Christian Bale Talks Psycho, Suicide And Blockbusters

He's already had two huge movies in cinemas this year and it's only just February. In this revealing interview from 2001, Christian Bale talks American Psycho, being a child star, and what he thought the future held...
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There have been many stories about Christian Bale over the past few years. Domestic disputes in hotels. Comedy rants. That time he lost 19 stone for The Machinist by surviving each day on just half a worm and a couple of teardrops.

When I spoke to him in 2001 there weren't so many stories. He was still forging his path - after becoming a star with Steven Spielberg's Empire Of The Sun in 1987 - aged 13 - he spent the 90s acting in eclectic but often forgettable films. His brilliant performance in 2000's American Psycho threatened to change all that, but despite his optimism at the end of our interview, it was frustrating to see him follow it up with crud like John Singleton's Shaft and dragon fiasco Reign Of Fire. Indeed, his appearance in the so-so Captain Corelli's Mandolin, which needed the press, gave me the opportunity to blag 45 minutes on the phone with him, which I desperately wanted as I was marginally obsessed with American Psycho.

Bale has always been open about his utter disregard for the promotional circus. Today, with a few years of major roles, A-list success and an Oscar on his shelf (actually it's probably in a crate in his cellar, let's face it), he's a notoriously stubborn interviewee, with the power to pick and choose who he wants to talk to and how he wants to talk to them. And thanks to whoever leaked those Terminator tapes, we all know how enthusiastic he can be if the wrong buttons are pressed. Luckily for me, he didn't have such power back then, so he dutifully endured journalists such as myself lobbing somewhat inane questions at him. And even then he was guarded. It was certainly clear he didn't relish being interviewed. I was also pretty wet behind the ears and didn't push and probe much, not least because I was intimidated, I think, by an underlying steeliness that I may or may not have imagined. But he was friendly and obliging, and revisiting it a decade later, he seems more open than I had remembered.

Did you hang out much with the Corelli cast after hours?

I didn't really hang out, I don't tend to hang out too much. I do it actually less and less the more movies that I make. I enjoy my time making a film as work, and I don't to be honest socialise an awful lot. Although in Greece I did have quite a relaxed schedule, coming off of other movies where I'd been working every single day and barely getting enough time to sleep; this was like a holiday for me. But I was there with my wife, and we went on journeys around Greece when I had a few days, and then in the evenings I generally actually hung out with my Greek driver, Lewis, who would take me to different festivals, they were always having various festivals for saints, around the island, and I had to learn a number of the local Greek dances for the movie, and so he would take me to these places. It was just sort of a winefest, with all night drinking and dancing.

Are you a big drinker?

I'm not at all, so it tends to hit me pretty hard. But I enjoyed my nights of wine out there.

So how much do you immerse yourself in your roles when you're working? How far do you relate to the characters?

I tend not to analyse how much of a character is similar to myself. I enjoy the immersion that I think is required to play a character well. You therefore find yourself thinking as the character would think, and you can't help that, but it's very much, for me, my imagination, I believe, rather than adjusting my own character. All the time. Although my wife does tell me I alter a little bit with every movie that I do. Some of the character sort of bleeds through into our everyday life.

Is it cathartic? Do you learn things about yourself?

I would hope so. You can probably tell, I think the more that you talk about acting, firstly I tend to find it a mind-numbingly boring conversation talking about acting, but primarily I find that I don't talk about it very much because I think the more you talk about it the worse it gets. And I think that a good actor has a natural instinct for it and I don’t think an awful lot has to be discussed. There are obviously times, practical movements etc that have to be discussed on a set, and occasionally obviously when a director thinks it's not quite right, and you'll discuss it then, but I think it's better not to always talk about it whatsoever. Do I learn things… I enjoy the information that I can gather from doing research on different characters. I wouldn't say I learn anything other than that, I'm not very much aware of it, in fact I think there's very much a danger in acting that you can come to find that because you are playing with emotions that that's all that they become to you, and in many ways it can actually numb you to everyday life. So in many ways I attempt to avoid that, but like I said I do enjoy the information that I get from these different jobs, and from the countries that I get to visit because of it.

