Although he shot to fame at 13 in Empire of the Sun, Christian Bale has taken his time to conquer Hollywood. After his well received lead in last year’s American Psycho he now looks poised to secure his star status with Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.
When Christian Bale was young, he had a fascination with the guitar. He doesn’t play now, but for a while he practised hard. One thing bothered him though: the way the steel strings kept cutting into his fingers. For a while it annoyed him; in time he got used to it. Today, he points to that experience to explain his determination to press forward as an actor. “Acting’s a craft as well, so go and cut your bloody fingers. Make yourself work, don’t take it easy,” he says. Bale, for one, has never taken the easy route. He’s 27 now and after a long period of caution, taking low-profile roles, he is poised to re-emerge into the mainstream. Finally, it seems, he is ready to deliver on the promise he showed some 14 years ago when he was handpicked by Steven Spielberg to play the lead role in his adaptation of JG Ballard’s Japanese prison-camp novel Empire of the Sun.
After working with Spielberg, the teenage Bale was tipped as a major British star in the making. But instead of exploiting his success, he opted out. He rebelled against the manufactured celebrity he sensed being created around him by simply doing nothing and waiting for all the media noise to fade away. And when he got restless, he rejected Hollywood in favour of the low-key world of British independent movies, making small and, to some, puzzling films, such as the slight but emotionally resonant adaptation of Julian Barnes’s novel Metroland (1997) and the following year’s flawed glam-rock extravaganza Velvet Goldmine.
All that changed last year, however, when Bale appeared in Mary Harron’s American Psycho, an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial novel that cast him as a buff, preening serial killer at large in the dog-eat-dog boom of the 1980s. As the film’s sneering anti-hero Patrick Bateman, he was a revelation, giving a note-perfect performance that deftly captured the book’s sardonic tone.
The character of Bateman is a vicious perfectionist, a careerist Wall Street yuppie who would literally kill to close a deal; a fashion snob who – ironically – is practically indistinguishable from the sharks with whom he swims.
Bale put his life on hold for 18 months while Harron battled with the film’s producers over its casting. Leonardo DiCaprio was the name being mooted, and indeed DiCaprio even tentatively committed to the project before withdrawing. However, Harron held firm on her wish to see Bale in the role and In the end her will prevailed. Bale threw himself into the part, working out daily to follow his character’s narcissistic fitness regime.
The actor is looking lithe, if a little less toned, when I meet him on the set of sci-fi action drama Equilibrium, which is being filmed in a disused sports hall in Berlin’s Charlottenburg district. Loosely inspired by such totalitarian nightmares as Brave New World, 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, Equilibrium promises to be a lean, good-looking thrill ride, set in a near-future world in which emotions are forbidden and whose occupants must take a stabilising drug to keep them in a neutral state.
Bale plays John Preston, member of an Orwellian task force cracking down on those who flout the law but who soon begins to question the authority he’s upholding. “He’s a good guy and a bad guy,” he grins.
The film is soon to wrap, and today is the climactic fight scene, but Bale seems focused. A complex, Matrix-style piece of gunplay, the scene requires a lot of commitment, but Bale is up to the challenge, consistently leaving his onscreen opponent breathlessly behind. It’s a far cry from his most recent screen role, as the doomed fisherman Mandras in the much-awaited adaptation of Louis de Bernieres’s hit novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which is released in May and is directed by Shakespeare In Love’s John Madden.
While the director oversees a rehearsal of the scene, the actor pulls up a canvas chair. For the moment, he’s wearing a sharp white suit with a high collar, buttoned up to the neck, although he’ll change into an identical black suit for the actual shoot. He looks incredibly poised, and the suit hangs superbly. In fact, he could pass for a fashion model, were it not for the slightly pallid make-up he’s wearing, and the streak of blood drawn onto his lower lip.
“My character in Corelli’s is flamboyant, joyous and very, very natural,” he explains while the crew sets up a lengthy special-effects scene. “And then tragic things happen, but it’s a very human character and there were no restrictions on what I could or couldn’t do. On this film, there’s a huge amount of restrictions because for the most part I’m either dosing up on what we call ‘equium’ – the psychiatric drug that shuts everybody up – and not feeling anything, or I am feeling something and I’m having to hide the fact. So it’s continually tense. But it’s not as enjoyable as playing an all-round human character where you can laugh, jump around and be much more spontaneous.”
He evidently relished his role in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, playing the handsome, unsophisticated fisherman whose fate it is to be traumatised and twisted by war. “Words, while they obviously matter, are not Mandras’s real form of communication. He’s more visual. He’s not that smart. No, that’s not true – he is smart, he’s just not educated. He’s more a product of this idealistic island he’s been living on, and when you’re playing a character like that, there’s much more freedom to do as you please in every given take.”
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is a big deal for its producers, Working Title, even bigger than their recent box-office hit Notting Hill. It’s also a big deal for Bale, who stars alongside Nicolas Cage of Raising Arizona and Leaving Las Vegas fame. As Captain Corelli, the music-loving Italian soldier who arrives with the occupying forces on the island of Cephalonia, Cage eventually charms then steals the luckless Mandras’s fiancee, Pelagia, played by leading Spanish actress Penelope Cruz. But despite the stars and blockbuster potential, Bale plays it all down.
“Corelli’s didn’t have the feel of a big juggernaut,” he shrugs. “It was very personal, because of John Madden, who makes it like that. Other than the fact that we had these incredible sets – and, to my eyes, no expense was spared – it still felt like an intimate set, which I’ve always enjoyed on independent movies.”
