MAN BEHIND THE MASK
Christian Bale is led into the hotel suite looking like he’s been dragged through a forest backwards. Sporting an unkempt beard and shaggy crop, he makes Robinson Crusoe look like GQ’s Man of the Year. He quickly assures me that it’s for his latest role, as a 17th-century tobacco plantation owner, for legendary director Terrence Malick. Whether he realises it or not, it’s an appearance that encapsulates Bale as both an actor and a star.
A man dedicated to being consumed by his art, this ability to transform himself has a built-in bonus: disguise. Bale has always had an ambiguous relationship to celebrity. As a 13-year-old, he cracked under the immense pressure of publicising his breakthrough film, Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. During a press tour inParis, he refused to speak – instead repeatedly stabbing an orange with his pen – before running out of the hotel onto the Champs-Elysées. “I really felt like I got bitten from the whole Empire of the Sun experience,” he reflects. “People are ready for recognition at different ages, and I definitely wasn’t.”
The boy fromBournemouthsubsequently became one of the most written-about child stars since Mickey Rooney. While he contributed to the problem by peddling signed photos in the playground, other boys picked fights with him and the localDorsetpaper chastised him for refusing to open a fete. All he wanted to do was ride his BMX in the woods. “I was mocked for the rest of my school years for having been in the movie. That really made me shy away from any kind of recognition.”
All of which makes Bale’s penchant for changing his looks understandable. In The Machinist he goes so far as to lose 60lbs to play insomniac lathe operator Trevor Reznik. The impact of his skeletal appearance is so shocking it entirely overshadows the conspiracy-laden plot that sees Reznik haunted by demons from his past.
“It’s really not about reducing your eating, it’s about changing your whole lifestyle,” Bale says of his drastic diet. “You have to stop socialising really, because it’s all about food and drink. There were some people before I started making the movie that I hadn’t explained the reason I was losing weight to, and they were very worried. I did start hearing around the place that I was very ill.”
During the shoot, every night he would finish with a double shot of whisky. “I knew that the whisky was good because it dehydrates you by the next morning, so you’d look a little bit more skeletal,” he says. Forced to conserve his energy between shots by sitting down and not moving a muscle, he would either doze, listen to his Walkman or smoke. It meant he was in a constant state of weariness but never tired, thus simulating Reznik’s own insomnia.
“He’s definitely an obsessive actor,” says The Machinist director Brad Anderson. “In this film, he physically transforms himself into the character.Andersonexplains that Bale requested to know in advance when the scenes were to be shot where his rake-thin torso would be on display. “Two days before, he would dehydrate himself by taking some pill that made his veins stick out so he looked even more emaciated.”
This reminds me of when I met Bale on the set of American Psycho, perhaps his definitive role to date. Pumped up to play Brett Easton Ellis’s yuppie serial killer Patrick Bateman, it was the culmination of 18 months’ preparation – partly because he was briefly kicked off the project when a post-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio stated an interest in playing the part. Bale began to echo Bateman, with his meticulous ablutions and exercise regime.
“I’ve always been attracted to the notion of… I’m loath to say suffering, because it’s a choice that I’m making,” he says. “To me it’s not suffering because I’ve made that choice myself. Suffering is when you have no choice. But I love stories of people wanting to really go to an extreme and work hard: guitarists who play until their fingers are bleeding, that image of somebody busting their arse for what they love doing. If you do that you feel like you’ve accomplished more at the end of the day than if you sit around getting fat and lazy.”
Being Bateman was tantamount to career suicide. “I felt a self-destructive attraction to the possibility of complete disaster with a single movie. It seemed like a gamble that I wanted to take. I love acting and I also hate it at the same time. A lot of people play it very safe, and I don’t want to ever do that. It’s essentially the difference between movie stars and actors. People seem very fearful of playing characters that are not role models.”
So why, then, you may ask, is this most contrary of actors about to take on the biggest role of his career in a blockbuster? This summer he takes over where Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney have been before, playing the Caped Crusader in Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated shake-up of the DC Comics franchise, Batman Begins. “I thought that it was a story I would really like to tell, that I believed could be told better than I’d seen it told before. I’ve never had a hit movie. Part of me goes: ‘Why should it start now? Maybe I’ll manage to jinx Batman’.”
Born in Pembrokeshire, Bale comes from a showbiz family. His mother, Jenny, was a dancer, while one grandfather was a stand-up comic and member of theMagic Circle, and the other a stand-in for John Wayne. But Bale’s 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.
Following his unpleasant experiences in the wake of Empire of the Sun, he told his parents that he had no wish to act again. But Kenneth Branagh persuaded Bale to return to the screen, casting him as Falstaff’s sidekick in his 1989 version of Henry V.
In 1991 he took a role in the dire Disney musical Newsies, bringing him toLos Angeles. But with flops such as Reign of Fire and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, he now finds himself stranded betweenHollywoodand the Primrose Hill Brit-pack set led by Jude Law and Ewan McGregor. Which seems odd, given he has been married for five years to Chicago-born former make-up artist Sibi Blazic.
As you might expect with Bale, getting personal causes his body language to stiffen and his sentences to become much shorter. Not long after Bale had completed Empire of the Sun, his own parents split up, though he refuses to be drawn on whether his fledgling career was the catalyst. He remains close to his parents, he says.
“There’s no denying that I wouldn’t be doing it now if dad hadn’t stuck by me and been so supportive. Although he’s no longer my manager, I still tell him everything and ask him for advice.”
It makes you wonder what Bale is like at home, once the disguise comes off. Hopefully a man more at ease in his own skin.
By the end of the year, we might know more. After Batman Begins comes The New World, Terrence Malick’s first film since The Thin Red Line. Given how little Malick directs, the media interest surrounding Bale looks set to become even more intense.
While Bale admits he’s “not averse to the big payday”, he makes it clear that it’s not the reason he acts. “I don’t want to get into that comfort zone; it doesn’t seem interesting,” he says. “It’s not what filmmaking is about.”
The Machinist opens on March 18. Batman Begins is released on June 24.
By James Mottram.