Ever since he burst into public consciousness as a youngster in Steven Spielberg’s underrated Empire of the Sun (1987), Christian Bale has continued to delight and surprise his fans, the most rabid of which have been dubbed “Baleheads”. On the Internet, the actor is quite popular. And in the last few years, he has quietly been moving into adult roles, starting with his breakout turn as Laurie in the remake of Little Women. At home in period drama (he was a suitor to Nicole Kidman in The Portrait of a Lady), Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, this year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) or more contemporary fare (Velvet Goldmine), Bale almost always delivers. Even when the material may be substandard, he finds ways to make his performance work. At 25, the Welsh-born actor is already a veteran, having begun his career on stage at the age of 10. He recently made a fast trip from Toronto (where he is filming the controversial American Psycho, which should be released by the end of the year) to the offices of Lion’s Gate Films in NYC to meet with members of the press to discuss his latest film, Metroland.
Bale is an oddity in the show business machine. He doesn’t have a press agent and he keeps a relatively low profile. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he is not fodder for the gossip columns. His penchant for privacy is a bit refreshing, but also a bit bracing. It has been well-documented that when he was a teenager and found himself at the center of a swirl of publicity for Empire of the Sun, he had trouble coping with all the attention. That has clearly left its mark. When he joined the small group of journalists I was in, the first words out his mouth were, “I’ve just hit a point where I’ve sort of said everything once.” It was obvious he was exhausted from his schedule (having literally come from the set) but as it turned out, the tall, slender Bale (who easily could have passed for a graduate student rather than a film star), gamely answered our questions about his career and his upcoming work.
The focus of course, was Metroland, a terrific film that allows Bale to play one character at three distinct stages in his life (teenager, a twentysomething bohemian in Paris, and a married man in his thirties). While there are surface similarities to his part in Velvet Goldmine, Christopher Lloyd in Metroland is a bit more interesting. Bale manages to find the nuances in these mostly reactive roles. “I worked with Christopher Hampton. Did the film called The Secret Agent. And his assistant on that became a casting director who was casting Metroland.”
He was drawn to the character, in part, “because it was all really convenient. I got the script two weeks before we started filming it. They sent it to me. I was told it was just for the Parisian section. Thought, ‘you know, that will be quite fun.’ Spoke with the director [Philip Saville] – I never really asked him what the hell he was on about – the first thing he says to me [lowering his voice] ‘Do you have a hairy chest?’ And I said, ‘No!’ And he said, ‘Would you want to play all three parts, then?’ So I said, ‘Yeah.’ And that was it. We started two weeks later.”
“I liked the script an awful lot and I read the book and I thought it dealt with [affecting an upper-class accent] interesting topics.”
Since the film is set in the 1960s and early 70s, Bale worked on developing the appearance of his character and was a bit surprised to discover, “I looked like my dad in a lot of this film. At my parents’ wedding, he had on a corduroy jacket, with big sideburns… and a turtleneck jumper. It was exactly the same clothes I was wearing for the film. It spooked my mother.”
Ironically, Bale was “most concerned” about playing the schoolboy incarnation of his character, “because I was playing younger.” Only 22 at the time of filming, he was concerned about looking too old or “Benny Hill-like, you know, older people trying to pretend that they’re younger, running around in school uniforms… There can be something obscene about it all. But, I think we managed it pretty well.”
When queried about developing the specific look for each section of the film, Bale was quick to note that it boiled down to the hair and makeup people. “We really had no time for developing anything on this film. There was obviously, it’s a superficial thing but it makes a huge amount of difference. There’s a huge change that comes over everybody when you change your hairstyles. Just adjusting that. Giving sideburns, giving the length. Obviously, there’s acting involved as well. But the hair and makeup did a great job on it.”
“But we didn’t have much time for developing anything… I met the director two days before we started filming and we didn’t have any rehearsal whatsoever. And we did the whole thing in 27 days. So, everything was really – we had two or three takes at most to do each scene and we started off being real panic-inducing, but you sort of got used to it. And I think it turned out quite nicely, because there’s a lot of very – whether you realize it or not – there are a lot of spontaneous things in the film. Just because of the lack of real structure and not knowing quite what was meant to happen. Accidentally, things happen that makes the film quite good.”
