SUIT YOURSELF, MATE
Batman may be a big studio franchise, but its lead actor is far from your typical star. Craig McLean meets Christian Bale, a man who likes to do things his way.
Christian Bale is prepared to go to considerable lengths for the sake of his job. For the role of Patrick Bateman, the self-obsessed homicidal maniac in American Psycho (2000), he got ridiculously fit. He became, by his own admission, a fitness bore, obsessing over his carb intake and the number of push-ups and stomach crunches he was managing each day. He slathered expensive lotions and potions on his skin. He had his teeth bleached. The end result on screen was a glowing, bulked-up, yuppie demi-god with a lupine smile and a sick, sick secret life. “You have to become really vain to put on all the muscle,” Bale says. “But at least you know you’re constructing something.”
For the title role in The Machinist,180 centimetreBale went to the other extreme. He starved himself to near non-existence, losing28 kilograms. He ended up weighing just54 kilograms, the better to portray Trevor Reznik, a factory worker who hasn’t slept in a year. Shot in colours as washed-out and bleak as Reznik’s existence, it’s a taut, hallucinatory thriller about paranoia, amnesia and the mystery at the heart of his disintegrating life. So extreme is Bale’s self-inflicted thinness that the American National Eating Disorder Association felt compelled to issue a statement criticising the actor for his “scary” weight loss.
Not that Brad Anderson, the director of The Machinist, asked him to shed so many kilos. So why do it? Was it Method acting taken to ridiculous extremes? Perversity? Stubbornness?
“It was beyond what anybody expected,” Bale concedes when we meet. “But the more I read the script the more I realised this doesn’t work unless he looks like he’s at death’s door. He can’t look like he’s a little bit skinny. You go out in the street – not so much in the States but in the rest of the world – half the people are a little bit skinny. This had to be someone you looked at and thought, ‘There’s something wrong there’. I had a nice photograph of Hank Williams, taken when he was 29 and getting released from jail, about three months before he died. The guy looks like he’s about 60 – emaciated, very poor condition. I blew that up and had it on the front of my script. That was what I was going to aim for.”
Another powerful lobby group concerned about the sorry state of Christian Bale are the Batman fans. Hundreds of thousands of them gather on internet comic fan sites and message boards, eagerly awaiting the new blockbuster, Batman Begins. They know that for much of 2004, in locations ranging from Iceland to Chicago via Shepperton, England, the 31-year-old Welsh-born actor followed in the footsteps of Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney in donning the Batsuit of the Caped Crusader. They are also aware that he began filming Batman Begins not long after completing The Machinist. Did the shuffling, skinny guy manage to get himself crimefighting fit? (Answer: of course he did.)
Batman Begins, the fifth film in the series, directed by Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia), follows the Clooney-starring Batman and Robin (1997), a camp debacle that derailed and mothballed the Bat-universe. The stakes, then, are high: there’s a franchise on the line, as well as a reported budget of between $US135 and $US150 million ($A178 -$A198 million). Not to mention the hopes and fears of untold legions of fans.
Christian Bale, former child star of Empire of the Sun and proud lead in, as he puts it, “no hit movies”, has a lot to live up to. The Batman aficionados, after all, have noticed that, in his time, Bale has played Jesus in a television film, soppy Laurie in the Winona Ryder remake of Little Women, and a journalist who has rooftop sex with Ewan McGregor in the gaudy rock flick Velvet Goldmine.
“Aw, man!” he exclaims in an English accent mildly tainted by 14 years living inLos Angeles. “Those Batman geeks, if they don’t like what I’ve done, I’m a wanted man.”
He says this with a smile and some relish: Christian Bale loves a challenge. How else to explain his strange, higgledy-piggledy career?
Before The Machinist Bale hadn’t worked for a year and a half. His previous two films, the Matrix-lite Equilibrium and the dragon-slaying Reign of Fire, were both fantasy affairs, and both fairly ropey. Before those were the messy Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and the inconsequentialLaurelCanyon.
