THE SKINNY ON CHRISTIAN BALE
The actor lost a third of his body weight to play a paranoid insomniac.
Christian Bale, wearing a baseball cap to protect himself from prying eyes, is polishing off a bowl of nuts in a midtown lounge. When told he’s ruining his lunch, he smiles and says, “I still can’t stop eating.”
The reason will be apparent to anyone who sees “The Machinist,” which opens Friday. Directed by Brad Anderson, it’s a surreal story about a factory worker, Trevor (Bale), who’s so paranoid he can’t sleep. Eventually he loses his job, his acquaintances and his grip on reality.
Most painful of all, at least for Bale’s fans, is his weight loss. As the script puts it, Trevor is a walking skeleton.
To play the part, the 30-year-old actor lost 63 of his 180 pounds over four months, initially by running, mostly by not eating. He says he would convince himself that hunger felt good or that a book was as nourishing as a steak. His template was a picture of the emaciated Hank Williams coming out of jail shortly before he died.
Bale admits feeling so depleted by his fast that he developed a Zen attitude toward the trials and tribulations of filmmaking – including a day spent shooting in Barcelona’s sewers. Looking back at the eight-week shoot last summer, he says, “It’s actually an incredibly good memory.”
He felt worse putting the weight back on, suffering heart palpitations and anxiety attacks. Asked whether the weight loss might be considered an actor’s stunt, Bale replies, “My answer to that is, what kind of moron would do that to their health if there wasn’t more to the movie that they believed in? There is some shock value in it, but it was not, ‘Hey, I get a chance to show off.’ It’s so obvious when actors do that, and I can’t stand it.”
“Christian went well beyond the call of duty in transforming himself into the character,” says Anderson. “It wasn’t written in the script that he had to lose 63 pounds, but it was implicit. It was clear he was going to have to do something to himself. So I was impressed – and appalled. And also incredibly excited, because I knew that was what the character needed.”
By reducing himself to skin and bone, Bale found a graphic way to externalize Trevor’s inner torment. Something is literally eating away at him. The other characters in the film react to his physical condition with a mixture of horror, pity and confusion because there’s a gap (at least for a while) between how rational he sounds and how abnormal he looks. He’s an extreme example of what happens when a person represses a traumatic experience. The pain comes out in other ways.
Bale has radically changed his physique for a movie before, pumping himself up to play the muscular serial killer in Mary Harron’s “American Psycho” (2000).
“When I first met him, he was a skinny English kid, one of those guys who looked like he spent time in a pub,” Harron recalls. “But he transformed his body to such an extent that I was amazed. He would eat nothing but skinned chicken breasts.”
Bale began acting professionally on the London stage at age 9, and at 14 starred in Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun.” He says he didn’t know how to handle the attention that came with it and hasn’t gone out of his way to court publicity since, though he dutifully promotes his films and has appeared on the odd magazine cover. He has become a cult figure whose arrival in the mainstream seems permanently on hold.
“To be honest, I love that,” he says. “I’m more scared of having someone say, ‘He’s already there.'”
He has worked steadily in such high-quality, low-profile films as “Little Women,” “The Portrait of a Lady,” “Velvet Goldmine” and “Laurel Canyon,” but his under-the-radar status will be harder to maintain next year when Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” opens. Bale says he took the part of the Caped Crusader because he thought he could do something new with the character.
“To me, Christian is at his greatest when there is something hidden,” Harron says. “That’s why I think he would make a great Batman. There’s a mystery.” Bale, who lives with his wife, Sibi Blazic, in Los Angeles, hopes to preserve that deep, unknowable side of his screen persona.
“I’m very boring, so I have to bring more to [my performances], because me doing nothing really looks like doing nothing,” he says with typical self-effacement.
By John Clark.