It was amusing to watch Bale deal with a slightly personal question about his views on marriage and commitment. The guard immediately went up; he blushed, claiming the question made him think of something else and then stalled by saying, “I’m sorry, I’m getting one of those afternoon, Christ, I’ve said this. Have I said it to you or not?” He stumbled a bit and then framed his answer in terms of the movie. “I think the film has a real Englishness to it. Which obviously, I understand. But I also think that… one of the major topics is finding yourself in a rut in your life. Not being able to see the wood for the trees really and requiring somebody else to come along and kick you in the ass and say, ‘Look at yourself. What’s going on?’ Before you’ve realized that possibly you’ve wasted a number of years… And how to rediscover having some sort of passion about your life and making it more realistic. I think anyone can empathize with that to a degree.”
“What’s interesting is that – I think this film has been called a film festival favorite, which means that nobody’s seen it, except through the film festivals. We would do Q and A’s afterwards. And a lot of people’s completely opposing reactions to it all. A lot of people, one guy, who I noted was sitting with his wife when he asked the question… ‘How comes Marion put up with Chris for so many years with him acting the way that he did?’ Which I was sure he was saying just for his wife’s sake. As I see it, she’s the manipulative one. Chris’ only fault is naivete. And that’s it. The more I see the film, the more I strongly think that and that the woman’s a COW! But a lot of the audience has completely differing ideas on that.”
According to Bale, his character doesn’t “even realize he’s in the rut until his friend arrives. And Chris’ thing is that he does – as a teenager, theoretically without having any life experience, he thinks he really does have it all sorted out. He thinks he knows what he talking about and life is going to be black and white and very easy. And then as a thirty-year-old, it’s all a bit more confusing and there are many different answers to every question. And he doesn’t really know what he’s about and what his values are. He attempts to empathize with everybody all the time and [his old friend] Tony [played by Lee Evans] arrives and he wants to see what he really means. All right – I’m boring. All of sudden, I’m going to take a look from your viewpoint. And all the time he’s doing that from Marion’s viewpoint as well, never really saying, ‘Hold it! What do I really think about any of this.’ And I don’t think the film ends with him knowing that, but he has made this journey from the teenager – very idealistic and absolutely never going to become content (which is a big word in the film) – to being a young father who is quite happy to say, ‘I’m content. I’ve made compromises and I haven’t fulfilled all the dreams I wanted to, but it’s a new situation and I’m working with it.’ …It’s not a definite ending at all. It’s sort of filmed like a nice happy ending but absolutely, he’s compromised an awful lot. But, I mean, not to say that she hasn’t either. But that’s what I like – that’s why I liked it. Because it wasn’t all very clear-cut about each of their relationships.”
The onscreen chemistry between Bale and Emily Watson is quite marvelous and it’s a testament to their acting abilities. He explained that because of the tight schedule, there was very little time to get to know one another. They jokingly said they spent “about twenty minutes” together (“That’s plenty, who needs more than that, for God’s sake… then we jumped in the sack.”) On a more serious note, he related that “we didn’t have much time for anything on this. Literally it was Emily and me just met out for a drink three nights before we started and then we saw each other at read through. But what we did do, because the set was so rushed, Lee, Emily and myself used to get together in the trailers and rehearse it ourselves and run through stuff. So that at least the three of us agreed on how we were going to do something by the time we arrived on the set, because the set was such chaos. REALLY. That if we left it until then we ended up going “Cut! Print! Move on!’ And we were going, ‘Well, I don’t know what that was like.’ …Two days into it I was thinking this is it, I’m going to quit because this is so bloody fast-paced, I haven’t got a clue what I’m about. But then you sort of fortify and used it to our advantage. The essential thing became as long as Lee, Emily and myself and Elsa [Zylberstein who plays his Parisian lover Annick], when she was there, became comfortable enough with each other that we can really relax, improvise, be spontaneous, then we could make it work. So it became enjoyable instead of panic-ridden.”
As for his future roles, Bale was a bit closed-mouthed about the upcoming A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which he plays Demetrius to Calista Flockhart’s Helena and Anna Friel’s Hermia, he was quite willing to discuss American Psycho (which, like Metroland is being produced under the Lion’s Gate banner). “It’s not often that you get somebody like Mary Harron who comes along and cast you as something you have never touched. Never even attempted to play anything near to. Generally people do see you in a period movie and say oh, we’re doing a period movie, so he’d be great for this one. Or he played that real nice guy so he can play the nice guy here as well. It has opened up a whole new slice of pie for me–some of it ridiculous, since starting American Psycho, I’ve had things sent like, ‘We want you to play Satan in a film now.’ But it’s really nice from having keeping on getting the thing of the nice slightly gullible guy. Suddenly, there’s a whole other range that can be done. If I can keep expanding that, that’s ideal.”