So in terms of what you were saying about characters bleeding through into life, how easy or hard do you find it to turn on and off while you're on set?

Depends what you're talking about. With accents, I don't like to do that that much, I think it's a wonderful talent when you can do that, but I just don't feel very comfortable if I just turn it on and then turn it off with an accent. I tend to prefer maintaining it at least the entire time that I’m on the set.

That would explain the interview with you on the American Psycho DVD.

Well if it was on set, I'm no doubt speaking in the Bateman voice.

Yes and you look like you're in character, just in terms of how you carry yourself.

Right! Ha. Yeah.

It's a strange viewing experience.

Well. I'm sure the DVD's all the better for it, isn't it?

It is.

The whole movie's a strange experience.

It sounded like the whole production was pretty crazy. What were you going through back before you got to make the film, when it was taken away from you and [director] Mary Harron for a bit? [After Harron and Bale had developed the project for some time, production company Lionsgate then announced that Leonardo DiCaprio would star instead. Bale continued training for the film regardless.]

I felt like it was sort of a call to arms for me, it was a moment of, 'Ok, I either wanna quit this, I wanna get out of this, or I'm gonna recognise it for what it is and tackle it, and deal with it,' and I chose the latter. I had a number of evenings when I decided quitting was the way to go. But then just anger drove me forward, just the anger that here was a director that wanted an actor, and it's a simple equation, she thinks that's gonna make the best movie, and that was all that I ever really recognised or was interested in before. And suddenly here was the business element saying 'No – we're not gonna let you do that.' And I was the fall guy. And it made me decide, 'Right, if I’m gonna do this, I have to pursue this. I can’t sit on the sidelines and say Well I’ll see what happened – maybe I’ll get this movie, maybe I won’t.' No, you know: do as much as you can to attempt to control your own career and to go after the roles that you want, because as an actor you don't have an awful lot of control. You are waiting for an appropriate script with an appropriate character you could play. And only then do you come on board, and even then it’s other people deciding, 'Well, do we want him for it?' And it's only once you're actually on the set and you've been granted the role by other people that you get to start having a say and a decision and controlling anything at all, otherwise you're sort of at the mercy of other people most of the time. So to try to alter that balance is something that is necessary for any actor.

Would you have done the film when it was looking like Oliver Stone might direct it?

You know, I would have been very tempted but it's not something that I could have done, because of what Mary Harron did for me, it would have been a treacherous thing for me to have done that. I also think – I don't know but I imagine – it would have been a very very different movie with him at the helm. And with what I'm imagining, I don't think it would have been the correct take on the book. The take that can appreciate the wit and the social commentary within it, as opposed to just the gore and violence and the testosterone. And also Mary Harron put her movie on the backburner for a year solely because she believed I was the right person to play Bateman. And I just found that incredibly honourable of her, and I couldn't have repaid that by agreeing to work with a different director on it.

Your Patrick Bateman is played gleefully large. It's a big, iconic performance.

I think that it was the right choice for that movie. I couldn't see how else it could have been made. And how it could have struck the varying levels of humour and despair at the same time. Apparently a number of actors spoke with the director and they were taking it very literally. They wanted to go into the history and motivation of the character, what happened to him as a child etc. It's all right there in the dialogue, you don't have to look any further: he is a fabrication, and there isn't a real him, he's entirely constructed, in my opinion, from advertising in the 80s, and from the American concept of what it is to be a winner. And therefore there really was nothing, so it didn't matter what happened in his childhood – in fact, that was boring, who cares. All that matters is he's here when you see him on the screen and he's gone at the end. Either side of that I have no knowledge or particular interest in. And I think that that was essential for the part.

