After redefining the superhero genre as Batman, Bale is back to doing what he loves best: disappearing into messy, larger-than-life characters—leading-man looks be damned—for fiercely independent filmmakers.
To begin with, there’s the comb-over: A spectacularly ugly piece of business that Christian Bale glues onto his head and into movie history in David O. Russell’s dark comedy American Hustle (out in December). It is, without a doubt, a maverick move, but that’s nothing new for a man who welcomes disguise (The Prestige) and physical transformation (The Machinist). Bale is a bit of a conundrum: Even when he’s the superhero in the title (The Dark Knight), he behaves like a character actor. He never tries to look like a star—even if that is simply impossible, as in Scott Cooper’s gritty revenge drama Out of the Furnace (out December 6)—and he certainly never acts like one. It is perhaps telling that his Oscar is for Best Supporting Actor (Russell’s The Fighter), not Best Actor. “It isn’t about him, it’s always about the character,” Cooper says. “He goes against a large percentage of actors who want to be known for what they do offscreen, who want to be personalities.” That disinterest in celebrity and dedication to keeping his personal life private allows for an uncommonly pure viewing experience. It’s a blueprint you can see younger leading men like Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender, and Tom Hardy following closely. And it’s the reason notoriously picky directors like Russell, Christopher Nolan, Terrence Malick, and Todd Haynes keep circling back. Bale has three major films in progress for 2014, including Malick’s Knight of Cups and Ridley Scott’s Exodus. We spoke with the 39-year-old star as he was preparing to undertake a transformation of biblical proportion to play Moses.
DETAILS: Your—or, I should say, Irv’s—comb-over in American Hustle might be the bravest thing you’ve ever done.
Christian Bale: Hey, I hope I’ve done braver things. But it’s certainly bold, isn’t it? [Laughs] I’ve always been fascinated by the dynamics of those things, though that was something we invented. I don’t know that anyone has ever done it precisely that way, with glue.
DETAILS: I don’t want to neglect the beer gut. That’s pretty sensational as well.
Christian Bale: [Laughs] I ended up with a herniated disk, which was a combination of the extra weight and slumping a lot. It’s my own fault—nobody asked me to gain the weight. I just saw Irv as being a bit of a rolling ball, full of momentum.
DETAILS: Russell has a reputation for being a very, um, animated director.
Christian Bale: Oh, yeah, he’s right on the edge of every shot. Sometimes you have to ask him to be quiet. If I was off camera or not in a scene, I’d be staring at David and cracking up because he’s so in it. I swear to God, there was one day I was watching him, and it was like looking at a guy who’s on trial for murder and he’s watching his dead-end, cokehead, hemorrhoid-suffering court-appointed attorney fucking up the rest of his life for him. [Laughs] It looked like he wasn’t going to survive. [Laughs] I said to him, “Are you going to have a heart attack? What’s going on here?” But he was having the time of his life.
DETAILS: This is the second larger-than-life character that you’ve created with Russell. What is it about your chemistry that results in these nut-jobs?
Christian Bale: We both love them, and I love the ideas he comes up with, and he seems to enjoy mine. We have a very humorous and at times poignant relationship. We can knock each other senseless—not physically, metaphorically—and still want to get up and give each other a hug at the end of the day. We can disagree in a way that two people who respect each other can. And when it feels like a true partnership, you do. I never had brothers. I grew up with women around me always, but what I saw of friends of mine who had brothers—man, they could have the worst fallings-out, but they were always right there for each other. Sometimes I’m calling him crazy, and sometimes he’s calling me crazy, but it’s never a straight and easy path that leads to good shit. I almost talked myself out of American Hustle.
DETAILS: Really? Seems like the sort of transformative role you live for.
Christian Bale: I often talk myself out of doing things. It was my wife getting on the phone to David. She’s done that before, where she’s heard me talking for hours and weeks with directors, and then something happens and she’ll get on the phone, “You know what Christian’s like. Get him to pull his finger out of his ass and he’ll be there for you.”
DETAILS: What gets your finger stuck in the first place?
Christian Bale: I like doing whatever I’m doing, you know? I’d like to never work again if I could—who wouldn’t? But once I start working, or most of the time, anyway—there have been exceptions, believe me—I think, “Oh, right, now I remember what I like about this.”
DETAILS: Irv is a flamboyant seventies con artist—a very different kind of American than strong, silent Russell Baze in Out of the Furnace. What attracted you to the second role?
Christian Bale: I’d seen Scott’s first film, Crazy Heart, which I’d liked a great deal. He told me that he wouldn’t make the film without me, which was really nice, but every director says that—”You’re the only person I can think of in this part”—and I know they’ve offered it to four other people beforehand and will happily offer it to another four afterwards. [Laughs] I don’t blame them for it—they’re trying to get their films made. Anyway, my schedule wouldn’t permit me to do Scott’s movie, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the script. Months later I called my agent and said, “Who did he end up with?” My agent told me he wasn’t doing it. I said, “Crap, what happened?” He said, “Well, you didn’t do it, so he didn’t do it.” And I just went, “Wow! He bloody meant it!” [Laughs] But these are the kinds of films I like to make.
DETAILS: Meaning what, exactly?
Christian Bale: I like movies where you spin on a dime. Sometimes obstacles and hurdles can actually help to define a film and give it the character it needs. All the time in the world doesn’t always help matters. I shot Out of the Furnace in 27 days. American Hustle, we had a little more time than we did on The Fighter—in the high thirties, so still not a lot. I also really appreciate an openness for improvisation, for changing things without it becoming a big deal.
DETAILS: For a Brit, you play a lot of Americans.
Christian Bale: I’m English, but America has been my home for half my life now, and I see Russell, for example, as someone who isn’t represented very much: good old America at its peak. Someone who stays and is loyal and has to endure and take care, who is really having to take a look at his priorities and his loved ones and his loved town. And that’s a very important part of it—the loved town. I’ve never had that. I’ve always moved around a lot, so I’m jealous when I see people who have an attachment to a place.
DETAILS: What, specifically, do you look for in a script?
Christian Bale: It’s all over the map for me, to be honest. I’d say inconsistency is something I enjoy. But sometimes it’s the character, sometimes it’s the director, sometimes it’s the script, and sometimes—holy shit—it’s all three! And sometimes you just want or need to work, you know? Looking back over the films I’ve made, it’s been every reason under the sun for doing them.
DETAILS: Is there a role that comes closest to who you are?
Christian Bale: I’d be the worst person to tell you that. I barely know what color my own eyes are. I get kind of blind when I’m looking at characters. Other people point it out, and I go, “No, no, that’s a character, there’s nothing of me.” But of course there always is. The idea is to bring nothing of yourself, but it’s probably impossible. I stay awake at night worrying about it.
DETAILS: Do you pay attention to the business of Hollywood?
Christian Bale: I’m a fucking awful businessman. I got no idea how to sell a film. I don’t know why people want to see certain films. But it’s a strange brew, you know, because I don’t feel like an artist or anything—there’s way too much business involved in this whole thing for that. But equally there’s way too much creativity for this to be like any normal business.
DETAILS: Did you hear about the Internet reaction to Ben Affleck being cast as Batman? It was surprisingly virulent.
Christian Bale: Somebody pointed it out to me. Look, there’s no middle ground on the Internet. It’s just extreme feelings. They love you or abhor you. Ben knows that, and I doubt if he spent one minute worrying about it.
DETAILS: What’s your take on Moses, one of the most iconic men—and beards—in history?
Christian Bale: I prefer to call him Moshe. Otherwise it’s like “Moooooses,” and everyone immediately thinks of Chuck Heston. Ridley and myself, we’d like to present a different interpretation. I’d never sat down and read the five books of the Torah—the Pentateuch—and there is some shocking stuff. Things you certainly never hear in Sunday school. He’s a fascinating guy, with all of the vulnerabilities and extraordinary capacities that come with being very human—almost too human, and quite harsh in his emotions. It’s a raw story when you break it down.
DETAILS: So, are we talking action-figure-ready Moses?
Christian Bale: I certainly wouldn’t want to call it an action film, though he fought a number of battles throughout his life. Let me put it this way: Any of us living today who arrived back then would be scared shitless.