He had found himself working with scripts that he knew weren’t right but had felt, wrongly, that they could be fixed on the job. Or he had been offered “big, action-filled, nothing movies” by people who had seen his all-kicking, all-pouting performances in Reign of Fire and Equilibrium. That wasn’t him. “I found myself sitting and staring at the wall for weeks, just feeling depressed and thinking, ‘All right, I’ve done something wrong here’.”
He says he was even worried about losing the new house he had bought. Little wonder, then, that when The Machinist came along, he gave it everything he had. It’s a terrific psychological chiller, and certainly all the more compelling for the viscerally gaunt figure Bale cuts. Like Anderson’s last film, Session 9, an artful horror film set in a derelict asylum and starring Peter Mullan, it seems destined for cult-classic status.
It’s a long way from Batman Begins, for which Bale had to screen-test alongside six other actors a month after completing The Machinist – barely enough time to pile some weight back on, far less develop some muscle. Bale reports that Nolan was concerned as to how this walking skeleton would play with the studio moneymen. It is testament to Bale’s talent that he got the role.
He also thinks that Nolan – whom he first met just before beginning The Machinist shoot – must have batted hard for him. “I can’t help but think he thought, ‘Hmm, he commits himself. This actor bloody goes there. He goes the distance’.
“I’m a great believer that if you want something, you go for it. If you’re really into a project, you bloody contact (the director). And you tell ’em that. Tome it’s not in any way begging. I think it’s a strange thing that more people don’t do that – but apparently they don’t, because a number of directors have said to me, ‘You called me, and I’ve realised how much you love this project. And I wanted an actor who loved this project’. I think a lot of actors are fearful that they’re going to bare their throat then be told, ‘We don’t want you’.”
Christian Bale has never lacked for chutzpah. Not in a vaingloriousHollywoodway, but in a more quiet, artistic sense. He persuaded Baz Luhrmann to let him audition for the role of Mercutio in Romeo + Juliet, even though the part was for a black actor (a black actor eventually landed the part). He was infamously kicked off the American Psycho project in favour of Leonardo DiCaprio, but made sure he was available should a callback come. When he heard Ewan McGregor was then being offered the part, he called to tell McGregor how much the project meant to him. Bale’s ego-swallowing tenacity and patience were rewarded, and he turned in a performance of controlled yet maniacal brilliance in the schlock-horror satire.
Even at the dawn of Bale’s lengthy career, he was displaying serious cool. He landed himself an agent at the age of nine, after hanging about backstage in London’s West End, where his sister Louise (now a theatre director in Los Angeles) was in the cast of Bugsy Malone. He has three older sisters. At the age of 12, and with a smattering of television and theatre work behind him, he beat 4000 other hopefuls in the seven-month audition process for the lead in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. His performance drew favourable comparisons with 10-year-old Tatum O’Neal’s Oscar-winning turn in Paper Moon. But even then he was proving media-shy, briefly disappearing in the middle of a round of promotional interviews in Paris.
Back home inBournemouth, he would later reflect: “Girls were all over me, boys wanted to fight me, and I was being asked to open local fetes when all I wanted to do was ride my BMX bike in the woods. I told my parents I wasn’t interested in doing anything again because the attention ruined it.”
After a couple of years’ seclusion he hauled himself back into the saddle with a small role in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V. Then, aged 17, with a part in the Disney musical The Newsies, he and sister Louise upped and left for Los Angeles – a move partly inspired, he says now, by the sarcasm of teachers who accused him of thinking he was some sort of big shot. He never went back.
His confidence and can-do zeal is very much a product of his family background. His father, David Bale, was born in South Africa, and ran away to sea in his early teens. His wanderlust took him to Britain, where he had a variety of jobs, including pilot and financial adviser, pulling his family along behind him.
Christian was born in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, when his dad was stationed at RAF Brawdy. The four years he was inBournemouth- where his mother Jennifer still lives – were the longest the family spent anywhere. In the end, while Jennifer viewed their itinerant lifestyle as “romantic”, it was too extreme for her and the couple split up around the time of the release of Empire of the Sun.
