Reel.com (May 2000)

CHRISTIAN BALE GOES PSYCHO

Since his feature-film debut in The Empire of the Sun, Christian Bale has charted an innovative path for his film career. Wisely avoiding the typecasting that comes with teeny bopper roles in insipid comedies, Bale has played everything from a medieval prince to a young boy infatuated with the glam-rock scene. Now he has his most daring role yet in Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial novel American Psycho. Sporting a toned physique and a maniacal grin, Bale will definitely turn a lot of heads as psychopath Patrick Bateman – a role he almost lost to Leonardo DiCaprio. In this exclusive interview, Bale discusses the nature of Bateman’s psychosis, the irrationality of American movie ratings, and his upcoming role in John Singleton’s update of Shaft.

Q: In a recent Interview magazine you called Patrick Bateman a dweeb. What do you think turns a dweeb into a psychopath, specifically in Patrick’s case?

Christian Bale: I have an idea on that, but it has nothing to do with the history of the character or anything like that because I didn’t even delve into that. It would have been too realistic an approach to Bateman, who is not a real character. It is not that he is in any way vague or confused at all – he is very sure of his sensibilities about what he likes, why he likes things, what annoys him. To me it is certainty about everything. His obsession with minute details. His certainty that his life is pointless. That drives him crazy because nothing has any meaning and consequently he loses any sort of a conscience and has no limits. He can just as easily shake your hand and smile at you and pay you a compliment or bite your jugular out. He doesn’t feel anything and that is his own living hell.

Q: Do you think he remains unconfused even at the end of the film?

CB: No, by the end he is confused. He goes from this absolute sort of grip on control and such tension that he can’t bend at all. Then he breaks and goes from one extreme to the other – to complete despair and confusion. By the end, he has made the journey because – although he is a character without a character – there is some sort of an arc in that he does go from psychopath to complete psychotic by the end, absolutely in his own world and completely confused by society. No grasp on it whatsoever. He hasn’t even been able to be arrested and he cannot understand why and there’s this whole theme of mistaken identity, which leaves him questioning if he is even Bateman by the end. Then there is the question of has any of this actually happened or not and he just does not know.

Q: Mary Harron said in Filmmaker magazine that the movie was realistic up to a point. I would argue that the book is entirely surreal and I just wonder how you saw the film vis-a-vis the book?

CB: Yes, I do think it is surreal. I think the movie is very surreal as well. We never attempted for realism. I think that Mary is just saying that we weren’t going for some sort of cartoonish exaggeration, but there is a heightening to it. That was something that we had to be very careful about, but which didn’t become too massive that it was entirely caricature. It had to be somewhat of a parody. To me, the movie is very truthful to the book, to the scenes that Mary chose to take from it. A number of people have actually accused the movie of not being violent enough because it doesn’t include the extremely graphic violence that is in the book. It is two different mediums. I just don’t think it would have worked.

Q: No, it distracts from Ellis’ satire.

CB: Right. That would have become purely the focus as it did for many people with the book.

Q: I think it is a flaw in the book as well.

CB: Right, because it does draw attention away from the intelligence of the piece, because so many people, they say, “American Psycho – the rat scene!” That was what I thought American Psycho was going to be, which is why I was so surprised when I read the screenplay. Have you read and seen The Picture of Dorian Gray?

Q: Yes.

CB: There is a lot of correlation between American Psycho and Dorian Gray and between Bateman and Dorian Gray. In the movie of Dorian Gray, they chose to actually show this portrait. As I was reading the book, I had the perfect image of a portrait encompassing a life full of sin. Suddenly they show it to you in the movie and I thought it was ridiculous, and it ruined it for me in a lot of ways, although I think the rest of the film is great. I think the same would have happened with American Psycho if we had shown that violence.

Q: Let’s talk about the rating issue, which is nonsense. It seems to me that every time there is an issue about ratings, it is almost always nonsense. It is obvious that both you and Mary Harron want the film released without being cut. Anytime I read about something like that I just start to believe that movies will never reach a state of adulthood. And I wonder if that is something you just shrug your shoulders and wince about or is it something that is really a vital concern to you?

CB: I think that ultimately it does have to become a vital concern. It is people deciding for us what we are going to see or not and that is very objectionable. I do believe that, obviously, there has to be some form of ratings. I feel that with American Psycho probably the controversy with the book provoked [the ratings board] into feeling that they had to do something. It was just a matter of “which scenes shall we pick?” I do think that the rating system in America is very bizarre. In England, for instance, which is the ratings I am accustomed to, the film has been given an 18.

Q: By age, right?

