Hotdog (March, 2005)

THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS

Holy paycheck, Batman! Christian Bale’s about to take over 2005. Hotdog chats to the new Caped Crusader about Batman Begins, The Machinist and working with the legendary Terrence Malick on The New World.

Here’s a sight you don’t see every day. Sitting on a creamy sofa in a Park Lane hotel, Christian Bale is looking like he’s just crawled out of the jungle to audition tor Robinson Crusoe. Sporting a beard and shaggy crop that can only be described as Zeppelin circa ’71, if you didn’t know who this chameleon star of American Psycho and Velvet Goldmine was, you might wonder why a tramp can afford a five-star room with hot and cold running servants. Grown for the benefit of his latest role – a 17th Century tobacco plantation owner for the legendary Badlands director Terrence Malick – if nothing else. Bale’s hirsute appearance makes for a handy disguise. And come summertime, he’s going to need it. All down to one six-letter word: Batman. As a 13-year-old, Bale once tied from a sack-load of interviews from a Paris hotel, cracking under the immense pressure of publicising his breakthrough film, Steven Spielberg’s Empire Of The Sun. But with great paydays comes great responsibility. As a sensible 30-year-old, there’ll be no skipping off down the Champs-Elysees this time around. If he’s had an ambiguous relationship to fame in the past, Batman Begins will ensure they’re best of friends by June.

“I didn’t want to make the choice out of being seared of what the possible consequences could be,” he argues. “I thought that it was a story 1 would really like to tell, that I believed could be told better than I’d seen it told before.” But with a career boasting more false starts than an Olympic athlete on steroids, Bale knows there’s always the possibility he could go the way of Michael Keaton. Subconsciously, there’s probably a part of him that prays nightly this’ll be the ease. “There is this sword hanging over ray head – ‘What if it goes really well?'” he laughs. “That’s been the saving grace I’ve had. I’ve never had a hit movie. Part of me goes, ‘Why should it start now? Maybe I’ll manage to jinx Batman!”

Don’t bank on it. Yes, he may have helped give the kiss of death to other big-budget blow-outs – from daft dragon-slayer Reign Of Fire to Euro-pudding of the decade Captain Carelli’s Mandolin – but the signs are this’ll be his ticket to the A-list. With Memento’s Christopher Nolan taking the story back to its roots, this is the real deal. No Bat-nipples on the suit or Arnie going ‘I have an iee day!’ here, but the Dark Knight dealing with his demons.

“I was curious about Batman from the graphic novels that I’d read rather than any of the movies I’d seen or the TV series,” says Bale. “I looked at them and was surprised that I’d never seen them played this way. The character of Batman was so much more interesting in the graphic novels than I’d ever seen him played in live action. It was always the villains that were the fascinating characters, never Batman. But from reading these I thought he was the interesting one.”

A psychologically tortured Bruce Wayne is just what you might expect from Bale, who compares the role to his most iconic to date – that of Brett Easton Ellis’ Wall Street serial killer Patrick Bateman (which, if you remove the ‘e’, rather prophecies Bale’s superhero casting). The part that Leonardo DiCaprio almost snatched from him, Bateman rather defines Bale’s work to date: edgy material, meticulous performance. At pains to point out “I really haven’t played that many psychotic characters”, Bale, in fact, is often east as the dullard, from his suburban drone in Metroland to the uptight son in Laurel Canyon. Hell, he was the only one not to sniff piles of coke and get nobbed by Ewan McGregor in Velvet Goldmine – well, not until the end of the movie anyway. But as he says, it’s his unhinged roles that are more vivid. “They’re easier to remember than more commonplace gents.”

Whether it’s playing Batman or Bateman, Bale is a man who likes to live the part and suffer for his art. “1 love stories of people wanting to really go to an extreme and work hard, guitarists who play until their fingers are bleeding,” he says. “That image of somebody busting their arse for what they love doing. I enjoy that.” When I met him on set for American Psycho, after months of working out to gain his buff physique, he would only do the interview in his well-honed Ivy League accent. Which, for a boy who hails from Bournemouth, is a bit odd. Not that talking like a twat is much of a hardship by Bale’s exacting standards.

