Herald Sun Australia (January 20th, 2011)

CHRISTIAN BALE FINALLY CHILLED

In perhaps the best role of his career, Christian Bale plays Dickie Eklund, a boxer-turned-crack addict in the gritty, true-life drama The Fighter.

To transform himself into this colourful yet tragic figure, Bale shed more than 13kg.

This isn’t the first time he’s dropped the kilos for his art, as evident in The Machinist and Rescue Dawn. But Bale bristles at the inference.

“Firstly, I don’t know if it’s art, but I do believe in the idea of pushing yourself as far as you can go. I mean, why not? I like taking things to the extreme. It’s worthwhile and it’s fun,” he says. “I had to look like a crack head, which means I had to get very skinny. And because my body type is nothing like Dickie’s, I had no choice if I was to look like a welterweight.”

Bale can be cagey and fiercely private, which often makes for a tense interview.

But this afternoon in Los Angeles, he smiles easily and reveals a softer side to the man who has played such stoic characters as Batman and Terminator Salvation’s John Connor. He is almost unrecognisable with long hair and a goatee.

When questioned about his new ‘do and easy manner, he grins.

“This is what happens when I don’t work for a year and a half. This is my unemployment look. And what’s been so great is I’d usually be worried about my next job, but that’s the nice thing about Batman – I always knew I had that sequel coming up, so I didn’t have to panic.” (The Dark Knight Rises is in pre-production.)

During his break, Bale has spent his time with wife Sibi, 40, and daughter Emmeline, 5, at their Santa Monica home.

“I’ve been getting beaten up by my little girl and all her friends,” he laughs. “I’ve also been jumping on motorcycles, which is something I’m never able to do when I’m working because of insurance reasons.”

Also contributing to his good mood is the fact Bale is not being forced to promote a lemon. The Fighter has just won him a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, and he and co-stars Mark Wahlberg and Melissa Leo look shoo-ins for Oscar nominations.

Like all his roles, Bale went through intensive research.

“I had Dickie hang out with me for a couple of months before we started shooting. I watched the HBO special, which shows him going to all the crack houses and his old haunts. He took me to all those places, too. I met many policemen, some of whom arrested him nine or 10 times,” Bale recalls.

“Walking down the street, people would hang out of cars screaming, ‘Dickie!’ He’s like the mayor of the streets. I walked behind him, taking it all in. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve completely stopped being Dickie. Parts of him still comes out of me and we still chat on the phone regularly. I have a great affection for him.”

The Fighter is set in the economically depressed city of Lowell, Massachusetts. The movie is as much about Dickie’s wildly dysfunctional family as it is about the sport of boxing.

Wahlberg plays Dickie’s brother Micky Ward, who goes on to fight for a world championship. Their mother (Leo) also acts as manager, but doesn’t always have her sons’ best interests at heart.

The pressure the brothers endured as family breadwinners struck a nerve with Bale. He was 13 when Steven Spielberg cast him as the lead in The Empire of the Sun.

“There’s something in my background akin to Dickie’s life,” the Welsh-born 36-year-old says. “I started acting and earning money as a kid. That can become unhealthy very quickly, as you see so often with kids; most child actors don’t have a happy time at all.

“I recognised really quickly I didn’t want to be famous at all and I didn’t like the effects my success had on my family.

“I had responsibilities that I wouldn’t wish upon my daughter, my nieces, anybody. You’re earning money and what do you do when you’re a loyal person? You’ve got to help people out. Then you’ve got to keep helping people out. Then it becomes the norm. Suddenly, you’re 13 and you’re working full-time to provide.”

But unlike his counterparts, Bale never took to substance abuse as a coping mechanism.

“For me, it was always recognising that I loved doing the actual work. And as long as I stuck with that, I knew it was going to come good for me.”

While his temper may have made headlines over the years, Bale’s talent always wins out. Next, it could win him an Oscar.

“I never think about that kind of thing. All I can tell you is that I recognised from the get-go just how special the script was. Of course, you never know whether anyone else will feel that way, so it’s wonderful that the movie is getting some recognition.”

He smiles. “All I can tell you is it’s a good feeling.”

The Fighter opens today.

By Michele Manelis.