Johnny Depp Turned Down American Psycho — And That Changes The Movie Completely

While it might feel a bit over the top to say, it's simply true: Mary Harron's "American Psycho", an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' novel of the same name, easily endures as one of the best horror films of the 21st century. Released 22 years ago this April, "American Psycho" might even be the first great horror movie we were graced with post-Y2K. Of course, so much of the film's lasting acclaim rests on the enormous talent of Christian Bale. He perfectly personified Patrick Bateman, Wall Street yuppie scum turned Upper West Side serial killer. While it might be impossible to visualize anyone else filling the sadistic sicko's high-end shoes, there was actually a heavy rotation of promising actors vying to play Patrick before the part was granted to Christian Bale. Perhaps most surprisingly, Johnny Depp was actually the first choice to play the homicidal maniac.

What caused Depp to lose the role, and what would the movie even look like if he ended up playing Patrick?

A long line of potential Patricks

Before we dig into the alternate reality of a Johnny Depp-starring "American Psycho," let's explore the extended celebrity entourage of once-potential Patricks.

Indeed, Depp was the first actor considered for the role of Patrick Bateman. This was way back in 1992, shortly after producer Edward R. Pressman successfully bought the rights for the film. However, the pre-production phase of this project was met with a succession of stalemates. After it seemed "American Psycho" was going nowhere at all, Depp lost interest and pulled out.

Subsequently, body-horror auteur David Cronenberg was set to direct the film, with a script penned by Ellis himself. In an alluring twist, Brad Pitt was selected by the director to portray Patrick Bateman. In a 2016 interview with Rolling Stone discussing the 25th anniversary of his notorious novel, Ellis went into excruciating detail on the admittedly hilarious ordeal, citing Cronenberg's "strange demands." These peculiar leanings included refusing to shoot nightclub scenes, restaurant scenes, and violence altogether. After continuous disagreements, the Cronenberg, Ellis, and Pitt iteration of "American Psycho" died.

A few years later, Harron was brought on board to helm the project. Though she immediately felt that Christian Bale was the perfect actor to play Patrick, Lionsgate, the studio behind the film, saw things differently. As such, they suggested that Harron consider Edward Norton for the role instead. In their eyes, casting a well-known actor was necessary in order to create adequate buzz. Ahead of the film's April release, Harron told The Guardian that she and Lionsgate "had a huge battle over [the casting process]. They would've taken almost anybody over Christian."

With Norton shot down by Harron, the studio decided to be sneaky with their next choice. Hot off of his dreamboat turn on "Titanic," Lionsgate decided to send Leonardo DiCaprio a copy of the script and a $20 million offer. Surprisingly, he was game. This infuriated Harron, who felt that the teenage heartthrob was totally wrong for the role: "He's not credible as one of these tough Wall Street guys," she continued in The Guardian interview. "I did not want to deal with someone with a 13-year-old fanbase." She was so against his casting that she flat-out refused to meet with him

When Harron seemingly won in her self-described battle against Lionsgate, Leo left to shoot "The Beach" instead. To his credit, he would play the perfect Wall Street antihero in Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" 13 years later. But Lionsgate had one last option up their sleeve. They approached Ewan McGregor for the role, but the actor was persuaded by Bale himself to pass up the offer and let him have it. 

So, Harron's first choice was now the last man standing. But what would have happened if the first actor optioned, Johnny Depp, actually performed the part?

What if Johnny Depp snagged the role?

Listen, Johnny Depp has embodied some of the weirdest, melancholy, and straight-up macabre characters in recent cinematic history. He got his start as Freddy Kruger's victim Glen Lantz in "A Nightmare on Elm Street," played the titular teen rebel in John Waters' "Cry-Baby," and began his long relationship with Tim Burton with "Edward Scissorhands." But could he have pulled off Patrick Bateman, especially at this point in his career?

By the early '90s, Depp had certainly established himself as a leading man, often for auteur directors. Some of his earliest, most notable acting credits include Serbian director Emir Kusturica's "Arizona Dream," Lasse Hallström's "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," Mika Kaurismäki's "L.A. Without a Map," Jim Jarmush's "Dead Man," Mike Newell's "Donnie Brasco," and Roman Polanski's "The Ninth Gate." Basically, a ton of European (and Euro-adjacent) directors found a muse in Depp's sunken face and penchant for melodrama. This was, of course, before American director Tim Burton became Depp's de facto collaborator.

While it might be easy to retroactively reduce Depp's work to his (admittedly brilliant) performances in Burton vehicles like "Ed Wood," "Sleepy Hollow," and "Corpse Bride," his early work may have proved itself quite useful for assuming the role of Patrick Bateman.

Namely, Depp masterfully handled another novel adaptation whose essence seemed unfit for the big screen: Terry Gilliam's 1998 riff on Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." Playing a writer named Raoul Duke who's under the constant influence of psychedelics, this part necessitated Depp to inhabit two realities at once — one of the mind, one of the body. This resulted in his character often losing himself to intricate delusions and causing total destruction of his surroundings. There's a similar psychological murkiness to Patrick's character — does he even murder anyone, or is it just in his head? — and Depp's experience playing Duke would have certainly translated well in this regard.

But Depp's then-recent directorial stint may have meant he would have clashed with Harron, resulting in a potentially messy shoot. In 1997, Depp directed "The Brave," itself an adaptation of a Gregory McDonald novel of the same name. Starring the legendary Marlon Brando, it would be understandable why Depp might have employed his own creative insight if he did shoot "American Psycho." As we saw with Harron's enduring conflict with Lionsgate, she's not a director who lets her vision get bulldozed — least of all by Johnny Depp.

The enduring brilliance of Bale

Sure, maybe Depp would have had what it took for the part. But let's never, ever take Christian Bale's legendary performance in "American Psycho" for granted. Harron lobbied hard for her number one choice — and boy, did it pay off. Allegedly inspired by Tom Cruise's disquieting aura, Bale gave a performance that was so rousing, disturbing, and multi-faceted that it essentially propelled him into A-list status.

Just five years later, he would give a generation a new Batman in the franchise reboot directed by Christopher Nolan. He also received acclaim for his transformative performance in 2004's "The Machinist," and lent his voice to the English dub of "Howl's Moving Castle" the same year (as always, Studio Ghibli dubs are some of the best in the game). Then there's "The Prestige," "I'm Not There," "The Fighter" (which won him his Oscar), "The Big Short," and "Vice." In just a few short months, we'll see the actor again in "Thor: Love and Thunder." But first, he has to return some video tapes.