Method in his madness
The devil is in the dentistry. Christian Bale began his acting career as a lost little boy in Empire of the Sun.
Now he’s a murderer in American Psycho Libby Brooks The devil is in the dentistry.
Christian Bale smiles a newly even smile. Those suggestively vampiric incisors and the feminising gap between his top front teeth are gone. And it’s all the fault of an American psycho.
“I liked my old teeth. I have a moulding of them on a shelf. But with Patrick Bateman, his physicality is much more important than with most characters. He deals totally in the superficial and he’s incredibly narcissistic. I looked at myself in the mirror and it just wasn’t right. I was warned that if I got caps I could get a lisp, and you might still be able to tell in close-up. So I thought, I like my teeth, but I’m not so attached to them that I’m going to ruin this whole movie because I refuse to get them done.”
He moves his arm and a still, buff bicep strains the knit of his tidy jumper. Preparation for the role of serial-killing 1980s alpha-male Patrick Bateman in the screen adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel required dumb-bells as well as braces.
“Working out took over my life,” says 26-year-old Bale in his nowhere English accent. “I became fascinated with talking about the body, and diet, and the gym. It made me very judgemental of other people’s bodies as well.”
Bateman was a role to perform, rather than understand, Bale insists, echoing his director Mary Harron, who says she believes that a degree of detachment was the only way to prevent a disturbing film becoming an offensive one.
Bale’s Bateman is a supremely confident confection and entirely at odds with the engaging naturalism of his recent performances in Metroland and Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine, in which he starred alongside Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Ewan McGregor.
Published in 1991, American Psycho was Easton Ellis’s savage and bloody satire of late 1980s extremity. The material fetishism and moral vacuity of the money-drenched, Manhattan-dwelling protagonists were gruesome enough. But it was the lovingly detailed scenes of obscene and often highly sexualised torture and murder (which may or may not have occurred in Bateman’s own drug-fuelled imagination) that whipped up a storm of controversy, resulting in accusations of misogyny and exploitation.
The screen adaptation is far less graphic. It is the context, rather than the killings themselves, that creates the horror, argues Bale.
“Bateman is neither an anti-hero nor a typical villain. There’s no resolution, and his only punishment by the end is his own existence. But the scariness comes from his whole crowd, from that society and their thought processes. Bateman’s very much an idiot, and much of the humour comes from the difference in perception between how he views himself and how we view him.” The basic theme of American Psycho is reason without heart, he says.
“It’s like capitalism without any spiritual component. I think that given the correct situation everyone can drop to levels of extreme depravity. We train armies to adopt the opposite of the everyday moral code. It’s no wonder that in conflicts you get soldiers out of control, doing horrendous things, raping. These are ordinary people who, given the situation, become something else.”
Perhaps like Bale himself - a personable presence who happens to enjoy the immersion of being someone else. And rather like his first film role as Jim Graham, a little boy making sense of a big war, in Empire of the Sun, Stephen Spielberg’s second world war epic. Watching the 13-year-old Bale as he battles for sense and self in a Japanese PoW camp, it is as though he fell to Earth fully formed. It’s an astonishing performance, utterly fearless, wholly acted.
Bale talks about the experience with the gentle confidence of a hurt resolved. “At an age when you’re supposed to be going out and doing things for the first time, making your mistakes, suddenly I lost that anonymity. Adults say you should know better, other kids are jealous, and you feel like a freak. I became pretty reclusive for a couple of years. For me, it had been a great experience, but it didn’t sum up my whole life. But it did for everyone else.”
In 1992 he moved from England to Los Angeles, where he has worked quietly but consistently since, establishing himself as a versatile, if not entirely bankable, actor. There are two reasons why his transition from child to adult performer was so painless, he says. “I got a dislike for what small fame I had early on, so I attempted not to let it disrupt everything. Also, [Jim] was a very adult, complex part, that didn’t rely on my being cute. I didn’t get a shock when I got older and started getting hair,” he concludes, stroking a lightly bronzed chin that is destined always to look clean-shaven.
Bale is big on lack of pretension - and bigger on being seen to be lacking pretension. He is not an actor, he emphasises, as though it’s evidence of something unseemly, like ego, or ambition, or consuming passion.
Still, he will describe Bateman as an ambitious role to take on. “I loved the fact that, firstly, people thought it was an impossible book to make into a film, and secondly, that they were telling me it was career suicide. I wanted to prove it wasn’t. I don’t want to slip into that celebrity factor of being scared of taking a role because it’s a nasty character.”
The palaver surrounding the making of the film is well documented: Harron cast Bale, project owners Lion’s Gate wanted box office-friendly Leo DiCaprio, Harron protested and was replaced by the laughably inappropriate Oliver Stone. Only after DiCaprio bolted to make The Beach did the original team reconvene.
How did it feel to be thrown over for the Titanic golden boy? “I was, of course, very grumpy. But I considered it a confidence boost creatively because Mary Harron put her own job on the line to make it with me.”
Nevertheless, he must have recognised that it was potential ticket sales, not talent, that separated him from DiCaprio. “It was a little bit simple-minded of me to think that it could all be so ideal. There is a lot of money involved, and what happened woke me up a bit.”
He shows his newly even teeth. Nowadays he can smile for Hollywood.