AN AFFAIR TO DISMEMBER
American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman is a brutally vile character fueled by narcissism and greed. For most actors, it would be a career-killing role. But for Christian Bale, it may be a ticket to the big time.
Christian Bale is not an actor with an insecure need to be adored. And that’s fortunate. As American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman – an arrogant, misogynistic, ax-murdering Wall Street executive who dons a slicker before he strikes in order to avoid splattering blood on his Cerruti suit – he registers as utterly loathsome. Bale knows full well that this role won’t win him the hearts of teenyboppers, the praise or Hollywood pundits or the prizes of the Academy. The character is despicable and – for an actor – a dangerous undertaking. But Bale plays the serial killer with impressive disregard for his own professional life.
“I have a fascination with people who laugh in the face of risk,” he says. “When people said to me, ‘It’s career suicide,’ it made me all the more enthusiastic.” Bale, 26, sits in the courtyard of an inn near the beach in Los Angeles, speaking with an unplummy English accent. He explains that he’s always ignored pressure to take roles just for the purpose of increasing his popularity. This clearly is an understatement, since American Psycho – based on the critically sliced-and-diced 1991 Bret Easton Ellis novel of the same name – may prove to be the most-maligned film of the year.
But Bale has too much going on to be thinking about failure. At the end of January, he married Sibi Blazic (the details of the relationships he prefers to keep private). He recently wrapped a role – as a snobby rich kid with a craving for illicit kicks – opposite Samuel L. Jackson, in the John Singleton remake of Shaft, set to hit theaters this summer. (Bale says he enjoyed working with Jackson: “We had coffee together and bullshitted – a working relationship that essentially consisted of him eyeballing me and calling me ‘motherf**ker.’ It was an honor to be called motherf**ker by Sam Jackson, you know? Nobody says it quite like him.”)
In between the two bad-boy roles, Bale took a break – to play Christ. He slipped into the part of the Son of God for an NBC television movie called Mary, Mother of Jesus, which aired in November. When the faxed offer spilled out before him, he was still living the life of Patrick Bateman. “I thought, No, I can’t do that,” Bale recalls. “But a lot of people had been saying to me, ‘Listen, Christian, you’ve played Bateman – you should think about a romantic comedy or something – play somebody good.’ It almost seemed like a joke. Here I was, getting offered Jesus.”
Which leads us back to the Antichrist. American Psycho’s Bateman is an ’80s-style Wall Street stud who wears a self-amused rictus of a smile as he lines up his victims for death. By all accounts, Bale seems an odd selection to play a serial killer – the innocent-faced Englishman who emerged at age 13 in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987), and who has been a fixture on teenage girls’ celebrity crush lists ever since 1992’s Newsies and the following year’s Swing Kids. The urban monster role was presented to him by indie director Mary Harron (1996’s I Shot Andy Warhol) as she and cowriter Guin Turner worked to adapt the controversial book into a satirically chilling screenplay. “People in Hollywood thought I was nuts,” recalls Harron, who says she chose Bale as her star early on because she “felt he understood” just what she wanted to do in the film’s most horrific scenes. Harron briefly lost her pet project after she refused to dump Bale in favor of Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role. (Lions Gate Films had offered it to the sure-thing actor as a $20 million hedge against the story’s grimness; the distributor didn’t want to risk disaster by settling for the lesser-known Bale.) When DiCaprio ultimately turned down the job, Harron returned to the scene – and did it her way. Along with Bale, the starkly kitschy Psycho also stars Jared Leto as Bateman’s rival (and doomed) business associate, Reese Witherspoon as the whining fiancee, Samantha Mathis as her prescription-drug-addicted friend and Chloe Sevigny as Bateman’s lovestruck assistant.
Bale crosses a nike sneaker over his knee and considers the fastidious Bateman: “He’s a trust-fund, Wall Street guy,” he says. “Intellectually, he is very complex. But emotionally, he is utterly vacant. He’s a vast exaggeration of wealthy young men at their worst.” The character is the kind of slick-haired, buffed-up guy you’d see in a tony restaurant in Soho or on the Upper West Side; the only difference is, if you went home with Bateman, you’d be more likely to spill a little blood. The role required Bale to achieve the look of a man who worries about bloat from the soy sauce after eating sushi for supper. To do so, he followed a strict diet and worked out with a trainer twice daily, beginning six months prior to shooting. “I had to make myself addicted to it,” he says. “Going into a gym is not something that I love any more than anybody else. But you can’t pretend that physique – I had to get as obsessively vain as he is.” Manicures, skin treatments and tanning sessions also became part of Bale’s regular routine as he transformed himself into the perfection-obsessed murderer.
