We’re sitting in a Berlin hotel. Dressed in jeans and a navy jumper, Bournemouth-raised Bale, 38, seems to be revelling in dismantling his reputation for taking himself too seriously. ‘There was one time I was walking down the street in Nanking, and there was a man walking a bit more slowly in front of us, and he [Bale’s bodyguard] touched the guy on the shoulder, picked him up, moved him to the side, and then presents the street to me. I was like: “No, you can’t do this.” I’m not a political head of state. Nobody knows who the hell I am.’
Well, that’s not entirely true. The Dark Knight took more than $1billion worldwide, and Bale’s final instalment as Gotham City’s Caped Crusader is already on course to be one of the biggest-grossing films of all time. It’s a franchise that boosted Bale’s career from independent actor (on films such as American Psycho and Velvet Goldmine) to A-list star, but it’s now time he bowed out. ‘When you’re dealing with a trilogy like that, you come to have expectations of the work, and you need to leave when you’re feeling that you’re still providing that and before you start taking it for granted.’
Still, playing Batman has helped him get smaller films made – such as The Fighter, which saw him win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and arguably redeemed him in front of Hollywood, following his foul-mouthed tirade against crew members on the set of Terminator: Salvation, which was later leaked on to the internet. The award came during The Flowers Of War shoot. ‘Everyone gave me a nice celebration when I got back. And it was incredibly nice to receive something for a part that really meant something to me – a very gratifying experience.’
Not that his time in China was all smooth. While promoting it, Bale took it upon himself to visit Chen Guangcheng, a blind activist living under house arrest in a village near Beijing, after he was released from prison in 2010. Travelling there with a CNN reporter and cameraman, Bale and co were set upon by Chinese police, who physically assaulted the actor. So what happened? ‘It’s something that interests me personally,’ he says. ‘But that should be for another time.’ Given Bale may be denied future entry into China, his reluctance to speak is understandable.
In some ways, it’s typical of Bale. Intense on screen, he’s just as ferocious off it, as his Terminator rant proved. Back in 2008, police were called after he exploded at his own mother, Jenny, and his sister, Sharon, on the night before The Dark Knight premiere. Even as a youngster, he felt the pressure. Promoting his breakthrough role, in Steven Spielberg’s Empire Of The Sun, he famously refused to speak at the press junket, instead repeatedly stabbing an orange with his pen, before running out of the hotel onto the Champs Elysées.
It’s arguably why he’s drawn to such destructive figures – from American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman to Batman/Bruce Wayne to The Flowers Of War’s selfish drunk John Miller, a ‘refugee from the dust bowl’ who arrives in Nanking just as the Chinese city was overrun by Japanese troops. ‘We all go through those phases… those times when you’re wallowing and apparently destroying yourself. Sometimes you need to do that.’ Has he been through such phases? ‘To varying degrees. I can’t imagine that there is anybody that hasn’t, just to differing extremes.’
Fortunately for Bale, he does have a family to keep him stable. He’s been married to former model and make-up artist Sandra ‘Sibi’ Blazic for the past 12 years, during which time she gave birth to their daughter Emmeline, now seven. Maybe this is why, after playing boxers, crime-fighters, psychos and drunkards, his next project is a love story, Knight Of Cups, the new film from Terrence Malick, the ‘bold filmmaker’ with whom he made The New World.
Co-starring Freida Pinto – scenes shot have already seen she and Bale in a romantic clinch underneath Santa Monica pier – you’d think working with the highly secretive Malick would allow Bale to regain some privacy in the wake of Batman. Not necessary, he says. ‘I must say, I continue to live my life in a very simple manner, and people tend to be very respectful and polite to me. Of course, you get recognised sometimes but it’s never so intrusive that it becomes a burden.’ He doesn’t need a full-time bodyguard – yet.
The Flowers Of War is out today.
By James Mottram.