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Awards Season

The Contender

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The Contender
Photo Source: Blake Gardner
If Christian Bale wins an Academy Award next year—and his odds are good—the first person he should thank is his daughter. It was at an event for her school that Bale ran into Mark Wahlberg, whose daughter is a fellow student. Wahlberg had spent years developing a movie called "The Fighter," which tells the true story of boxer "Irish" Micky Ward and his offbeat, often overbearing family. Wahlberg knew he needed the perfect actor to portray Ward's half-brother and trainer, Dickie Eklund, a once-great pugilist who lost his career to a crippling addiction to crack. "The first time I saw Christian," Wahlberg recalls of their chance encounter, "I was like, 'Holy fuck. I've figured it out.' "

Before long, Wahlberg and Bale were spending time in the town of Lowell, Mass., where Ward and Eklund still live, learning about the brothers' lives and getting to know the family. Wahlberg and Bale also had to choose a director, and it was Bale who first suggested David O. Russell, with whom Wahlberg had previously worked on "Three Kings" and "I Heart Huckabees." Recalls Bale, "Mark said he didn't want me to feel he was just going with a buddy of his, but I said, 'No, let's give him a call.' So we sat down, and it was right." While the script continued to develop, Ward and Eklund spent weeks in Los Angeles, staying in Wahlberg's guesthouse. "We would meet up every day," Bale reveals, "just to train and spar and hang out together." The commitment paid off; in the film, opening Dec. 10, Bale is almost unrecognizable as Eklund. The character's body ravaged by drugs, Bale is gaunt and pale, his teeth are fake, and his thinning hair reveals a sizable bald spot on the back of his head. But the performance transcends mere physical transformation, digging deeply into the soul of a man who lost his shot at glory. Hiding his whip-smart intelligence behind hollow eyes, Bale perfectly captures Eklund's jealousy, selfishness, and unwavering love for his brother—sometimes in the same moment.

It's a testament to Bale's talent and versatility that even now, 23 years after his film debut at age 13 in Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun," he can surprise us. In his early years, the Welsh-born actor seemed determined to avoid major Hollywood stardom by seeking out roles in small, quirky films such as "American Psycho" and "The Machinist." It only partially worked: At one time, he was the most downloaded celebrity on the Internet, a fact that seems to mortify him to this day. Then, just when people thought they had him pegged as the serious indie film guy, he signed on to play Batman in one of the biggest franchises in film history, under the direction of Christopher Nolan. After that, it became impossible to predict what Bale would do next: He could team with auteur Werner Herzog for the small drama "Rescue Dawn," then turn around and take the lead in the action blockbuster "Terminator: Salvation."






Perhaps Bale's refusal to fit snugly into any one type of character or genre has led him to be viewed as something of an enigma in the industry. Or maybe it's his tendency to be brutally frank in interviews—a December Esquire story being the most recent example—that causes people to think of him as so serious. But his talent is unquestionable, and many of his fellow actors are openly in awe of him. Following a recent screening of "The Fighter," no less than Robert Duvall recalled how he appeared in the musical "Newsies" alongside an 18-year-old Bale. "He was an intense kid even then, and a great actor," Duvall noted. "And to see him now, it's hard to believe he's gotten even better. That's an amazing performance." That word—"intense"—seems to come up a lot when discussing Bale, as do "Method" and "serious."