I heard you got to such a manic point filming the Paul Allen murder that you had to leave.

Well, it is a hilarious scene, at the same time as being fairly sick. And it was more just to do with fatigue and insanity setting in, and because of technical reasons we had to shoot that scene countless times, and I had to play the whole scene, I can't even remember how many times, but it must have been 40 or 50-something. When you're playing that sort of speed and insanity of mind, following a weekend where I had actually flown to New York back to Los Angeles, I hadn't really slept, I’d arrived that morning, without having slept the night before, to do that scene, I was keeping myself going with cappuccinos, you know… I had about 20 that day.

So you were really hyped up for it.

Incredibly, I was up to the eyeballs with caffeine and no sleep, and the mental state that that puts you in. And then it just suddenly hit me – I was halfway through one of the scenes and I just stopped and I just said, 'I need a bit of a break. I’ve gotta walk out, give me a couple of minutes here.' Because I just started to feel I was going off the rails a little.

It must have been odd after being in that zone to go straight on to play Jesus. From one extreme to another.

Ha, yeah. That was immediately after. An American television movie. I didn't actually believe the offer when it first came through. I finished American Psycho. It had been a labour getting that made. A year without working and then making American Psycho – Ok, I'd gotten that done. A number of people continually told me 'You've made a big mistake, doing American Psycho' – I didn't believe them. But I continually got told 'What you've got to do now is a romantic comedy, or somebody good – a character that's good before the public typecast you as a psycho.' So I wasn’t myself specifically looking out for that, that was just what other people had been saying. And then I just got a fax through saying 'Christian, you've been asked to fly to Hungary in a week and they want you to play Jesus'… and I laughed and just thought it was a joke. And then once I got over the irony of people saying 'You've gotta play somebody good,' and being offered that, I actually thought, 'Well I actually am quite stumped as to how on earth I would go about playing him'. Now the movie is not about Jesus, it's about Mary, so it actually only involves me in about five different scenes. And I just spoke on the phone with the director, they needed an answer within a day, and I said 'Look, I’ll come out there and work for three weeks, but I can only play this if I'm considering him as an incredible man, but as a social revolutionary rather than the son of God, because I can't begin to be able to play that, and I can't begin to be able to live up to people's expectations if that's what I’m attempting.'

Was it hard to get your head around it?
No… when I considered it in that fashion, then it wasn't. It was fascinating, and I did find it quite paradoxical that many people were asking me during American Psycho was I traumatised by playing the character, and I absolutely was not. And then when I played Jesus, despite only five scenes, I was obviously reading a fair amount about him and it was in my mind constantly, and I found myself having nightmares every single night that I was making it.

Do you chase roles?

You know the general way that it happens is that things tend to be already underway before I know about them. American Psycho was an exception, I knew about it up ahead before there was the money and everything like that. Obviously I chased that one. Absolutely, I believe in chasing roles, you know. Some actors that I’ve worked with have been surprised when I’ve read a script, I want to do it and I’m calling up the writer, I call the director, you know, I will call around the people, I like to be in there and be involved. A lot of actors don’t enjoy that, they just prefer their representatives, their agents to call them. I just believe that if you’re passionate about something, then there’s no need to disguise that. Just call them up and be honest, and say 'I want in, I wanna do this role.' It’s not always gonna work, but everybody wants somebody who is passionate about their script or movie. So why not.

Would you be up for big budget blockbusters?

I believe that every genre of movie can be successful and need not take shortcuts. And that includes just sort of dazzling action movies to painful character movies. Whether that be tiny budgeted arthouse, or mega-budgeted movies. If I think it can work and if I think I want to try and make it work, I'll absolutely do it.

Do you get strange fan mail?

I'm sure I have.

You never look at it?

