Building an Empire

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At age 13, Christian Bale did what most actors spend their lives hoping to achieve: He won the lead in a Steven Spielberg movie. Although the film, the World War II drama Empire of the Sun, was only a moderate success at the time, praise poured in for the young actor's preternatural talent and charisma. Even now, 17 years later, one is astonished at the gravitas Bale maintained in scenes opposite seasoned co-stars John Malkovich and Miranda Richardson.

Following his breakthrough performance, Bale's career could have gone a million different ways. He could have left acting altogether -- something he considered at one point. He could have signed up for countless teen comedies and sealed his heartthrob status. Even without pursuing this route, Bale was at one time the most downloaded male celebrity on the Internet, something that seems to baffle and embarrass him. Instead, Bale sought out smaller, quirkier roles: Winona Ryder's suitor in Little Women, serial killer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, and a resentful son in Laurel Canyon among them. His versatility was astonishing, as he played everything from Psycho killer to Jesus (the TV movie Mary, Mother of Jesus), a dragon-slayer (Reign of Fire), and a reporter investigating a 1970s glam-rock band (Velvet Goldmine).

In his new film, The Machinist, Bale mesmerizes as a sleep-deprived industrial worker named Trevor Reznik who begins to question his own sanity. A tense thriller from Session 9 director Brad Anderson, The Machinist combines elements of the supernatural and surreal to take the viewers on Trevor's descent to madness. Much has been made of the fact that Bale lost one-third of his body weight (63 pounds) to play the character, but his performance transcends physical trickery. "I think a lot of actors are willing to lose a little weight or transform themselves somewhat for a part," observes Anderson. "But I just knew his level of commitment in terms of really immersing himself into this part and becoming this guy, because I'd seen him in films like American Psycho, for instance. He could just become the character."

Happily, Bale looks far more fit now as he strides down the hall of the Four Seasons Hotel. He's tall and muscular in a black T-shirt, wearing hair extensions for a new film. The weight gain is a result of his role as the Caped Crusader in Batman Begins, a new telling of the legend from Memento director Christopher Nolan, due out in 2005. Another side effect of playing The Dark Knight is: an American accent that the Welsh Bale rarely slips out of. "I'm going to be doing something coming up where I'm American again, and I find that if I completely go back to my English, it takes awhile to really relax back to American completely," Bale explains. "So I just decided that for a while, and since The Machinist is an American character, I'll just stay American for now. I've been speaking this way since January, so I don't even really think about it."

Bale clearly takes his craft seriously, yet it's interesting to consider he has never had a formal acting lesson. "I've always been given all these books with the Meisner Technique things, and I've never opened them," he says, somewhat sheepishly. Still, there is clearly a method -- or madness -- at work, as evidenced by his Machinist weight loss. "It was a fun film to make," he says, noting that he was exhausted most of the time. "I had no energy to smile, but I was smiling internally."

Back Stage West: When did you know you wanted to be an actor?

Christian Bale: I was messing around with it when I was, like, 8 years old. I would write comedy sketches with my friend. But that was more just a way to fill up lunchtime and get to do stupid things without teachers telling you stop it.

I kind of followed my sister, really. It was in the family a little bit. Not blatantly so. My great-uncle was an actor, but I only met him when I was really young. He was a huge guy, like 6-foot-6, so he was always playing the heavy. My granddad, at one point, was living in Africa and, just by chance, he was a big guy who looked like John Wayne. While John Wayne was down there filming a movie, he ended up being his double. My granddad on my mom's side was a horse jockey and a boxer, but he was also a children's entertainer -- a ventriloquist and a magician. And my mom was in the circus for a short while. She was a dancer. She always kind of kicks me when I tell people that and says, "Christian, I was in the circus for a season! Why do you keep mentioning it?" But I was 6 years old at the time, so it was a very memorable event for me.

One of my sisters got very involved in music, and she would perform recitals. And then the other one started doing dancing and some acting, just local stuff. I would be hanging around waiting for her to finish, and some people said, "Do you want to join in?" I was forever saying I wasn't interested. But I eventually started playing a couple of parts and eventually found myself, from doing school plays, suddenly getting asked to go and audition for actual, professional plays. And amazingly, I got a couple of them.

BSW: Is there any part of you that wishes you hadn't made Empire of the Sun at such a young age?

Bale: I did wish that for a long time. There were times that I felt it really became more of a burden than anything else. I thank God that it wasn't more successful than it was. You know, a lot of people think I was the little bald, Chinese kid in The Last Emperor. That's quite nice, because it means I avoided that recognition thing that I don't think is enjoyable at that age at all. I don't know if you enjoy it at any age, but you learn and understand more about it as you get older.

I did always think it was a very good movie. I found it very difficult to watch it for many years, just because of the changes it brought about in my life. But now, yes, I can watch it. Time passes, and you can do anything. I think it's a wonderful movie.

BSW: Were you concerned that, after starring in a Steven Spielberg movie at age 9, there was nowhere to go but down?