CB: And that is it. Nobody under 18 comes in. There is no stigma about it at all. Many movies are 18. Over here, there is the bizarre notion that NC-17 is basically pornography and many theaters will not run it. Now what we face is the fact that American Psycho has been transferred to an R. Hopefully not too much has been cut. I haven’t seen the R version yet. But now, kids can go see it if they wish. A 20-year-old can take in a 10-year-old. We never made this movie for kids. That was not the point. I don’t wish to see that happening but that is the position that the movie is in.

Q: It is irrational.

CB: Yes.

Q: The other thing that struck me from the Filmmaker magazine interview was that Mary Harron described Bateman as a Martian trying to learn to act human but failing and killing people instead.

CB: Yes, that is sort of how she described him to me: an alien who is trying to understand or fit into society. It was a great description, really, because he is so inhuman but is attempting to understand these things called humans. Attempting to show warmth – and he really does try, you know, but there is just nothing there at all. He makes his confessional phone call. It is like he knows that this will be the moment to really break down and unburden himself and feel remorse. And it is a great representation, but it is not genuine and he sort of puts down the phone at the end and it is sort of like, “Well you know, it was a nice try anyway.” I think with the music and things, it is his recognition that people seem to enjoy music and feel something for it and so he has convinced himself that he does feel something for these incredibly banal mainstream songs.

Q: The one thing that crossed my mind when I read Harron’s comment is to me, Bateman – especially in Ellis’ novel and even in the movie because I think it is an accurate representation of the book – is uniquely American in that he seems to represent kind of a receptacle of the baser parts of materialism and capitalism and the culture of beauty that is so much a part of America.

CB: Yes.

Q: So I think that saying he is a Martian doesn’t really get at the Americanness of Patrick Bateman.

CB: The thing is, yes he is an American and he is supposedly living the life of the American dream or this incredibly charmed glamorous life. But he is alienated because he could not fit in outside of his own small world. He couldn’t fit in in many places of Manhattan, let alone in the rest of the country, and he is sort of quizzical about quite how people exist down to the point of what is – I remember in the book somebody asking what “broiled” meant and then these characters sort of look at each other in fear like they just have no idea of what goes on outside of their Upper East Side lives. Greed is good, the Gordon Gekko mentality – I suppose it is more obvious when it is associated with America, but there are equivalents all over the place. The reason I like to think of Bateman in that way is just because he is so inhuman that I have to approach him with this stylized point of view and not try to make him into too much of a fully rounded character. There is a chasm there where there really is just wind blowing through and there is nothing present.

Q: And it would be kind of terrifying to think of him as anything other than that.

CB: Yes, thinking that somebody like him could really exist.

Q: There was another article I read referring to the offer on the movie’s Web site where it says that you can receive e-mail from Bateman. That seems to disturbingly feed the people who are really devoted to the book in a way that gives you chills.

CB: Right. I haven’t actually seen those but yes, I do hear that it is quite disturbing. I spoke with those responsible and said that I wanted to make it very clear that it is not me responding on those e-mails because some people seemed to think it was.

Q: It seems like kind of a tacky marketing technique.

CB: Yes. I feel like it could become somewhat misleading. Obviously, I support the movie entirely and want to help it, but I don’t want people to be going in thinking that they are going to see one thing and find something else. This isn’t Scream.

Q: Thank God it’s not! Is Patrick one of your screen roles that you are most proud of?

CB: Yes. I mean, partly because there is much more involvement when you are playing the title character. And also, just because I felt so immersed in this whole movie because I was on board so early, before there was any money or anything at all. And he was such a great character to play and unlike anything I ever played before. The set was such a good-natured set and everybody was really collaborative and worked excellently together. So yes, I’ve got really fond memories of it and there was a lot of laughter in making this movie.

Q: I assume there was same major bonding when you overcame the little Leonardo hurdle?

CB: Yes. It took awhile but we did triumph in the end.

Q: You just completed work on the Shaft movie with John Singleton. How was that?

CB: It was quite an experience coming off of American Psycho and going directly to Shaft and witnessing the difference when there is a huge amount of money involved in a movie. Obviously I was not nearly as involved in Shaft as I was with American Psycho just because of the nature of my character. There was a certain amount of relations and things which I just sort of felt, “Right, I am not going to get involved in this because it is going to be distracting.” All the ingredients are there to really make something great. I mean, Sam Jackson is great and there are really good actors. Toni Collette and Jeffrey Wright are in it. I do hope that it all works out. I have a number of journalists who said they spoke with Sam Jackson and heard that he wasn’t entirely pleased with the whole experience. For me, it was like a big action movie, unlike anything I have ever done, and I really did want to enjoy it so I made sure that that did happen for myself.

Q: The one thing you were saying about money ties back into American Psycho in a way because when so much money is involved, corruption can often happen.

CB: Well, people are just very, very afraid to take risks because suddenly it becomes all about purely the investment rather than the creative point of view so that is where the danger can kick in.

By Rod Armstrong.