Christian Bale is to be the new Batman, but first he lost 63lb and wrecked his health for The Machinist.
Christian Bale goes to extreme lengths to inhabit his characters, shedding more than four stone for his latest role as an emaciated loner in The Machinist. This summer he bulks up again to become the eponymous hero in the much anticipated ‘prequel’ Batman Begins, bringing a darker, more troubled quality to the character
Christian Bale is hungry. He’s been stuck in this opulent London hotel all morning, talking. He doesn’t care much for doing press. Has a phobic dislike of it almost, something that can be traced back to the fact that he’s been facing up to public scrutiny since he was 12. Back then, as the young boy called Jim, the plucky Brit expat imprisoned by the Japanese in Steven Spielberg’s Empire Of The Sun, he’d shot to international fame. It didn’t sit well with him.
After promoting the film in hotel suites and on red carpets all over the world, the Welsh-born lad plucked from an audition cast of 4000 went home. In Bournemouth, the adolescent Bale had a difficult time. Teachers were supercilious and snide, peers picked on him, the big lads in the school cadets called him a has-been. People asked him to cut ribbons at fetes and the like, and got annoyed with him when he said no. Hard to take if you’re barely into your teens.
Eventually, aged 17, the hassle and the small-mindedness would propel him to Los Angeles where he has lived ever since. On the rare occasion when he comes back to the UK, he has a lot to fit in. There’s his mum to visit in Bournemouth, and two sisters (although a third lives in LA). On this latest trip he has also been filming scenes for Terrence Malick’s The New World, a period drama set at the time of the first settlers leaving England for America. He plays a tobacco planter, and today his hair is appropriately long, his beard trimmed just so.
Bale didn’t enjoy fame as a child, and he likes it even less now. He prefers to keep himself to himself, leading a quiet life in California with his wife and newborn daughter. But while he is in the old country he has agreed to talk – a little – about movies. The Machinist is a small, arthouse thriller made in Spain, of which he’s immensely proud.
Perhaps he also figured he should dip his toe gently into the promotional waters. After all, this summer demand for a piece of him will reach fever-pitch. Bale is the new Batman. Come the June 24 release of the blockbuster Batman Begins – eight years after the silly Batman And Robin (the one with George Clooney) – everyone will be after Bale.
It’s a lot to think about this grey London day, and he’s no doubt been reluctantly chewing it over throughout the morning, expelling all sorts of nervous energy. Little wonder, perhaps, that he is now eating a chicken curry with hearty gusto.
“I just don’t enjoy it,” he says amenably of the glitzy life normally associated with successful Hollywood actors. “Sure, I enjoy having a party with friends. But I don’t like it when it’s got this kind of glamorous attachment to it. It was a novelty for me for a little bit, when I first went out to Los Angeles when I was 17. I’d seen nothing like it before. I jumped into it to see what it was all about, and rightly so. But I just don’t like ‘hanging out’.”
He makes a face to suggest that being sociable for the sake of it is the most pointless waste of time possible.
“There are some great people who work in movies,” he continues, laden fork poised mid-air, “and I’ve got some great friends from it. But there’s also a desperation to it all sometimes, and I’m not interested in that. And I don’t want to be a part of it. There’s competition, even between pals who are actors. And I don’t feel that it serves me well, that feeling of competition. Because half the time you don’t want the same thing as they do anyway.”
What he wants from his job is a whole lot more, and a whole lot less, than most actors.
A few months ago, Christian Bale was really hungry. Starving, in fact. He was subsisting on a regime of whisky, cigarettes and little else. To make matters worse, he was living in Barcelona, a party town and one of the foodie capitals of the world. He had tried staying in all week, sticking to his diet. Then he’d go out at the weekend, have a drink, one thing would lead to another, “suddenly you put on seven pounds in a night”.
So then Bale became a virtual recluse, stuck indoors. Even more troubling was finding his wife in the bathroom, secretly trying to scarf down some food. He knew she felt bad about eating too much in front of him, but this was ridiculous. He insisted that she go out and eat, “rather than become emaciated like me out of sympathy”.
