Matt Wilce takes a stab at Christian Bale, star of ‘American Psycho’.
Round about the time Patrick Bateman was slicing and dicing prissy New York debutantes, British actor Christian Bale was off filming his first major movie, Empire of the Sun, with Steven Spielberg. Fourteen years have passed since then, and finally Bret Easton Ellis’s scathing satire of ’80s consumerism has made it to the screen with Bale as Bateman. Bale’s portrayal of an American Psycho – perfect casting – is worlds apart from the boy-hero that made him a star, and the costume dramas that followed. Thankfully he won’t appear in the no-doubt inferior sequel, currently in production, that’s a response to the movie’s $15 million US gross. Bale recently returned to Tokyo to give us the inside story on murder in New York.
You weren’t the first choice for the part – Leonardo DiCaprio was originally approached – so how did you end up getting it?
I didn’t get offered the movie immediately, but after a number of conversations with the writer/director, Mary Harron, and then meeting her in New York, I signed on. I first read the script on the set of Velvet Goldmine, and the producer had worked with Mary before on I Shot Andy Warhol. I hadn’t read the book, but I’d heard a lot about it. I thought I knew what the book was about, so I was really surprised at the script. I believed American Psycho to be a gore-fest and purely about a serial killer. In the US, the book caused quite a controversy. Many reviews of the book unfortunately only mentioned the violence and not the satire and intelligence of it.
What struck you when you got the script?
When I read it I found myself laughing an awful lot. It’s not purely a comedy, but it’s so ridiculous in places that you can’t help but laugh at Bateman. I didn’t think that was the reaction I was meant to have. So when I called Mary, I opened the conversation by saying, “Look Mary I find the script is one of the funniest I’ve ever read. So should we stop talking immediately?” To which she said that’s the whole point. She feels that’s what most people miss about the book and the movie. It was the wit of the piece and the comedy of manners that she focused on.
What appealed to you about the character?
It was unlike any character that I’ve ever played or ever will play – I don’t think you get many Patrick Batemans in cinema. It was a perfect opportunity for me to distance myself from a number of nice-guy costume drama roles – in very good movies that I liked, such as Little Women and Portrait of a Lady. This was a chance for me as an actor to surprise myself and everyone else. I was also attracted because everyone told me it would be career suicide for me to play the part.
How did you prepare to play the role?
I think the initial misunderstanding people had about Bateman was that he was the centerpiece of a story just about a serial killer. To me it was almost irrelevant that he’s a serial killer. He’s a ridiculous exaggeration of the greed-is-good mentality of the ’80s. It’s about this 26-year-old with endless amounts of money and privilege, a so-called “Master of the Universe,” being able to get away with anything because he was essentially American aristocracy. It was really a comment about that period and capitalism at its worst, an era when image meant everything. So that was what I focused on. In my research, I found that Bret Easton Ellis had really painted a caricature of a serial killer, and he’d blended most of the famous killers to create Bateman, but it wasn’t a part that required very deep research.
Did playing such a violent and amoral character have any effect on you?
I think I enjoyed playing Bateman more than any character I’ve played. A lot of people thought it would be a troubling part to play, and that it would leave some sort of dark residue on my soul. The approach to the movie was not one of realism; it’s kind of a heightened reality. The characters in this movie are incredibly superficial. While Bateman performs in his everyday life, when he puts on his designer suit and shows his business card, it’s all a performance just like an actor. So I allowed myself to “perform” much more in this movie, and therefore I could just switch it off at the end of the day. It was actually one of the funniest sets that I’ve worked on.
The book is very much focused on American yuppie culture. Do you think it is ironic that a British actor ended up playing this role?
Yes. It’s also kind of ironic that the director, Mary Harron, isn’t actually American either. She was born in Canada, grew up in Britain, and was educated at Oxford and worked for the BBC. Mary felt that my understanding of the British class system would help me to play Bateman, as he’s part of a class system of wealth and success.
How did you go about getting in shape to play Bateman?
The character is so vain and obsessed with his looks. Whilst the psychology of the character was something that I could perform, you can’t fake the physicality. Being English, I tend to enjoy going down to the pub far more than going to the gym, so it was very unnatural for me. I just had to convince myself that I loved it, which was the most difficult thing about playing this part. Working out is incredibly boring. I swear its true that the bigger your muscles get, the fewer brain cells you have. I found I had to stop thinking when I was in the gym because if I thought about it, I’d realize how ridiculous it was that I was pumping iron when I could’ve been out having a drink and a cigarette and enjoying some lunch. I did three hours a day for six weeks with a personal trainer and some time before that. I ate an awful lot during training and then almost nothing during filming.
What’s it like being in Japan?
It’s wonderful to be back in Tokyo. I haven’t been here since I was 15 years old back in 1989, and I had a fantastic time then. I hope everyone here enjoys the movie.
By Matt Wilce.