Despite the controversy it has already engendered, Bale has high hopes for American Psycho. “Obviously you can’t do a five hundred page novel and put everything in. Whilst you can’t capture as well the mental narrative humor of the book, Bret [Easton Ellis] writes great dialogue and we’ve pretty much not altered anything. If we’re doing a scene, it’s taken straight from the book. And when you actually do it, it’s often much, much funnier than you realize it would be… That is Mary’s angle on it–the core of the film is that it is a satire on the 80s and materialism. Secondly, he’s a serial killer. It’s funny playing it. During rehearsals when the crew can make noise and things, you’re getting a direct response and it is incredibly funny. In some of the scenes we’ve started doing now, as well, which are really ugly and then some, which are the really interesting ones where it’s both at the same time… At the same time I’m finishing a scene, I’m having this cold feeling, thinking, ‘Oh f*ck! They’re right. This is career suicide. I’m going to be the most hated person on the planet when this film comes out.’”
“It wasn’t a hard decision to want to do [the role]. When I initially got sent it, I hadn’t read the book. I’d only read some of the excerpts which generally they put in very gruesome bits. Gave everybody a very biased perspective on the book. And I thought it was a very dark psychological thriller about a serial killer and I wasn’t excited about its arrival. Then when I read it, it wasn’t anything like I had expected and I think a lot of people are going to find that.”
“In terms of reaction to it, rankly I’ve always admired actors who appear not to pay a great deal of attention to the reaction but rather to their own choices and keeping themselves interested in their own careers and in the roles. It’s something I’m happy to take flack for.” Bale is also not worried that audiences may believe he is the character he plays. “It’s a little scary [that an audience member might confuse the actor with the role] but it’s not going to prevent me from making a film. Otherwise, what? I’m going to end up playing Laurie in Little Women for the rest of my life.”
About his popularity on the Internet, Bale maintains a philosophical approach. “It’s out there. It’s not a tangible thing at all. Whilst I hear a lot about all the web pages and stuff and I’ve been on it and I’ve seen it and I tend to know basically what’s going on, I don’t actually surf the Internet… Some people say to me, ‘Don’t you find it a bit scary?’ I find it induces a real self-consciousness if I have a look at it too much because people are really analyzing things that frankly I don’t want them to be analyzing or I don’t want to know what conclusions they’re coming to. That kind of thing can make you very timid in your choices. If I’ve read too much about people’s reactions to me laying Bateman [in American Psycho], maybe I would start getting cold feet. I’m sure it would be short-lived, but I’d have to sort of answer all of these questions that I don’t really genuinely have in my own head. That other people are putting in there. Also when you read something when somebody has followed you–and they HAVE and they’re right and you were where they say you were, you start being aware of being watched when you’re outside too much. But now a lot of it, not all of it, but a lot of it is just very flattering, intelligent conversation. It’s not all teenage girls going he’s a hottie. There’s a lot that just talks about the acting and the films and book references and some of them just love to chat with each other and it’s got nothing to do with me. I’m just the catalyst that brought them together… I’ve gone in and just sat and watched but it tends to me paranoid, so I don’t do it often.”
1999 is shaping up to be Christian Bale’s year. With Metroland in theaters and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the character-driven All the Little Animals and American Psycho scheduled for release. He is once again on the verge of breaking through as a major player. But Bale is sanguine about his future. “How are you going to prepare yourself for it?”, he asks. “I think when you’re someone like Leonardo DiCaprio who is suddenly huge, I think that must be incredibly difficult. As for me… after doing Empire of the Sun I had such an experience that I disliked about publicity and everything, I sort of became doubly wary of it. It’s something that creeps up on you and you can adapt to it slowly. And you’re okay with this situation which you didn’t used to be and I suppose it will just keep going like that… I don’t consider it bullshit. I get really tired of hearing [that]. I want people to see my film. I understand that you’ve got to do interviews and speak with people about it.” From a purely selfish standpoint, I was glad he was willing to meet with us and speak about Metroland. For me, it is another fine portrait in a gallery of exceptional work and undoubtedly one of many, many more to come.
By Ted Murphy.