Bale may be all those things on screen, but in person he's amiable and easygoing. He's back up to his normal weight and sports a thick beard and long hair that remind you he once played Jesus in a 1999 TV movie. He hasn't cut his hair since filming wrapped on "The Fighter," saying he likes to grow it out between roles in case he needs a certain style for his next character. He is also—and here's the word you don't hear enough when discussing Bale—wickedly funny. When promoting the dueling-magicians movie "The Prestige," he was constantly asked how he was able to tell his twin characters apart. "I really wanted one to always be wearing a little red hat, but Chris [Nolan] said no," Bale once told an audience following a screening, without a trace of irony. Tell him he should do a comedy, and he dryly replies, "I did. 'American Psycho.' " When audio of Bale deriding a crew member on the set of "Terminator: Salvation" famously leaked in 2008 and an L.A. morning show was making fun of him, Bale chose to call in to discuss it because "they made me laugh." Repeat the popular rumor that he disappeared between scenes on the set of "The Fighter," only to emerge like a ghost whenever he was needed, and Bale can't resist a smile. "I like that rumor," he says. "Some rumors are so great, I'd rather not dispel them. I can laugh at them—not all of them, but most of them." Asked to pick a favorite among the crazy things he has heard about himself, Bale pauses. "It's not really a rumor," he says. "But for a long time, people thought I was the star of 'The Last Emperor.' Just because it came out about the same time as 'Empire of the Sun.' "

In the Ring

Though the character of Eklund takes Bale to dark places on screen, it also provides him with the opportunity to showcase said humor. A born raconteur, Eklund gets laughs not only from his outrageous statements but also from actions, like repeatedly jumping out the back window of a crack house to avoid his mother. For Bale, having a touch of levity in the story was essential to the tale. "Tragedy goes with comedy, and that's never truer than in the case of Dickie," Bale says. "We actually had to pull back on some of the comedy, because we were afraid people wouldn't believe some of these crazy situations he got himself into."

Vital to playing Eklund was learning his voice—not just the Lowell accent but his own language, which Bale refers to as "Dickenese." The actor compiled a folder of made-up terms and words Eklund would use—cigarettes were called "teeps," and he frequently used the term "quacka" (also the name of his dog) to mean many different things, from nouns to adjectives. "Dickie and I would talk to each other on the set, and nobody would have any clue what we were saying," Bale says with a laugh. "Again, we had to pull back some on that, or else we would have had to subtitle the whole movie."

Bale says the physical changes were somewhat easier to grasp. He famously lost 63 pounds to play the haunted title character of "The Machinist" and once said he would hesitate to undergo such a drastic weight change for a role again. Reminded of this, Bale smiles. "Yeah, I'm going to say I have a short memory," he replies. He adds that the weight change was necessary because Eklund was a welterweight. "I didn't really think about it much," says the actor. "And then one day I realized I'm much bigger than a welterweight. And it dawned on me, 'Oh, I've got to do that again.' " As for how he lost the weight, Bale says it's not an ideal plan. "I run a lot and I eat nothing," he reveals. "That's really it. I'm hungry all the time."

Surprisingly, more was made of his hairstyle than his weight. "We'd talked about the bald spot, and the producers were worried about me doing it," he notes. "But I kept looking at these pictures of Dickie and seeing it." Also, the 36-year-old Bale wanted to make sure he looked older than Wahlberg, who plays the younger Ward. "So one day I just went up to the hair guy and said, 'Let's do it.' He said, 'Let me call someone,' and I said, 'If we call everybody, it's not going to happen. Let's just do it and they don't have a choice.' So we went for it." Asked what the producers said when they saw him, Bale mimics: " 'Oh, interesting. So you went ahead and did that …' "

Bale has never been able to consult with his real-life counterpart before ("Rescue Dawn" subject Dieter Dengler died before the movie was made) and says he relished spending time with Eklund. "I liked Dickie so much," Bale enthuses. "He has mannerisms to Mars. In truth, if I had done everything Dickie does, everyone would have gone, 'Oh, this guy's ridiculous. What's he doing, vaudeville?' " But as much as Bale enjoyed playing Eklund, he confesses concern about putting Eklund's life on screen—particularly scenes of smoking crack and doing a stint in prison. "This part of his life is long past," the actor notes. "He has his shit together now and has moved on. But his life was a roller coaster, and this shows a lot of the downs. So when a person hasn't just come out of your imagination, I do worry. But he's risen above it and is a great family guy, and I hope people will understand this is history." Eklund has seen the film. Says Bale of Eklund's reaction, "Well, listen, we're still talking! I wasn't sure if I was going to get a hug or a left hook from the guy. But I came away without my face being scarred."

