In the previous article of Jenelle Riley that I posted, there was a link to this article about the Prestige, which I thought would be nice to re-visit:
Out of the Ordinary
With ‘The Prestige,’ Christian Bale continues to surprise
by Jenelle Riley
Dec 28, 2006
In director Christopher Nolan’s smart and entertaining thriller The Prestige, illusion designer Cutter (played by Michael Caine) explains the three parts of a magic trick. First is “the pledge,” when something is presented to the audience as ordinary. Next comes “the turn,” in which the ordinary does something extraordinary. Finally, there’s “the prestige,” which is “the part with the twists and turns,” showing you “something shocking you’ve never seen before.” Although Christian Bale could never be mistaken for ordinary, it’s a testament to the admired actor that after two decades in the business, he continues to show us extraordinary things we’ve never seen before.
Spoiler warning: If you have yet to see Bale’s nuanced, complex turn in the twisty film, stop reading now. In fact, get to the theatre this instant. For it’s impossible to talk about Bale’s performance as obsessed magician Alfred Borden without revealing the final prestige: that Alfred is two people, twin brothers who sacrifice ordinary lives in order to pull off their greatest trick. It’s an achievement that only gets better with repeat viewings; Bale’s subtle distinctions between the two characters become more apparent once the secret is out.
Though the actor had collaborated with Nolan on a little film called Batman Begins, Bale didn’t necessarily have a leg up on the Prestige role; if anything, he worried the director might be resistant to working with him outside of the superhero franchise. “He didn’t have me in mind for it; he didn’t send me the script,” Bale reveals, adding that he obtained the screenplay through his agent and fell in love with it. “I had a conversation with Chris and told him I enjoyed the script and was passionate about it. I didn’t know if he was of the mind where he thought it would be interesting to work with me again or if he just wanted to keep me as his Batman.” Fortunately for audiences, Bale won the role of Borden. And he found his collaboration with the director an experience entirely different from the previous one. Whereas Batman required very specific, technical directions, The Prestige was shot in a looser style, largely with handheld cameras. “It was good to see Chris as a director on a different movie,” Bale notes. “He was very different on both films. I like the word ‘shape shifter,’ and he really is one.”
Under Cover of Knight
The story of The Prestige centers on the rivalry between naturally gifted magician Borden and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), a less-talented illusionist but superior showman. Asked if he was ever interested in playing Angier, Bale says he considered it only in passing. “The fact is, I never had much interest in the other role, and I believe the same is true of Hugh,” he explains. “We both just gravitated towards each of our own characters. Both obviously have secrets and murky pasts, but Borden’s intrigued me a little more.”
It would be easy to read something into the actor’s preference for the inherently gifted performer over his flashier counterpart; after all, Bale has been a well-known working actor for most of his life yet continues to fly under the radar of superstardom. He was only 13 when he landed the lead in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, a movie Bale now says he’s pleased wasn’t a huge blockbuster at the time, as it afforded him an amount of privacy growing up. “Actually it came out at the same time as The Last Emperor,” he recalls. “So a lot of people thought I was a little Chinese kid.” Bale continued to deliver impressive performances in a variety of films, from his turn as a rock journalist in Velvet Goldmine to his oddly endearing serial killer in American Psycho.
Yet none of his films were ever runaway hits — until he donned the Dark Knight’s cowl. Before the release of Batman Begins, Bale confessed to being in “complete denial” about how his life would change by taking on the role. Asked today how things have turned out, he says not much has changed. “It works, that being in denial,” he says. “Things changed a little bit, but nothing like I had worries about. In terms of life and movie roles, I would say things have only improved, which is good.” When told his Batman co-star Cillian Murphy (who played The Scarecrow) spoke of asking his advice on dealing with fame, Bale looks shocked. “I’m the last person you should ask for advice,” he claims. “A lot of people say it’s difficult to avoid the press. Maybe I’ve just been lucky. But it does seem you have to have the intention of attracting the press to get that attention.”
Asked if he’s ever been advised to publicize himself more for the sake of his career, he quickly responds, “Yeah, but I stay away from those people and have nothing to do with them.” He continues, “I know that’s not for me, and I’m very happy with the way things are going for me. I know many people might wish I had reached a certain point — but what is that? What’s the final destination? I’m not going to judge what I view as success compared to what other people view as success.”
Perhaps the strongest indicator of Bale’s success is the respect and admiration other actors have for him. Though never formally trained, he’s notorious for his intense research into characters. It’s virtually impossible to find a review of The Machinist that doesn’t mention his drastic weight loss (63 pounds, for the record), and his chameleonic transformations from role to role don’t escape notice either. When he took on the role — or roles — of Borden, he applied his meticulous methods to embodying two men living one life. He and Nolan decided that “Alfred” was an amalgam of two names — Albert and Fredrick — and referred to each character as such throughout filming.
“It got very confusing for Chris and I to say ‘the other one,'” Bale recalls. “We started off calling them ‘Borden One’ and ‘Borden Two,’ but that seemed too clinical. So it became Albert and Fredrick, which made it easier to communicate what we were meaning. I went through the whole script and worked out which brother it was from scene to scene.” Bale also constructed opposing personalities for each: Albert is the more gentle spirit, who deeply loves his wife and child; Fredrick, the more rash of the two, is always looking to push the envelope. Bale reveals that there was only one sequence where he and Nolan disagreed about which twin was in the scene. “It had to do with the overall ending of the movie,” Bale notes. “I went through a couple weeks where I was thinking the other way. But Chris and I talked, and the script changed a little after that, so we made it clear.” That is, Albert lives.
Bale and Jackman learned their characters’ sleight-of-hand techniques from master magician Ricky Jay, known for his encyclopedic knowledge of magic and his talent with playing cards — including the ability to throw cards over rooftops and hard enough to pierce the skin of a watermelon. Jay also makes a cameo in the film as a magician who, ironically, always plays it safe. Although Jay never performed the watermelon trick for Bale, the actor notes that “he did like telling me about it and then adding that watermelon has the same density as the human body. Then he would look at me like, ‘Don’t mess with me when I’ve got a deck of cards in my hand.'”
Obsession has never looked as appealing as it does with Bale at the helm. Watching Borden choose magic above all else — the magician sacrifices not only his marriage but also his fingers — and considering the intense dedication Bale devotes to his roles, it’s refreshing to hear that the actor keeps his profession in perspective. “I’ve thought of quitting at times,” he reveals. “The nature of the business is so up and down. When you’re up, it’s great. When you’re down, you hate it. But overall I beg to differ with people saying it’s a hard life. There are problems and tough times, but who doesn’t have that? And look at the upside: At the end of the day, I get to do a job where I’m fulfilled with what I’ve done. I’m one of the luckiest bastards around, really.”