Christian Bale and the Art of Extreme Acting
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 Equilibrium and 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 Equilibrium admirers 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.
When the best actor of his generation pulls up in front of Shutters, a place famous for seeing and being seen that could only have been chosen by a publicist, it's in a black pickup truck. He's wearing a baseball cap and an unassuming getup of T-shirt and jeans. The look is trucker chic, though I'm pretty sure Bale has no idea what trucker chic is. He tells me the pickup is for hauling his dirt bikes, which is what he's into these days, though he confesses he's not very Zen about the art of motorcycle maintenance.
"I know how to ride. When something goes wrong, I just look at it and want to kick it and bang it with a camera," he says with a laugh.
As we sit down at a large table in the grand lobby, where it seems everyone has a severe case of cell-phone ear, the waves are breaking and the wind is just starting to pick up. I've brought my surfboard, and I'm worried about getting to the surf before the wind craps it out. Bale is worried about, well, this uncomfortable part of the business. I eye the surf nervously; he looks like he could use a nap. A big question hangs stagnant between us, though it's unspoken and it's a matter of degrees: How much does either of us want to be here? I'm breaking a long-ago pledge to never do another celebrity interview; he's on record as not giving a damn about the trappings of stardom. For a minute, there's a feeling that we're the two most bored people in the room. It's a dicey situation.
These situations, of course, are accidents — the kind of accidents that happen when the son of a circus-dancer mom and a Bunyanesque adventurer of a father, who was born in Wales but moved around a lot as a kid, gets picked to star in a Steven Spielberg film after auditioning on a dare from his sister and eventually ends up in Santa Monica talking to someone who, by his own conspiracy of accidents, has ended up sitting across the table from the greatest actor of his generation with a tape recorder in hand. Since there's always the chance this will turn out to be a happy accident, we gamely order coffee and water and settle in.
L.A. WEEKLY: Why all the moving around? What was going on — was that just life with a circus-dancer mom?
CHRISTIAN BALE: It was more partly wanting to go to new places and partly wanting to get away from other places quickly.
What does that mean? Was there a little hustling going on with the family?
Ah, just that my dad was an interesting character, you know? He was somebody who pretty much lived on his own from the age of 13, and that never really left him, you know? Being a roamer. That was what he did.
And your mom was a circus dancer?
Yeah, I know. She hates it whenever I talk about that, but how can a kid forget? It was definitely the most memorable job she had, in my mind. She says, "That's not all I did." But, you know, when you're 6 or 7 years old and your mom's dressed as a clown, or mucking about with tigers or elephants in a circus, it kind of sticks in your head.
So, there was a lot of starting over and reinvention, that sort of thing?
Yeah, and just the dissatisfaction with the rut that you can fall into very easily, anywhere, but that he felt very much so in England. He was just looking for something new.
Was your dad the one who moved you to America? Or were you already over here acting?
There was always an idea of the States being the place. I remember there were a few times, when I was like 7 or 8, not really understanding how things worked, and hearing my dad talk [about moving here], and saying goodbye to my friends — I was going to the States — and then being back in school by Monday. Eventually, I got work over here and brought my family with me, which was a really good thing.
Bale is living proof that you can take the boy out of the old country, but you can't take the old country out of the boy. He still speaks with a distinct brogue, and his conversational manner is that of a guy sitting at a pub having a few pints next to a stranger — friendly but not overly familiar. He doesn't really look you in the eye, but he's game so long as it doesn't get wanky.
Does this feel like home now, or do you still have an emotional tie to British culture?
Well, talking about football or something ... If I see England play, I can't help but get goose bumps, you know? There will always be that. But that's what half of America is anyway — people who come from somewhere else. This is definitely my home now. I've ended up being here for almost half my life.
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.
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.
Doing Empire 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.
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.' "
On Empire, 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.
"It wasn't a difficult film at all," he says. "I've made much more difficult ones. What the New Yorker article describes ... you have to understand, the journalist was there in the first week of shooting. We had an inexperienced producer and technical crews from Hollywood, Europe and Thailand, and it took a few days to get it streamlined, which was witnessed by the New Yorker journalist. Three different philosophies about how to make a film had to come together. But do not worry about this: I have the authority to make a crew follow me, which came through a very clear vision of where we were going."
