Christian Bale Never Tried To Make His American Psycho Character Cool

For a guy who played Batman in some of the biggest superhero movies of all time, it's telling that Christian Bale's most identifiable role is still Patrick Bateman, the wealthy Wall Street serial killer of director Mary Harron's "American Psycho," a man perpetually trapped in the vanity-obsessed 1980s as well as in his own diseased mind.

Based on the character in Bret Easton Ellis' novel of the same name, Patrick Bateman is a role that would've been a calling card for just about any actor: He's sardonic, oddly self-aware, impeccably dressed, suave, charming, and utterly insane. Yet where other actors would likely have approached the role as a way of making themselves look sexy and dangerous, Bale makes a series of bizarre, hilarious, uncompromising and unforgettable choices throughout that keep his performance both honest and indelible. He never tries to make Bateman cool, and it's that approach that has allowed the character and the film to remain so popular decades after its release.

Bale lands the part with a lot of laughs

Despite being perfect for the role, Christian Bale almost missed out on the chance to play Patrick Bateman. According to co-writer and actress Guinevere Turner in a 2020 oral history of the film for MovieMaker Magazine, actor Billy Crudup was attached to the part before Mary Harron had even met Bale. Crudup surprisingly ended up turning down the role, calling Harron and saying, "I don't feel like I can get this character."

That wasn't the case for Bale. After the actor read the script while filming "Velvet Goldmine," he was so excited "he was like, on a plane right away," as Harron recalled. Bale found the screenplay by Harron and Turner "one of the most ridiculous and hilarious scripts" he'd ever read. That quality came out in his audition, during which Bale and Harron were performing the scene of Paul Allen's murder and enjoying themselves so much that the actor recalled how "I couldn't finish the scenes because she was laughing and shaking the camera, and I was laughing as well."

Bale almost lost the part ... to Leonardo DiCaprio

While Christian Bale's audition convinced Mary Harron that the actor was the only choice to play Bateman, the studio behind "American Psycho," Lionsgate, nearly derailed Bale's opportunity (never mind the movie itself) by offering a huge payday of $20 million to "Titanic" star Leonardo DiCaprio to take the role. Guinevere Turner recalled how they learned the news in the trades instead of being told. The production team was not only shocked, but Harron refused to accept the casting.

Beyond preferring Bale, Harron's reason for refusing was DiCaprio was such a massive star thanks to having "a worldwide fan base of 15-year-old girls," and as such, casting him in a part that would feature him demeaning and murdering women would be "intolerable ... and everyone will be terrified," and it would have likely led to the studio and star taking away more creative control from the director.

While Harron and Turner were actually fired from "American Psycho" for a time while Lionsgate brought in director Oliver Stone to develop a version with DiCaprio playing Bateman, Bale never gave up the faith. As he continued to get in shape and work on his accent for the role, he recalled: "Everybody thought I was crazy, but it became a crusade for me." Once Stone and DiCaprio were out of the picture, Harron got to make the film her way with Bale in the lead. As the actor marveled 20 years later: "She really threw herself on the sword for me. I will always appreciate that, so much."

Patrick Bateman is given life by Bale, on and off set

The main reason Mary Harron wanted Christian Bale to play Bateman is because "he got the humor of it." The director explained to MovieMaker Magazine: 

"He didn't see Bateman as cool. I sort of had the feeling a lot of the other actors kind of thought Bateman was cool. And he didn't."

Indeed, one of the special qualities Bale brings to the role is Bateman's unhinged petulance, the conformist serial killer sporting a hair-trigger anger that's almost childlike. It makes him not a sleek, sexy man of danger, but a whiny and pathetic man child who's more pitiable than enviable. It's a mixture that makes Bateman both watchable and off-putting, and Bale's Method-like insistence on remaining in character on and off set inspired a variety of responses from his fellow actors and filmmakers.

Bret Easton Ellis remembered a dinner in Los Angeles early in production where Bale "was in full Patrick Bateman mode in terms of the hair, the suit and the way he was talking ... it was unnerving in a way." Costar Willem Dafoe thought highly of Bale when he shot his scenes with the actor, remarking how Bale "was like a machine ... his rhythms, his clarity, his control were just incredible." Yet the people portraying Bateman's set of frenemy Wall Street bros sympathized more with Ellis' take on Bale, weirded out by the way the actor broke into a sweat on cue and other such tics. Bale recalled later how he learned from Josh Lucas that "all of the other actors [in the corporate card comparison scene] thought that I was the worst actor they'd ever seen."

Bale's performance epitomizes Harron's vision of the film

Ironically, the actors' initial reaction to Christian Bale's work mirrored the initial reaction by several critics and audience members to "American Psycho" upon its release. As Harron told MovieMaker Magazine:

"The tone just completely confused people. When you do something that mixes genres, in this case you're mixing social satire and horror ... people don't know how to take it at first. I think it took years for people to think it's okay to find these scenes funny."

Sure enough, while the film was embroiled in controversy upon its debut, the response to it years later has changed considerably, with the film continually mentioned in everything from reappraisal pieces to an abundance of memes. The movie's ambiguity, once a sticking point, is now embraced as one of its virtues, and Bale's Bateman perfectly encapsulates the toxic masculinity of the '80s as well as now.

The success of "American Psycho" and Bale's performance led to the actor shooting to the top of the A-list in Hollywood, landing him roles in a variety of films like Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy as well as Oscar contenders such as "The Fighter" and "American Hustle." Bale's dedication to the part and eagerness to push the envelope cemented him as one of our finest actors, a trajectory Bale found himself surprised at. He continued in the oral history:

"I guess I was a little bit disappointed that it didn't end up being career suicide. I kind of hoped that maybe that was it, and I'd have to find something else to go do ... I'm perverse."

Of course, it's that perversity that makes Patrick Bateman and "American Psycho" so powerful, memorable, darkly hilarious, and even cool — though not intentionally so.