Bale: I didn't even think I was going anywhere, really. In all honesty, I didn't really care if the movie ever got released or not. I just liked getting to travel to China and to Spain and doing this acting thing. It was great fun, and I really did enjoy it whilst making it. Literally, I never was even thinking anybody was going to see it, and I certainly was never thinking, "Oh, what do I do next?" It was just, to me, a one-off experience. Who knew if I was going to keep working? Afterwards I remember thinking to myself I didn't even want to work. I was kind of done with it and thought I would go to college or something. But I don't know, the college thing never really attracted me that much, so I decided to keep on working.

I thought about leaving. I was always in and out: Liking it, loathing it, thinking it was pointless. But ultimately I liked it a great deal, really. I never seriously considered anything else. Even if I wasn't working, I found it consumed me a great deal. I liked thinking about it, and I naturally have a personality that enjoys being empathetic and trying to put myself in people's shoes. I do that during anything, even watching the news; I just think it makes life much more interesting. Inevitably I would always come back to it. It was just something I think I just naturally liked to do.

I did become a little bit reclusive after Empire of the Sun because I didn't really know how to deal with the attention I was getting. And I, kind of bizarrely, where I hadn't been shy before, became really introverted following making that movie. I started actually finding it very difficult to just socialize properly and get up in front of a group of people just as myself. When I was playing a character, I didn't really care, and I enjoyed making a fool of myself, because I genuinely didn't think of it as me.

BSW: The statistics about child actors are not encouraging. Do you ever think, "I could have ended up an E! True Hollywood Story?"

Bale: It would mortify me. It mortifies me as it is, that you can't control what people say about your life. You can do the best you can, but, still, you find yourself, on occasion, being mentioned in connection with things that are appalling to you. I never would have dreamed that I would be on some stupid list or whatever. I can find it very funny, and I can either really laugh and not give a shit and say, "That's life." Or else I find myself getting very bloody depressed by it and thinking, "I don't want to be a part of this anymore." I dream of a day when interviews will never be necessary for movies. But I have a great deal of loyalty to any project that I've done -- obviously more so with a project that I really believe we've done very well. But actors are the point men, basically, for letting people know about movies. In a perfect world an actor would be able to just do the movies and that's it; you'd never know anything about them. So each time is like seeing a new actor, which is the most gratifying experience -- seeing somebody you've never seen before doing a great performance. But there's the reality you adjust to, and you understand the director and other actors busted their ass on this, and they're asking me to be the one to go and talk about it all, and you accept that. I think there must be a certain kind of personality that definitely pursues such things as the E! Hollywood outlook on everything. I don't really enjoy that; I'd be embarrassed to be on it, really.

But, you know, I've been lucky. Empire of the Sun, it was a very nice character role from the beginning. So instead of it being a kind of usual thing of this young teen actor doing young teen roles -- well, I wasn't. I tended to do very different kinds of roles, and I also think, "Thank God I've never really had a hit." It never really happened. I was never in anything that was really popular. To this day, it still hasn't [happened], and I think that's wonderful. I'm far more comfortable, even though I've been doing this 20 years, of being thought of as up-and-coming, rather than already dead, because where do you go from there?

BSW: And yet you took on the role of Batman. Are you prepared for what that is going to do for your public profile?

Bale: No, I'm not at all prepared, really. I'm in great denial about any possible changes in my life that may come along from that. I sometimes literally wake up in the middle of the night thinking, "Is this the biggest mistake I've ever made?" And other times, I'm, like, "Come on, get a grip, you asshole. Just do it like any other movie." Most of the time you find the anticipation is worse than the actual event. And with Batman [Begins], originally, it was going to be done as a much lower-budget and darker film, and then they decided to go back to a bigger budget, at which time I thought it would be more of the same, which I wasn't interested in. But then hearing that Chris Nolan was directing, I thought, "OK, they're not going for more of the same; this is going to be something different." We got along very well. So this was just one I really wanted to try and refused to let myself get scared off by the possible consequences. I generally like to approach movies as though no one's ever going to see them. Otherwise you get kind of self-conscious about how you'll be perceived, instead of just doing it. It's mass entertainment, obviously. But I think, hopefully, we're going to be offering people a better quality of mass entertainment. And also I'm going to be able to get other movies made, if it does well -- movies that wouldn't be able to get made otherwise.

BSW: Do you mean more films such as The Machinist, which is spectacular but not necessarily mainstream?

Bale: I love it. To me this is the kind of movie that I absolutely know I love doing. To me, a movie like Batman is an experiment. I like to experiment. I did this fantasy dragon picture called Reign of Fire, which I did because I liked Clash of the Titans as a kid. I tried some sci-fi stuff; I even did a musical one time. Some of them you definitely know, "OK, I'm going to give this one a shot, and it definitely could fall flat on its face, or it could succeed. It may not even be exactly my cup of tea, but I want to try at least making it." But with The Machinist, there were no doubts about it. There were no questions or considerations; this is the kind of movie that I love.

I hadn't seen all of Brad's movies; I had only seen Session 9, which I really thought was scary as hell, and I hadn't been scared by a movie for many years. