Famous Actors Who Actually Turned Down American Psycho
The way Hollywood movies often come together is like this: Hot scripts (or books) are passed around town to movie stars. Once a studio gets a big name attached, everything flows from that, including financing, the director, and the rest of the cast.
That’s how the 1991 novel, “American Psycho” was adapted for the big screen, too. Eventual director Mary Harron’s classic satire of 1980s yuppie culture on Wall Street was almost a very different film because Hollywood wasn’t interested in Christian Bale. The studio wanted an established star to portray serial killer Patrick Bateman. Bale had been in major films since childhood, like Steven Spielberg’s “Empire Of The Sun” in 1987, but was yet to make his mark as an adult movie star.
“American Psycho” changed all that in 2000. Bale isn’t Batman without Bateman, but his inclusion in this project was a battle from inception to completion. Even his fellow castmates thought his mannered performance was ruining the film. Bale told Moviemaker in 2020 that his “American Psycho” co-star Josh Lucas later confided, “All of the other actors thought that I was the worst actor they’d ever seen. He was telling me they kept looking at me and talking about me, saying, ‘Why did Mary fight for this guy? He’s terrible.’ And it wasn’t until he saw the film that he changed his mind.” But the studio had to change its mind on Bale first, and that doesn’t happen without many famous actors turning down “American Psycho.”
According to Vice, Lionsgate announced in 1998 that Leonardo DiCaprio was to play Patrick Bateman in a surprising follow-up to “Titanic” in 1997. They’d offered him $20 million and DiCaprio agreed when Oliver Stone was brought on to replace the film’s eventual director Mary Harron,
There are conflicting reports on why DiCaprio departed. Some say it was a creative clash with Stone, but according to the film’s co-writer, Guinevere Turner, the star left after meeting with feminist activist Gloria Steinem. Turner says Steinem took DiCaprio to a Yankees game and made the following pitch: “Please don’t do this movie. Coming off of ‘Titanic,’ there is an entire planet full of 13-year-old girls waiting to see what you do next, and this is going to be a movie that has horrible violence toward women.” Soon after that, Leo dropped out, so who knows what really happened?”
DiCaprio’s exit was just fine with Harron, who thought he was too “boyish,” she told The Guardian. She even refused to meet with DiCaprio, fearing his inherent charm would win her over and force rewrites that would neuter the film. Harron didn’t want Bateman to be sympathetic. She always favored Bale who would eventually base the character on the intensity of Tom Cruise. Bale told The Mirror what happened next: “When Leo dropped out, the film company said, ‘Let’s call that crazy guy who keeps telling everyone he can play the lead.’”
Brad Pitt has been offered basically everything since he broke out as a handsome lover-boy conman in “Thelma and Louise” in 1991. “American Psycho” was nearly his movie, too, and if you think of Pitt playing a serial killer in “Kalifornia” or his Golden Globe-winning turn as an unhinged animal rights activist in “12 Monkeys,” it’s not hard to imagine the star digging deep to portray Patrick Bateman.
“American Psycho” is adapted from the satirical 1991 novel of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis, who also penned “The Rules of Attraction,” and his similarly sinister breakout with “Less Than Zero.” Ellis was the hot writer of the era and recalled to Rolling Stone that he was initially adapting his book into a screenplay himself for body-horror director David Cronenberg on the premise that Pitt was attached to star.
That all fell apart when Cronenberg made some “strange demands,” according to the Ellis. “He hated shooting restaurant scenes, and he hated shooting nightclub scenes. And he didn’t want to shoot the violence. I ignored everything he said. So, of course, he was disappointed with it and he hired his own writer; That script was worse for him, and he dropped out.” Cronenberg was replaced by Rob Weiss in 1995, then Oliver Stone, and finally, Mary Harron made the film. Meanwhile, the in-demand Pitt did “Fight Club” in 1999 and “Snatch” in 2000, skipping out on this chaotic game of directorial musical chairs.
Johnny Depp was one of the first stars considered for the role of yuppie serial killer Patrick Bateman, according to director Mary Harron. Depp was offered the role in 1992, just one year after the book “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis hit shelves.
Lionsgate quickly lapped up the film rights and wanted a bankable face onboard. Depp was coming off an unusual star turn in Tim Burton’s gothic fairy tale, “Edward Scissorhands,” in 1990 and would certainly have qualified. Unfortunately, “American Psycho” took almost eight years to go from licensing to production, and Depp moved on. This was one of his more prolific periods as an actor, including standout work in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” in 1993, “Ed Wood” in 1994, and most prominently, the gangster classic “Donnie Brasco” in 1997.
Depp shot some dud thrillers in this period too, like “The Ninth Gate” and “Nick of Time,” so maybe he wouldn’t mind replacing those misses with such a seminal film. Ultimately, the star has shined in roles where he’s got a comedic hitch in his step and a twinkle in his eye. Bateman is hollow, and not the slapstick, sleepy kind. He’s a twisted spectacle, not a kid-friendly delight. If Depp had made a reputation back in the early ’90s playing a murderous narcissist, do we ever get the avuncular joy of Captain Jack Sparrow? Perhaps not.
Another star Lionsgate wanted early on for “American Psycho” was Edward Norton. Even though the novel’s material was heady and outrageously violent, the studio still wanted a hot name, and Norton had caught fire after “Primal Fear” in 1996.
Meanwhile, director Mary Harron had a definitive vision for the film’s tone and staunchly refused to consider anyone but Christian Bale. This intransigence briefly cost her the job. Oliver Stone was hardly the only big-time filmmaker considered for Harron’s replacement over this crucial casting issue. When Leonardo DiCaprio was attached he also brought a director wish-list that included Danny Boyle and Martin Scorsese. Jonathan Demme of “Silence Of The Lambs” fame and even Stanley Kubrick were rumored to have taken a peak too.
If Harron had backed down and just agreed to shoot her script with an actor like Norton, she could certainly have saved herself many rewrites and maybe even her brief dismissal. She recalls the casting standoff with Lionsgate as a “huge battle,” adding, “They would’ve taken almost anybody over Christian.” But as good as Norton and the other big names being put forward were, Bale and Harron were seriously in step regarding the film’s ultimate artistic direction. “When I offered him the part,” Harron told The Guardian, “he said he had all these messages on his answering machine telling him this was career suicide. And that just made him more excited. That’s sort of how I reacted, too.”
It’s hard to imagine Hollywood studios being vehemently anti-Christian Bale in a post-“Dark Knight” world. But back in the late ’90s, despite the full backing of director Mary Harron, Lionsgate’s “American Psycho” casting concept was simple: anybody but Bale! Ewan McGregor was another such anybody, but Bale personally talked him out of doing the project.
Back in 1999, Bale didn’t have a massive career to risk, but the future Batman knew the calculus could be different for the more established McGregor, who would land a kid-friendly role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.” Bale admitted to The Mirror that he personally “warned other actors off … including Ewan McGregor.” Bale added, “I was not going to be bullied out of the part. I was going to stand up for myself and fight.”
Harron’s vision ended up winning by default, as a succession of stars and A-list directors got cold feet. The business side almost ruined one of the most daringly subversive Hollywood films ever made. Harron imagined “American Psycho” as an unflinching, blackly comic critique of ’80s excess with well-rounded female characters, and she didn’t think Oliver Stone or the proposed leads could pull that off. “When you’re trying to get your film financed, you’re up against a bunch of people who don’t care anything about [creative direction]. Most of the time they don’t care if the cast is appropriate or not, and movies have sunk like that.”
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