When Patrick Bateman first appeared in American Psycho as the antihero of Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 satire of the '80s, the Wall Street salaryman-cum-serial killer was condemned for the unscrupulous violence and obsessive consumerism that seemed to define him. But time has softened Bateman into a kind of comic hero. In 2000, Christian Bale depicted him in all of his tanned, Armani-clad glory in a well-received film adaptation; and now Benjamin Walker is reincarnating Bateman on Broadway in a new musical, American Psycho, opening at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on April 21.
Despite his genteel, soft-spoken manner—Walker is a Georgia native and Julliard graduate—the 33-year old actor disappears into the role in a tongue-in-cheek production, directed by Rupert Goold with synth-heavy music and lyrics by Duncan Sheik. Curling his lips just so, a winningly deadpan expression plastered on his face, Walker, a veteran of the 2012 film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and the 2010 rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, is by turns heartlessly cutting and achingly insecure.
Tell me about the first time you encountered American Psycho.
My first encounter was the book. I was in college; I couldn’t finish it. I started reading it and was like, “You know what? I’m in school. I’m really busy. I’m going to shelve this thing for a while.” And I didn’t finish it until the lab for this [show]. And I wish I had at the time, but I also understand why I found it so gruesome because it is. With your imagination, you kind of have to pick and choose the images you allow to enter into it. And at the time, I didn’t feel like that was something I needed in my mind or that I could understand. And I do regret not finishing it. Because it was about something so much bigger. Then I saw the movie and had a similar experience. The first time, I thought, “I don’t know.” It was only on the second and third viewings that I really started seeing how funny it is. That’s the thing about [certain] stories—continued viewings illuminate something new every time.
True, but I think the different medium also changes how you digest it.
His story lends itself to these different mediums. It’s dense enough to deserve different interpretations. And people ask, “Why are you doing a musical of this?” Because it can afford it, and it illuminates something new about our current time and this particular individual’s state of mind.
That said, when you were first presented with the idea of a musical version of American Psycho, what was your reaction?
I was curious. My first question was, “Who’s writing the music?” And they said, “Duncan Sheik.” And I had worked with Duncan before so that was hugely exciting to me. And secondly, I met with Rupert [Goold], the director who talked about his vision for it. I was invested from that moment on. It seemed ambitious and poignant and I was excited to see where it went. And we’re here, so I guess it’s going alright.
What does turning American Psycho the musical add to the interpretation of Patrick and the story?
So much that's interesting about Patrick Bateman is the fantasy. And there’s something fantastical about musicals that you can only do with musicals. I always wondered, “Why are they singing again?” And the answer is because words aren’t enough; how you feel can’t be expressed in pure prose or even poetry. What’s the next thing? It’s song. And I do think the people in his world and the way he exists in the world lends itself nicely to song. What he’s experiencing is so intense that if he didn’t break into song, it wouldn’t make sense. Also, the musical vocabulary of the '80s is such a big part of who he is, and what we remember about the '80s … you kind of can’t do a story about the '80s and not have music involved.
Describe the Patrick Bateman whom you met when you were 17, and the one you’re now playing now on Broadway.
I guess the big difference is me. I’ve grown up. And when you’re young and naïve and have just moved to New York, it’s a scary thought to think that people have crazy thoughts in their minds. When really now, the truth that I’ve learned about people is that everyone is just like Patrick Bateman, but we have a filter and the things that you think when you’re stuck in traffic are just as heinous and brutal and inappropriate and disturbing. When you’re frustrated and you’re afraid and you don’t feel like you’re fitting in, and when you don’t feel like you’re getting what you want, your fantasies go to that place. The difference is Patrick doesn’t have the ability to stop his behavior from acting out.
He also has chainsaws and axes and knives at his disposal in a way that I would hope you don’t.
I own a chainsaw. But I’ve never used it on anyone.
It’s just sitting around as a prop in your apartment?
I used it for its proper purpose, actually, to cut down trees. I got a job felling trees one summer in Connecticut. And bless my poor wife [actress Kaya Scodelario]. When we were first dating and she came to my apartment, I was living in this big loft with no closets and I just had a pile of tools, one of which was a chainsaw. So it’s like, “Welcome to my home. Yes, that’s a chainsaw. Yes, I do actually use it.”
That’s basically the stereotypical, cautionary New York dating scenario in which the girl should run and never look back.
Do not tell her! But I do think there’s more Patrick in all of us than people care to admit.
I also feel like your depiction of Patrick has a layer of sympathy. There are times when you’re almost rooting for him—not to kill someone, but to get away with it.
