Total Film (January 2005)

FROM SKELETON TO SUPERHERO

Painfully thin in The Machinist. Impossibly beefy for Batman Begins. And all in under a year. In an exclusive interview, he mighty, mutable Christian Bale reveals how he transformed from skeleton to superhero…

“I was concerned,” begins Christian Bale “of my decision to step into the skin-tight Batsuit last worn by George Clooney in the disastrous Batman & Robin. Originally, there was going to be a lower-budget Batman and they were going to do it from a point of view of making it darker, like the graphic novels, like Frank Miller’s Year One and The long Halloween, and I thought, That’s what I want to be involved in. When it became big budget again, but with director Chris Nolan on board, I thought, ‘If Chris is doing it, then they’re not looking for more of the same.’ But I’m still kind of tantalised by the idea of one day doing that lower-budget one.” For an actor more comfortable in indie projects than big-budget Studio franchises, taking on the role of the Caped Crusader in Christopher Nolan’s gritty take on Bob Kane’s comic-book hero represented something of an “experiment”. Especially as he admits to not even liking mainstream movies.

“For me, making Reign Of Fire was a real weird, bizarre experience,” he insists. But having already played one American Psycho on film, it’s perhaps only fitting that Bale should be starring as arguably the most celebrated psycho of them all. “With this one, it’s going back to the early days,” he says, “trying to explain how somebody comes to this point.” That point being, how a grown man, having witnessed the death of his parents, comes to spend his nights fighting crime, dressed as a bat. “It had to be tight,” Bale recalls of his time constricted in the Batsuit. “It gave me these pounding headaches. But they helped with getting into the rage…”

Trust Bale to emphasise the positive in the pain. Unlike some actors who prefer to retain their good looks from film to film – “Who the hell wants that? What kind of asshole gets into acting because they want to be some recognisable, good-looking guy?” – the 30-year-old, British-born Bale, who made his screen debut in Spielberg’s Empire Of The Sun, isn’t averse to transforming himself for a part. Be it in Mary Harron’s American Psycho, for which he pumped up to play Bret Easton Ellis’ yuppie-cum-serial-killer Patrick Bateman, or as a journalist searching for a ’70s glam rocker in Velvet Goldmine, Bale is one of those rare actors who can lose themselves in a role. (Throughout our interview, he speaks with the American accent he adopted for Batman and which he’s retained for his role in Terence Malick epic The New World.) Brad Anderson, who directed him in The Machinist, for which he dropped 63lbs from his six-foot frame, talks of Bale literally becoming the character.

“It’s not an essential part of my choice of characters,” muses Bale of his gift for transformation, “but it is nice when you can read something and think, I don’t know if I can pull that one off, this one’s a little bit too far away from me or this one doesn’t even physically seem to fit. I like that challenge. There’s a joy of putting yourself in other people’s shoes and empathising. It’s just about the levels you want to take that to. I’m not always going to look to physically transform myself. I would be quite happy never to again. But if something grabs my attention that requires some alteration, then I’m happy to do it.”

Such dedication to his craft is no more evident than in Bale’s sensational performance in Anderson’s superbly creepy psychological thriller. In Scott Kosar’s original script, Bale’s character, Trevor Reznik, is described as a “walking skeleton” having not slept for a year. In the film, he looks like a concentration-camp survivor, ribcage and shoulder blades poking out from beneath sallow skin and concave stomach. If you remember that the camera puts on 10 pounds, imagine what he must have looked like in the flesh. But Bale’s dramatic weight loss wasn’t a stunt: his transformation reflects the physical consequences of a man who’s literally wasting away, consumed by guilt. “Thank you for saying that, because I have started to get concerned with the amount of attention the weight loss is getting. There was a reason why I felt it was worthwhile losing that weight. I read the script and couldn’t get the character out of my head. I tend to get a bit obsessed when I have such a strong reaction to something.”

Anderson says he never discussed with Bale the idea of the actor losing so much weight; he assumed, somewhat naively, that it would be done using make-up and baggy clothing. But Bale doesn’t buy it. “It wouldn’t have cut it if Trevor had been a bit underweight,” he explains. “Trevor had to look like his life had come crashing down on him and he was on the brink of death.” Bale kept with him a photo of Hank Williams taken three months before he died, aged 29 but looking 60. “That was what I kind of based Trevor on and imagined if I could manage that, that would be perfect. When I started dieting, I didn’t know if that was possible or not, but I knew I had to do something.”

Bale was told that the safe weight he could drop to was 145lbs. “They said you’d look very skinny but you’d be okay and they were right, because when I was that size I felt like a marathon runner. I was running the whole time, very slowly, but I had the energy to run. But I wanted to keep going cos I felt fine and dropped another 24lbs below what they said I should. I said it doesn’t matter what – I weigh, it matters what I look like. Then I found I was getting down to 130 and Scott had written the script as being 121, so I decided to go all the way.”

