CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS ON
Christian Bale, who stars in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, is a reluctant Hollywood heart-throb. Is this a legacy of having first tasted fame at the age of 13? Melissa Denes investigates
It is raining hard in the Merrion Squaregardens in Dublin, and businessmen and mothers with prams are diving for cover under the trees, but Christian Bale has slowed right down to an amble.
A film actor, he is talking about the theatre, and the subject has made him expansive. It’s something you know you ought to want to do, he explains, and now that the Screen Actors’ Guild strike is approaching he is probably going to have to try, at least. ‘And do I find Shakespeare intimidating? No, I don’t. But I don’t feel entirely comfortable with him either.’ The rain is bouncing off the shoulders of his waterproof jacket, the gardens are deserted. ‘I like my dialogue more contemporary, you know? When Dealer’s Choice was coming to New York, Patrick Marber sent me the script and I’d like to have done that but…’
He pauses in front of a bed of pink hyacinths and blinks through the downpour. ‘Actually, I didn’t know Patrick Marber wrote plays, I thought he was an actor on the Alan Partridge show. Steve Coogan,’ he says thoughtfully, ‘is he still going?’ Christian Bale, who was born in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire in 1974 and grew up in Bournemouth, has lived in Los Angeles for the past nine years and is consequently somewhat disconnected from his roots. He speaks a measured unaccented English, but Americanisms have crept into his speech – he says ‘met with’ rather than ‘met’, and ‘gonna’ – and he has kept the worked-out body and new teeth he acquired two years ago to play the part of Wall Street trader and serial killer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.
He is rather serious and reserved, and checks that you are joking before allowing himself to smile. Right now he also has a beard; he is in Ireland for five months to make Reign of Fire, a post-apocalypse action movie in which dragons inherit the earth, and his role – as the leader of the English resistance movement – requires a certain rough-and-ready, Action Man look. Today is a day off, and he is dressed in green combat trousers, a grey jumper and trainers.
The beard suits him – he has had it since last summer, when he grew it for his part in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which is released later this week. In it, Bale plays Mandras, the rough-and-ready Greek fisherman – and later resistance fighter – whose fiancée (Penelope Cruz) leaves him for the enemy, Captain Corelli (Nicolas Cage). It was very hot on Cephalonia, says Bale, now comfortably settled in the bar of a nearby hotel, but still he had to wear the beard, as well as woollen trousers, shirts, waistcoats, boots and three jumpers at a time. ‘I keep telling people it was 125°F, but that doesn’t seem possible, does it? We’d all have been dead, surely. But people were dying that summer, on the mainland. It was very very hot, and the clothes were very itchy – in no way accommodating to extreme heat.’ But there are also a couple of scenes where Bale is wearing not very much, and one – when he is given a medical examination by Penelope Cruz and John Hurt – in which he is wearing nothing at all. ‘Ah yes,’ he smiles, ‘well that, that was a little cooler.’
In a 14-year film career, Bale has played a number of Americans (Patrick Bateman, Ned Rosier in The Portrait of a Lady) and a variety of Englishmen (a Yorkshire reporter in Velvet Goldmine, a commuter in the film of Julian Barnes’s Metroland), but he has never played a Greek. ‘I got the script and I went out to some Greek restaurants in Los Angeles and asked the waiters to read me my lines. It wasn’t quite right. I was studying American-Greek, and to my ear I was sounding somewhat Russian. I felt like a Boris, you know? It wasn’t until I went to Cephalonia and met with the dialect coach that I really got the hang of it, the vowel sounds.’ He also learnt how to fish. ‘It’s actually quite difficult to get the fishing nets to fall in a full circle, and every fisherman on the dock had his own style. They were all very possessive of their nets, and gave me a ratty old one to practise with until they thought I was good enough. In the end I had to develop my own hybrid style.’
Bale is extremely good and very dashing as Mandras the fisherman-revolutionary – you are never entirely sure why Cruz leaves him for Cage, apart from the mandolin – but there were rumours that he was unhappy on set, and had been disappointed to learn that his character did not get to swim with dolphins, as he does in Louis de Bernières’s book. ‘Oh God, no!’ he says, shaking his head. ‘I mean, who wouldn’t want to swim with dolphins, but I knew that wasn’t going to be a part of it before I went to Greece.’ It seems to have been a rather business-like production, and Bale, who cheerfully describes himself as ‘an anti-social bastard’, says there were no late nights with Cruz and Cage. ‘To be honest, I spent more time with my driver, Angelo. I didn’t have a lot of scenes with Nic Cage. If you sat us down for dinner today, you would be introducing two strangers.’
For someone who says he’s still not sure if acting is what he wants to do with his life, Christian Bale started very young. He was in a Lenor advertisement when he was eight – ‘one of those annoying kids who peek around the washing-machine with their dirty football boots’ – and appeared with Rowan Atkinson in a West End production of Larry Shue’s The Nerd when he was ten (Atkinson played the nerd). He says he was encouraged to act by his sister Louise, now a theatre director (he has three sisters, all of them older), but performing runs in the family: his mother was a dancer and, for a time, a circus clown, and one of his grandfathers was a stand-up comic and ventriloquist. His father was an airline pilot with a fear of settling down, and when Bale was young the family moved from Wales to Bournemouth to Portugal and back again – ‘more because of a restlessness with Britain, and an inability to leave it, than anything else’.
