THE ACTOR WHOLE-HEARTEDLY FALLS UNDER FICTION’S SPELL
In the opening sequence of the remake of the 1957 Western “3:10 to Yuma,” which opens Friday, Christian Bale limps toward a burning barn with the desperation of a man who has nothing left to lose. While the flames dance behind his shaggy head and sun-scarred face, it’s difficult to find any part of the real-life Bale, even around the edges of Dan Evans, the character he plays. The 33-year-old, Welsh-born actor has so slipped inside Evans’ skin that it’s difficult to believe he is anyone but a Civil War vet who is trying to scratch out a living as an Arizona rancher, struggling with bankruptcy, starvation and the loss of his family’s respect.
For Bale, the roots of finding his way inside a role are deep. When he was a child there was a game he liked to play.
1. Choose a word.
2. In every situation where you have a choice to make, let the word inform your decision.
Is he playing that game now, long after the cameras have stopped rolling, as he strolls down red brick walkways swept by maids in white uniforms, past swans and streams and sago palms, into the wood-paneled bar of L.A.’s Hotel Bel-Air?
“It just became fascinating to me to see how very different you could be but absolutely believe what you were saying,” he says. “How easy it is not only to fool other people but actually to fool yourself as well. It almost sounds like an obsessive thing, but because I have been doing it pretty much my entire life, I wouldn’t know how not to do it any longer, really.”
“Obsessive” is certainly a word that describes Bale – who capped his teeth to play a yuppie serial killer in “American Psycho” (and kept an impression of his original choppers as a memento), lost more than 60 pounds to portray a guilt-ridden insomniac in “The Machinist,” maintained an American accent during interviews for “Batman Begins” and ate maggots and endured a snake bite for Werner Herzog’s recent “Rescue Dawn.” And even though the long-limbed actor is sipping a glass of water while seated on a blue velvet sofa, it’s easy to imagine him out-machoing Russell Crowe in “3:10 to Yuma.”
“It sounds like a very strange thing to say, but the older weapons really feel beautifully crafted and they have a wonderful smell to them, and you do actually feel quite personally attached to a gun, which I’ve never experienced before,” says Bale, who has famously wielded weapons ranging from chain saws to his own teeth in various roles.
He also experienced a bond with his horse. “It’s a relationship between the two of you,” he says. “And with me, being the less skilled of the two of us, it’s more the horse has been teaching me the way to treat it properly. And, essentially, when you’re dealing with a 1,500-pound animal, you really are just asking it to do something, and if it has grown to respect and trust you, then it does it amazingly. I intentionally arrived in New Mexico first and just asked [the wranglers], ‘Which is the best horse? Which will give me the easiest time?’ And they pointed, and I went, ‘That’s mine there.’ Russell already had another horse, which was being brought in, I guess a special delivery horse.”
Riding horseback provided a much more straightforward mode of transportation than the alternative. “Christian plays a guy who’s lost part of his foot in the Civil War,” says director James Mangold. “He has a special boot, a 19th century prosthetic device that he wears. And so one thing that Christian and I put a lot of attention into in the beginning was just figuring out his limp and how he was going to move around and how this thing was going to work.”
Despite all this fancy footwork, Bale’s transformation went much deeper than embodying Evans’ physicality, which becomes largely irrelevant when he finds himself locked in a hotel room with Crowe’s Ben Wade during the film’s claustrophobic third act.
“It was very intense acting those scenes just because everyone, for the first time, wasn’t on a horse and the landscape wasn’t huge, and we were all pressed up against each other,” says Mangold. “I had imagined Christian already having some kind of defined screen persona – this very clinical, very sharp persona. And in this film, he so surprised me in the sense that he is warm. I mean, he’s got phenomenal range. He could be a rogue, he could be a hero, he could be broken, he could be strong. I literally have seen him hit every color.”
For better or for worse, the shades of these characters invade him, so much so that actors and directors who have worked with him routinely rank him among the finest actors of his generation.
“When he works, you really believe that he has a lot of the traits of the character that he’s playing, so even when he was joking around, you could see all this underlying pain,” says Jennifer Jason Leigh, who co-starred with him in 2004’s “The Machinist.” “He looked like he was right out of Dachau, so it was very upsetting.” It’s not surprising that he has called playing the tortured blue-collar factory worker in the film, and the63 poundshe lost as part of his process of becoming the character, a penance for the bad movies he made in the past.
Writer-director David Ayer has similar memories of Bale’s portrayal in “Harsh Times” of an Army vet with post-traumatic stress disorder. “He was basically in character the whole shoot,” he says. “I know he took it home with him, and it didn’t make the wife too happy. The final shot, we wrap and, all of a sudden, it’s Christian Bale again. I realized the guy I thought I was hanging out with for the past month-plus didn’t exist. It was really weird, shocking, amazing, frightening. Sometimes you get that feeling of like, ‘Hmm. Who’s here? Who is this?’ But I think that’s his gift.”
Reality’s touchstone on this sunny winter afternoon at the Hotel Bel-Air, Bale is on a break from filming “3:10 to Yuma.” Yet he speaks with his native accent and bears no trace of the Old West beyond his scruffy beard and long hair.
“There’s something more important, which is my daughter,” he says of the 2-year-old girl he has with wife Sibi Blazic, a former personal assistant to Winona Ryder. “I’m at home now and whilst I might enjoy confusing other people, I’ll never enjoy confusing her. So I have learned to stop doing that when I’m not working.”
Bale’s family spent most of the shoot on-set with him, and Mangold’s son, Crowe’s two children and Bale’s daughter even formed a small play group. Parenthood has mellowed Bale and that’s undoubtedly a good thing since chances are he’ll be spending much of the next few years playing a man who moonlights as a bat.
“Christian was the first actor I met with for ‘Batman Begins,’ “says writer-director Christopher Nolan. “We did very elaborate tests, because I really wanted to sell him to the studio. We did a couple of scenes as Bruce Wayne and a couple as Batman in one of the old suits. He immediately changed his voice, his whole bearing, his whole attitude when he put the suit on.”
When it comes to the real Christian Bale, he prefers people not have the straight story. He cheerfully admits to lying to the media, peppering his anecdotes with embellishments and inventions to keep himself entertained during repetitive junkets. When asked if there has ever been a good profile written about him, he responds, “If you’re meaning a truthful one, I would never let you know, because I have no desire for people to get their facts right about me.” Will he share a couple of his favorite fabrications about himself? “That would also be revealing what were the truthful ones.”
But seriously, was his grandfather really a magician, as was often reported during publicity rounds for “The Prestige?” “I truly believe that he was a magician,” Bale says, flashing his flawless teeth. “I’ll leave you to consider whether it’s a little too perfect to be true or not.”
One reminiscence, however, has the ring of truth: “My father admired troublemakers,” Bale says. “He always said to me, ‘The greatest sin is being boring.’ “
And if that’s the case, just call Christian Bale a saint and leave it at that.
By Cristy Lytal.