Twisted, tortured, tooled up – if you needed a film psycho for the 21st century, Christian Bale was your man. Now, though, the British actor who became a Spielberg star at just 13 has been catapulted into Gotham City. His mission: to rescue Batman. Phil Hoad meets the Joker’s new nemesis.
You can’t be too sure about Christian Bale. The last time he was in our cinemas, playing insomniac Trevor Reznik in The Machinist, a brittle 120lb cadaver ambled queasily across the screen. When I first meet him, last October in London, he’s decked out in the plain black shirt and dark trousers he bought for the role. But everything’s different. The clothes no longer hang limply off the 31-year-old actor’s frame; his solid, 6’2″ body is a total transformation. And there are other things. He has shaggy hair and a beard, and a chewy Cockney accent I mistakenly assume is his own.
The reason for his wild appearance, it turns out, is that Bale is busy playing John Rolfe, a 17th-century plantation owner in Terrence Malick’s The New World. But the next occasion we meet, in March, at a junket for the new Batman film in Los Angeles, the strange Reznik/Rolfe hybrid has vanished. The face is the same, but it’s been leased to someone else. He’s taut and brawny in a black T-shirt, his hair closely cropped, a touch of sunburn flushing his features. He’s just played an ex-military screw-up in a film set in east LA. Tinges of California up speak curling the edges of his sentences, he frowns and says he’s had trouble not sounding American lately.
‘Batman took 10 months to film, and by the time I stopped working on it, it took a long time before my English accent came out again. I was actually having to try for it. I was going, “Oh shit, what’s happened?” because your muscles change. So I do find myself in the very schizophrenic position now, where I feel absolutely as natural speaking American as I do English.’
There’s something powerfully protean, vague and unclassifiable about Christian Bale. He’s well-known, but not overwhelmingly so. Since appearing, aged13, inSpielberg’s Empire of The Sun, he’s dallied with wider recognition, but not quite got there. In the late Nineties, a succession of commercial misfires failed to launch his star.
But notching up focused performance after focused performance, that didn’t rattle Bale. He just kept on slipping into the roles, having his teeth capped, insane weight loss, getting accents pitch-perfect, whatever it took: a core of concentration, regardless of whether or not the films kept up. Or if the critics noticed: there’s still no Bale entry in David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film.
It all seems done so thoroughly, so wholly, you wonder if American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman – yuppie-by-day, killer-by-night – isn’t the closest match for Bale (and, not coincidentally, the actor’s best work). In one early scene, Bateman peels off a thin, gelatine face mask as though it were his own identity: ‘There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable… I simply am not there.’
We speak once more, in May, on the phone, at 2am. This time, the accent is completely disorientating: a bit of breezy LA, some gutsy New Yorkisms (as we’re talking about Batman), and touches of his native English, too. Attempts at dipping beneath the Mr Benn-like apparel changes aren’t too successful. He disliked talking about himself at a pretty young age – he ran away in the middle of a round of interviews on Empire of The Sun. Is he more adept, these days, at… ‘Lying?’ he interrupts.
Well, let’s say ‘answering questions’.
And before he embarks on a long reply, Bale laughs his laugh, the booming, slightly scary one. The getting-away-with-it one.
One thing Bale definitely enjoyed being recently was Batman. Unlike many of the mainstream duds – Equilibrium, Reign of Fire, the Shaft remake – he was involved with at the start of the decade, resurrectingGothamCity’s finest was surprisingly straightforward. ‘There have been many times when you spend a number of months and the finished product is not what you wanted to see. And Batman Begins was what I wanted to see.’
The franchise was a virtual write-off after 1997’s appalling fourth instalment, Batman & Robin, mired it in wincingly camp territory. But along with Superman – a new incarnation of which is currently in production – Warner Bros has been desperate to reinvigorate its DC comic-book properties, with rivals Marvel on full throttle after their smart adaptations of Spider-Man and other titles.
