Knight Ridder Newspaper (June 2005)


Christian Bale says he’s obsessive about acting, always looking for material that will challenge him.

He gravitates toward what he calls “dangerous” roles, like Patrick Bateman, the well-coiffed serial killer of “American Psycho” (2000), or Trevor Reznik, the tormented protagonist of last year’s “The Machinist,” a role for which the 31-year-old Welsh actor lost more than 60 pounds.

But a comic book superhero? Doesn’t sound very Christian Bale. In fact, until this movie came along, he’d never read Batman comics.

“I wouldn’t have wanted to make ‘Batman Begins’ if it didn’t offer a complete overhaul of Batman lore,” Bale said in a telephone interview fromNew York. “And from the beginning Warner Bros. sent the signal that they wanted something a bit radical. If they were after the same old thing, Chris Nolan would not have been chosen to direct. And they wouldn’t have cast me.”

In fact Bale recalled one studio executive confiding that he wasn’t particularly interested in breaking box-office records.

“What he said was: ‘We want to make the best comic book movie ever.'”

Neither “Batman Begins” director Nolan (“Memento,” “Insomnia”) nor leading-man Bale had ever made a summer franchise film, and the actor said he initially feared that the logistics of a big special-effects movie might overwhelm the human elements.

“Too often on one of these movies it all becomes very impersonal,” Bale said. “The story goes out the window, and it becomes an exploitation picture. It becomes about how much you can do with all that money. Whereas in the movies Chris and I have made, you had low budgets and had to show what you could do without a lot of resources.

“Early on Chris made it clear that he wasn’t going to forgo good filmmaking and a strong story line in favor of effects and action. And, in fact, he did manage to make our work feel intimate despite the huge sets, a seven-month shooting schedule, phenomenal locations and hundreds of people on the set. He took a small-movie approach to a big movie.”

During the last several Batman films, Bale said, the Caped Crusader has become a camp icon.

No more.

“Our Batman is a badass,” Bale said. “He’s the most fascinating of the superheroes, in part because he’s not really a superhero. He has lots of money, yeah, and that’s a kind of superpower, I guess. But everything he accomplishes is through training, imagination and hard work.”

In fact, the first half of the movie is devoted to an examination of Batman’s psychology: His childhood fears, the death of his wealthy parents, his attempts to reconcile his desire for justice with his darker yearnings for pure revenge.

“There’s a lot we investigate in this movie that’s never been seen before in any of the ‘Batman’ movies,” Bale said. “And I don’t understand why it’s been ignored because these are huge questions. For me the essence of Bruce Wayne is that he’s devoted himself to this life of sacrifice and danger, but the parents he’s doing it for would disapprove. And he knows they’d disapprove. He knows he should be moving on with his life, but he can’t.

“I view him as fanatical in the pursuit of his goal. He’s always teetering on the edge, about to lose control of his negative emotions, ready to satisfy his thirst for revenge and his tremendous capacity for violence.”

If there’s another “Batman” movie (he is committed to appear in at least one more), Bale said he’d love to see it issued in two versions.

“A PG-13 so the kids can enjoy it but also an R-rated version that really gets into the disturbing aspects of Bruce Wayne’s psychology that examines what is really a form of madness,” he said. “Because I really don’t think Bruce Wayne is someone you’d like to spend a lot of time with in a small room.”

But Bale declines to count any unhatched eggs.

“Let’s not assume anything,” he said. “I’ve never had what the movie industry would term a hit. So until it’s a fact, let’s not assume that this movie will be any different.”

Well, maybe no hits but lots of memorable roles. Bale made his professional acting debut opposite comic actor Rowan “Mr. Bean” Atkinson in London’s West End; at age 13 he was tapped by Steven Spielberg to star in “Empire of the Sun,” the story of an English boy’s experiences in a Japanese detention camp during World War II.

His work has ranged from Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh’s “Henry V,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) to musicals (“Newsies,” “Swing Kids”). He’s played a Victorian gentleman (“Little Women”), a sexually uptight young doctor (“LaurelCanyon”) and a postapocalyptic dragon fighter (“Reign of Fire”).

In real life he’s been playing a father. In March he and his wife, Sibi Blazic, became first-time parents. In fact, this interview had to be rescheduled after the actor endured a sleepless night with his fussy baby daughter.

Curiously throughout the interview Bale spoke in a flat Midwestern accent, with no trace of his British childhood. Asked about that, he replied that he has an almost unconscious tendency to adopt the vocal inflections of whomever he’s talking to.

“What you’re hearing now is an actor who knows that Batman is an American icon,” he said, “and who doesn’t want to throw everyone if he starts talking in a British accent.”

After filming ended on “Batman Begins” Bale joined the cast of “The New World,” director Terrence Malick’s movie about the first English settlement inAmerica. It opens in November.

Next Bale will be playing Dieter Dengler, who grew up in post-World War II Germany, moved to the United States, became a military pilot, was shot down over Laos and escaped a POW prison. Director Werner Herzog will direct this fictional film based on his 1997 documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly.”

And, of course, there could be another “Batman” film.

“If people embrace the way in which Chris has made this movie and I’ve made the character, then I really want to pursue it,” Bale said. “I think there’s a lot more that can be said about this character.”

By Robert W. Butler.