BATMAN’S INNER COWBOY
Playing an Old West gunslinger, Christian Bale is as ferociously intense as ever. We discover a very private hero.
Christian Bale tells it like it is. “To be honest, I’m dreading this interview,” says the 33-year-old former child star-turned-Holly-wood heavyweight on the eve of his cowboy debut. He’s appearing opposite Russell Crowe in the western shoot 3:10 to Yuma. “I feel that you’re going to expect me to have a great knowledge of westerns,” he says, groaning slightly. “And I don’t. Because I’m not a movie buff.” In fact, the Welsh-born actor and current face of the Batman franchise elaborates, unprompted, that he doesn’t even like movies per se. “It’s been an awfully long time since I’ve gone to a movie,” he says. “I have nothing against them. I would just say that I’ve never been an avid fan, and would never consider them essential to my life.”
If this seems odd and unguarded for a man who makes a living out of headlining hundred-million-dollar movies, it’s also perhaps a sign that Bale has nothing left to hide. For two decades now he’s been part of an industry that is assured of his acting prowess yet skeptical about his populist appeal. (He adds, later, that of course he “loves” acting in movies, it’s just the movies themselves that he avoids.)
In 3:10 to Yuma, for instance, fresh from the commercial successes of Batman Begins and the period thriller The Prestige, Bale once again holds the screen with gleeful ease as the sharpshooting farmer assigned to escort Crowe’s outlaw to the eponymous prison train. Here, using an arsenal of soulful frowns and browbeaten stares, he is the dark and brooding Yin to Crowe’s flashy and charismatic Yang. Watching the two of them on screen together, trading lines like blows, has an undeniable combative charge.
“I’m definitely not trying to compete with him, or to beat him,” explains Bale, who has hinted that Crowe might join him in the third instalment of his rebooted Batman movies (Bale is currently filming the second instalment, The Dark Knight, in Chicago, London and LA). “But acting with him certainly makes things simple. You don’t have any unnecessary distractions. You just do it, and it feels very easy.”
Bale’s Yuma turn is also notable for the lack of Method intensity that has often defined his earlier performances, and indeed occasionally threatened to overwhelm them. He famously shed a painful 63lbs (28kg) to play the skeletal insomniac Trevor Reznik in the psycho-thriller The Machinist, and again dropped a mere 30lbs to play an American prisoner of war in the Vietnam drama Rescue Dawn (filmed in 2005, but as yet unreleased here). He says that now, however, he’s done with weight loss.
“I just don’t think it’s worth it any more,” he reveals. “For those roles I wanted to see if I could have that discipline and will power. And now I’ve answered that question for myself and there isn’t that novelty any more.” He adds, nonetheless, by way of philosophical insight, that he was never more calm, clear-headed and impeccably concentrated than when he was at his lowest, most dangerous rag’n’bone weight. Was he, in other words, like a Buddhist ascetic sitting by the Bodhi tree, starved of food but rich in spiritual enlight-enment? “Well yes,” he says, half giggling, “But painting it like that makes me want to reach for an Uzi.”
There are some subjects, though, that Bale continues to keep off limits. One is his LA life and seven-year marriage to Sibi Blazic, a producer and former personal assistant to Winona Ryder (Bale’s co-star in Little Women). Another is his relationship with their two-year-old daughter Emmaline. He thus regularly uses the caveat: “As you know, I like my privacy.” And later he makes it more explicit with: “I’m not a politician, I’m an actor. The whole point is that people aren’t meant to know me.”
And yet, and yet. The newly charged superstar light shines bright, and there’s the hint of a thawing in there somewhere. His childhood, for instance, is openly discussed.
“Moving around a great deal as a kid and finding myself with lots of groups of different people made me enjoy, I think, putting myself in other people’s shoes,” he says, when asked about his infamously peripatetic childhood with a circus dancer mother and a pilot father. His life began in Wales, in Haverfordwest, but continued through Surrey, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Dorset and even Portugal, and along the way, he says, each new environment and each new group of people provoked the emerging performer in him until he realised, at the age of 9, that “if I go into acting I can do what I’m doing now, but in an ordered way, because it will all be scripted, and I can admit that I’m doing it”.
He soon secured an agent, made some TV commercials and then, at 12, beat 4,000 other hopefuls in an open audition for the starring role of the preteen prisoner protagonist in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. It was a strange time for Bale who, unused to the Alist publicity hoopla, stormed out of a French press junket to spend an afternoon alone in Paris, soaking up, for the last time perhaps, the bliss of anonymity.
The film was an expensive flop but Bale’s performance, typically, was critically lauded. The role thus launched a movie career that would often be similarly defined by a lethal combination of critical praise and commercial ambiguity. He did sterling work in Metroland, Velvet Goldmine and All the Little Animals, but no one seemed to care. Even recent cherished projects such as The Machinist and Harsh Times were adored and ignored in equal measure. “Of course I would love it if the whole world had risen in acclaim of those movies and said of my performances: ‘My God, you’ve changed acting as we know it!’,” he says, before adding coolly, “But I ain’t gonna lose sleep over it.”
After Batman, he admits, everything changed. Blockbuster success saved him, and he is in a place now, he says, where his name finally carries some industrial weight, and he can spring with ease from arthouse musicals such as the forthcoming Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There to ambitious westerns such as this one. “In the past I probably would never even have been cast in 3:10 to Yuma,” he says. “I would have met with Jim [the director James Mangold], possibly. He might have said that he wanted me for the movie. But then it would have become impossible to finance.”
The new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, returns the legend to familiar territory when our hero’s obsessive plans to fully eradicate crime from Gotham City are prematurely scuppered by the arrival on scene of that girning criminal mastermind the Joker, here played by Heath Ledger. Bale, who announces pointedly that he was “never a Batman fan,” says that he does his best to ignore the attendant pressures of being the brand leader of a billion dollar franchise. Instead, he says, even when he arrives on set in his potentially ridiculous trade-mark rubber batsuit, it’s all about keeping the reality and the ferocious intensity of his performance on track (his is undoubtedly the most feral Batman yet). “There may be all these people around you who are connected to making the movie. But for me, on set, I’m just trying to do whatever the hell I want, to get away with it on the day, and then recognise later that it’s going to be a much, much wider audience that’s seeing it.”
On reflection, he says that his hard-fought Hollywood experience has left him with no illusions about the artistic pretensions of his craft. “They call our side of the business the ‘creative’ side,” he says. “But we can’t do it without those businessmen on the other side. And to them it doesn’t usually matter a damn about who’s best for a movie, it’s about who’s best for the bottom line.”
And though he embraces the interview process now as a promotional tool, he still looks back fondly to his rebellious Parisian walkout. “It was such a wonderful day of just, well, disappearing,” he says, softly. “Just knowing about the panic that I had caused back at the hotel was fantastic.” Is he ever tempted to walk out again, even on dreaded interviews like this?
“Absolutely,” he says, with the confident chuckle of someone who’s clearly joking. But only just.
By Kevin Maher.