Elle (March 1999)

ONWARD, CHRISTIAN BALE

He’s been acting for more than half of his twenty-five years – but he just keeps going and growing. This young Brit won’t stop at anything, not even playing an American psycho.

Squeezed into the puny patio furniture of the swank Hollywood Whiskey bar, Christian Bale looks all wrong: too big to be the actor who morphed from scrawny, glitter-struck adolescent in Velvet Goldmine; too sophisticated to play the suburban husband to Emily Watson in this month’s Metroland; too grown-up for die current crop of twentysome-diing Hollywood heartthrobs. In a brown leadier jacket, black trousers, and boots, die Welsh-born Bale looks instead like the real-life, complex twenty-five-year-old he is: literate, thoughtful, well-traveled, and long on story. Unlike his Brit-boy counterparts, Bale made his way into acting through Hollywood rather than the West End or Royal Academy, and after over a decade in the business has remained impervious, blissfully or not, to fame and its repercussions. His younger fans have been legion since Winona Ryder’s Jo turned down his marriage proposal in 1994’s Little Women and he added more than a few older ones after he played another determined suitor in Portrait of a Lady. But despite the heavy traffic on news, Bale doesn’t seem to have a clue about his admirers; just recently he was completely bowled over to find himself getting recognized in a Hollywood bar. “Some guy came up to me shouting, ‘You rock, man!’ ” Bale recounts, impersonating the stereotypical Valley boy on the town. “‘Velvet Goldmine was greaaaat!’ I even had people buying me drinks!”

This spring Bale can count on even more help with his bar tabs: In addition to Metroland, he turns up in All the Little Animals, with John Hurt, and Michael Hoffman’s A Midsummer Nights Dream, with Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Everett, and Calista Flock-hart. This month, he begins shooting American Psycho, writer-director Mary Harron’s controversial adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel, starring Bale as the titular madman, a role guaranteed to earn him more name recognition than previous projects, which have included a small role in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and meatier ones in Disney’s Newsies and Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. The son of a dancer mother who split from his devoted but peripatetic father, Bale was never quite sure what his rather did for a living (“He’d always make enough money to provide for us without our ever quite knowing what he was up to,” Bale admits), but his upbringing gave him the security to choose an actor’s life, as well as a laboratory in which to observe a wide variety of human behaviour. “For as long as I can remember, we’ve always had strange people turning up at the door saying they’re looking for my dad, wanting some advice from him about something,” Bale remembers. “He just sort of attracts people a bit like the Pied Piper.”

Bale paid attention to those crowds his father drew. In conversation, he launches into characters as disparate as an elderly Afrikaner woman to a fellow British actor with an utterly entertaining conviction; onscreen, he becomes his characters so thoroughly he himself seems to disappear. As Chris in Metroland, which director Philip Saville adapted from Julian Barnes’s novel of the same name, Bale embodies both the libidinous self-assurance of a young lover in Paris and the pale, wistful resistance of the same man who, having just passed thirty, finds himself forced to weigh die merits of family and vegetable garden over his closest friend’s punk-scene licentiousness. Complemented by Emily Watson as his steadily assured wife, Bale gives a subtle, delicate performance in a sometimes not-so-subtle morality tale, made all the more stunning because he knows – and can articulate with striking precision – exactly what he wants it to convey.

“The film is absolutely not teaching anyone a lesson,” he insists. “Metroland is about how, as a teenager, before you’ve experienced anything, life is very black-and-white, you think you know it all. [In the film,] as Chris gets older, he pictures himself becoming stronger and more opinionated, but instead he becomes much more gray, much less decisive. Through experience,” Bale explains, “we learn to understand that there are many different ways of looking at something.’

Bale’s many different ways of seeing – along with his inherent wisdom and ability to defend a film’s purpose – is going to come in handy later this year, when American Psycho, a story critics excoriated, and NOW boycotted in book form, hits theaters. He nearly lost the role to Leonardo DiCaprio when the producers realized that the project came with the potentially lucrative promise of controversy (lucky for everybody, DiCaprio reconsidered). “I’m going to have a lot of questions to answer after this,” he says. “I expect to get a bit of sniper fire.”

You get the feeling he doesn’t mind, that an enthusiastic pugnacity lurks beneath Bale’s amiable surface – an impression he confirms when he describes his close but stormy relationship with Louise, the sister eighteen months his senior with whom he spends time in Los Angeles when he’s not on a set or living in London. “She can throw a punch,” he claims, “which she probably learned from me.” (The “bloody nail marks” of childhood battles, however, have healed.) He’s already rehearsing his responses to the inevitable attacks on the film, the foremost of which is his contention that people just don’t get what Ellis was up to in writing his reckless portrait of a serial killer. “It’s a satire” Bale argues. “To say it’s violent is obviously a ridiculous understatement, because it’s a black comedy. When I first read the script I was crying with laughter,” he admits. “And I called Mary [Harron] up and said, ‘I found it hilarious – so should we stop talking right now?’ She said, ‘No! That’s exactly what it’s meant to be.’ ” Nothing against DiCaprio, but no other actor of Bale’s age and caliber seems likely to be caught expounding on the unexpected feminist commentary afforded by Ellis’s excess – “It doesn’t for a second leave you thinking, I hate women; you think, Men are despicable” – or how all extremes of political thought, from left to right, “come full circle to the same repressive intolerance.” And Harron is thrilled to finally have him: “You can’t have some pretty-boy actor playing madness,” the director explains. “I had to have someone with inner life, and Christian has the depth of a much older actor. He’s very unpretentious, very smart, and he wasn’t scared of the script; he wanted to make it work. I feel lucky to have have found him.”

By Judith Lewis.