(October 29th, 2004)


As Trevor Reznik in the thriller “The Machinist,” Christian Bale is frighteningly skinny. The actor dropped more than 60 pounds to portray the film’s mentally disturbed protagonist.

Now 30, Bale’s path as a De Niro-style chameleon is evident. He grew up onscreen, starting at age 12 with “Empire of the Sun,” Steven Spielberg’s 1987 World War II prisoner-of-war drama, and he has matured into a cult figure, if not yet a major box-office star, thanks to diverse roles in movies such as “American Psycho,” “Laurel Canyon” and “Velvet Goldmine.” Next year, he stars as the caped crusader in “Batman Begins.”

Even with this lengthy career, the married actor has kept his personal life out of the spotlight.

“It’s very nice to hear when people say that I’m a very private person,” he said. “I think, ‘Thank God.’ But I don’t feel like that. I feel like an (expletive) already, but you have to do these things, I’ve discovered. And certainly I want people to go and see a movie that I’ve worked on. However, you don’t want to become one of these candy (expletive) that you see on the front of magazines all the time.”

Does that mean he’s tired of talking about his startling physical transformation in “Machinist,” which was directed by Boston’s Brad Anderson (“Next Stop Wonderland”)?

“Well, no. But frankly, I’d rather not ever speak about any movie I’ve ever done,” he said jokingly. “There’s a lot more to this movie than an actor losing a lot of weight. I mean, why would I have done it if it were just for losing the weight? It was because I loved this. I did go beyond what I was told would be a safe weight. However, I just let myself be my own indicator on that. If I was feeling OK – and I was – then I believe that it all has been OK because I’m back to my normal weight, and I’m absolutely fine.”

Changing hair color, accents or even body size is not new for this British-born, Los Angeles-based actor. When he played the smooth serial killer in “American Psycho,” Bale’s transformation – a toned and tanned body – was simply more acceptable.

No one asked Bale to drop a third of his weight for the film.

“What was more vivid was his mental state to me,” Bale said. “That’s what was really skinny: his mentality and his emotional state that had been drained to virtually nothing.”

Bale’s diet secret? Books.

“When I felt hunger pangs, instead of going for food, I read. It sounds silly, but the brain has a great ability to go into denial – and I convinced myself that that’s what I was craving.”

In his concentration on the role, Bale didn’t realize how shocking his appearance had become until he heard others talking.

“People didn’t necessarily know that I was doing this for a movie,” he said. “So a lot of people thought that I was very ill. They didn’t realize that I was doing this intentionally.”

For an actor who has found a niche making small films, next summer’s “Batman Begins” is almost as startling as his recent change in appearance.

“I’m not in a position where I have offers coming out of my ears,” Bale said. “I like to work, and I do like to try various kinds of movies. But you can’t get any further from ‘The Machinist’ than ‘Batman Begins.’ ”

Theoretically, Bale could be Bruce Wayne/Batman for the next 10 years. He signed for a trilogy, but Bale isn’t looking that far ahead.

“Who knows? I’ve never had a hit movie in my life. Maybe I’m some kind of a jinx and I’ll be able to bring the whole ‘Batman’ thing down again,” he joked. “Who knows, if people don’t like me in it, they’re not going to ask me back. We’ll see.”

By Stephen Schaefer.