The star of this summer’s biggest film slips out of the Batsuit to talk to ShortList’s Stephen Applebaum about his take on the world’s darkest superhero, Heath Ledger’s legacy and what makes him angry.
The world knows surprisingly little about Christian Bale, but here’s what we found out through the wonder of research. He is Welsh. He was in Empire Of The Sun as a child actor. He doesn’t eat red meat. His mother was in a circus. He rides horses. It is apparent, though, that Bale, 34, has built his career on keeping a tight lid on his personal life, nstead preferring to allow his performances to speak for themselves. As such, he’s gained a reputation as one of
Hollywood’s most dedicated and credible, yet incredibly private, actors. He famously puts himself through arduous physical transformations for his roles and insists on staying in character – accents and all – throughout the entirety of filming and any promotional work afterwards. So, as we prepared to interview the enigmatic Mr Bale, we found ourselves somewhat intrigued as to what the man beneath the suit would really be like…
Have you always been a Batman fan?
Yes, but only of the graphic novels that I’d read, and I read those shortly before making Batman Begins. The TV series is a total spoof of what Bob Kane created, but I do like it.
Do you have a favourite Caped Crusader?
Adam West [from the TV series], because his is so far away from where we’re coming from.
We read online that you auditioned for the role of Robin in Batman Forever, which went to Chris O’Donnell. Is that true?
Look, I love the crap that is on the internet and on TV – everywhere – it’s not just on the Net. Most of the time I never bother trying to put anything right because I’m an actor, and the whole point is it doesn’t matter what’s the truth. But I do have to take a stand on that because I would never have bloody auditioned to play Robin.
We were wondering if you had a lucky escape…
It wasn’t a lucky escape because I would never have got myself in that position in the first place [laughs].
The Dark Knight as a film seems very intense, but were there any funny moments on set?
There always are on the more dark material, because you need all the extremes of a character, you’ve always got to laugh. So, the very first scene I had with Heath – where we’re bloody freaks and both taking it absolutely seriously – we were in a room with two-way mirrors and there were several people watching from behind the glass. We couldn’t see them, all we could see were our reflections and it became hysterical because it was kind of insane, you know? It’s kind of the laughter of madness, which is entirely appropriate for both of our characters. I had such good fun working with Heath.
You and Heath both give yourselves over entirely to your characters – did you recognise this aspect in each other?
I recognised the kindred spirit in watching. I was really entertained and I enjoyed watching him because he was pushing it, and because, yes, I enjoy doing that and I enjoy seeing someone doing that. I find it satisfying.
After Heath’s death some people were wondering whether The Dark Knight would be released. Do you see it as a legacy of his talent?
Absolutely. I have no concept of how it could be viewed as anything else. I mean, this is something that he worked bloody hard on. I have no idea how anybody could say that it should not be seen. We should celebrate him, not lock it away. I think it would be offensive not to show it.
Are you concerned that his death could colour people’s view of the film or their reasons for seeing it?
That I can’t control. All I know is he worked bloody hard and he did a f*cking phenomenal job. This is not some private journal. This is not an invasion; this is what he did for a living. He made it in the knowledge that people would go and see it.
Was it important for you to know that you would be able to put your own stamp on Batman before signing on for the films?
Completely, as I was signing on blind for thefirst film. I had to go solely on what I had shown Chris [Nolan, director] because I couldn’t see a screenplay. They were so secretive that they wouldn’t even show the actors [laughs]. So we had to really talk it out and get to grips with all the details at the beginning. I went along and did a screen test, and I actually can’t stand auditions. It’s terrible. I have told people many times that I can’t do it because I get angry. But I have to try and control that because it’s in my head. And with this, the audition was an opportunity to show people that the character could be so much more, rather than just trying to describe it. So we took the description as far as we could first, and then, when I went along to the screen test, I just said, “I’m not going to do it any other way.” Chris and I had covered everything in our conversations, now I was just showing them what they would get. So I knew it was all or nothing.
What was the stamp that you put on the character so that you could say, “This is my Batman”?
I had never seen Batman as demonic. But thisis the creation of a very unhealthy mind. This is the character that takes on the rage as a dark force and allows Bruce Wayne to live an ordinary life, and to do that he has to channel his rage, anger and the dark side of who he is into Batman. For me, he used to always just be a guy in a suit, that’s all I’ve ever seen before. But I wanted it so that when he puts on the suit, he becomes this creature.
Talking of the suit, was it more comfortable this time around or did the fact that it was uncomfortable help with the rage?
The vice-like cowl that I had in the first one and the headaches that I had from it – they helped with the anger [laughs]. But believe me, I don’t need any help with that. This suit was a lot more comfortable, although it was actually heavier.
You’ve lived in the US since you were 18. Do people often forget that you’re British?
I’ve always been so bloody vague with people. When I’m working on something and doing an accent, people think, “Oh, he’s from there.”People think I’m Welsh. People think I’m English. People think I’m American. I like it that people are confused.
Do you miss anything from the UK, and is there anything that you stock up on when you come back here?
You mean like PG Tips [laughs]? I travel very lightly, but I truly don’t ever feel like I’ve left. I’m working in Wisconsin at the moment and travelling around is all I do. I’m all over the place so I don’t really feel like… actually, I don’t even know what I feel like. I don’t feel like an expat. I feel like what I do in my life is travel.
Would you ever consider retiring back here?
I can’t imagine retiring. I don’t even know what that means.
When you did The Machinist, which was quicker: losing weight or gaining it again afterwards?
Oh, without a doubt, putting it back on again.
Have there been any long-term effects? You’ve said your cholesterol level rose to that of an 80-year-old man when you gained weight quickly…
Oh well, you know what? I should shut up. It begins to sound boring in the end [laughs].
When you did American Psycho, were you worried about the controversy surrounding it or was that part of the appeal for you?
It was part of the appeal because I didn’t see any controversy, I saw it for what it was. And I don’t understand how anybody could see it as controversial. But I do think there is a kind of hunger and passion added to a part when it is so-called risky, because I always want to try to understand what on earth it is that other people find so offensive or risky. Realising that a project is something that can ignite other people to think does kind of spur me on.
When you immerse yourself as deeply as you did in films like American Psycho and The Machinist, does the character seep into other areas of your life?
Yeah, it becomes your life when you’re working on it. You try to separate afterwards.
A lot of these roles are very intense and dark. Would you like to do a comedy?
Well, I actually consider American Psycho to be a comedy.
Do you have any aspirations to direct?
It’s something I would like to think I could do. But in reality, I love only being responsible for myself. And I don’t know if I would have the patience that I’d need with other people’s suggestions. [As an actor] I only ever have to have conversations with one other person on the set. That’s it.
And finally, you have this big cult following known as Baleheads. Is that cult reputation important to you?
We will rise up and take over the world!
The Dark Knight opens at cinemas nationwide on 25 July.
By Stephen Applebaum.