This Bale is a world away from the lad we met as Empire of the Sun’s young Jim. As the airplane-crazy child of evaporating British colonial privilege in this portrait of Asia during WWII, the actor turned out a portrait of feverish yearning, seamlessly changing from a child in a cap and kneepants to the sharp little grifter he needed to be in order to survive.
But maybe that role wasn’t such a stretch: Bale was born in Wales, in 1974, to a father who had struck out on his own at 13 (and found shelter in a Wimpy’s hamburger joint) and a mother who performed in both theater and the circus. When he was just two, the family set out on a nomadic jaunt throughout England; Bale fondly remembers his father’s environmental radicalism during this time (“Going with my dad and shouting at politicians as they came out of the hotel – I really got a kick out of doing that”). At age ten he attended an actors workshop and casually began auditioning. “I never felt in any way pressured. I would just go and have these funny meetings and act a little bit,” he says. A couple of TV dramas later, Bale was cast – over 2,000 others – by Spielberg. He took the good news with precocious sangfroid: “I actually said, ‘Oh, that’s great, thanks very much. So I don’t have to audition anymore? Excellent.’ I walked out, and Steven came running after me. He said, ‘Don’t you want to sit and talk about this?'” Bale recalls that Spielberg treated him like a seasoned actor during the making of the film, “I can’t once remember him talking to me like I was a kid who wouldn’t understand.”
“It seemed he didn’t care about just being a star,” Harron says. “He could have a career as a serious, transformational actor.”
The sharp-eyed wonder Bale exhibited in Empire also shone in his performance as Falstaff’s Boy in Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 Henry V. A few years later, he managed to make personal successes out of two box-office slackers – as the point man of a gaggle of paperboys in Newsies and as the leader of the pack in Swing Kids – and he was officially on his way. With his obvious intelligence and ruddy, boyish appeal, the teenage actor began to attract an online cult of “Baleheads” (on recent count, there were at least 40 websites devoted to the babeness of Bale); his constituency of enthusiastic teens had more to cheer following his performance as the earnest, blushing Laurie, the boy who charmed the March sisters in 1994’s Little Women.
But Bale’s days of naivete would soon be over. By 1997 he was playing a restless husband to Emily Watson in Metroland, and the next year he appeared as a reporter lured by Ewan McGregor’s Iggy Pop–style glam-rocker in Todd Haynes’s homoerotic Velvet Goldmine. His courage in this performance is the reason Harron hired him. “Many actors are afraid to play gay, but he embraced it,” she says. “It seemed he didn’t care about just being a star – that he could have a career as a serious, transformational actor.”
Transformation seems to be a specialty of Bale’s. While he won’t claim to be a Method actor, he says he typically maintains character, accent and all, for the duration of a role. Over the 35 days it took to shoot the $6 million American Psycho, he was Bateman. “It was enjoyable,” he says, “because whilst he’s dangerous and intelligent, I see him as a complete dork. I found it quite hilarious, walking around, [being] a prick 24 hours a day.” Harron found the metamorphosis alarming: “It did seem you were talking to Patrick Bateman.”
Still, reports are that the star prick on the set was Leto. Bale hides a smile in response to an inquiry about his costar’s well-publicized bad attitude: “Well, in fact, I used that,” he says. “And it quite appropriately ended up onscreen.” The plot requires Bateman to get so stirred with envy over his associate Paul Allen (played by Leto) and a set of slick, engraved business cards that he decides he must dispose of his nemesis. The undercurrents of their relationship lead to the film’s most bizarre sequence, with Bateman prattling rock-crit encomiums on Huey Lewis and the News as he wields an axe behind his unsuspecting victim.
From beginning to end, American Psycho has ignited more than its share of controversy. But it is one of those films that age well in viewers’ minds; sit through the explicit violence and you will leave with more than a few humorous memories. (Note: One pain-free scene involving Sevigny and an industrial-size staple gun makes the bloodier ones worth enduring.) You’ll also be reminded of the dumb appeal of ’80s power pop (remember “Sussudio” by Phil Collins?) and have the chance to indulge in some unforgettable peeks at Bale’s arduously perfected musculature.
Close to a year after breaking character, Bale has successfully extricated himself from loveless Bateman. But the question remains: What will be the upshot of this sickening yet superlative performance? He says he’s seeing more scripts and getting more calls – though he won’t reveal what’s next. As for the fear of going down in cinematic history as a crazy man cavorting with an axe, Bale smiles wryly and says: “The actors I admire tread that fine line of doing something well – or really having it be a disaster.”
By Rufus Sears.