For this month’s The Machinist he dropped incredible pounds to play the role of emaciated insomniac factory worker Trevor Reznik, a man haunted by his past. Looking not unlike that chap on those old Scotch videotape adverts, he even out-thins Tom Hanks on Cast Away. As the anorexic-looking Bale wandered around his adopted hometown of Los Angeles, where he has lived since making the 1991 Disney musical Newsies, the whispers soon started. “I did start healing around the place that I was very ill,” he says. “But I didn’t feel like I had to explain every time I bumped into somebody what I was doing.”

Already criticised by dieticians for the extremes he went to, it didn’t help that Bale decided to try and put it all back on via some sort of Atkins-sponsored eating contest. “The day that we wrapped on The Machinist, I was having bread, pizza, pasta and doughnuts, stuffing my face with everything possible and making myself feel really sick. It was too quick. That’s when I felt unhealthy and that’s when my heart was going like crazy. Batman helped out with that, because I had to get very fit for it. I had to have weight but at the same time I had to get strength, and go running and eat healthily. So that kind of solved the problem.”

While Bale can’t have exactly impressed his spouse-of-five-years, Chicago-born former make-up artist Sibi Balzic, with his fluctuating waistline, it’s odd to think of this Method man as a married man. The two don’t seem to compute. “I was never someone who was craving stability,” he admits. “In many ways I prefer chaos. In fact, I’m more scared of stability than anything.” Born in Pembrokeshire, but spending his childhood in such tar-flung places as Portugal and Reading before settling in Bournemouth, Bale was tailor-made to live the life of a nomadic actor. He comes from the classic showbiz family. His two sisters Louise and Sharon are a theatre director and musician respectively; his mother, Jenny, was a dancer, while one grandfather was a stand-up comic and member of the Magic Circle and the other a stand-in for John Wayne.

But, perversely, his desire to perform came from having an unconventional father. A former commercial pilot, David Bale would later ditch his job to manage his son’s burgeoning career. “The most rebellious thing I could have done with him would be to have a 9-5 job,” says Bale, who – like his father – also became heavily involved in animal welfare and conservation, supporting such groups as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund. “My Dad lived by himself since he was 13, working on cargo boats. His father had been in the RAK so he was accustomed to moving around a lot.”

After Bale “sold out” when he was eight years old, making his debut with a Lenor commercial and pocketing £80 for the privilege, within two years he was starring opposite Rowan Atkinson in a West End play called The Nerd. Then came Empire Of The Sun, as Bale beat off 4,000 other hopefuls to become the most written-about child actor since Mickey Rooney. Vowing to quit, after receiving constant aggravation at school for the role, we have Kenneth Branagh to thank for luring him back, after he cast him as Falstaff’s sidekick in his 1989 version of Henry V.

This time around, as magazine covers, chat-shows and billboard supremacy beckon with Batman Begins, Bale seems to know where bis head is at. “I’m not averse to the big payday,” he says.” The nice thing is, you get to choose the projects that you want to do. Yon don’t ever get in the situation where you have to do something because your house is going to get repossessed.” With a smattering of small movies in the works, including one he and madman Werner Herzog are looking to launch, that fabric softener ad looks to be the last time Bale leased his soul to the Devil (if you don’t count Little Women, of course).

His reward? Working with the likes of Malick on The New World, the legend’s first film since The Thin Red Line. “He is one of the finest directors I’ve ever seen,” says Bale, cagily, before adding that he shares no scenes with co-star Colin Farrell. “But beyond that I’m not allowed to say.”

However well the Bat-suit tits him – and he has signed on for a sequel – it doesn’t look as if he’s planning to bail out on us just yet. “I don’t want to get into that comfort zone. It doesn’t seem interesting. It’s not what filmmaking is about.”

The Machinist opens on 11 March. Batman Begins is out on 24 June.