Method Man

There are two things Bale is reluctant to talk about. One is his personal life. The other is his process as an actor. But he's a damn good actor, and people want to know his secret. He has never had a formal acting lesson, though he remembers as a kid taking a class at the YMCA. "But that was just things like pretending to be a fried egg," he says. "Just fun." He has been working with the same dialect coach, Francie Brown, for about 10 years. "I never have one on set; I do all my work beforehand," says the actor.

Bale says his methods are always changing. "I don't even know what 'Method' is, really," he says. " 'Method' implies a specific, Stanislavsky thing. I can't say that's what I do; I don't know what I do. Everything starts with me committing to something, and I go, 'Oh fuck, I've forgotten how to act.' And then I just start from there and rebuild my process every time." That process, he says, is "whatever feels right." And it changes on every movie. "Sometimes it's clear what to do, how to research," he says. "Other times, you're looking around lost." With "The Fighter," he knew he had to stay in his Eklund voice while on set. "With Dickie you have to. I just don't have the ability to jump in and out." But was he staying in just the voice, or was he also in character? Bale mulls this over before finally admitting, "I don't know."

One facet of acting he doesn't miss is the audition process, "because I'm terrible at it," he says, adding, "The nice thing was, directors would tell me I was really bad but hire me anyway. They'd say, 'You know, you're really bad here, but I know you can do it.' Because an audition is nothing like working. So some actors are great at auditioning but don't know what to do on a set." Bale admits there were times he was on his way to auditions and he turned the car around. Other times, he'd make it as far as the waiting room. "It was all bad," he says. "Then sometimes I'd go in, and people could be rude, ordering you about. Or there was that unfortunate thing where some people will treat actors like crap until other people tell them they're good, and suddenly they're treating you with dignity and respect. That happened a lot."

He says he has always been pretty good about dealing with rejection, either laughing it off or using it to fuel himself. Case in point: For "American Psycho," he wanted to play serial killer Patrick Bateman in director Mary Harron's adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis bestseller. "Nobody wanted me to do it, except the director," he recalls. "Mary told me that they had literally said to her not to mention my name anymore." Bale took a meeting with a potential agent, Patrick Whitesell. "He said, 'Done deal.' I said, 'How can you say that? I've met with everyone in this business and they said they'd try their best. You're telling me it's a done deal?' He said, 'Don't worry. You don't need to know how.' And he did it. Within a week, I had it." Whitesell has remained Bale's agent for the last 10 years. Asked why he was so passionate about playing Bateman, Bale admits, "Probably because they really didn't want me to do it!" He laughs and adds, "There were other reasons—I liked it a great deal. I was crying with laughter when I first read it. But nothing fires you up more than being told no."

As it turns out, one other subject Bale isn't interested in discussing is the deafening Oscar buzz for his performance in "The Fighter." Though it's hard to believe, Bale has never received an Academy Award nomination. Just bringing up the topic makes him visibly uncomfortable. "Of course I've heard it," he confesses. "There are people who work on movies called producers, and they make sure I hear it. But I also know there's going to be people who see me and don't like what I do." Try to push the subject further and he finally says, "Here's the thing. You should never talk about stuff like that, because no matter what answer you give, you're a cock. If you say you don't care about any of that—well, why not? It's flattering, it's human. Or you can say, 'I really want it.' And who do you think you are? You just can't talk about it either way."

As he's done previously, Bale will just have to let the work speak for itself.    

OUT TAKES

-Spent 33 days on "The Fighter." The shortest period he spent shooting was for "Harsh Times," which was filmed in 20 days.

-Other recent films include "Public Enemies," with Johnny Depp; "3:10 to Yuma"; and "I'm Not There"

-Says he doesn't keep track of his movies' box office. "I never really noticed how well movies did until people started telling me because of 'Batman.' Apparently it matters. But I do like it when some of the smaller films find an audience. I like it when I'm at the grocery store and someone says, 'Hey, I loved you in …' and I'm waiting for them to say 'Batman' but they say a movie hardly anyone has seen. I enjoy that."

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