Dazed & Confused (2005)

SLIP AWAY

For someone who has been in a long line of successful Hollywood movies since the tender age 13, British actor Christian Bale has managed to keep his personal profile remarkably low, but with four lead roles including Batman and the Machinist set for release in the next few months, his carefully controlled air of mystery may finally be under threat

Christian Bale shouldn’t exist: a true cult actor in a time when anything cult gets strangled at birth by marketing thugs. Somehow, since appearing an aeon ago, aged 13, in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, he’s managed to skip through the legs of the publicity colossus – and still the devotees come. He was one of the first actors with any internet following and his throng of “Baieheads” know exactly what he’s about. Oscillating between iconic and weird performances in Velvet Goldmine and Mary Harron’s feminised American Psycho, and the mainstream {Captain Corelli’s Mandolin; Equilibrium; Shaft), it’s never been quite clear to the rest of us where his allegiances lie.

“I look at Batman and some of these big movies as being much more of a risk to me storywise than doing something like American Psycho,” clarifies Bale, “whereas a lot of people see risk in my character choices, but that’s a very boring point of view. I don’t want to think about the fame. The only time I want to think about fame is: can it help me get movies like The Machinist made quicker?”

The Machinist, directed by Brad Anderson, is Bale’s latest film and after seeing it, you won’t doubt he means it. He plays insomniac lathe operator Trevor Reznik, whose grimy, near-sleepless existence – working shifts at the factory, spending nights with the local heart-of-gold hooker -is warped into a Kafka-esque miasma when he begins hallucinating that a bloated, cocky redneck is following him about. Bale is so unrecognisably skeletal, his frame jutting out uncomfortably all over the place, that he looks like some kind of strange unearthly contraption himself. “We gave him the script,” says Anderson, “but we didn’t offer it to him straight off because there were other actors that we had on our list. But his response was just so intense… not only do I like him as an actor but I liked his reaction to the story. I knew that he would go full-throttle.”

The 6’2″ actor spent four months starving himself (well, one can of tuna and an apple a day) and running his fat stores off, to whittle his weight down by 55lbs to 120lbs for the shoot. Bale’s known for his total immersion attitude to acting, but he shrugs off any mention of the M-word with footsoldier-like indifference. “I don’t really know what Method is, I have never trained properly. I understand what they’re saying – you become the character. All right, but – you get a callsheet, you’re getting driven to work, you’ve got electricians around you, you stop for lunch – there’s a limit to how much you can say, ‘I am that character.'”

But Bale took things to the extreme, well as far as he could without permanently damaging his health. And if he could have made it as the Slimfast rep par excellence, the mental changes, out on location near Barcelona, were just as striking: “I really wasn’t moving very much during the days. I would say to myself, ‘do nothing unless you’re actually filming a scene’. I could concentrate for hours on end on something I found utterly boring if I had food in my stomach. Literally staring at the walls of my caravan – that was just fine for me.” Conserving energy, sleeping for little more than two hours a night, doing “mindboggiingly pedantic” pointillist drawings in his downtime, Bale reckons he hit the Zen payload. “It was actually a really nice place to be. If I could be as calm as that throughout my entire life, I wouldn’t make those big mistakes everyone makes through temperament.”

All the more ironic considering the hyper-paranoid state in which Reznik increasingly finds himself in The Machinist, but maybe spending time in the Batsuit earlier in the year persuaded him of the benefits of living a split existence. Even in person, Bale can throw you this way: intense, professorial pronouncements in an incongruously casual, almost barrow-boy Cockney. He’s taciturn about the fifth Batman film, which, directed by Chris Nolan {Memento), is surely one of 2005’s most-wanted. When asked if he’s wary about the accompanying Bat-fame; he replies: “I don’t want to think about it… I have this theory that, depending on your attitude, your life doesn’t have to become this ridiculous charade that it seems so many people end up living. What troubles me is that people think when you hit a certain level in terms of the largesse of movies, such as a Batman or whatever, that they are tempted into thinking that proper work must involve megamillions and I just don’t agree.”

This time, idealism will be put to the test. He’s been ghosting around for years, quietly building the cult of Christian, but with The Machinist, Batman Begins, Terrence Malick’s latest The New World, and Harsh Times, by tipped writer David Ayer, in quick succession, he may inadvertently out himself. People have managed the great escape in recent times – the similarly ascetic Guy Pearce could have been master of the universe after LA Confidential but decided he preferred Melbourne to Melrose Place. And if anyone can disguise himself in the roles, and give modern celebrity the slip, it’s Bale.

The Machinist opens on March 18.

By Phil Hoad.