Empire (September 1998)

CHRISTIAN BALE – ALL GROWN UP

When Christian Bale was the 13-year-old overnight sensation from Empire Of The Sun, he did an interview for a very popular teenage magazine in which he was rude, gave monosyllabic answers and generally proved as uncooperative as possible to the unfortunate journalist who had travelled all the way to Paristo see him. The teen mag, a tad miffed, decided to expose him for the nauseating adolescent they decided he was by printing the entire encounter word for word (or lack of, as the case may be). His reputation as “difficult” was born.

Eleven years on, however, this reputation couldn’t be further from the truth. Ensconced in his trailer parked in a blustery, decidedly unglamorous section ofCornwallwhere he’s filming All The Little Animals, the now 24-year-old actor makes for delightful, nay verbose company, as he recalls said incident.

“It was great making the film,” he says, really quite politely, “but I had no idea I wouldn’t enjoy the rest of it. They packed me off on this publicity tour and I just hated it. Every 15 minutes an interviewer was coming through, even through lunch. By the end of the second day I had a knife and I was just stabbing this orange while all these interviewers were talking to me, and I wasn’t saying anything except, ‘Yes. No. I’ve answered that one 20 times today, ask any of the other journalists out there’. So ¦when the next journalist turned up I excused myself, ran up theChamps Elysees, and disappeared.”

Which is why you’ll never see much of the Welsh-born actor, who now calls LA home, between movies. That said, chances are Bale will be chattering away till the bovines return to base over the next month, with three movies set to up his ante in the ubiquity stakes (four if you count the video rental release of The Secret Agent this month, following the briefest of theatrical outings). First there’s this month’s Metroland, the screen version of the Julian Barnes novel, in which Bale is the freewheeling 60s snapper turned cosy 70s suburban hubby (to Emily Watson) reminded what he’s missing out on by former partner in crime and swinging single Lee Ross. It has the look and feel of a BBC Sunday night drama (with heaps of shagging thrown in), but it’s consistently entertaining and extremely well acted, with Bale re-affirming his status as one of this country’s finest, possibly even most underrated, young thesps. Staying with the 70s, there’s Todd Haynes’ much-talked-about Velvet Goldmine, with Bale joining the stack-heeled likes of Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Toni Collette and Eddie Izzard, as the Mancunian journalist investigating the mysterious disappearance of glam rockster Brian Slade (Meyers), nearly a decade after the glam era was confined to the wardrobe for good.

“I have three different phases,” he explains. “In the first bit I’m 17 up in Manchester wishing I was into the whole glam thing – I’m wearing huge bloody flares. Then I go down to London, I get into the whole scene, but I’m still homespun – Ewan and Johnny and Toni have the best clothes going. Then the other age is 10 years on, when I’m this completely suppressed guy, a journalist, wearing grey, with boring hair and glasses, and it starts with me being assigned this Whatever Happened To Brian Slade? story.”

And finally there’s the aforementioned All The Little Animals, which marks the directorial debut of former BFI head/Last Emperor Oscar clencher Jeremy Thomas, and possibly the most challenging role of the trio. Bale plays a young man with a mental age of 11, who fleeing from his evil step pa (Daniel Benzah), hooks up with batty nature protector John Hurt, a loner who goes to extreme lengths to ensure that the wildlife around him get a fair deal. It’s a topic which has echoes of Bale’s formative years.

“When I was growing up,” he explains, “my dad would take me to Save The Whale raids and Greenpeace things, and he was thought of as a bit odd then. But now it’s generally recognised that this sort of thing is important, that we need to be a bit more civilised about the way we live. But the film is not a lesson in any way whatsoever, because these characters are not exactly ideal people.”

Something of a comeback then, but despite having previously restricted himself to one film a year, Bale has built up an impressive body of work: Henry V, Little Women, Portrait Of A Lady, even the overlooked double of Swing Kids and The News Boys (the disastrously received musical known as Newsies on its US release).

“It did terribly at the cinema,” he points out, “but it’s become a real cult thing in the States. There are all these fan clubs and they have Newsies conventions where people get together and act out certain scenes. People have even changed their names to those of the characters.”

Ask him for his favourite movie, however, and he’ll, unsurprisingly, opt for Empire Of The Sun.

“It tends to get mixed up with The Last Emperor,” he says of the similarly-located 1987 picture which bagged a shedload of Oscars compared to Empire Of The Sun’s duck. “People are told I was in Empire Of The Sun and they go, ‘Oh, you mean the little Chinese kid?’ Actually, I’ve never seen The Last Emperor. It’s kind of a retaliation …”

By Caroline Westbrook.