Christian Bale is one of the hottest actors around, but now this British star is destined to be even hotter with his star turn in one of the most controversial and talked about films of the year: American Psycho. Talking to Paul Fischer at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the normally publicity-shy actor talked candidly about one of the most heinous yet compelling characters to reach the screen in years. He’s come a long way since the young boy who graced Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun a decade ago.
The heat was on at this year’s chilly Sundance Film Festival, where American Psycho was having its world premiere. The buzz was in full gear, and for 26-year old Welsh-born Christian Bale, it was the first time he came face-to-face with the controversy surrounding the much-hyped Psycho. Based on the often-discussed Bret Easton Ellis novel, Bale hadn’t read the novel prior to be cast as yuppie serial killer Patrick Bateman, but knew about the book and the character he seemed destined to play. “I was making Velvet Goldmine when I got the script, and just thought it was so well written with this amazing dialogue, and it was surprisingly funny. In the reviews of the book that I’d read, it was never mentioned that it was a satire.” Satiric or not, Patrick Bateman is one of those characters few actors would dare play (such as Di Caprio who had temporarily replaced Bale at one point).
Patrick Bateman is the son of a wealthy Wall Street financier, pursuing his own lucrative career with his father’s firm. He is the prototypical yuppie, obsessed with success, fashion, and style. He also happens to be a serial killer who murders and mutilates strangers without provocation or reason. Not exactly the kind of character an actor can identify with. “I kept on thinking as I was doing it, that in order to play satire, you’ve got to half love what you ‘re satirising.” What Bale also found tough to identify with, was the world in which Bateman inhabited, the yuppie, educated, pretentious society to which this character belongs – or tries to. “I couldn’t understand the whole thing of them being like such macho guys, but at the same time really being bitchy, coupled with this incredible vanity.” Bale further points out that Bateman “is a character that you’d hate to be around, but is entertaining as hell to watch”
So how does one approach a character like this, a guy with very few, if any, redeeming qualities? “Normally you try and find the real side to a character, the emotions, and there is none of that here; in Bateman it is entirely surface, even at times when he’s just on the phone. It’s almost like he’s TRYING to be emotional. I guess it’s like the fascination of people slowing down to look at a car crash.”
Bateman is a quintessential American creation, and for this very British actor, his foreignness was an advantage playing a character on the outer of society. “Mary [Harron the director] thought that being English would be a real advantage for playing Bateman, because she felt that I would understand the class system, which Americans just don’t. This guy, to me, seems to be the blueblood of America, really.” Bale also brought something to Bateman that few other American actors of his generation could really muster. “Mary met with a few American actors who were all about trying to find that really dark, nasty side to him, and bring it up from their childhood or whatever. The fact is, with Bateman, motivation is completely unnecessary.”
For this actor, working on this character had a lot to do with how he sounded and looked, crucial elements to his uncanny performance. “So much of the portrayal actually came from that voice as well as his external being. After sitting in makeup and hair, putting the suit on, he sort of suddenly was created, which is exactly what HE does—he creates himself each morning.” But Bale had to do a little more than get his hair styled for the role. He also spent months tanning himself and working out in order to achieve the look of Bateman’s perfectly sculpted body and although he swears that “the bigger your muscles get, the smaller your brains get”, it didn’t effect his meticulous performance. As for trying to look tanned, that was no mean feat. “I started going swimming on Sundays, and here was me, with this white English body, emerging with a stripy arse; not such a good look.”
While Bale worked on capturing Bateman’s very specific physicality, the actor also researched the character’s professional world. “I went to visit the trading floors on Wall Street, and some of those guys professed to being as money-obsessed as Bateman. It was fascinating.”
Audiences seeing American Psycho will find it impossible to relate to Bateman. Bale, also, having played so many empathetic characters throughout his long career, is forced to admit that try as he might, Patrick Bateman is completely unsympathetic. “I don’t think there is any redeeming quality to Bateman, whatsoever”, which makes for an interesting challenge as an actor, Bale explains. “The satirical side of that made that possible, and made him an enjoyable character to play.”
American Psycho is a film that arrives with plenty of established publicity. Even before shooting began, from the initial Di Caprio casting, through production, and the film’s launch at Sundance, controversy is bound to dog the film, beginning with its violence. This is, after all, a movie that explores the psychology of violence in urban American society. But Bale isn’ t phased by that element of the movie. “I think what people will be surprised by, is actually the LACK of graphic violence in the movie, because THAT has been so talked about.” In a film that explores violence, it’s ironic that in gun-obsessed America, it was a wildly irreverant sex scene, which garnered that country’s controversial NC-17 rating (the old X-certificate). “It’s bullshit, isn’t it, and basically, what does it matter? But having said that, I have also learnt that a lot of theatres simply won’t run NC-17 movies, and papers won’t advertise them, so whilst I don’t really wish 12-year olds to see it, I still want the film to have an audience.” Since this interview was completed, the film was recut to generate an R-rating, in the US. “It’s clearly ironic, though, that it’s sex, not violence, that gave the film its NC-17. It’s a bizarre thing, but then not entirely shocking either.”
Christian Bale seems the perfect actor to play Bateman, a character miles away from the British teenager of Empire of the Sun. He was13 when he rose to prominence in the Spielberg-directed drama, and recalls how his media experiences back then made the actor very publicity shy. “It reached a point where I wanted to slap people whenever somebody got a microphone in my face. I had an idea at that time that I could say: No, that’s too much, and could remain anonymous.” While Bale had difficulty shaking Empire and turn confident adult star, he did make the transition. “I think what helped with that, is the nature of the roles that I’ve played, refusing to slip into playing typical teenage parts.” They included roles in Branagh’s Henry V, Charlton Heston’s take on Treasure Island, the musical Newsies, and 1993’s Swing Kids. Bale’s breakthrough role was in Gillian Armstrong’s adaptation of Little Women, and went on to star in such varied films as The Secret Agent, Portrait of a Lady, Metroland and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Bale admits that his perception of acting now is very different to what it was when he was a child. “Unfortunately, it’s a much more self-conscious thing now. When you’re a kid, you’re not aware of the business at all; the more you do of it, the more people inform you about quite what it is that you’re doing, and that becomes a battle after a while.”
American Psycho is a film that may emerge as Bale’s triumph, receiving the critical kudos he richly deserves. The actor’s hypnotic portrayal of Patrick Bateman is unlike any character to emerge on film in years, and Bale has made it his own, controversy notwithstanding. Next up for the actor is a starring role opposite Samuel L. Jackson in Shaft Returns, which he was due to complete virtually straight after our interview. “The guy I play in that’ s a real prick.” It seems that having recently played none other than Jesus Christ, Bale has discovered his new calling as screen baddie. “And what fun that is”, the actor finally retorts.