When he was 13 Bale auditioned for the part of Jim Graham in Empire of the Sun, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of JG Ballard’s autobiographical novel; he was chosen from 4,000 boys. His performance, as the spoilt young expat separated from his parents (played by John Malkovich and Miranda Richardson) and forced to survive the Second World War in a Japanese POW camp, was hailed as one of the most significant debuts of the Eighties, and won him a (specially created) Best Juvenile Performance Award from America’s National Board of Review.
It didn’t, however, win him any friends at Bournemouth School for Boys. ‘I got into a lot more fights. Girls I’d never met were coming up to me and telling me they were going out with Christian Bale. I was 14, and I was ready to quit. Steven Spielberg was comfortably back in LA, and I was in Bournemouth, not having a great time. You feel like a freak, you know? I was a complete loudmouth before, wouldn’t shut up in class, and then suddenly I became Mr Invisible.’
He left school at 16, played Falstaff’s Boy in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, and took the lead in a couple of forgettable Disney musicals – The Newsboys (1992) and Swing Kids (1993). It wasn’t until he was cast, aged 20, as Winona Ryder’s suitor in Little Women that he felt he’d finally rid himself of the Empire of the Sun baggage. ‘Until then it was always Christian ‘Empire of the Sun’ Bale, which was mortifying. It was such a great day when I was just Christian Bale. And anyway a lot of people thought I was the bald one from The Last Emperor. They’d say, “You’ve grown up different. You were bald and Chinese when you were young.”‘
The embarrassment Bale felt at being a 13-year-old celebrity has not entirely left him; he has never employed a publicist. […] Together the ‘Baleheads’ have proved themselves a formidable force: they have successfully lobbied for the re-release of some of his earlier films (The Newsboys and Swing Kids appear to be cult viewing), and consistently exerted pressure on American entertainment magazines to give more space to their favourite actor.
Last year the Baleheads raised $1,000 to adopt a baby gorilla through the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, one of several animal charities Bale supports. But does he think all this is wise? Is he not worried about a possible stalker? ‘I am completely flattered by it,’ he shrugs, leaning forward in his chair and pouring himself a glass of mineral water. ‘I sort of view it as an army of supporters. I’m very grateful to them.’ Quite what Bale’s younger fans made of his chainsaw-wielding performance in American Psycho is another matter. [,,,]
He spent nearly 18 months working on the film. He was cast by the director Mary Harron, approved of by Bret Easton Ellis, who wrote the book, and then promptly dropped by the producers when Leonardo DiCaprio expressed an interest in playing the role. DiCaprio was obviously a bigger box-office draw, and so they decided to proceed without Bale or Harron, who had sworn to leave the film if Bale was not involved. When DiCaprio backed out some months later, the producers went back to Bale (and Harron) and, after several weeks of persuasion, the film went ahead as originally planned.
It was a frustrating and sobering experience for Bale. ‘For a while Mary Harron was flatly told not to even mention my name,’ he says, still sounding, two years on, a little hurt. ‘They said, “He is never going to play Patrick Bateman.” And nobody but Mary thought I could play that character. I was “that floppy-haired English guy-next-door”, and nobody saw anything akin to Patrick Bateman in me.’ Gratifyingly, he proved them wrong: his performance as the fetishistic, deeply misanthropic Patrick Bateman won him Best Actor nominations from, among others, the London Film Critics’ Circle, and an impressed Bret Easton Ellis made him a recurring character in his next novel, Glamorama. After Psycho, Bale was offered dozens of serial killer roles and was asked to play the Devil; he decided instead to take the part of Jesus Christ in a film for American television.
There is something self-invented about Christian Bale: he doesn’t really come from anywhere, he lives wherever his work takes him, he doesn’t like to play the same role twice. He has made actor friends – he is close to Toni Collette, who worked with him on Velvet Goldmine and Shaft, and to Emily Watson, who played his wife in Metroland – but he gives the impression of being a man on the move, a free spirit. Except that he keeps mentioning his wife – Sibi Blazic, an American film producer and former model. The couple met at a friend’s barbecue in California, and were married in Las Vegas last January, breaking a thousand teenage hearts. At the time he said, ‘I absolutely didn’t feel ready for it. When I imagined my life, I always thought I’d be in my mid-thirties before I felt capable of that,’ but married life seems to suit him fine.
The couple have been travelling for a year – she is here with him in Dublin, and went to Cephalonia- but Bale says neither of them is in a hurry to settle down. He likes Los Angeles, but doesn’t love it, and when he is away mainly misses his dog, Mojo, a beagle-Jack Russell cross. His sister Louise and his father live there, too; six months ago his father, who divorced Bale’s mother when the actor was seven, married the feminist writer Gloria Steinem. And has he ever been back to Haverfordwest? ‘Yes, once. On some obscure trip to see the Pope. I don’t know why he was there, or why I went really, but I did. And I’m not even Catholic.’
When the dragon movie is finished this summer, Bale will take a break and ‘do all those things I’ve been meaning to do for two years, like learn to speak Spanish and play the guitar.’ He will spend more time with his dog – and with his father and new stepmother – and he will shave off the beard. Right now, though, he has an errand in town – he has to buy a birthday present for his wife. He shakes hands, turns his collar up against the rain and jogs away across the road.
By Melissa Denes.