The sexy Welsh actor from American Psycho goes, kicking and screaming, toward stardom.
Warning: The following story may contain information upsetting to the subject, Christian Bale, who does not like to read or hear anything about himself. Which is too bad, because Christian Bale is about to become a star, and no doubt this will be only the first of many such intrusions he will have to endure.
On this particular breezy spring afternoon in Southern California, he is dressed casually in a black V-neck sweater, blue cargo pants and Vans, and is having lunch at one of his favorite spots on the boardwalk in Redondo Beach, about 45 minutes south of Los Angeles. The low-key, out-of-the-way beach town seems appropriate, because for more than a decade the 26-year-old Welshman has been something of a Hollywood outsider.
Beyond a string of critically acclaimed performances in little-known films – 1997’s Metroland and 1998’s Velvet Goldmine – Bale’s main success until now came at age 17 in a distinctly bad 1992 Disney musical called Newsies, about turn-of-the-century paperboys on strike. Though mercilessly panned, the movie helped to give him one of the largest and most rabid Internet followings any actor has ever experienced. “I don’t really know how to explain that a’tawl,” he says with a Welsh lilt, more than a little embarrassed at the mention of his fanatics, who are so impassioned that they actually wrote a sequel to Newsies and lobbied Disney to make it.
With last week’s release of American Psycho, based on the controversial 1991 novel by Bret Easton Ellis, Bale is not likely to need any more Internet career boosts. His performance as a high-society Wall Street investor by day and psychotic serial killer by night is chilling and darkly comedic. It will also not hurt his career that his recently well-cut and often very naked body is prominently featured.
“When I worked with Christian on Little Women five years ago, he was this lanky British lad,” says Samantha Mathis, one of his American Psycho costars. “I get to the set this time and Christian looks like a Calvin Klein underwear model. I was watching the scene where he’s standing [naked] by the shower stall, and I had to gasp. I don’t think people saw him like that before.”
There’s a lot more of Bale on the way. Based on clips from American Psycho, he landed two big-budget, major-studio roles – Paramount’s Shaft, with Samuel L. Jackson, due out in June, and Universal’s Corelli’s Mandolin, with Nicolas Cage, due in theaters next year. “I’m getting more attention than I ever have,” says Bale, dousing a plate of fish and chips with vinegar. “But I totally disagree with people who think that it’s part of an actor’s job to be a public personality. It’s the opposite: The point is for people not to know you at all, and frankly, it makes my job a lot easier that way because people believe in the character I’m playing. If I wanted people to know who I was, I would have become a host of a television show,” says Bale.
Even his January marriage to freelance producer Sibi Blazic, whom he met through mutual friends, is a top-secret matter. “It’s the most important thing to me, and whilst I want to tell everyone about it, I don’t want it to be written about publicly,” he says. “I know it’s kind of a paradox, but I’ve promised myself I wouldn’t say anything. I can’t read too much about myself without getting paranoid.”
Bale’s shyness can be traced to his first film role, at age 13, as die star of the overlooked 1987 Steven Spielberg WWII epic Empire of the Sun. In Paris during a press tour for die film, Bale became distraught at the thought of talking about himself to a bunch of reporters, and in the middle of a full day of scheduled interviews, he slipped out of the hotel and sprinted up die Champs Elysees. “It was a great feeling, actually, walking out on that amount of organization,” he says now.
Despite the actor’s wariness of publicity, his first brush with show business came early. His father, David, was a nomadic adventurer and the son of a John Wayne film double. David met his wife, Jenny, while living in a 24-hour Wimpy’s fast-food restaurant in Pembrokeshire, Wales, near Bale’s birthplace. “He wouldn’t even say he was homeless,” Bale says of his father, who also occasionally worked as a pilot. “To him, it was just another thing he was doing.” Bale’s mother was a circus performer, and some of the actor’s earliest memories include serenades by half-naked dancers in red headdresses and receiving his first kiss, at age 6, from a Polish trapeze artist.
