Dazed & Confused (Summer 2005)

FACE TO FACE: CHRISTIAN BALE

Christian Bale has been avoiding you. Ever since his childhood turn in Spielberg’s blockbusterisation of JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun gave him a whiff of full-blown Hollywood madness, the British actor has been very careful to keep to the more civilised outskirts of movie world. Now he’s gone and blown his cover, albeit wearing a mask, in Christopher Nolan’s triumphant reinvigoration of the Batman franchise. American Psycho’s exploration of identity was sound schooling for playing Bruce Wayne and, where previous Batman films minimised the millionaire’s role in favour of cape-twirling histrionics, Bale’s performance ensures that doesn’t happen. While he’s been doing his devilish best in interviews to keep the cloak drawn over his private life (including the birth of a baby daughter in March) he continues to morph assiduously into an array of screen roles. We’ve seen him horribly malnourished and bleary as an insomniac in The Machinist, we get him shaggy-haired and testing his mettle for accents in Terrence Malick’s forthcoming opus, The New World; then in a contemporary American social landscape, playing a Gulf War vet in David Ayer’s Harsh Times. It remains to be seen if Bale can remain in the shadows as he’d like, or if he’ll succumb to the pitfalls of mainstream fame, but reassuringly it’s the roles that still seem to count.

It sounds like you found the publicity machine on Empire of the Sun very difficult as a teenager. Why did you decide to return to acting after that?

I felt like a real ponce doing the whole publicity thing, it just felt crap. But I always still enjoyed the actual acting, I really did. Of course with acting you always get varying results at the end and I’ve tried many different kinds of movies. Because I didn’t go to acting school proper, it was kind of like learning on camera, so there are a lot of things I’ve done which if I looked at now would make me cringe. Ultimately, it was something I had become addicted to.

Was there a movie you found inspirational as a kid?

I have to be honest, I don’t have one single one that stands out in a blatantly-etched-in-my-memory kind of way. For me, it was more books, I read a lot of books. In some ways that’s very much a part of acting, because in order to get into the book, you have to get into the characters, you have to put yourself into their shoes. I think that’s more where I like to come from. Bizarrely, when I was very young, I loved Watership Down, so it was rabbits I was empathising with there.

Have you ever consciously avoided leading man roles in the past?

I wouldn’t say I’ve consciously avoided them, I’ve just gone with varying movies I felt I would be interested to see. And also some things which I would have been interested to see as a kid. When I did Reign of Fire, I kept the film Clash of the Titans in mind – which I did love as a kid – thinking, ‘I want to see if I can manage that kind of thing.’ So I’ve not avoided them in any way, I think that it’s probably as much to do with not being offered them as well.

Is Batman a specifically American mythology?

Well, he’s pretty globally embraced, isn’t he? But yes, he does seem to be very much an American icon. I think Gotham in particular is a city that I can only picture in America, or possibly in Japan. It’s got something to do with the youthfulness of the country. Particularly with Bruce Wayne, he is essentially a kind of American blue-blood in a specific way that only happens in the States. I guess it’s also about the fact that the US has such a high crime rate.

But Batman Begins has a very English sensibility to it too.

I think it would be a mistake if it had any kind of recognisable Britishness to it, because it’s an American mythology. Obviously yeah, we shot most of it in England, I’m from England, Chris is half-English, the producers were English. But it didn’t seem like that to me at all.

Do you think you’ll continue pushing yourself and choosing challenging roles as much in future?

I can’t bring myself to say, ‘I can’t be arsed to do it.’ Because if it’s a really good role, I can be arsed. I’m going to kick myself in the arse because one thing that I particularly loathe seeing is actors who’ve got some kind of reputation and seem to just ride it out and take it easy. It ends up becoming very boring. But then I think anybody can find a comfort zone and start settling back on little tricks.

Where does the need to stretch yourself stem from?

I think it’s partly because acting is viewed by some as being a very sissified, comfortable profession to choose. Maybe it’s my way of protesting against that a bit, purposefully making myself very uncomfortable in the process of preparing for a role.

How was it working with fellow obsessive, Terrence Malick?

Quite aside from his filmmaking he’s really fascinating and I think he’s a very good-hearted man. He’s so in love with what he does. He loves it so much and loves other people’s ideas as well. He gets such a delight out of watching the actors and everyone, every single member of the crew really. You feel very comfortable with him doing anything basically. You’d think it would be terrifying to have to improvise in a 1600s dialect, but somehow he makes it absolutely possible and completely natural.

By Phil Hoad.