THE SHAPE SHIFTER INTERVIEW – CHRISTIAN BALE
He has a worldwide cult following and critical credibility, yet he remains an outsider. So what drives this shape-shifting individualist?
Reversing the strategy of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull (1980) and Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001), Christian Bale stopped eating during preproduction on his latest movie, The Machinist. By the time it came to filming, he was an emaciated scrag of skin, jutting bones, and wormy veins. It’s enough to make a Balehead weep.
The character Bale plays in Brad Anderson’s psychological thriller is a chronically insomiacal machine-shop worker, Trevor Resnik, whose hallucinating costs a colleague an arm in an industrial accident, and who has random encounters with a mysterious heavy (John Sharian) and a pretty café waitress (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon). Only an affectionate hooker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) offers him respite from the demons that are chasing him.
The 30-year-old Bale gives his finest performance here, as much through his embodiment of neurasthenia as through his alarming physical transformation. He’s like a refugee from some Kafkan labyrinth of the mind or a ratty descendant of Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov. The actor who played the capable, plucky boy P.O.W. in Empire of the Sun (1987) has come a long way: Next up for him is the role of the Caped Crusader in Christopher Nolan’s reprise of the Batman franchise. We caught up with Bale after he’d spent a long day driving the Batmobile.
You’ve put your body on quite a physical roller coaster over the past five years. You bulked yourself up for American Psycho , starved yourself for The Machinist, and now you’re beefy again for Batman Begins. Have you been taking medical advice?
Not much. I went to a nutritionist. I think maybe I haven’t been very smart here. Trevor in The Machinist had to be skinny. He didn’t have to be that skinny, but I suddenly found I could actually make the weight that was written in the script; so I just kept going until I got there. I was very peaceful. Nothing made me nervous, nothing made me angry. I didn’t sweat once. Never got too hot even though we were in the middle ofBarcelona. It was when I started putting the weight on again that I went to a few doctors because I wasn’t feeling good.
You lost how much?
What do you normally weigh?
Normally 184, 185.
Didn’t you feel faint or shaky?
No. I actually felt very good the whole time. I didn’t feel physically strong, obviously. Originally I would go running to lose weight, but after a while I couldn’t run. So I stopped that and just became completely static – more static than I’ve ever been in my whole life. It was possible for me to sit without moving a muscle for hours on end and not feel antsy. If we’d do a couple of scenes that were a bit more physically draining than most, I would grab an apple. There were a couple of scenes where I had to run in the movie, and I dreaded them. They were f**king horrible, those days, ’cause the other guys had had a big breakfast, and I had to run like crazy just to keep ahead of ’em.
Did the process of fasting to become Trevor enable you to get into his head?
Definitely. There was nowhere else to go. It was similar to American Psycho where my character’s vanity grew from working out every day and going to sunbeds, all that crap.
Trevor hasn’t slept for a year. Did you practice not sleeping?
At the beginning I stayed up a couple of nights straight to get that feeling of sleeplessness. But once we were filming, I found it difficult to sleep very much at all. I’d maybe sleep a couple of hours at most because I was not exerting my body. People often thought I was sleeping on the set, but I was really just sitting there with my eyes closed. I believe [screenwriter] Scott Kosar wrote The Machinist in the first place because he went through an extended period of insomnia.
Did you draw on any of your own experiences?
I never look at a script and think, Okay, I understand this. But it’s inevitable that you find something personal while you’re filming, though I don’t like using my own life for getting to the place I want to be. It feels wrong to me. Trevor was more about that sickening feeling you get when you wake up in the middle of the night knowing something’s wrong and not being able to identify what it is. I like when you go to a movie and then when you leave and walk out into the street, it’s like reality has shifted a little bit. The one movie that Brad and Scott often mentioned before we started filming was The Tenant  by Roman Polanski.
It feels as if everything Trevor experiences is happening inside his head, and the external world is a kind of nightmarish reflection of that.
Filming in Barcelona helped that a great deal. The original plan was to film in Los Angeles and Vancouver. But nobody would give us the money, or they would offer us the money on the condition we altered the script and the tone. Then [the production company] Filmax appeared on the horizon and said, “Hey, no questions asked. We love the script. Do whatever the hell you want to do. Just film it in Barcelona.” When Brad told me that, I thought, “What the f**k is he talking about? We can’t film this in Barcelona.” But you don’t recognize any of Barcelona in the movie. It’s an incredibly beautiful city, but we filmed in all the ugliest parts of it, including down in the sewers. I walked to work one day because we had to go down a manhole three blocks from where I was staying. When we were down there, Brad said I had to run along the ledge. But because of the curve of the tunnel, I found I was having to lean in, and it was very slippery. I was like, “I can’t run that quickly or I’ll tip right in the sewage.” I actually suggested it’d be much easier for me if I ran in the channel. Brad looked at me and went, “I’m not going to ask you to do that, but if you want to, then great.” So that’s what I did. And I’d be standing there and have a turd come down and hit my shoe while we were filming. I said, “Is that special effects?” And they were like, “Christian, there are no special effects down here.” [laughs]
Given that you’re being directed by Christopher Nolan. [Memento, 2001] in Batman Begins, I suspect your Bruce Wayne/Batman is going to be darker than the others.
My initial interest was not because of the other Batman movies. I enjoyed the TV show as a kid, but it wasn’t anything special to me. But a director I was working with had a copy of Arkham Asylum. The images surprised me, so I bought a few more at comic-book stores. At first, there was an idea of making a low-budget Batman and going considerably darker with it. That’s what I wanted to get involved with; but then it changed into a big movie, and I thought, Aw, shit. But when Christopher was hired, I knew he would do something more interesting than I’d seen previously—not that we’re making an art-house movie.
You’re clearly gravitating to troubled characters. I’ve also noticed you’ve played a number of repressed men – in Metroland , Velvet Goldmine , and Laurel Canyon.
[laughs] Well, I’m English.
When we last talked, you mentioned seeing your father reconnect with his father just before he died. Now that you’ve lost your own father [in 2003], can you share anything about what that absence means to you?
I can’t. It’s too personal.
Okay, [pause] What reactions have you had so far to The Machinist? Have people been shocked?
I’ve shown it to a few friends, just at my house. They were bowled over by it – the whole movie, I mean; not me specifically. And I showed it to my wife [Sibi]’s grandmother, who’s a great Yugoslavian character who doesn’t speak much English. I don’t think she quite comprehended that it was a movie that was going to be released in theaters, because she saw it and said, “Turn this off. You must never show this video to anyone. Ideally, throw it away. But please promise me that no one else will ever see it. This is hideous.”
By Graham Fuller.