None of this meant much to Bale, who didn’t like any of the previous Batman films or was much of a comic-book fan. What interested him was working with Christopher Nolan, the cerebral English director of cult jigsaw-thriller Memento, who had been elected to save Batman and drag the franchise into the hard-core psychological territory staked out in graphic-novel interpretations such as Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.
‘Just the name the Dark Knight kinda sums it up, because knights are meant to be, like, knights in shining armour,’ says Bale, who, like Nolan, has signed up for two more films. ‘And this is a guy, cloaked in black and with a great deal of rage, and great problems in controlling that.’
Batman Begins recounts the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents in more nuanced terms than before, details the psychological fallout as he searches for a new identity, and – in keeping with postmodern readings of superheroes such as Alan Moore’s Watchmen – acknowledges the plain absurdity of anyone who decides to spend half their time dressing up as an oversized flying mammal.
The new, respectful focus means to emphasise Batman’s place as a ‘specifically American mythology,’ Bale reckons. ‘Particularly with Bruce Wayne; he is essentially a kind of American blue blood, in a way that only happens in the States. And I guess it’s also the fact that theUShas such a high crime rate as well. It’s a young, troubled place. Well, a young, turbulent place.’
According to co-star Katie Holmes, Bale himself has ‘a bit of a dark side’. Clearly, he was keen to weigh in with his customary commitment. But he overdid it. In July 2003, he was in The Machinist flyweight division, shrunken on a diet of one apple and a can of tuna a day; by December, he’d bulked up to 220lb, a gain he now recalls as ‘not a good idea’. Nolan was horrified when his beefcake new lead turned up for the shoot; the actor had to lay off the heavy weights and slim back down to 180lb.
Once the film blows up though, Bale’s habitual submersion in his roles won’t be enough to let him dodge his growing public profile. Back at our original meeting last year, he’s already fielding enquiries about the prospect of encroaching super-fame. ‘I don’t want to think about that. The only thing I want to think about is if it can help me get movies like The Machinist made quicker. I have this theory that, depending on your attitude, your life doesn’t have to become this ridiculous charade that it seems so many people end up living.’
Eight months later, I ask if he’s more nervous. ‘Not really. I just feel, like, whatever happens is going to happen and if I don’t like it, then there’s nobody to blame but myself. And you know what? It’s nothing that can’t be changed.’
Things changed a lot when Bale was growing up. His father, David Bale, was an itinerant fellow who ran away to sea in his teens and never stopped shifting. Born in Haverfordwest in 1974, near where his dad worked as a pilot at RAF Brawdy, Bale had ‘like, 15 different towns and houses’ during his childhood.
These included stints in Surrey, Berkshire and Dorset – four years in Bournemouth, where his mother Jennifer still lives, was the longest the family (he has three older sisters) stayed put. ‘My father was a [wryly] very interesting man and sometimes… we had to move.’
His dad died in 2003, of a brain lymphoma, but his lifestyle seems to have marked his son; not only in terms of an inadvertent ability to slip fluidly in and out of personas, but all-round attitude, too.
‘He was never like any other parents that I came across. He just kinda never accepted situations as they were if he didn’t like ’em. So it was a good thing ultimately – troubling at times – the emotion and the momentum that I had being around him. I don’t think I would be doing this if it wasn’t for him. The kind of nomadic lifestyle you do have as an actor is one that I’m most comfortable with.’
Bale had showbiz pedigree on both sides of the family. His dad’s dad (another intriguing character who apparently only met David Bale on six occasions) was a double for John Wayne in a couple of films. His mother was a circus dancer, while her father was a children’s entertainer and member of theMagic Circle.
Bale remembers his grandfather cranking out tricks in the living room, but it wasn’t vaudevillian theatricality that appealed to him; film was always what mattered.
‘I did other things, but my heart was never in it. A lot of actors say that theatre’s the thing for them. And that’s great, and I’m not one to speak with any authority about it because of not having done it properly. For me, movies are what I love.’
He got himself an agent aged nine by hanging outside stage doors in theWest End, where his sister Louise was appearing in Bugsy Malone. Then, at 12, he beat 4,000 other young tykes to the role of Jim, JG Ballard’s surrogate character in Empire of The Sun, and received fantastic reviews. The huge production was, he says, as pure an acting experience as you get.