In de Bernieres’s book, Corelli and Mandras never meet, but in order to accentuate the rivalry over Pelagia’s love, Cage and Bale share a few scenes in the movie. So how did he find working with Cage? “I don’t really know Nic. On most movies I tend to prefer keeping myself to myself, otherwise I find it difficult to do the job, and I was like that on Corelli’s, really. I think Nic is like that too -he’s quite a private man. Also, whenever I was on set – I was playing a Greek character – I kept up the accent, and Nic, who was playing an Italian, did the same. So, even if we did start talking, it wasn’t really us.
“But in the small amount of work I did with him, I really liked Nic and his work, and I’d like to do something with him where there’s a little more involvement.” Like Cage, Christian Bale doesn’t like to divulge too much about his private life. He was married early last year to Sibi Blazic, a smart, pretty American woman with Yugoslav origins and the slight trace of a Slavic accent. Bale will only say that she is “not in the business”, but she travels with him while filming and, on the set of Equilibrium, she even has her own folding canvas chair with her name stencilled on it, where, during today’s shoot, she sits twiddling a rubber-prop handgun, watching her husband’s fight scene on the monitors.
Sibi has been making use of her free time to take a look around Berlin, which Bale hasn’t yet had time for. Between takes, he falls into hushed, intimate conversation with her, putting a protective arm around Sibi’s waist as he does so. Bale seems adept at juggling his business and personal life, but then he comes from what can be loosely termed a showbusiness background. His mother’s father was a stand-up comedian, a magician and a member of the Magic Circle. His father’s father was a pilot who retired to South Africa as a gamekeeper and wound up doubling for John Wayne in a movie he was shooting down there. “They were the same size,” says Bale, “so he was the one who ended up being out in the midst of a swarming mass of wildebeest, being attacked by rhinos or whatever.”
Bale was born in Pembrokeshire, Wales, in 1974. His parents’ lifestyle was relatively unconventional. They liked to move around a lot, taking Christian and his three older sisters with them, but they separated when he was young.
“My mum was a dancer,” he says. “She always asks me to shut up about this, but it’s very vivid in my recollections of childhood. She was in the circus when I was 16, as a lead dancer and a clown and stuff, riding round on elephants and horses. I’d sit backstage and watch her. So that was a big, formative part of my childhood.
“My dad was a pilot. Because of illness, he couldn’t continue. He’s basically always been a bit of a rogue. He’s always doing his own thing, refusing to ever wear a tie or take a nine-to-five job. He works for various charities.”
Given his background, it is not surprising that Bale found his way into acting. “I’m sure my parents would have rejected me if I had decided to take a job where I needed to wear a suit and tie,” he says.
When they were children, his sister took dancing lessons and was in a West End production of Bugsy Malone. The family was living in Reading, and Christian enrolled in a local theatre group that for a time included the young Kate Winslet. Soon after, aged just ten, he made his West End debut opposite Rowan Atkinson in The Nerd, working weekends and making £12 a night. Between matinees and evening performances, he’d wander around Covent Garden. With his first payout, he recalls buying himself a pair of new Doc Martens and a Rubik’s Snake.
After The Nerd, Bale successfully auditioned for Anastasia, a mini-series starring Steven Spielberg’s then-wife Amy Irvine. And that led to the part in Empire of the Sun. “Spielberg told me later that he didn’t like me in Anastasia. He didn’t think I was very good in it, so that wasn’t the reason he asked me to be in Empire of the Sun. I guess his attention was brought to me by his wife.”
Spielberg and Bale are still in touch today. “He’s incredibly friendly, he’s maintained contact through the years – every birthday, every Christmas. I often felt so concerned about being seen to be a leech that I didn’t really contact him. I hope he didn’t take that as me being in any way dismissive. I felt that I’d had this incredible start, and it had all appeared so easy, because of him. I had to get away and prove myself. Otherwise I would always be ‘that Spielberg kid’,” he says.
Like many before him, Bale did not savour the pressures and attentions of being thrust into the limelight so young. “I, personally, couldn’t deal with it at that age. I think there is a way you can have a kid acting when he’s young and it stays fine, but the fact is, it all goes wrong so very quickly. I don’t recommend it, really. You get made to feel like a freak, for some reason. Just because you’re in a movie, people start behaving towards you in a different manner.”
Bale feels he turned a corner with American Psycho and he is looking forward to exploring more mainstream territory such as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin without dreading the impact it will have on his personal life. “It’s not quite as overwhelming as it was at that age,” he smiles.
He’s even about to make the move to Americafull-time, something he’s been putting off for years. “I never really moved there completely,” he says. “Growing up as I did, I was never that bothered about being in one place for any length of time. But my wife grew up there, so we’re gonna be getting a place out there more permanently.”
As Bale’s popularity grows, it seems like he’ll be out there for a while yet. Indeed, a whole internet community has arisen around him, calling themselves ‘Baleheads’. Has he heard of them? “Oh yes, yes,” he beams. “They’ve been around much longer than American Psycho. They’re my loyal, hardcore group of fans who I use to intimidate directors into giving me parts. I think it was a few years ago that someone started saying, ‘WE ARE BALEHEADS!’ I thought, Yeah, I’m all for that – my own little private army.”
And with that, he is summoned back to the set, ready to fight for real.
By Damon Wise.