HERE COMES TROUBLE
Christian Bale lays on the complexity intently, one borrowed obsession at a time.
Christian Bale‘s not an entourage guy. When a makeup artist raises the first cotton ball with its load of flesh tone to prep him for a later, taped interview, he begs off, capitalizing on a counter offer he’d gotten to grab a couple of pints in the bar. “A couple beers,” he says, downsizing the stylist as graciously as possible, “will bring out my natural Celtic flush.”
Although Hollywood is probably just as full of nice guys as the other, more legendary kind, there’s still something comforting about discovering that someone who’s been so relentlessly mutable on-screen is so casually mannerly and self-effacing off it. When a business-suited hotel employee brusquely sends Bale away from a sheltered back garden, he heads to the front one (the forward-thrust shoulders and long, bowed legs giving the impression of a gray wolf on the trot) and slouches onto a banquette with a seemingly unforced eagerness to talk.
He’s got plenty to talk about. With “The Prestige’s” strong opening weekend last month helping to confirm his bankability – certainly when he’s in tandem with director Chris Nolan, who, in shooting the dark-toned prequel film “Batman Begins,” played to Bale’s great strength of portraying an inwardness that’s curiously accessible – he’s a bona fide movie star and what one British paper called a “cyber pin-up,” a cult god in geekdom.
But perhaps more interestingly, he’s knocked off a row of indie projects that serve to remind us that he’s always made the adventurous choices – notably 2000’s “American Psycho,” in which he was a buff paragon of feral attractiveness, and 2004’s “The Machinist,” for which he shed 60-odd pounds and caused Jennifer Jason Leigh’s hooker character to say, “If you were any thinner, you wouldn’t exist.”
Bale is largely alone among his contemporaries when it comes to his acting template — though Daniel Day-Lewis, with his dedication bordering on mania and his eager clutching at darker roles, may give him a peer group of two. Even as a child, Bale’s almost intimidatingly sober mien (in contrast to Leonardo DiCaprio’s talented petulance, or Orlando Bloom’s transparency) seemed to mark him as an adult who just wasn’t ready to shave.
His tidier performances – a somewhat humdrum med student in “Laurel Canyon,” a sightly befuddled journalist among libertines in “Velvet Goldmine,” a career soldier who must face the loss of the woman he loves beyond reason in “The New World” – have a darkness too, with the characters becoming a kind of sounding board for the filmmakers’ portrayal of the world as a corrupt, emotionally dangerous place.
Most actors read a script imagining their close-ups. Bale seems to be trying to recede, and the paradox is that directors (and moviegoers) are eager to put him on-screen full-face and see what’s cooking in that subtle brain. Behind his eyes is the man underneath, immersing in real life with its threats, demons and discontents.
After he signed on with director Brad Anderson to make “The Machinist,” which took the idea of darkness to an almost absurd extreme, he surprised the company by appearing for the Barcelona, Spain, shoot with such an extreme weight loss.
Bale’s happy enough to have a laugh about tramping through actual sewers in the low-budget shoot in which Barcelona subbed for L.A., but he doesn’t cling to the many positive reviews, nor to the fixation the media had on his weight loss.
Indeed, offered the chance to skip the retelling of his air, gum and cigarettes diet for “The Machinist,” Bale says, “I do like leaving that aside because unfortunately it became the thing that everybody focused on and that was never the intention — because then it appears like some kind of gimmick…. If I could go back and do it again, I wouldn’t discuss that whole side of it with the weight loss.”
These days Bale finds himself finessing inquiries about the purportedly possessed Werner Herzog, who directed him in “Rescue Dawn” to such good effect that MGM – caught in an embarrassment of possibly award-worthy riches with David Ayer’s Bale-led entrant, “Harsh Times,” also coming out this fall – pushed the film to next year rather than trip both pictures up by having Bale compete with himself.
The feature version of a filmed remembrance (1997’s “Little Dieter Needs to Fly”) of the German director’s friend Dieter Dengler, who emigrated from Germany to America as a teenager to pursue his dreams of being a pilot and ended up shot down over Laos, the film traces the aviator’s motivations back to a moment where, as a child in a German village, he got a long look at an American pilot who shot past his second-story window at eye level during an aerial assault.
He acknowledges but laughs off the accounts of his moments of temper with Herzog: “Being with Werner is a roller coaster. He brings out emotion in people, even if he doesn’t try to. He can be a very, very quiet gentleman and he can be a frenzied, vein-popping fighter.”
Bale is the kind of actor the true auteurs seek out. Thus he’s just wrapped a small part for Todd Haynes (who directed him in “Velvet Goldmine”) in the Bob Dylan-inspired film “I’m Not There,” and he’s about to “go toe to toe,” as he happily relates, with Russell Crowe in James Mangold’s western remake (from Elmore Leonard’s original story), “3:10 to Yuma.”
Bale, of course, memorably portrayed an English lad besotted with fighters (notably the P-51 Mustang, which caused him to shout, “Cadillac of the sky”) when Steven Spielberg featured him at age 12 in 1987’s “Empire of the Sun.”
He laughs at portrayals of himself as a Welshman when he was actually a Royal Air Force brat who grew up alongside three older sisters in a series of some 15 towns, mostly in rural English townships, amid the worldly, chin-up types who populate air bases. (He dedicated his “Batman Begins” performance to his aviator dad, who succumbed to a brain tumor in 2003.)
Ever courteous, Bale finds a way to dismantle questions about the past: “I don’t like looking back too much. I kind of like looking forward and that’s it. I don’t have too many conversations … at least, I never start them, anyway.”
But he can’t help remembering the “Empire of the Sun” press tour where he gave vent to his nerves by jabbing an orange with a pen, ultimately growing so sick of the attention and frenzy that he ran from a Paris hotel suite onto the Champs Elysees.
That, along with issues of pretending for a living, is somewhat ancient history now: “I don’t regret it because I just naturally was inclined towards this interest of getting into other people’s heads, but perhaps … it’s better to begin once you feel like you know yourself a little bit better. Otherwise it could end up being very confusing about exactly who the hell you are when at that age you’re spending so much time pretending to be other people.”
Such quandaries are of course the very stuff of Nolan’s films, and Bale’s performance in “The Prestige” makes use of Bale’s craft to convey what Nolan feels is a key truth: “We are different people to the different people in our lives.”
Nolan wanted him back
Although he waited for Bale to approach him about the role of obsessive magician Alfred Borden (Hugh Jackman, who plays Borden’s great competitor, says he found Bale’s work “inspiring”), once they discussed it Nolan was avid to sign the actor on once more. (It was a given that Bale would also return in Nolan’s Batman sequel, “The Dark Knight,” due to start shooting in the spring for a release in 2008.)
“I think,” says Nolan, “that very often identity is reduced in films to simple, broad strokes. And so to get an actor to try and represent a more layered character, a more realistic psychology, you need an actor like Christian with acting layers. He can act on different levels at the same time.”
One person nobody wants Bale to confuse himself with is the tormented Jim of Ayer’s “Harsh Times.” Taking on the role of a covertly brainy but thuggish and sporadically psychotic Iraq war vet, Bale worked tirelessly – and for scale – on the 24-day, low-budget shoot.
From the time Bale signed on after discussing the role (“Slamming Bloody Marys at the Chateau Marmont,” recalls Ayer), he stayed onboard as the film struggled to raise its $1.4 million budget. “He never wavered,” says Ayer. “Maybe he identified with the disconnectedness of the character – Jim is somebody who doesn’t really have his own identity but sort of becomes who he needs to be for any given situation, which is kind of the lot of an actor. Christian is almost shy about what he does, very intellectual, methodical, plodding and obviously very, very immersive. Once he’s dialed in on the character, he doesn’t really break character.”
As chance would dictate, he’s being asked about how that affects his family life when his pretty, engaging but seemingly somewhat shy wife, Sibi, wanders in to accompany him to his last appointment of the day. They have a 19-month-old daughter back home in Santa Monica.
One can’t resist asking how she felt about her husband following the nearly catastrophic weight loss for “The Machinist” with the snake-eating, rapids-running, maggot-ingesting adventure of “Rescue Dawn.” She shrugs, grinning with perhaps a small exertion: “That’s what he does.” Bale smiles down at his hands for a moment before he concludes: “I enjoy obsession. It makes you feel alive when you’ve got something that you’re generally obsessed with and something to really fixate on. But I believe I’ve been able to maintain a kind of sense of humor with it, you know? An enjoyable playing with it, so that it hasn’t really – I hope – affected any of my family in a negative way whatsoever.”
One can’t really see, in the dark garden bar, if he’s got that Celtic flush going. But there’s obvious zeal in Bale’s eyes as, recalling the decision to jeopardize his health for “The Machinist,” he adds, “It was the right time for wishing to make a commitment like that — in a way it was kind of a matter of rekindling belief in what I did. My interest for acting tends not to be purely just for the sake of movies. It tends to be about human nature and I can also test my own nature within that. With the magicians in ‘The Prestige,’ you really see that this is actually a devotion — to personally commit to magic. That’s an emotion which I admire greatly. I always like people who have obsessions.”