“My dad would never have stayed in England had he not had us,” Bale says. “So there was always that discontent with being stuck. And also a real hatred of any of us thinking that we were being pigeon holed into any class. He wanted us to think we could mix with absolutely anybody that we chose to and not to feel inferior to anybody or that things were not possible. I credit him completely with my not having any fear or trepidation – ‘Yeah, I f**king can go and be a film actor’. Even if you don’t do it, give it a bloody shot. He was totally my motivation for thinking in that way.”
Despite, or because of, those formative years spent living in the heart ofHollywood, Bale is an intensely private person. He still hates “the attention” that “ruined” his post-Empire of the Sun glow. He won’t be found strutting down the red carpet or whooping it up at showbiz events.
Bale is married to Sibi Blazic, a former assistant to Winona Ryder. Their first child, a daughter, was born in March.
The Bale family are animal-rights activists and committed environmentalists, a passion they inherited from David Bale, who also lived inAmericaand married the feminist author Gloria Steinem in a Native American ceremony before he died from a brain lymphoma in December 2003.
But even in the convivial flesh, Bale is still a curiously remote character. I’ve met him before, at the Sundance Film Festival in 2000, where he was promoting American Psycho. I followed him around for a day, before we repaired to a bar for conversation and many beers. Even with all that, he remains a distant figure, adept at talking at length about his job, but equally savvy at fencing off his real persona.
Both Christopher Nolan and Katie Holmes, his co-star in Batman Begins, seem to have read something into this. “What I see in Christian is the ultimate embodiment of Bruce Wayne,” Nolan has said. “He has exactly the balance of darkness and light that we were looking for.”
Holmes adds: “I got the chills when I first saw him in the costume. Christian’s ideal for the part because he’s got a bit of a dark side too.”
Bale laughs at this. “Maybe it’s my sense of humour or something. I think it’s also sometimes that I’m just very quiet. And a lot of people take that for being dark.” InHollywoodterms that is dark.
“Yeah, I think it is. Because everybody loves to be so chit-chatty the whole time,” he says, his face almost curdling at the thought. “And if I think, ‘You know what, if I’m chit-chatting now I’m not going to be able to do the scene as well’, then I’ll just be quiet and go off by myself. And some people read that as being dark.”
The only time his smooth, conversational style falters is when we discuss his father, who died just before filming started on Batman Begins. Without wishing to be to be trite, I ask what impact that personal tragedy had on his portrayal of Bruce Wayne? Batman Begins, after all, takes the story back to its roots – how a grief-stricken young Bruce becomes Batman after witnessing his parents’ murder.
“Um,” Bale sighs. “It made it difficult to be excited about the movie. I had something so much more important happening in my life. There was concern on my part that I wasn’t going to be able to do the movie at all, just because I realised I didn’t care. I had no interest. And I also, I don’t like – even with fairly minuscule experiences from life – I don’t like to use specific memories for any scenes in movies. Especially when it comes to something as defining as a parent’s death. No movie is important enough for me, in my mind, to abuse that memory. Because to me that was disgracing what he meant to me.”
What Bale did do, in the end, was focus even harder on the job at hand. And he hasn’t stopped since. In the way that these things happen, his career has never been better. He went straight from Batman Begins to the Terrence Malick film – only the acclaimed director’s fourth film in 30-plus years – a prestigious role in any actor’s book. Straight after our meeting he was off back to Los Angeles for an intense 20-day shoot on Harsh Times, a buddy movie directed by David Ayer, the writer of Training Day. He and Werner Herzog have been trying to collaborate on a film for some time now, a dramatisation of the German director’s documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly, a true story about a German who flew for the US air force in Vietnam and who was a POW in Laos. “I hope that because of Batman,” Bale says with a snap of his fingers, “we’re going to be able to get that made exactly how we want it to happen”. He’s even committed to Batman VI, should Batman Begins do sufficient business.
And if it doesn’t? A whole franchise will come crashing down, the fan message boards will light up and Christian Bale will go on being the greatest British actor with no hits to his name. “I tell you, even you saying that excites me a little bit!” he says of the suggestion of box-office peril. “I’m thinking, ‘Yes, wouldn’t that be something else?'”
The Machinist opens Thursday. Batman Begins opens June 16.
By Craig McLean.