Christian Bale and the Art of Extreme Acting

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

I kind of love getting pushed like that, you know. I love it, and Werner's the man for doing that. He would just keep on pushing and pushing and pushing. There's no limit to how much he'll keep pushing somebody, but he'll do it with himself as well. He'll be in there, you know, head-to-toe covered in clay from crawling around in it one day. He'll be washed down the rapids with us. He'll be coming away with losing toenails. He loves doing that. He just absolutely loves it. He doesn't really want anybody else to have more of an experience than he does. There's definitely a kind of competition going on there. And I was very much up for that. I think there's a great, almost Boy's Own idea of struggling through the jungle and coming across snakes and diving into pools and not knowing what's in there and doing things that other people would look at you and think, You're nuts, why would you ever do that?

How many chances do you get to fly with a crazy Thai helicopter pilot who's flying a foot above the trees and who is doing this crazy shit you'd never get to do in a helicopter and — not only that — I'm standing outside the helicopter on the rails? Well, I don't want anyone else doing that. I want to be the one doing that.

It occurs to me that Bale, especially in his most memorable performances — whether it's in American Psycho, or The Prestige, in which he plays a magician who goes to absurd lengths for his craft, or The Machinist, for which he lost 60 pounds to play a haunted insomniac, or Harsh Times, in which he's a violent Gulf War vet returning to the mean streets of L.A., or even Batman Begins, as a superhero who's a borderline sociopath — is attracted to roles that explore the limits of both character and actor.

Director Werner Herzog was thrilled to rope Christian Bale for Rescue Dawn.
Director Werner Herzog was thrilled to rope Christian Bale for Rescue Dawn.

What draws you to a role, especially to such extreme roles, where you have to do such extreme things?

I mean, doesn't everybody have that? It'd kind of like being given a dare. Can you go through with it? Can you test yourself, push it, and how far will you go and how far can you go? It's a craving to know the answer to that, you know? I know that I get obsessed with what's right in front of me, and I'll just be thinking about that, and I may look back later on certain things I've done and think, What was I thinking there?, you know? I kind of lost the plot a little bit, didn't I? But I know nobody could have convinced me otherwise at the time.

You seem uninterested in attention or fame. You seem like one of the least movie-star-like movie stars that I've come across. How do you get to the level you're at and stay so removed from that part of it?

Maybe just by obsessing about your failings instead of focusing on your strengths. [Laughs.] To be honest, I don't know what else to do. What else would I do? You can start prancing around, but you're becoming just a model or something at that point, you know what I mean? I like being comfortable as much as anybody else, but you get too used to that and you become a right little whining softie. I guess it's just not interesting. What's interesting about it? What is there to that, except for swanning around pretending you're not interested in what anybody else is doing? That sounds boring as hell to me.


With that, the accident is over, I go off to ride waves, and Bale leaves to ride dirt bikes. We'll be seeing a lot of him in the near future, though — if not as one of many Bob Dylans in Todd Haynes' meta-biopic I'm Not There, then perhaps in the remake of the Western classic 3:10 to Yuma, which promises to show off more of the actor's horsemanship. Both come out later this year. And if not there, then surely in The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan's sequel to Batman Begins, which is currently filming. If he isn't careful, the best actor of his generation will also soon be the biggest, but something tells me he'll be careful.

There's only one bit of unfinished business that I feel compelled to address. It's the question I get asked by every woman whom I tell that I've recently interviewed Christian Bale. The question comes accompanied by a raised eyebrow and a sly, carnal grin.

"Well?" they ask.

"Well, what?"

"Well, what was he like?" And then they go on to tell me how they've loved him since Empire of the Sun, fell more in love with him in Swing Kids, the one about a group of prewar German kids who'd rather dance to the beat of swing music than march to the beat of war drums. And, oh god, they say, that body in American Psycho. And what they mean by the question is, Was he just as hot in person?

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