And there's no doubt that, despite this being Herzog's "Hollywood" moment, Rescue Dawn bears all the imprints of a signature Herzog film. It's meditative and oddly paced, and how it will play with mainstream audiences remains a very open question.
To Herzog, though, the film is a valentine to the best aspects of the American character. "Everything that I like about Americans was in Dieter Dengler," he says. "Courage, optimism, self-reliance, loyalty. It's what is, in essence, America. I'm not in the business of America bashing."
In the end, the film is also why Bale and I find ourselves staring across a wood table at each other on a burnished morning in a luxurious beach-side setting.
"Rescue Dawn, I guess we have to talk about that," I say.
"Oh, did you see the movie?" Bale asks.
"You did, but you didn't like it."
"What makes you say that?"
"Because you said, 'I guess we gotta talk about that.' You're like, We gotta get on with that."
"I gotta be honest. I didn't love it."
"Why was that?"
Bale is almost laughing as he prods me. It's reassuring to know this shit is funny to him, too, and it betrays the quiet confidence that has been evident in him from the beginning. He doesn't really care whether I liked the film, but he isn't above provoking an interesting conversation about it. I tell him that, though the performances are great — and they are — I thought there was an odd flatness and distance to the film. Things stopped just short of where I felt they needed to go in order to fully pull in the viewer. I suggest — and this shouldn't surprise fans of Herzog's docs — that there was, despite the incredible attention to the physical geography of Dengler's imprisonment, almost too much room left between the audience and the internal landscapes of the characters as they go through their Job-like struggles. In other words, I know what Dieter endured — torture, deprivation and hopeless jungle — but I'm not sure I came away knowing him.
Does that make sense?
Let me put something out there and see if this might be what it is. I can't speak for Werner, but I can say what my understanding is of some of his beliefs about moviemaking. He loathes quick-cut editing and the reliance on editing to manipulate an audience. He feels that it's a fraudulent way of approaching film. He will go for a very simple setup. He doesn't believe in creating a heightened tension, or comedy, or anything through editing. He believes something is either there or it's not there, and you should just sit back and watch what unfolds.
The article in The New Yorker raised a lot of questions about Herzog's methods, one of the more interesting ones being: Is he making a movie or is he on an adventure? Did you ever question that yourself?
You see, I like being on an adventure. I would say, yes, he's on an adventure, with the belief that that will become part of the movie as well. Certainly, with Werner, there's a whole lot more than what is going on the screen. Which is why you can get whole movies made about the making of a Werner Herzog movie ... there's a whole world of, like you said, adventure and craziness going on outside the movie.
I want nothing more than heading off to strange places and having an adventure. I never felt with Werner that there's such a strong pull for that adventure that he forgot there was a movie being made. He's very, very passionate about that actual movie and what he's making. He's a very intense man, or he's the most gentle and laid-back you ever met. It's one or the other. There are no in-betweens. He's extreme in that degree.
As long as it's not just posturing or vanity, then I love that. I love seeing people who care very much about what they're doing and the fights that ensue because of it, or the crazy ideas ... you just try it, you know? Just give it a shot. And Werner still has a sense about him ... Like you said, is it really 50-odd movies? ... and yet there's still this sense about him, like he's trying it for the first time.
How deeply were you put to the test — physically, mentally, your patience?
Ah, I could have been pushed a lot more than I was. I mean, it's not like there aren't ... I mean, when I see [co-star Steve Zahn] again, there's always great stories to reminisce about — ludicrous situations we'd find ourselves in, sitting in rivers with snakes going down it, or squatting in a patty field for hours on end, or, you know, torrential rains coming down and flooding the whole set, or whatever.
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.
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 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?
Well, ladies, here's what I remember:
He had more facial hair than Charlie Chaplin, but less than two out of three members of ZZ Top. His eyebrows were luxurious. His cheekbones were noticeable. His hair was thick, but bordered precariously on mullet-esque beneath the baseball cap. He was tall enough to be commanding, but not tall enough to tower or loom. He wasn't cut enough to chop ice, but I don't think anyone's gonna kick sand in his face. His style? More American Apparel than American Psycho.
Would I do him? Well, a good rule is to avoid sex with anyone — no matter how hot — that you wouldn't want to have a conversation with, and as I learned, Bale is someone you do want to have a conversation with. Or, as Herzog says, "You see very handsome actors, and they don't have depth. He has so much depth behind what you see on the surface."
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