Ever since his first starring role at the age of 13 in Steven Spielberg’s epic Empire of the Sun, Christian Bale has had a reputation for being “difficult.” A publicist’s nightmare, the British-born actor made it plain early in his career that he hated giving interviews and often sat through entire sessions without answering any questions. Although he later softened his stance and endured the process, his behaviour both on and off the set attracted unfavourable attention.
Just after the second of his Batman films, The Dark Knight, was released, he was arrested in London for allegedly assaulting his mother and sister.
The charges were dropped but soon afterwards he launched a profanity-laced tirade at a cinematographer on the set of Terminator Salvation for allegedly crossing his line of sight during a scene. After a recording of the rant was released on the Internet, he issued a public apology.
The Christian Bale who strolled into a Beverly Hills hotel suite to talk about his latest movie, The Fighter, was neither difficult nor badly behaved. He was, however, completely unrecognisable with shoulder-length hair and a full beard.
“You’re looking at unemployment,” he laughed. “Lately I’ve been getting called Jesus Christ or Charles Manson.” He was, he said, feeling happy because he had just been playing with his five-year-old daughter Emmaline. “I was rolling around with my daughter and she was just being funny, so I’m coming away from that in a good mood right now.” Bale, 36, was reasonably affable although he made it plain he was uncomfortable talking about himself. “I want to talk but I try not to show too much of myself,” he tried to explain. “I always figure hey, look, I’m not a rock star, I’m an actor. I’m somebody who’s meant to be other people and I’m not meant to be here representing myself. I’m happier when I’m presenting myself as other characters.
“When I’m giving interviews I tend to not want to give too much away because I like the focus to be on the character.” This time the character is Dicky Ecklund, real life ex-boxer, ex-crack cocaine addict, former jailbird and the pride of Lowell, a blue collar town just outside Boston.
Ecklund, who once went the distance with Sugar Ray Leonard, losing a points decision, is the older brother of “Irish” Micky Ward, a battling boxer who, despite several severe beatings in the ring, went on to win the world junior welterweight title under Ecklund’s tutelage.
The Fighter, which also stars Mark Wahlberg as Ward, tells the story of the two brothers, Ward, the quiet, straight-arrow prison guard and Ecklund, charismatic and funny but caught up in a violent life of drug addiction and robbery that led to a 10-15 year jail sentence.
The film, produced by Wahlberg, has been in the works for nearly four years and originally Darren Aronofsky was set to direct and first Matt Damon and then Brad Pitt were due to play Ecklund. But schedules conflicted, plans changed and eventually David O. Russell directed with Bale as Ecklund in a performance almost certain to attract Oscar attention.
Bale, who is known for the intensity with which he completely inhabits his roles, spent a lot of time hanging out with Ecklund on the streets of Lowell. “He’s larger than life,” he said. “He took me around to the crack houses he used to use and the jail he spent time in and wherever he goes he’s like the mayor of the streets. Everybody calls out his name. The guy is one of the funniest guys I’ve ever come across. He’s got his own language he calls Dickinese where he has different words for everything. I learned the whole thing so that we could communicate. It was great because Dicky and I could talk on the set and nobody would have any idea what the two of us were saying.
“You hang out with Dicky and the most crazy stuff becomes normal. He’s someone who’s gone way over the edge, he’s come back laughing and there’s a real kind of buoyancy about him all the time.
“He had extreme ups and extreme downs and was so naturally gifted that he was able to go drinking all night and then jump in the ring in the morning, but that catches up to you after a while and it was hard for him to fulfill his potential.” Ecklund’s drug addiction and personal problems forced him to retire from boxing in 1985 after a ten year career and a record of 19 wins and ten losses. When he came out of jail he became his brother’s trainer and helped guide him to the world junior welterweight title.
Bale had once more to transform his physical appearance, dropping more than two stone in weight and using make-up and prosthetics to age himself (he is in fact three years younger than Wahlberg). Then he had not only learn how to box, but how to box like Dicky Ecklund.
“Dicky has a very squirrelly way of fighting and that came to me through really hard-core boxing training,” he said.
Born in South Wales, Bale grew up in Portugal and various towns around England before settling in Bournemouth. He was introduced to the entertainment business almost from the start: one of his grandfathers was a stand-up comedian, the other was a stand-in for John Wayne; his mother was a dancer and circus performer and his father was an entrepreneur, conservationist and animal rights activist.
“My dad was the biggest influence on my life because he was never boring,” Bale recalled. “He was always surprising and he wasn’t conventional in any way. We had our differences but I miss him a hell of a lot. He was cut from a different cloth to most.”
Christian Bale began his career when he was nine-years old in British television commercials and made the transition to stage and film, performing alongside Rowan Atkinson in a West End production of The Nerd when he was ten. Then Steven Spielberg chose him from 4,000 hopefuls to star in Empire of the Sun.
For a while after that he lost his desire to act and it was Kenneth Branagh who lured him back by persuading him to take a minor role in his Henry V. As an adult he appeared in the musicals Newsies and Swing Kids and found himself labelled a heartthrob through his appearance in Little Women.
But it was not until he portrayed serial killer Patrick Bateman in 2000’s dark satire American Psycho that he made his American breakthrough.
He lost 80lbs for his role in the psychological thriller The Machinist and had to regain it all and more when he was cast as Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.
His spell of unemployment is due to end in April when filming begins on the third Batman adventure, The Dark Knight Rises.
“I’m incredibly fortunate that I’ve got that little Batman movie coming up,” he said. “It’s a wonderful thing to fall back on and not many actors get given that kind of backbone.” He is not divulging any details of the plot, not because he doesn’t want to but because, he says, he doesn’t know anything. “I’ve spoken with Chris Nolan about it and he’ll let me know what I need to know when I need to know it and not before. Believe me, I’m not keeping any secrets from you. I’m in the dark about it right now.”