Yes, and to learn something. I feel like everyone can relate to someone who doesn’t fit in. You’re in a roomful of people and they’re probably all making fun of you; and you’re trying to do everything right and you’re trying to be understood; and you’re trying to find happiness and love like everyone else. And for some reason, it’s just not working for you. Everyone can relate to that. And granted, he gets to the point where it’s extreme, but everyone understands it.
Do you think he’s actually either a psychopath or a sociopath?
Do you know who Jon Ronson is? He wrote The Psychopath Test. He’s an incredible writer. And he was gracious enough to have lunch with me and the actual test is a sliding scale. So I do think [Patrick] kind of exists among us as a bit alien, that he’s trying to understand, trying to empathize, trying to behave in the way he sees other people behaving. But I think everyone struggles to fit in. It’s almost scarier the people who just naturally fit in. Why do they? Why are they so good at it? What do they know that we don’t? And in Ronson’s book, he talks about how people that score very high in psychopathy are oftentimes the most successful people, like CEO’s and politicians. Do I think he is psychotic? I think the question is more complex than that.
Where did you fall on the scale?
I haven’t taken it. I don’t want to know! But I do think we’re all on it.
In the first scene, you emerge onto the stage in your underwear. This is not the first time you’ve appeared semi-clothed on screen or on stage. Was that a source of anxiety? Did you put a lot of work into it?
Yeah, I did. But I don’t mind that because it’s part of your job. And it’s not a bad part if someone wants to pay you to take care of yourself. I also think Patrick’s obsession with his body and how he’s perceived is a part of who he is. It’s part of the fun and challenge of being an actor. I’m just really looking forward to doing a job where I get to eat a lot of pizza and get really fat. I want to play a chef. An Italian chef.
That’s clearly the diet talking. What's the regime you’re on right now?
I have this really great trainer that I’ve worked with for years. And we try and shape my body to the part we’re working on. I get in three, four times a week and then cardio on the other days. It’s not fun! Protein shakes and cutting carbs after 4pm. But it’s also, like, if you’re an electrician and you have a bad day, you get electrocuted. If I’m an actor and I have a bad day, aww, I had to do some push-ups? I really can’t complain.
Your wife posted a very funny Instagram shot of your bed sheets, covered in self-tanner and fake blood. Do you have self tanner on for every show?
The producers send me to a spray-tan guy because Patrick has a tanning bed in his home, and one of the first images is of him in a tanning bed. It’s annoying, yes, but again, aww, you have fake tan on your Broadway show, where you get to work with great, amazing people on an interesting story—and they pay you? Buy some new sheets, you whiner! Having a relationship with an actor is strange. And luckily she’s successful as an actor, as well, so we understand it. Small price to pay.
Do you find Patrick hard to leave on the stage every night when you go home?
Luckily, the show is so exhausting that by the time it’s over I just want to go home and watch Netflix on the couch. My wife always jokes that if she sees me sitting up in bed one night watching her sleep, she’s leaving. But luckily it hasn’t come to that. Also, I think we’re trying to do something bigger than a portrait of a serial killer. And therefore, he’s more of a human being, and that’s easier to shed.
You were so young in the '80s. What are your memories of that time?
It’s interesting that Patrickis so obsessed with videotapes; my father had a video rental store. Rapid Rents, in Georgia. And this is before Blockbuster or any large franchises. So when I hear Patrick say, “I need to return some videotapes,” it really resonates with me. "I have to shelve some more videotape boxes," is more my context. I worked there every day after school.
How do you think your dad will react to that line?
I don’t know. And my poor, poor mom seeing me covered in blood every night. They’re supportive. The joke in the family is, “Are you going to be wearing clothes in this?”
There's that '80s Trump reference. Is it weird for you say?
It’s makes people go, “Ahhh.” The laugh is enormous.
Until they realize the joke’s on them because he’s running for president.
But isn’t that a good joke? The best jokes are something that’s true. So the laugh is a laugh of recognition. And also for Patrick, it’s not a joke. He was huge in the '80s. He’s a huge influence. Only trumped by how big he is now.
Oh look what you did there. You have an upcoming film, The Moon and the Sun, in which you star opposite your wife.
It’s actually the movie where we met. And we were just friends; it’s a movie about Louis XIV. Kaya plays his princess daughter [Marie-Josephe D’Alember], and I play the swashbuckling sailor [Yves de la Croix] who steals her away from the king. Also, there are mermaids in it. It’s a romantic fantasy. That’s where we met and became friends. I think a lot of successful relationships start when you’re friends first.
They also start when the swashbuckling sailor …
… Also has a chainsaw!