But Bale persevered. He had to. He had come to understand that his acting career went better if he, literally, shaped himself for roles. In his new film, The Machinist, he plays the troubled factory worker of the title. Trevor Reznik operates heavy machinery in a grim industrial space. His one friend is prostitute Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh). He is a man haunted – why can’t he sleep, or remember his past (or to pay his bills)? Who is the stranger with the bullet head and claw hand? Whose body is Reznik carrying in a rolled-up carpet at the start of the film? After a horrific accident befalls a co-worker, Reznik gets the blame and his already frayed life spirals out of control.
If Reznik is a loner whose severe insomnia is causing him to waste away, then, decided Bale, so be it. He would waste away too. The actor lost four and a half stone, a third of his body weight. The end result onscreen is a six-foot, eight-and-a-half stone skeleton.
“I went to a nutritionist before I started dieting,” recounts Bale. “I wanted to find out in terms of my blood count what things I would be lacking that I should take as a supplement. She said I could go down to 145lbs. I got to that weight and I was skinny, but feeling good. I felt like I could run a marathon. So I thought I’d keep going – because I felt I just looked like a runner – until I looked like a 90-year-old grandad trying to sprint down the street.”
The Machinist was filmed in Spain, home of a thriving film industry, and source of modern psychological horror films such as The Others and Open Your Eyes (upon which Cameron Crowe based Vanilla Sky). When Hollywood financiers found the script for The Machinist too ‘bleak’, director Brad Anderson shifted his entire production to the more sympathetic climate of Spain.
But were there no insurance issues with a film’s lead actor wreaking such havoc on his body for the sake of art?
“Maybe it was something to do with it being Spain, but I don’t remember if there was any insurance!” Bale laughs. “When I made the trip to the Spanish doctor beforehand to get the medical check up, I was already probably about 135lbs. He didn’t bat an eyelid. He just wanted to know how you stab somebody in a movie and make it look real. And the guy was chainsmoking throughout he examination, so he really didn’t care.”
All of which would only be ghoulish rubbernecking – look at the skinny freak on screen! – if Bale’s performance was anything less than remarkable. Think Robert De Niro piling on the pounds to play the ageing Jake La Motta in Raging Bull; don’t think Nicole Kidman sticking on a prosthetic conk to play big-nosed Virginia Woolf in The Hours. This wasn’t ‘stunt-acting’; more like a full, life-changing commitment on the part of the actor.
By metamorphosing almost his entire ‘self’, Bale put himself in the mindset of the disoriented Reznik. It’s a device he’s employed before, albeit with diametrically opposite results. To more effectively play American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, the murderous Yuppie who stalks the vain, moneyed landscape of Eighties Manhattan, he embarked on an intensive personal makeover programme. Hours at the gym, rigorously healthy diet, serious personal grooming, improved dentistry – Bale did the lot. In the 2000 film, Bale was entirely convincing as a sleek, gorgeous, pathologically deluded übermensch.
How did bulking up compare to slimming down?
“Going to the gym is so boring. Psychologically, I preferred the place I was at with The Machinist. But with both it really can’t help but help you. When you alter your body for a part, your mind follows to the same place.” He says the weight loss gave him “unexpected assistance” with playing the disorientated, increasingly unhinged Trevor. “I was only sleeping two hours a night,” he says matter-of-factly. He shrugs. “Didn’t matter. I was in a constant state of weariness but never completely exhausted.”
So were his acting skills improved by the changes he wrought up on his body?
“I’d like to say I was that consistent. I do feel The Machinist was a bit of a turning point. I seemed to feel – and I’m loathe to say it because I cock up all the time and I’m bound to make a fool of myself in other movies in the future – but while I was making The Machinist I felt I’d found something which was going to make me more consistently satisfied with what I’m doing.”
Bale was immediately and magnetically drawn to the script for The Machinist. In telling the tale of Reznik, the writer had avoided “any holes – the motivation and inspiration for Trevor’s hallucinatory state were there.” This, notes the 31-year-old, 19-year veteran of filmmaking, is rare. It’s not unusual to find weaknesses or plot inconsistencies in a script. “And often you’re disappointed. Directors turn round and say, don’t worry, no one will notice.” At such times, Bale couldn’t help but think how little effort it would take to make the story ‘airtight’.
