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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.

You know, I was still only 14. When I say I wanted to kind of take a step back from my career, I didn't even consider that I had a career. I just found myself doing this thing which I liked a great deal, and suddenly people were talking about it as though it were a career. It seemed to be taking the fun out of it for me.

Did you even know what it meant to be in a Steven Spielberg movie?

No, no, I couldn't have cared less. It didn't matter. Vaguely knew him, vaguely knew movies, but movies were never something that was very important to me — remain not that important to me, really.

So, how did a kid who never spent much time in the movies end up getting tapped for a Steven Spielberg blockbuster? Bale tells me of hearing about the casting auditions on the radio, and something about that prompting his sister and others to push him to go for it, and suddenly a thought that had never occurred becomes a life. "It really came out of nowhere," he says. "Lucky beyond belief, since I'm still doing it, and I'm here and everything, 'cause if that never happened ..." He doesn't finish the thought, and one struggles to imagine other alternatives, how a life like Bale's father's could unfold in these coarser times. "There was certainly no intention, and we weren't a family that had any connections," he says. "It was nothing like that."

I tell him that I understand that things can be accidental and chosen at the same time.

"Yes, yes, that's exactly what it was," he replies, "and it wasn't until a long time after that I realized, 'You know what? I think I will keep doing this.' "

OnEmpire, do you remember the process? Was it something innate? Do you remember how it happened?

I didn't really try, you know? It wasn't me thinking, "Oh, I'm an actor. I'm acting." I just sort of did it. It was just having a laugh and not giving a crap if you made a fool of yourself, if you looked like a tit doing it, and that was fun. I've always enjoyed making a total tit out of myself and the feeling of people going, "What did he do there? Why would somebody do that to themselves?"

That was before you do get self-conscious and embarrassed and you start to think about other people's reactions to what you're doing instead of just doing it. That comes later, into the more advanced teenage years, where you get the awkward teenage feelings, and you're suddenly consumed with embarrassment permanently, and you're somebody getting a sense of yourself by comparing yourself with other people. But at that age, you don't have that, so you can do anything, and it's just a laugh and it's all hilarious. It's the perfect age to be an actor because you don't care if you're misunderstood.

Do you try to find that place now, where you're totally ingenuous and guileless and not being self-conscious?

What a great life, if you could live that way completely, almost thinking about no consequences. When it concerns yourself, I mean. Obviously, you can't help as you get older — and you shouldn't — but recognize consequences on other people. But for yourself, yeah, it's more fun that way.

****

Rescue Dawn opens on the Fourth of July weekend. It wasn't intended that way. "It's a strange and wonderful coincidence that the film is going to be released on July 4," says Werner Herzog. "You see, we've had a couple delays, and the competition is murderous, but it doesn't matter. We're coming out on the right day now."

The film tells the tale of Dieter Dengler, a German-born American who was inspired by watching American pilots bomb his native country to become a pilot himself. Dengler, who died in 2001, got shot down over Laos on his first mission in the early days of Vietnam, before it was even called a war, and spent six months in horrific confinement in a jungle prison before plotting a harrowing, and disastrous, escape. In 1997, Herzog made an Emmy-nominated documentary about Dengler called Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and he calls Rescue Dawn unfinished business — a work that, for obvious reasons, has enabled him to go beyond the narrative confines of documentary. The director, known as a brilliant documentarian and the maker of a handful of brilliant, iconoclastic features, has high hopes for the film.

"I'm out for new horizons," he tells me. "Well, it's like before Grizzly Man. It's not foreign films anymore. This was my first feature film with English dialogue and American actors. I'm proud of it, and it fits very well into the line of movies I've made so far."

In some ways more than others, perhaps. Last year, a lengthy article in The New Yorker, written by Daniel Zalewski, titled "The Ecstatic Truth — Werner Herzog's Quest" described a shoot rife with chaos, rebellion among the crew, tense run-ins with machine-gun-toting local authorities, and near catastrophes at every turn. In other words, if legend is to be believed, a typical Herzog set. Herzog takes issue with the article's characterization of the shoot.

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