LAM (March 2003)
Gareth Gorman talks to Christian Bale, a British actor trying to outrun his psychotic past.
“Everyone has heard about the infamous head-butting scene. Matthew and I have a fight scene and Matthew decided to head-butt me for real! It was a perfect example of how involved Matthew is with his character”.
Equilibrium is the second sci-fi based film which Christian Bale has appeared in and it comes hot on the heels of Reign Of Fire. Set in a futuristic world, a strict regime has eliminated war by suppressing emotions. Books, art and music are strictly forbidden and feeling is a crime punishable by death. If you’re thinking Fahrenheit 451 you’re getting close to the money. But it is also reminiscent of Gattaca with a dash of The Matrix in the clever fight sequences.
In this future dystopia, everyone has to take Prozium II (no, not Prozac – that of course, isn’t being suggested here) to keep their utter detachment on an even keel.
Bale stars as Cleric John Preston, a top-ranking government agent responsible for destroying those who resist these rules. One day, he misses out on his daily dose of Prozium II and Preston, who has been trained to enforce the strict laws of the new regime, suddenly becomes the only person capable of overthrowing it. The film also stars Emily Watson and Taye Diggs – which is no bad thing.
“I had reservations about making a movie like this. Initially I was very surprised they were interested in me for it because I didn’t expect that. It was an attraction for me because I hope that I can always do something that isn’t predictable.
“I never want to turn something down because I’m afraid to do it, because of some idea of image or whatever. That was never anything I set out to do. In fact, the opposite. I always want to confuse people in terms of any kind of image and be unpredictable in any kind of movie I make. I never want to feel that I’m playing it safe.”
Despite both Equilibrium and Reign Of Fire fitting into the sci-fi genre, Bale is keen to point out how different each beast is.
“Equilibrium is a much smaller film budget-wise. The emotional scale is also steeper in Equilbrium, which is about a cop of the future who rediscovers his humanity. Reign of Fire was a major studio film with a very large budget.”
Well there’s that and the fact that Matthew McConaughey has a good go at chewing up the scenery before the dragons breathe fire onto the sets.
“He’s a fascinating fellow. He often stayed in character – sometimes to great extremes. Everyone has heard about the infamous head-butting scene. Matthew and I have a fight scene and Matthew decided to head-butt me for real! It was a perfect example of how involved Matthew would be with his character.”
Despite being obviously proud of surviving this incident, Bale is also keen to point out that sci-fi films have fulfilled some actual ambitions.
“It was also my first FX movie. I’ve done loads of movies where there are no special effects whatsoever and I’m doing a scene where I’m apparently talking to somebody while looking at a brick wall, because that actor was not able to fit behind the camera and the lights needed to be there and the room is too small and etcetera. Blue screen is not something that is so alien to me really.
“There’s also a certain scene that is a homage to Star Wars that always gets great laughs. I can now say that I’ve finally fulfilled a lifelong dream to play Darth Vader. I enjoyed Star Wars a great deal as a kid. I was never a hard core, science-fiction fan. I liked it if I found the story was good, basically. I don’t seem to be able to enjoy them quite as much as I did as a kid. I still enjoy them because I can’t help it. It’s part of my childhood. It may well be nostalgia, but there’s something about the early ones that I feel something for.”
It was his portrayal of Brett Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman in the screen version of American Psycho that affected a turnaround in Bale’s career and started the talk of him making an excellent – if harder and crueller – James Bond.
Here was an actor who previously hadn’t attracted too much attention in multiplexes around the world – despite being something of an early success as a child actor in Empire Of The Sun, He’s merely average in Velvet Goldmine. You’d forget he was in Little Women. Then, pow! He’s suddenly bringing the detail-obsessed Bateman to life far better than anyone would have figured.
To expound, Bateman is like James Bond gone totally wrong. He’s obsessed with class and style (it is but a short step from wanting your martini shaken and not stirred to waxing lyrical on Huey Lewis & The News and Phil Collins’ musical merits).
And to continue my pitch for the job of Bale’s agent, the Batman franchise is getting a second-chance run from Warner Films, and many hope that Bale could bring his brooding, psychotic tendencies to the role, something he is not averse to, being a fan of Tim Burton’s take on the comic-book hero.
“Both characters would be a dream come true, wouldn’t they? James Bond is every British actor’s Holy Grail in many ways, the most recognised British character on the big screen. I’ve also been a big fan of Tim Burton’s Batman movies. His almost gothic approach brought a wonderful cinematic feel to an American hero. I’d love to do either part but I’d also worry about being typecast. James Bond in the new millennium has so much potential. In the movie xXx, the Bond character is skewered as being out of step for our times. Bond is in dire need of updating.
“And Batman is a wonderful character. The duality between his alter ego, Bruce Wayne, and the dark knight could be a fascinating character study…
“But yes, you’re right, Bateman’s obsession with details is the source of his insanity. That’s what I see about Bateman, his fixation on minutiae and absolutely needing to get an answer for every little tiny thing, even though all the things he’s interested in are completely shallow.”
Of course, taking on the controversial role of Patrick Bateman also garnered the rantings of wowsers wondering how a film could ever be made of the book in the first place. Bale now feels he’s clued-up on the whole ‘violence in movies’ debate. “When it comes to films, people often don’t differentiate between the message of a bad central character and the message of the film itself. They are two separate things. People just assume that the character is the film. It’s a very shortsighted way of looking at a film, especially with something like American Psycho.”
“Bottom line, it requires a certain level of experience and intelligence to appreciate the film properly. [Director] Mary Harron and I just sort of expected that from the viewers. The idea was that one should be repelled by the character’s complete lack of ethics and obsession with consumerism. That’s what I was saying about the difference between the character’s message and the film’s message.”
He’s a clever sod is Bale. And he’s thankful in the extreme for American Psycho turning his career around. In fact, it’s loyalty to AP’s director that has made sure he’s stayed faithful, as it were.
“Before American Psycho, I was mostly offered costume dramas and I felt I was headed to Merchant Ivory-dom. After American Psycho, I get more American roles, darker roles and physical roles. American Psycho has become my calling card in many ways.
“So that’s why there’s no cameo as Bateman for The Rules of Attraction [Roger Avery’s adaptation of another Ellis novel with Patrick’s brother Sean Bateman as protagonist] . I’m very loyal to Mary Harron. I felt that her Bateman – our Bateman – was in his entirety in the first film. I’ve been offered a number of cameos as Bateman in other related films and I felt that it would be a disservice to take the character out of the context we had developed.”
Bale treaded the boards as part of his juvenile career – even appearing in a long-running stage vehicle with Rowan Atkinson (The Nerds), but there are no plans for him to do a Gillian or a Madge or a Matthew or a Mimi, or to join the ranks of Gwyneth, Darryl or Kathleen.
“I’ve thought about it, but I have no immediate plans to go back. I understand why stage actors talk about it so highly. Nevertheless, as a viewer I have always enjoyed movies more than I have enjoyed theatre. Maybe that has to do with the choices of movies that I’ve gone to see. I have a more natural inclination towards movies.”
When it comes down to it, Christian Bale, despite prodigious talent, is a person just like you and me; sometimes he doesn’t want to get out of bed and face work in the mornings.
“Oh man, I’ve hated it and I’ve loved it. I wanted to quit and wanted nothing to do with it and everything in between. But I really do get a kick out of acting when it’s done really well. When there’s a feeling on set that you’re working in tandem with everybody and you just know that everything worked exactly how you wanted it. That’s the fantastic part.”