Total Film (2002)

ONWARD CHRISTIAN SMOLDER | CAN THIS (NON) AMERICAN PSYCHO SLAY THE DRAGON IN REIGN OF FIRE?

One of the few child stars to grow up without a drug habit or a jail record, Christian Bale emerged unscathed from the Spielberg fame factory (starring at age 13 in Empire of the Sun) to build an amazingly eclectic resume of roles. His killer character in American Psycho spearheaded all the controversial Zeitgeist of the classic ’80s novel-and freaked out some of his fans, who had gotten used to his worthy-stud-next-door characters in The Portrait of a Lady and Little Women: Almost as if to outdo his Psycho character, he followed up by playing a racist murderer in Shaft 2000. But Bale’s softer personalities have resonated just as deeply, especially in the indie film Metroland, in which he and Emily Watson beautifully, typify the ambivalence of suburban couplehood. The press-shy actor spoke to Total Movie about his latest film, Reign on Fire, which, like the star himself, offers an unexpected twist on a classic.

You’re one of the last actors we expected to see in a dragon movie.

There have been monsters on films I’ve been in but they were human monsters. That’s a behind-the-scenes story!

Why Reign of Fire?

It is unlike anything I have done. It’s on a larger scale than most movies I’ve been accustomed to, and I did 20 weeks solid shooting, which was by far the longest schedule. The bigger the movie, the bigger the mistakes, especially with something like this. As with any movie, you have to make a leap of faith but this is an extra leap of faith because it’s not only trusting your coworkers, but the idea that the star, who you’re never going to see, is going to be formidable and fantastic to view.

Have you ever seen a great dragon movie?

I don’t recall ever seeing anything with a dragon that I was impressed with. Any dragon movies fell short and went sappy and silly.

So how does Reign of Fire differ?

Typical dragon movies have a double challenge when it comes to relating to the audience; you have a knight in shining armor and people running around in funny clothes that you can’t relate to whatsoever. And dragons. Making Reign of Fire relevant to today with contemporary people and weapons gives you something you know. It can pull you in better to the world with the idea that you can believe the fantastical aspects of it.

When you first got the script, you were not eager to sign on, were you?

When Rob Bowman sent me the script, it was in the early stages and needed a lot of work. I’d seen the X Files movie [that Bowman directed] and I liked that he avoided the cliches where other people might have stuck them in. I still had a great deal of reservations about the script but went to meet him-even though I though no way I’d do it. And he echoed all my concerns and told me how he wanted to make it. And it was pretty much what I would have said. I felt I could trust him.

You’re known for crafting memorable characters in the smaller movies you’ve done, but that’s a rare find in a big-budget monster movie.

Drama and character development – that bizarrely gets neglected often with the movies, and it’s odd because that doesn’t really cost money. You get it in the lowest budget movies, but with huge special effects extravaganzas, they seem to be so focused on the special effects that they neglect the drama, and you get sort of bland, predictable characters. You know which ones will be killed first and which ones will save the world. That was one of my concerns about doing a movie like this. It’s as important for the audience to believe in the characters as it is for them to believe in the dragon-one helps the other. If we are doing a job where it looks realistic and people can believe our world and our characters’ fear, that will only enhance the effect when the dragon appears. Just as we would look like idiots if the special effects people put in a, smiling dragon – he would look idiotic. I think this film puts as much emphasis on the people.

After seeing Shaft 2000 and American Psycho, a friend commented to me, “He does a great a**hole.”

I don’t mind that. The great thing about [director] Mary [Harron] wanting me to do American Psycho was that it was so radically different from anything I had done. With Shaft, they saw American Psycho before casting me. But before that people thought, “he’s a really nice guy, a guy-next-door type.” And with any actor, people tend to cast you based on what you’d done before. So I don’t mind being called an a**hole because it was different from what I’d be called before.

How did you avoid the typical child-actor syndrome of substance abuse and ego trips?

I wasn’t in Los Angeles or New York in any sort of hub of film making, so l was detached from it. There weren’t any movie premieres in Bournemouth, England. It didn’t feel like a career. I did enjoy doing it, and I was absent from school an awful lot, but I would return and there was nothing surrounding me that had anything to do with it – it was back to life with other teenagers. It did get tricky; it was surprising to somebody who has no experience just how unenjoyable some aspects of it could be. But essentially I detached myself and I realized quickly I enjoyed the film making but didn’t enjoy the attention from it afterwards. And so I sort of went out of my way to avoid it.

By Laurie Pike.