When Bale turned up in Barcelona to film, Anderson admits to being appalled with what his star had done to himself. Was there ever a concern he might be doing lasting damage? “I felt kind of invincible but probably stupidly so,” says Bale. “Other people were concerned about it but I didn’t feel that bad. I didn’t feel the way that I look in the movie.” In fact, he was more concerned that his wife didn’t end up losing weight as well. “I would find her in the bathroom trying to stuff some food in quickly because she didn’t want to eat in front of me.”

Anderson recalls that when they went out for dinner, Bale would sip whisky rather than eat. “I never got drunk while I was skinny which I found really bizarre. I’d only have a little shot but was completely unaffected by it; I didn’t get affected by drinking until I started eating again.”

The positive effects of Bale’s fasting were that his energy levels dropped, he became lethargic and he had trouble sleeping – all of which fed into the role. “It was a real fortuitous consequence; otherwise I would have to be acting it the whole time,” he laughs. “I really enjoyed the state I was in, mentally, playing Trevor. You’re not distracted by any nervous energy you have going on in your body. I was very, very still, mentally and physically. And because I was kind of sitting around, almost like some ghost, I wasn’t doing anything to make me tired either. I would end up reading or drawing, doing things that consumed time and my mind.”

The downside to having dropped so much weight was that Bale was forced to bulk up to play Batman – and quickly. “That looked like it might be a problem, because I was speaking with Chris whilst I was making The Machinist and he was asking me, ‘What do you look like?’ And I said, ‘Like shit.’ And he said, ‘We’ve got to do screentests; are you going to be ready for it?’ Which I wasn’t. Nobody was going to cast me as Batman looking like Trevor. I ended up putting on 100lbs, because it was about a week before I did the screentests and I couldn’t even do one push-up – the muscle was gone, I’d just destroyed it. I was feeble beyond belief and I knew there was going to be a great deal of action involved and I would like to be able to do as much as I can myself. I got up to about 220, but I was a bit Fatman at that time. I had to end up losing a lot of weight before we started filming.”

Given Bale’s intensity in approaching his roles, how did he get into Batman’s psyche? “There is the possibility of coming at it from the point of view of complete madness, which we haven’t done, but I never stopped feeling like there was an element of that there,” he says. “You think of the rabid passion that somebody must have, that an incident that happens to them at eight years old will absolutely dictate the rest of their lives. What I enjoyed thinking about was, what if you really ran into somebody in the middle of the night dressed as a bat? You’d f***ing laugh at them. You wouldn’t think this is somebody scary; you’d think this is somebody off their trolley. I thought, what point does somebody get to, to make them intimidating in that get-up? Usually with Batman, it’s the villains that are interesting. With this one, we’re making him the most interesting character.” While Batman Begins is an original story, focusing on Bruce Wayne’s journey to the dark side, Bale maintains there’s a lot of the Dark Knight in the film too. (The actor had several Batman graphic novels with him throughout the seven-month shoot so he never got blase about playing the Bat.) “I wanted to remember the first time I put on the suit. I didn’t feel like a man, I felt like a creature, I felt like a beast. I wanted that to always determine the way I played the character, because I felt like an idiot when I stood there just like a man in a Batsuit. So I kept those things with me and kept that idea that I didn’t want to play it like a man once he’s in there. I had to become something different. He kind of morphs into this other personality which he creates in order to live any semblance of a reasonable life, to be able to live. He creates this other persona where he channels his rage. That’s the real him; that’s the interesting thing. Batman’s the real him – Bruce Wayne’s the fake.”

Of the initial images released from Barman Begins, the most eye-snaring were of the new-look Batmobile – more armoured car than the sleek automobile of the last four films. Apparently, it was a blast to drive. “It’s like having Ozzy Osbourne screaming in your ear,” Bale says. “It’s a hell of a car. It’s all stripped down on the inside, so you can see exactly what is being done to what. It made me love cars. I’ve always loved motorbikes, but cars never really did it for me. You drive the Batmobile and I defy anybody not to become a huge fan.”

Bale is contracted to a Batman sequel, though he remains uncertain of whether he’ll play the role again.”We’ll have to wait and see,” he says, modestly. “I’ve never had a hit movie in my life, so who the hell knows if this is going to be one or not? And who the hell knows if I’ll get asked back to do it again? Still, at least I’ve played it the way I’ve wished to.” Then again, as he points out philosophically, if Batman helps make movies like American Psycho or The Machinist easier to get off the ground in future, he’ll be happy.

Not that Bale needs to worry about his career. Currently working for director Terrence Malick (“a unique individual”), he has a project with Werner Herzog in the pipeline for next year as well as that 24 June release date for Batman Begins. For now, though, The Machinist remains close to his heart. “It ain’t ever going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s certainly mine and certainly one of the movies I’m proudest of. Probably the most.”

The Machinist and Batman Begins will be released in 2005 and reviewed in future issues of Total Film.

By Mark Salisbury.