IGN INTERVIEWS: CHRISTIAN BALE
We sit down for a one-on-one with the star of The Machinist and Batman Begins.
Christian Bale’s career has been marked by as many commercial failures as artistic successes, and frequently at the same time. So why then is he one of the industry’s most in-demand actors? The answer to that is easy: the 30-year-old actor has talent to burn. And burn it he has, in such varied projects as Empire of the Sun, Newsies, Velvet Goldmine, American Psycho, and Equilibrium; remarkably, he seems to still have plenty of fuel left.
His next two projects require no less impressive displays of theatrical ability: the first is next week’s The Machinist, where he plays an emaciated insomniac (for which he didn’t sleep and lost 60-some odd pounds); and the highly-anticipated Batman Begins where he dons the Bat-suit to play the caped crusader for director Christopher Nolan (Memento). In this exclusive interview with IGN FilmForce, Bale speaks about both upcoming projects, the process of transforming himself physically and mentally for roles, and trying to avoid the pitfalls of choosing mediocre projects.
Since Bale began his proper film career eighteen years ago in Steven Spielberg’s overlooked classic Empire of the Sun, the actor has been turning himself inside out time and again to play a myriad of roles. The first time he physically demonstrated that commitment to character was in 2000’s American Psycho, gaining muscle by the pound to play stock broker and erstwhile axe murderer Patrick Bateman. For The Machinist, Bale began instead shed weight for his character Trevor, a machine operator who is quite literally wasting away to nothing. Despite the impact one might expect these intense fluctuations might have on his emotional stability (much less physical well-being), Bale says that he intentionally tries not to access personal feelings to evoke imaginary ones for his film roles.
“I don’t personally look to my own life experiences for answers about how to play a scene,” Bale says. “For me, that’s some kind of bastardization of your own experiences, you know what I mean? I’ve had some painful experiences in my life, but I feel like I’m trivializing them by using them for a scene in a movie. I don’t want to do that. It just makes me feel kind of dirty for having done that.” At the same time, Bale acknowledges that there will ultimately be parallels between his own personality and behavior and that of his characters, but he tries to invest them with a sense of individuality. “I think that you can inevitably notice similarities, but that tends to happen probably after having actually done the scene. Essentially, I’m untrained, so I just go with my imagination and try to put myself as solidly as I can into the shoes of whatever person I’m going to be playing.”
The Machinist offered Bale a number of unique opportunities whose sum total he simply could not resist. “It was a mixture of the script being really intriguing and something that I was thinking about for many days,” he explains. “That tends to be the test that I put on scripts. Because you may read some and they really engage you at the time, but if I’ve forgotten it in a couple of days and have to be reminded, then I tend to think ‘Okay, this is something I’m going to have to work on for a few months.'” Even with the difficult physical challenges that lay ahead, Bale was impressed enough with Scott Kosar’s script and Brad Anderson’s filmography that he signed on immediately. “With this, it was the atmosphere I felt was created through the script, and the fact I has seen Session 9 and saw what Brad managed with that. The personal nature that seemed to be coming across to me in the script that the writer’s own experiences – exaggerated for Trevor – but very personal things that he was coming from.
“He was a great character that I was not sure I can really pull off. It was going to be a tricky one, so I decided that was exactly the one that I wanted to try, for that reason.”
Once he began to lose weight, Bale found that one of the byproducts of his transformation was not only shedding pounds, but the perceptions of a public eager to stereotype his performance style. “With Trevor’s decrease, it was like complete self-destruction of everything, and something which I felt was essential for the part,” Bale says. “There’s not many parts where the physical aspect is essential, but I felt that it would be the only way that I could truly realize the way that I had imagined Trevor would be. But it’s also nice just because there’s often such an obsession with actors having to look good, and it’s a very f**king dull point of view.
“I’d done American Psycho, and I [bulked up] purely for that part,” he continues. “But people start just going ‘oh yeah, that guy’s a real workout fanatic,’ and that’s not me, that’s Patrick Bateman. It was a nice way to kill that dead by just destroying your body completely.”
Bale says he faced a hard road rebuilding that muscle during the beginning stages of his participation in Batman Begins. “I managed to put on a certain amount of weight just to convince them for the screen test that I wasn’t a complete shrimp, but when it actually came to building muscle, I was useless,” he remembers. “I couldn’t do one push up the first day. All of the muscles were gone, so that was a real tough time of rebuilding all of that. But you have a deadline, you have an obligation. You’ve said that you will commit to this part, and I just can’t live with myself for not really giving it as much as I can. Thankfully, it wasn’t something that was as necessary or essential as something like an American Psycho thing, which was all about the vanity of the man. It was more just about being able to look capable.”
