Time Out Chicago (May 19th – 26th, 2005)

BAT OUT OF HELL

Christian Bale delivers the Darkest Knight yet. Jesus, psycho killer, Hamlet, dragon slayer – Christian Bale has played all these roles.

Now the 31-year-old Briton, who’s forged an unusual career path from child star (Empire of the Sun) to tween idol (Swing Kids) to critics’ darling (Velvet Goldmine), will wear the mask of Batman, in a performance that may be the culmination of all those archetypal figures combined.

But will Batman Begins be a curse as well as a blessing for Bale? The gig was meant to make superstars of three actors before him, yet nearly wrecked their careers instead. But unlike Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney, Bale is portraying the comic-book crusader as a kind of villain (or as close to a rogue as the rules of summer movies will allow). He’s brooding and bent on revenge in Batman Begins: the Prince of Denmark in a bat suit.

But Bale, who filmed on the streets ofChicagolast summer, is that rare talent who just might pull it off. Consider his masterfully funny, seductive and ruthless performance in American Psycho. He’s also willing to go to extremes – the same year he played the Wall Street serial killer, he played the son of God in a reverent TV movie and more recently lost63 poundsto play a tortured soul in The Machinist. Now, Bale’s bulked up and ready to get batty. – Justine Elias

What made you decide to take on something like Batman? It seems like an odd choice for you.

A friend of mine gave me some of the graphic novels to read some years back. I didn’t really follow the comics when I was younger, and I read them kind of begrudgingly at first. But after I’d finished them I thought, “Wow!” There is such incredible potential within this character. In the later books, he’s a real badass; he’s as threatening as any of the villains and that got me curious. I thought, “Well, if there is going to be a movie made in this vein, then I want to have a shot at playing him.”

Batman’s been reduced to a simplified character over the years, but the psychological damage he’s gone through makes him a rather complex hero.

Right. Time has not healed any of his wounds. He’s as alert to his pain as he ever was.

But you couldn’t have known that when Warner Bros. decided to revive the franchise that it’d be willing to explore the darker side of Batman. Many people just figured it’d go back to somebody in a costume riding a motorcycle down a neon-lit highway.

[Laughs] I really hope that’s not what people think of this. When I first heard they were, in fact, going to do another Batman film, Darren Aronofsky [Pi, Requiem for a Dream] was attached to it. I was really interested in seeing what his take would be. Then when Darren dropped out, I gave up hope that I’d ever play the role. But when I heard that Chris Nolan had signed on, I realized that it wasn’t going to be just another comic-book film. We discussed what he wanted to do with the notion of how this young man turns into this vengeance- driven man, and I thought, “Yes! He gets it!” I was ready to sign on then and there.

How did people react when you walked onto the set in the suit?

This sounds odd to say, but there was a weird sense of reverence. I would slink and skulk around the set when I had it on, trying out moves, and there was the nice sense that the crew found it more threatening than they might have anticipated. I always thought that the costume should look intimidating, that Batman should look like a panther going in for the kill. The effect should be like watching a coiled spring that’s ready to go off. So when folks sort of backed off from me when I had it on, I felt like, yes, the suit is working.

Do you think people who haven’t read the graphic novels are ready for a malevolent version of the Caped Crusader?

CB: We’ll see. I think there’s room to push the character even further into being a schizophrenic freak. I mean, the fact that he hasn’t embraced his violent side entirely is what makes him so interesting; there’s a great sense of conflict between him doing it for justice and doing it for revenge. I’d really love to see us doing a Batman film in which there was a PG-rated cut and an R-rated cut. You know, do the same film, but have one version for everybody and one version in which you really push the envelope of what this guy does.

TOC: Taking on a role like this must be a double-edged sword. It will raise your profile, but then there’s a certain amount of baggage that might inhibit you from doing smaller roles, like the rock producer’s son in Laurel Canyon or the glam-rock–obsessed journalist in Velvet Goldmine, right?

That’s certainly occurred to me, yes. But I certainly wasn’t going to [let] the opportunity to play a character I’d wanted to play for two or three years pass me by because I was worried about not getting another job. I didn’t want to make a choice like that out of a sense of fear. If it does well, which I really hope that it does, and I am associated with the character, hey, so be it. It’s another challenge for me to overcome.

Batman Begins opens June 15.

By David Fear.