‘You have a superb kind of recklessness as a kid that’s really fantastic, because there’s no consequences to it at all. You don’t have any reputation to ruin, you’re not even thinking about a career. You’re there on the day and turning up and doing it and heading off. The moments you’re in front of the camera are no more important than the moments you’re off it.’ The aftermath, on the other hand, jarred the youthful Bale. He spent interviews in Paris jabbing an orange with a pen, before he ran out of the hotel onto the Champs-Elysées. He felt ‘like a ponce’.
Back home, girls flocked around Bournemouth’s latest celebrity, which naturally got him aggro from the boys. He was told off by local newspapers for refusing to open local fetes. ‘I wasn’t in the slightest bit nervous about [the acting], or giving a damn about whether anybody was going to see the film. I think that was partly why I didn’t like the publicity afterwards, because I suddenly realised, “Holy fuck! I don’t know what to say about this!” And suddenly there were consequences.’
These days, Bale’s personal life is strictly cordoned off, with the usual actorly affidavit that the less you know about him, the more believable he is in character. Skirt such topics and you’ll receive the occasional dastardly getting-away-with-it laugh, and replies that are Zen koans of contradiction and nothingness. On LA, where he’s been living since 1992: ‘I’m fine wherever I am. I like it a great deal out here and I’m fine to get up and move as well. I’m kind of a rolling stone in that degree. I’d be absolutely happy to stay here for a long time.’
Or a brick wall. On possibly having children: ‘Um, yeah, at some point.’ (His wife gives birth to their first child, a girl, 11 days later.) Bale says he never draws on the details of his own life for a part. In this respect, he’s the opposite of a Method actor (despite the shared masochism); as an actor with no formal training, he doesn’t really understand the theory, he says. The way he tells it, the parts have more sway over his life. Whatever’s going on at home, the roles sometimes come back with him. It wasn’t too bad for his wife, Sibi Blazic – Winona Ryder’s former assistant and currently an independent film producer – having to live with Batman. The long shoot meant he didn’t have to be as intense in his approach to the character: ‘I think he was probably a simple one to deal with.’
Unlike, say, when he played Bateman: ‘I certainly know that my wife and friends have times when later on they say, “Man, we just couldn’t stand you at that time.” So yeah, I have discovered that I do behave differently.’
Clearly, there’s an obsessiveness to him which needs continual feeding. Playing obsessives themselves is ‘a very comfortable feeling’, maybe especially for someone with such an elastic personality. He says he admires that tireless quality in other actors, musicians and performers. He’s in raptures about Terrence Malick – with Kubrick dead, now the ultimate, enigmatically obsessive director – who is getting ready to release The New World, his fourth film in 32 years. ‘He’s so in love with what he does, y’know. He so loves it and he so loves other people’s ideas as well. He gets such a delight out of watching the actors and every member of the crew, really. He’s a very genuine, sincere man.’
So when Bale momentarily sounds weary of recent punishment and pledges No More Demanding Roles, you can’t believe him. The fact that his next project is for Werner Herzog, that notoriously lax taskmaster, doesn’t bode well. It’s a biopic of Dieter Dengler, a German expat turned US Navy pilot. You almost don’t want to know the details: shot down overLaos, dragged behind water buffalo and covered in honey and ants by communist torturers, lost 90lb wandering for 23 days through the jungle. So far, so Bale.
Surely he’s entitled to ciphoning off some of the Bat-cash, kicking back and enjoying fatherhood? Finally, the actor has to come clean. ‘I couldn’t bring myself to say, “You know what, I can’t be arsed to do it.” I just couldn’t bring myself to do that, because if it’s a really good role then I can. Because the thing I loathe seeing so much is when you do get actors, who’ve gotten some kind of reputation and they just seem to ride it out and take it easy, and everything becomes boring. Suddenly you’re useless and you may as well quit. Get off the screen and stop wasting people’s time.’
Batman Begins is released in the UK on 16 June.
By Phil Hoad.