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By Michael Atkinson
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Your uncle was an actor, and your mom was in show biz; was that what brought you into the business?
It wasn't really in my face, growing up. But seeing my mom doing that, and I think also just realizing there was a chance for not having any kind of nine-to-five job and the chance for travel and for good, weird experiences, and, um, it just kind of grabbed me more than anything else. I didn't really have any notion of wanting to go to college or anything like that.
Were you conscious of all that as a kid? I'm asking because you started acting at a very young age and you're expressing fairly mature ideas about why you wanted to do it.
Well, it was kind of a surprise to me, first of all, just how much I did enjoy it. I always hated doing any kind of school production, or anything like that, because, for me, what I liked was the complete insanity of everybody believing in what they were doing and taking it really seriously. So, I didn't like it when you were doing a school production, where it was just a laugh for a few people.
I was serious about it, and I realized how much I enjoyed this going off and becoming someone else for a while and really obsessing about it. I didn't see a chance for that in much else that I was looking at, and I'd kind of stumbled into this in a very lucky fashion and thought it was something I didn't want to lose a grip on. That was very early on. It was unbelievable that I got a job [Empire of the Sun] out of nowhere that had me going to Shanghai and Spain ... See, growing up with me dad, he had all these great stories from when he was a kid, because he ran away at 13 and he ended up living in Egypt. He ended up living in the Caribbean for a while. He just didn't give a crap. He'd jump on [a ship] and get a job with somebody, and he'd jump off at some other port somewhere, see what happened, you know? Nobody looking after him, doing it on his own, and it sounded fantastic.
How come I was sitting in some fucking dingy little town in fucking England, just sitting under a freeway, smoking out and, you know, getting drunk with friends? And, hey, that's all good, but it's not quite the thing that I knew he was doing as a kid.
So, he told you all these epic tales of adventure?
Well, yeah, he wasn't actually very overblown about it. You had to drag it out of him ... It was just that sense of there being a lot more out there and you don't have to get a bunch of money for it, so long as you're prepared to end up sleeping on benches sometimes, or get taken in by people and stuff. That's what I kind of fantasized about, thinking, That's the life, that's what I want to do.
Do you know what your dad ran away from?
Um, boredom, basically. There were adventures out there. There were crazy places to visit; there were crazy people out there you should meet.
He sounds like an English beatnik.
Yeah, that's it. That's exactly what he was. Also, he was a tough bastard as well. I saw him in situations ... it was hilarious.
You mean in bar fights?
Well, I never saw that. Just, when he wanted to be, he could be a very intimidating figure. He was a lot bigger than me.
Was that onerous in a way, or did you feel close to him?
Oh, no. Really close.
There's an interesting coda to the story of Bale's father. The world traveler eventually became an airline pilot. He and Bale's mother divorced. When I ask when, Bale's eyes wander to the middle distance, and he says curtly, "That was awhile back." Then, in 2000, Bale's dad ended up marrying Gloria Steinem, when he was 59 and she was 66. He died three years later, and she has said he was the love of her life. When I ask what it was like being Gloria Steinem's stepson, Bale's discomfort becomes apparent. "You know, she's an extraordinary woman," he tells me, "but usually family are the last people to recognize any kind of brilliance, you know what I mean? As it should be, because you're meant to just be another member of the family." I wonder if he's talking about himself, too, but he leaves no doubt that it's the end of the subject. The message is clear: It's OK to talk about family mythology but probably best to steer clear of the real thing. It's an honorable request, and it's time to get back to the business at hand before wankiness sets in.
DoingEmpire of the Sun at such a young age must have changed your life pretty dramatically.
It was crap for a while. It was crap because, suddenly, you got the real experience of actually doing it, making the movie, traveling to these countries, working with these people ... and then, suddenly, it was all about the other side of it, which is the fraudulent side of it, I've found, doing the whole press thing, and I sort of couldn't get my head around it. I couldn't quite work out why people were asking me to do things, what they expected of me. I just didn't quite get it. So, that put me off everything for quite some time.
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