San Francisco Chronicle (November 21st, 2004)

GETTING THE SKINNY ON CHRISTIAN BALE

Los Angeles – After the shock of seeing an emaciated Christian Bale in “The Machinist,” it’s a relief to discover the actor, bearded and robust, slurping down a bowl of chicken soup in a Los Angeles hotel suite. Arrayed nearby: french fries, a turkey burger, cake. During the months leading up to “The Machinist” shoot, food became verboten. To get into character for the “Memento”-like thriller – he plays Trevor Reznik, a paranoid, forgetful, guilt-ridden factory worker who’s beset by hallucinations because he hasn’t slept for a year – Bale lost 63 pounds.

“I didn’t look at the script and think, ‘Oh my God, I get a chance to lose weight for this movie. Yes!’ ” Bale says between spoonfuls of soup. “That would have been moronic. It was a matter of me liking the script so much that I wanted to achieve what I felt was necessary. To me, it’s essential that this character look as though he’s on the verge of death.”

Normally weighing in at 185 pounds, Bale adhered to a fairly uncomplicated weight-loss regimen: He stopped eating and started running.

“I eventually hit a point where the running wasn’t working anymore,” he says. “It was more like stumbling – the legs had atrophied to such an extent they looked comical.”

Director Brad Anderson (“Session 9”) and writer Scott Kosar (“The Amityville Horror”) initially thought they’d have to use CGI special effects or a trick wardrobe to convey the character’s extreme debilitation.

“My jaw dropped when I saw Christian arrive on the set,” Anderson says. “Scott’s script describes Trevor as a walking skeleton, but Christian went well beyond the call of duty. I could make a whole other movie on the subject of guilt just from my experience of watching this actor reduce himself to 122 pounds.”

Bale says he responded to “The Machinist,” modeled on dread-filled works of Dostoyevsky, Hitchcock and Roman Polanski, because “I liked the idea of playing with the dark, creepy aspect of the piece. I imagine nearly everybody has experienced days waking up, knots in your stomach, no idea why exactly, but just feeling incredible low self-esteem. It’s as if you’ve done something terrible, and you’re unable to socialize with other people.”

Not that Bale limited his “Machinist” performance entirely to facets of fear and loathing.

“You couldn’t be like this” – Bale bugs his eyes out -“the whole time. I also found a great deal of humor running through the movie. Most people might watch it and say, ‘What the hell is he talking about? Where’s the humor?’ But the ridiculous lengths that Trevor goes to with his conspiracy theories in his downward spiral of anxiety – I can’t help but find it amusing as well.”

“The Machinist” marks the latest in a succession of roles that have allowed Bale to play against his leading-man good looks. A former child actor who starred in Steven Spielberg’s 1987 “Empire of the Sun,” Bale portrayed a sexy serial killer in “American Psycho” four years ago. The latter film, and his performance, spurred considerable outrage.

“I had so many people saying that role was a huge risk, so many people saying that I’d never work again, that it was career suicide – I found that kind of tantalizing,” he says. “I felt, ‘Oh, I’m going to prove them wrong.’ “

As it turned out, the British-born Bale, who now lives in Los Angeles with Sibi Blazic, his wife of nearly five years, appeared in several post-“Psycho” projects, including “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” “Shaft” and “Reign of Fire.” But after playing the straitlaced son to Frances McDormand’s hippie mother in the art-house feature “Laurel Canyon,” he took an unplanned 18-month vacation.

“I really wanted to work, and I just wasn’t offered anything,” Bale says. “A director would say, ‘I’d like you to do this film,’ and then I’d get a call back two weeks later and they’d say, ‘Christian, the financiers just won’t accept it. They won’t go with you.’ I experienced that many times.”

Bale credits his penchant for making extreme career choices in part to his father, David Bale, a former Royal Air Force pilot who became an animal rights activist and married feminist Gloria Steinem in 2000 before his death last December. After a lengthy pause, Bale quietly muses, “As I get older, I realize how much I owe to him. Just because of his attitude and how unconventional he was. My father’s mantra was that the most serious sin was being boring, and he certainly lived by that. He was never boring.”

Next up, Bale switches gears to play a 16th century settler in Terrence Malick’s “The New World,” currently filming in Virginia. And already in the can: “Batman Begins,” which comes out in June.

While making “The Machinist” in Barcelona, Spain, last summer, director Chris Nolan sounded out a dangerously scrawny Bale about the possibility of taking on the hotly contested – and much brawnier – title role in his mega-budgeted “Batman” epic.

“My body wasn’t shouting, ‘I am Batman!’ when we met. It was more like whispering, coughing, ‘I could be Batman,’ ” Bale jokes. “But I think Chris enjoyed seeing how much I was putting into ‘The Machinist’ and probably thought, ‘Hmm. If he’ll do that for this movie, maybe he’ll do it for my movie as well.’ “.The Machinist (R) opens Wednesday in Bay Area theaters.

By Hugh Hart.