I tend not to, no. Nothing to do with 'I don’t wanna look at any oddball letters', I just find that I attempt to keep it to a minimum, my awareness of that, purely because it makes me self-conscious. And that's not good for acting in the slightest. But I think that there is a very eclectic group of appreciative people for my movies, from something like Little Women, which has its fans, to Velvet Goldmine to American Psycho. It would be quite an oddball group of people if you took one representative of each and stuck them in a room.

There was, I heard, a fan who called you up after Empire Of The Sun came out and said he wanted to kill himself and needed to talk to you.

It was a very bizarre time, yeah. You know, people often associate the actor with the character, and it's neglecting the first rule of filmmaking and acting, that that isn't you. But I think that movie was one that, despite not an awful lot of people went to see it, many who did did get affected by it quite greatly. The problem was that I was 13, and this person's problems really had nothing to do with me, but somehow he decided that they did.

It must have been hard at 13 to deal with that. How did you cope with your own career in that late teen period, the transition from child star, as it were, to adult actor? ET's Henry Thomas, for example, was talking recently about how hard it is for child actors to get through that period, professionally.

Yeah, I did have a lot of problems with it, I think that anybody would with any amount of fame at that age. In retrospect, god I'm happy that Empire Of The Sun didn't do better than it did, because as it was I found it difficult enough to deal with, you feel like a freak, and you feel like some sort of animal in a zoo on display all of a sudden. People do treat you differently even though you feel you're no different, and character traits that you've had all your life suddenly are pointed at and it's said, 'Oh, that's because of that movie, and who do you think you are', and that kind of thing. It gets very confusing and it was not enjoyable. I think somebody like Henry Thomas would have had it a hell of a lot harder because ET was obviously huge. Also I think that the fact that I played not a typical teenage role in Empire Of The Sun, it was quite an adult role, a quite complex character role, that therefore I never really was put into those sort of typical teenager movies, and therefore I didn't have that much of a problem as I got older with people saying 'He's not that cute young boy any more, he's become a nasty young man and we don't wanna look at that'. I think that that's generally the problem that most child actors would have, is that people get uncomfortable with seeing them becoming a woman or a man.

Were you wise enough to appreciate the experience of making that film and working with Spielberg?

I probably didn't an awful lot to be honest, but I think that in many ways that benefited the performance in the movie, not having a vast knowledge of the film industry, not even considering the fact that there was gonna be a movie at the end of this sort of weird strange project I was on for a number of months, getting to travel around, so therefore no doubt, and not being self conscious about my performance at all, completely unafraid to make a fool of myself, whatever. It's very much in the moment, as it is for any kids. And then I think it becomes more difficult as you become become an adult to be able to get that kind of a performance, to be that uninhibited with your emotions. So I was completely unaware of the burden of a lead role at that age in a Spielberg movie – didn't matter to me in the slightest. And it was very much after making Empire Of The Sun, working on consequent movies, that I recognised quite what a brilliantly detailed piece and huge movie it was, and the access to the sets, and just the cameras and the technical equipment and everything, that that was as good as it gets. You don't get better than that, and I didn't realise that at the time.

So what about now - are you happy with where you are, and where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I would hope to be more and more involved in the whole moviemaking process. From American Psycho I got to see more of the background of putting a movie together, and I really did enjoy that. I think, probably like almost everybody, I would love to discover that I could write, and that would be ideal.

Have you tried?

You know what, I've just daydreamed about it frankly. And so who the hell knows, but if you're talking about 10 years down track, either I would have got my arse in gear or not. But that is obviously one of the ways that as an actor you can control the characters that you wanna play. So I would hope that I would have become more involved, and as for now, I've always been up and coming [laughs], that's what everyone's always said. The first shift that happened was when people started mentioning my name without Empire Of The Sun, and that was a huge sigh of relief for me. Now, it's all so new to me, these new kinds of roles that are coming along, that I can't help but enjoy that, and the fact that I'm having people just send me scripts saying, you know, 'No reading needed, we want you to play the part, that's it' - that hadn't happened to me before. It's a good feeling.

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