Nox (July 2009)

CHARACTER DRIVEN

Christian Bale has made a career portraying intense, vulnerable and aloof characters. It’s clearly no great departure for the Englishman.

That whole intensity thing. Demanding Uncompromising. Plain difficult. The reputation clings to Christian Bale like a Kevlar suit with pectoral padding and a sculptured six-pack. And it’s no compliment; a cross word on set or a frustrated outburst in front of the millionth paparazzi of the morning is, in Hollywood at least, not simply a symptom of deeply human emotion, but a headline-grabbing manifestation of mental imbalance – requiring public apologies and possibly a few more sessions of therapy. Should you unleash a couple of Anglo-Saxon swear words when you whack your thumb with a hammer, it seems, your name will forever be prefixed by “ill-tempered”.

So, the English-raised, American-accented actor of the new Michael Mann movie, the aptly named Public Enemies, has become a bad boy. Or Bad Boy. It’s not entirely undeserved, of course; while most people who have ever done anything approaching a day’s work should understand his eruption at a clumsy lighting guy interrupting his concentration twice during an emotional scene in the current movie – stupidity is one thing, consistent ignorance is another – and perhaps even the curt defensiveness of his portrayal of hedonistic serial killer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, the incident in a London hotel room in which he is alleged to have assaulted his mother and sister is more problematic. No charges were brought, but the explanation that he merely launched a verbal tirade against his mother after she allegedly insulted his wife is hardly the embodiment of happy-go-lucky.

He once said of himself, “If everyone really knew what a jerk I am in real life, I wouldn’t be so adored in the slightest.” And Bale is certainly no red carpet staple, nor a Hollywood game-player who courts the chat-show circuit with quips about working with Tom, or having a seafood lunch with Martin. He is private and slightly aloof, and chooses movies irrespective of his fee – or the sheer physical hardship the role requires. Famously, in 2004’s The Machinist, he lost nearly 30kgs to play Trevor Reznik, a blue-collar recluse who hasn’t slept for a year. “I didn’t really see how else to do it,” he said of his skeletal physique. “He should look as though he was on the brink of death… and I enjoyed the challenge and the slightly self-destructive urges involved.”

It seemed an odd launching pad for his leap into the mainstream. Within weeks of completing The Machinist, an intense eight-week shoot throughout which he remained in character, he was suiting up for Batman Begins, the reinvigorated superhero franchise for which he was reportedly chosen ahead of Jake Gyllenhaal. He not only suited up, but also bulked up, gaining a staggering 46kg. But, for Bale, it was the script that required most work. “Batman has his hidden, demonic rage-filled side,” he said of his dark interpretation Bruce Wayne. “He’s capable of enacting violence — and to kill — so he’s constantly having to rein himself in.” He also played Wayne with an American accent, and proving his zealous dedication to his craft, maintained it throughout the publicity drive to maintain a consistency with the audience. Intense is a word that seems not only appropriate but completely unavoidable.

Building on the success and reputation, he recebtly stepped into the Michael Mann-directed Public Enemies alongside Johnny Depp. He plays detective Melvin Purvis, the man charged with taking down 1930s Chicago bank robber John Dillinger (Depp) in a film based on true events in Depression-era America. NOX was again able to obtain a Jordan exclusive with the British star, who was finally breathing out after 12 months of, well, intense activity.

NOX: Tell us about working with Michael Mann – a process you have described as one of the most enjoyable of your entire career.

Christian Bale: I’ve wanted to work with Michael for a long time and I was fascinated by the story he wanted to tell. He is one of the finest filmmakers, I think, and Public Enemies is one of the finest examples of filmmaking I’ve seen in years.

NOX: There’s a fantastic scene where Purvis and his men have trapped Dillinger in a farmhouse. How long did that take to film?

CB: We shot that at Little Bohemia in Wisconsin [where much of the real-life events took place – Ed.]. We were up there for a good week or so. I don’t recall exactly the number of nights we were there, but it was at least three nights of just solid gun battles! I must have fired thousands of rounds from the Thompson submachine gun.

NOX: Sounds like fun! And you got to hang out with Johnny Depp. What’s he like?

CB: Fantastic. Although we had very few scenes together – obviously the one we just talked about. But that’s the nature of it; clearly Purvis is pursuing him. And like Dillinger says in the movie, we have to be at every bank all the time and he can be at any bank any time.

NOX: It’s interesting because we’ve also just had The International, with NOX 34 cover star Clive Owen, also talking about banks…

CB: It’s all become incredibly relevant. But when Michael set out to make this movie, who knew that this would occur? But in terms of the depression, the homelessness, the joblessness, the feeling that the fat cats, the bankers, had screwed people over resulted in somebody like Dillinger who never went after an individual’s money, he only ever went after banks’ money.

NOX: In the movie, you also see that Purvis is a little ruthless when he needs to be. That suited you, we presume.

CB: Right. But he is cut from a different cloth. He is from a Southern family; he is from the country, somebody who is used to hunting and we see that in the opening scene. And I like the scene between Dillinger and Purvis – although it’s entirely fictional – where Dillinger actually appears to have some insight into where this will all end for Purvis. He surmises that the job isn’t for him, regardless of how successful he is – and he is the most successful agent ever!

NOX: What was your take on Purvis?

CB: I found him to be a fascinating man. Clearly he is a supporting role here but I think that he is absolutely worthy of a movie completely devoted to him. He had an incredibly contentious relationship with J. Edgar Hoover [first director of the FBI – Ed.], which began with Hoover very much as his mentor and Purvis as his golden boy. Purvis was labelled the Clark Gable of the Bureau.

NOX: You seem to have done your homework! So, do you know how on earth the police were even able to catch the likes of Dillinger with such limited resources?

CB: Well, I know that the FBI were not even given weapons until after the Kansas City massacre – until that point, they were not even allowed to carry weapons. And you know, this is during a brief period in American history where you not only had the Thompson submachine gun and the general affordability of automobiles, you had loopholes in the law meaning they only had to cross the State line and they were scot-free. The gangsters had a huge advantage. Purvis was given a huge undertaking and the odds against him succeeding were huge.

NOX: Billy Crudup plays Hoover. He’s always been a fascinating subject and here we see him at the very beginning of his career…

CB: Hoover was a visionary and the Bureau came to be incredibly successful but this was an era where we are witnessing the birthing pains of that organisation.

NOX: And is it true that Purvis ended his life by committing suicide?

CB: Well, it’s never really been clarified exactly what happened. There was some conjecture that he may have been murdered but it seems most likely that he took his own life. There’s a possibility it was a mistake – there are some questions about a gun having been cleaned and having a round left in the chamber which he may have been unaware. But he had also been suffering from depression.

NOX: OK, what are you doing next?

CB: I’m about to start doing a movie called The Fighter with David O Russell directing. We start within a few weeks and it’s the true story of Dicky Eklund and his brother, “Irish” Micky Ward. It’s an exciting project.

By Oday Khayyat.