When Bale was 10, the family, including his two older sisters (one of whom is now a musician in London, the other a theater director in Los Angeles), packed a camper, ferried it across the English Channel and headed south to Portugal. They took up residence on a farm, and Bale did not bother to attend school. Ten months later, they moved again, this time to Bournemouth, on the southern tip of England. Bale – who had done TV commercials and a short theater turn in London’s West End by then – got a break. He beat out 4,000 other young actors for the part in Empire and went on to give a performance described by New York Times critic Janet Maslin as “extraordinarily heartfelt.” “There was no pressure,” Bale says of the experience. “It was totally unselfconscious. And Steven [Spielberg] was great. It was like working with another kid.’
For the next several years, however, Bale was haunted by the pressures and expectations such a performance brings, and for a while he thought about abandoning acting. “It was that thing of being totally unselfconscious and then getting attention and becoming self-conscious because of it,” he says. “I wasn’t feeling the same passion for acting that I initially had.”
That changed in 1994, when Winona Ryder pushed for Bale to get the part of the charming young suitor Laurie in Little Women. “She really helped restore some of my confidence,” Bale says. “I suddenly realized, ‘Wait a minute, I can do this.'” He did it so well, however, that the only substantial roles he began getting were in period pieces, such as 1996’s Portrait of a Lady and 1999’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He worried that he had been typecast.
When he received die script for American Psycho from director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) in the summer of 1997, Bale immediately felt that he absolutely needed to get the part of Patrick Bateman. Because the movie was bound to be dark, edgy and heavy on the sex – an initial NC-17 rating was reduced to an R only after a three-way sex scene between Bale and two prostitutes was edited down – Bale figured that American Psycho would help him shed forever his image as the kid from Newsies or the nice young man in those historical dramas. He flew at his own expense from London to New York to audition for the director.
Her first reaction was skepticism. “I wasn’t sure if he could do it because he’d never played a villain,” says Harron. “But his reading was chilling. He’s like a young Daniel Day-Lewis with Tom Cruise looks.” Harron offered Bale the part and the actor began a grueling physical-training and diet regimen, involving weight lifting and low-carbohydrate meals. Transformed into the Adonis-like – but cold-hearted – Bateman, he eventually earned the name “Robo-actor” from castmates for his single-minded focus on his character. During shooting last spring in Toronto and New York, he kept up his intensive workout regimen, heading to a 24-hour gym after filming wrapped each day, often after 2 A.M. And, to stay in character, he didn’t allow himself to socialize at all with any of the cast and crew. “It was miserable,” says Bale, admitting he did give in once: “I walked by this bar on a day off and I looked in and saw all these happy, smiling faces enjoying themselves and I felt like this very sad, lonely person. I just said, F**k it,’ and went in and had a few pints of Guinness.”
His dedication showed onscreen. “Christian’s attention to detail “was really something. He was like a machine,” says Willem Dafoe, who plays a detective in the movie (the cast also includes Reese Witherspoon and Academy Award nominee Chloe Sevigny). In one notable scene, in which members of Bateman’s investment firm jealously compare business cards, Bale amazed his colleagues by breaking into a sweat at the same time during each take. And he actually frightened some of his costars by maintaining his character’s eerie, measured American accent even away from the set. “Did I?” Bale asks somewhat nervously now, breaking into a laugh. “Maybe I did.”
He has been thinking a lot lately about where he feels the most at home. As afternoon clouds move in, he gets up from the table and takes a walk through a nearby fish market that reminds him of those along the docks in
Bournemouth. “I love looking at shellfish,” he says. “Once you’ve lived by the sea, it just gets into you.” His father, who is now separated from his mother, moved to Los Angeles when Bale came to do Newsies, and the actor has been a transadantic traveler ever since. “America is so different from England,” he says. “If you look at the problems America has, they’re like a teenager’s problems. It’s much more turbulent; nothing’s settled.”
In other words, more his style. In fact, he admits, he’s finally looking to buy his first house – in Los Angeles. “It’s a work thing, really,” he says, “but I’ve actually come to like it here.” Which is probably good, because he may have reason to stick around for a while.
By Julian Rubinstein.