparent absolute enjoyment of glamour belying the complete bleakness and despair underneath it all.
EW: The ratings board asked Mary to cut a scene that’s very much about vanity-when Patrick watches himself in the mirror while having sex with two women. Do you think it should be sacrificed for an R rating?
CB: I don’t know that there’s a complete movie without that scene. It would be a big, gaping hole. I understand that the powers that be do really want an R. I hope that’s not because they’re saying, “Oh, we want kids to go see this,” because I never made it for young kids to see.
EW: Would you be upset if kids went to see it?
CB: I wouldn’t be upset because I know that I absolutely could have seen it at that age and been fine. But generally, this isn’t a kid’s movie. I would question it if I saw a family heading off to see American Psycho together. But apparently the main problem is that many theaters just won’t release NC-17 movies and many newspapers won’t advertise them. They intend to release it in about 900 theaters, and an NC-17 rating would drop it to about 100.
EW: Which would you prefer–to have that scene cut and then open in 900 theaters or leave it intact and be in 100 theaters?
CB: [laughs] I don’t know. Whilst I know this movie isn’t going to set the malls on fire, I would love it if as many people went to see it as possible. But I think it is such a funny scene. So you’ve sort of got me there.
EW: Although it’s toned down considerably from the book, there is some very graphic violence in the film. Are they going to have to cut that as well?
CB: No, it’s just the sex scene. Kind of ironic, isn’t it? Not that I think the violence in the movie should be cut. I find it totally tolerable. You know what I want? That it goes out as the NC-17 version full-on. Put in more scenes. What the hell, you know? Have it in 100 theaters and have every theater be sold out and word-of-mouth grows so much that the chains just can’t resist putting it in extra theaters.
EW: The Scream movies played in thousands of theaters, and I don’t know that they’re any less graphic.
CB: There seems to be some weird judgment whereupon big mainstream movies can be incredibly violent and nobody seems to care. I guess what it comes down to is the formula, which American Psycho is missing. There is no punishment for Patrick except his own existence, whereas in most of those movies there’s a definite hero and the bad guy gets his comeuppance and everything ends happily, no matter how gory it’s been.
EW: Were you shocked by the book’s violence when you first read it?
CB: I read the script first, and I was biased against it. I wasn’t interested in the idea of a gritty analysis of a killer, with the lead actor looking like he’s won the character role of a lifetime, in which he can show what a bad boy he really is. I thought, “Oh God, I don’t want to read this,” sat down, and found it hilarious. Then I read the book. I thought Bret managed so well to get that real guilty laughter, the straight-out humor and then the extreme horror and repulsion. But I do appreciate that it’s not everybody’s cup of tea.
EW: When you’re playing a character that’s so heinous, do you have to find a way to like him somehow?
CB: There isn’t anything to like about him at all. I certainly liked performing him, but it was because he thinks he’s so fucking cool and just the shit, but is really such a cheesy dork.
EW: Were you ever freaked out by him?
CB: I never was. I could completely switch him off at the end of the day. I slept very well. However, when I played Jesus [in last year’s TV movie Mary Mother of Jesus], I had nightmares constantly. I had dreams of blood dripping from the ceiling and my palms.
CB: I don’t know exactly, you’d have to explore my psyche. [laughs] With Bateman, there was never any feeling of playing a real character, so he didn’t linger at all. With Jesus, there are so many expectations.
EW: You certainly committed to Bateman physically. How do you feel about the new, pumped-up you?
CB: I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get affected by it slightly. But I swear, the bigger your muscles get, the duller you are. You become fascinated with carbs and protein and ripped abs and things that are just not interesting at all. I’ve maintained the fitness aspect, but with Bateman it’s all about the aesthetics. He’s out snorting coke all night, doing shots, and then getting up and doing his aerobics.
EW: There’s been a lot of talk lately about the unsteady state of masculinity at the dawn of the century. First there was Fight Club, then Boiler Room, and now your movie. Is there something in the air right now?
CB: Images of masculinity seem to have altered quite a bit. There’s a cultural celebration of boyishness, rather than manliness, going on, if you look at a lot of the male models and at what I was striving for in American Psycho. I mean, you really can’t imagine Robert Mitchum–or any man’s man–counting his calories!
EW: It seems appropriate here to ask you how you felt about nearly being replaced by Leonardo DiCaprio.
CB: For better or worse, I became much more business-savvy because of that whole experience. Up until that point it had been a simple, happy process with a director and the actor she felt fit the part best. And then suddenly, this business monster reared its head. The creative side absolutely wanted me and the financial side didn’t.
EW: You’ve been acting for fifteen years. Did you ever doubt that this is what you want to do with your life?
CB: Oh, absolutely, yeah.
EW: When was the last time?
CB: About three hours ago.
By Elizabeth Weitzman.