One of Bale’s initial trepidations about playing the caped crusader was the fact that he simply wasn’t intimidated by the character either in the costume or out of it. “I felt that I couldn’t bring myself to play him a Bruce Wayne in a Bat suit,” he says. “I felt ridiculous. I felt like a moron. I didn’t feel intimidating to anybody whatsoever, so I had to adopt this creature-like, bestial approach in order to be able to intimidate, but also to be able to disguise his identity throughout.” Even having finished principal photography, he says that he isn’t entirely sure he brought a new bent to the role. “Often you hear people say, ‘Wow, they really recreated things,’ and you go see it and say, ‘That wasn’t a recreation.’ I hope we don’t suffer from that, but we are literally going back to the early days to the prequel of any of the other movies. We are starting off with our own different characters and our own laws and everything, looking at Bruce Wayne and how he came to be the person that he was and how he comes to be this man that jumps around in the Bat suit.”
Like with The Machinist, there were a combination of factors which ultimately convinced him that Batman was the next mask he would don. “I was very much interested in playing the character after reading [comic books like] Arkham Asylum and Year One and Dark Victory, and seeing that there was a side to that character that I had never been witness to before and thinking that could make a very good movie,” he recalls. “And then the fact that it was Chris Nolan on it; I knew that he was not just going to be doing more of the same and so I wanted to try it.”
Bale says that the commercial potential of the project initially threatened the integrity of his and Nolan’s vision, but his fears were soon assuaged when the film’s illustrious cast was assembled. “Sure, we’re going to make a mass-entertainment movie, but one that’s of a better quality than most,” he says. “You’ve got a good cast: Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Ken Watanabe – there are lots of good people in it.” Additionally, he found that his own power to get pet projects greenlit was amplified by the exposure the role brought him. “It just so happened I had been trying to get money together for a movie that myself and another director had been trying to do for a while, and lo and behold! I got cast as Batman, and bang – we get the money. You have opportunities; doors are opened for you, and not just to continue to do big movies. You could do what ever movies you wish to do because people are going to be more convinced that ‘Okay, it’s a better gamble now.'”
Still, Bale says that not all of the production of Batman Begins was completely painless, even if he’s satisfied everything at least looks great on film. “We came up with this very good fighting method which is actually very effective and looks very good,” he reveals, “but that was very strenuous learning all of those routines, because there are multiple numbers of them. But beyond that it was all okay. I found that the suit was actually pretty comfortable once you get used to it. You sweat like buckets – that you can’t help – and the cowl gives you these migraines beyond belief. I did some wire work, but that was to be honest limited, because there was an accident early in the movie so they got paranoid about sticking me up on the wires. But [even though] I like that stuff, the more I’ve done it, the more I kind of think I’ll leave it to the stunt men.”
With all of the wirework and martial arts and rigid dietary regimens, one would think that Bale seems to enjoy his job less than he did many years ago when he first began. He says that it isn’t better or worse, but different, and particularly hard to qualify. “I read some quote that somebody was saying painting is easy when you don’t know how and very difficult when you do know how; I understand what they mean – acting is easy when you don’t know how, and when you don’t know how to act in your own life. This is why so often you get great performances from kids,” he says, perhaps deferring the magnitude of his own childhood performances. “But it gets really difficult when you do know how, because you’re getting more self-conscious in your own life – it isn’t as sincere.
“There’s such ups and downs,” he explains of the work. “You may think that you’ve kind of found a spot and a groove and it seems to be working. And then you go in the next day and you’ll just be terrible and try to struggle and wonder why it’s just not happening – and you can’t sometimes figure out why at all.” Where he is more certain is in the choice of his collaborators, who in the past have been largely out of his control. “I’ve certainly become stronger in my opinions about other people that I work with. You rely on them so much that you have to really trust them.”
Suggesting a guiding principle for aspiring actors who may not be yet able to discern the wheat from the chaff, Bale suggests, “You need to go with your first instincts. I’ve often questioned myself in wanting to try and learn something and try and an experiment doing a new kind of movie, and generally it’s not worked out. I start to say, ‘Okay, you can’t single-handedly fix a movie.’ It’s a collaborative effort and if you get a feeling it’s not there, it’s probably never going to be there.
“Hopefully I’ve been able to learn from that, but you know what? I’m sure I’m going to be making many a cock-up in the future.”
By Todd Gilchrist.