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Christian Bale and the Art of Extreme Acting

What won't the best actor of his generation do for a role? Not much.

Christian Bale is an actor who may be as well known for what he does to his body as he is for his body of work. He's done extreme things to that body in the name of art. Turning it as hard and sharp as an ice pick for American Psycho. Hollowing it out enough to nauseate in The Machinist. Making it lethal enough to become the first Batman we could really believe. Running it down to the bone again as a prisoner of war in Werner Herzog's new film, Rescue Dawn. But did you know he did a movie in 2002 called Reign of Fire in which he battles (sometimes on horseback) fire-breathing dragons in a post-apocalyptic Britain? And were you aware of Equilibrium, the Matrix junky's Matrix, which also came out in 2002 — a movie that, according to Bale, is a big hit with our overseas military?

Let me tell you about Equilibriumand me. I first learned about it weeks ago, when I went to a Los Angeles Blockbuster video with a list of Bale movies to rent. The clerk told me I had to see Equilibrium. We spent the next 15 minutes trying to find it. The clerk worried that someone had lifted it, something that apparently happens frequently with this film; the studio gave it a limited pressing or something, and copies are hard to find. We came up empty. Over Memorial Day weekend, a friend and I went on the quest again, this time to a different video store. When I announced that I was there for Equilibrium, a young Asian male straight out of a John Hughes movie, who had been sitting unnoticed on the floor digging into a carton of Chinese food with chopsticks, looked up and fairly screeched: "Equilibrium! That movie is awwwwesommme." But that store's lone copy had disappeared. So I went to the famed Video Hut, where everything is possible. The clerk there registered an immediate look of comprehension when I told him what I was after — apparently there is a secret society of Equilibriumadmirers that I was on the verge of joining. But, to his chagrin, the store's only disc had become corrupted. "I couldn't let you rent it in good conscience," he told me. So back to Blockbuster we went. Another search of endless racks, another heartbreak. Finally, a week later, I found it at my old reliable store. I had earned my induction.

The year of Equilibrium's release was also the year Bale played the fussy son of a wild music producer (Frances McDormand) in High Art director Lisa Cholodenko's wistful Laurel Canyon. Talk about range. Bale can fill the sensible shoes of a wallflower, like the one in Laurel Canyon or the charming Metroland (1997), as easily as he can don the cape of the Dark Knight. In fact, such is the degree to which Bale disappears into a role that one could watch his entire filmography, as I have not quite done, and still not be able to peg him the way one could peg Brando as primal, McQueen as cool, Nicholson as uncanny, Clooney as classic, Depp as daring, and Pitt as, well, Pitt. At 33, he may be the biggest movie actor on the planet who isn't a celebrity. When he walks into a room, as he does on a sunny, late-spring morning at Shutters by the Beach in Santa Monica, heads don't turn. There's something enigmatic about this Christian Bale, something indefinable that serves him in his craft, a craftiness that springs from not being crafty at all. He's done about three dozen movies, and he's utterly lacking a persona, other than the one that makes women — and by women, I don't just mean my wife — swoon at the mere mention of his name. Despite his vast and varied career, Bale remains a bit of a cult figure. Those who know have known for a long, long time. Those who don't may never.

The great Werner Herzog — and whatever you may think of Rescue Dawn, let us not argue the greatness of the man who hauled a 340-ton steamship through the Peruvian jungle and over mountains to make Fitzcarraldo and who has made more than 50 films, some in the most remote and extreme conditions imaginable, and for the money that falls between the cushions of most Hollywood moguls' couches ... well, Herzog told me the decision to cast Bale as a real-life fighter pilot shot down over Laos in the early days of Vietnam, in the film upon which the noted iconoclast pins his hopes of Hollywood anointment, was a no-brainer.

"It was instantly clear that he was the guy," Herzog says by phone from Austria, sounding, with his thick accent, like a charming version of Arnold Schwarzenegger. "There's casting where there's absolutely no question. He was onboard long before he was chosen for Batman. I said to him, 'No matter what, you have to be Dieter, and if you're not going to be Dieter, I don't want to make the film.'"

So what attracted Herzog to the young actor in the first place? "What drew me to Christian is that he is the best of his generation," he says. Oh, yeah. There's that.

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