He’s recently had some trouble in this department. Three of his last four films were ‘actioners’, and none did particularly well critically or commercially. Reign Of Fire was a post-apocalyptic confection involving the killing of dragons and shots of a sweaty Bale with his top off. Equilibrium was a po-faced sci-fi flick that required him to throw some (admittedly impressive) martial arts moves and look good in a long black coat. Shaft was an update of the original that was neither ‘super’ nor ‘fly’. He was also in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, but the less said about that the better.
Disdainful as he is of PR niceties, Bale manfully faces up to his films’ shortcomings, and admits that he’d wondered where it had all gone wrong. He had a great head of steam after his much-praised role in American Psycho.
But rather than net him the character-actor parts he craved, his satirical murder rampage – and newly buff body – resulted in directors tapping him for brawny, shouty roles. He’s the first to admit that he was also culpable here, not least because he didn’t speak up and point out the deficiencies in the scripts.
Deep in the bowels of the internet, subscribers to comics fansite Superherohype.com also have a lot to say about Bale’s previous roles. As well as neurosing over why 2003’s Hulk ‘sucked’ and the casting choices of the long-awaited new Superman film (Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor?), there are 188,149 messages posted about Batman Begins. On the message boards, someone calling themselves Screech_Turbo was alarmed to catch their new Batman playing Jesus in a TV film called Mary, Mother Of Jesus; although “I thought he did a good job”. This message prompted David in Maine to opine that “he really does use a different accent in every movie”. (In the flesh, he retains a well-modulated English accent, with the odd transatlanticism.) This in turn sets off a heated Bat-fans’ debate about which is Bale’s best movie: is it American Psycho or Little Women (the one with Winona Ryder)? Was he more convincing in Velvet Goldmine, as a journalist screwing Ewan McGregor’s glam rocker? Or as lovestruck Demetrius in the colourful, all-star 1999 adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
Bale’s mutability was tested again with Batman Begins. After finishing The Machinist and before beginning the gruelling seven-month Batman shoot, he spent almost six solid months reconstructing his body.
“I tried one press-up after I’d got the Batman part, couldn’t do it,” he recalls ruefully. “I was doing three hours at the gym a day. I was like, aw man, I’m back to American Psycho.”
This fifth Batman film is directed by Christopher Nolan, the young Brit responsible for edgy thrillers Memento and Insomnia. It looks back at how a young Bruce Wayne sees his parents murdered, takes himself off into exile, and returns to Gotham as a crime-fighting superhero with something of the night about him. It’s a fair bet that, in Nolan’s hands, this depiction of the bleak roots of The Dark Knight will offer a gripping, psychological twist on cinema’s hitherto more campy Caped Crusader. One suspects that this appeals to Bale.
“I felt there was a great character there that I hadn’t seen before,” confirms Bale. “And yeah, it’s dark – how does a guy get to be dressing like a bat and not getting laughed at?”
If he’s feeling the weight of expectation surrounding his taking on the mantle of one of the most totemic pop-cultural figures of the age, Bale isn’t showing it. I guess we – and his understanding wife – should just be grateful that he didn’t take to swooping around darkened city rooftops in preparation for the role.
But there’s no getting away from the fact that, finally, after 19 years, he has a lead part in a proper, big-budget, ‘event’ film. That’s some serious dues-paying. The quiet, focused Bale wouldn’t have had it any other way. And yes, he concedes after some prodding of his stoic, press-wary, exterior, he is aware that Being Batman is a Big Deal.
“It hit me briefly immediately after I was cast. I got the call, I was in the kitchen at home. And I had a Batman piñata – we’d just been down to Mexico and as we were driving back through the border I saw it, and an Osama Bin Laden piñata – wish to God I’d bought that one, but I bought the Batman one. If I hadn’t got the part we could beat the shit out of it! Anyway, I got the call and I got the part. It started off as a celebration – I got sent a bottle of champagne and we got drunk on it. Then suddenly all these phone calls started coming – the same day! How did people know? I suddenly went, oh no, this is different. This is not like other movie …”
Since then, though, says Bale with a blithe smile, he’s not been stressed by Batman at all. His personal armour must be tougher than a Batsuit.
The Machinist is out on March 18; Batman Begins is released in June.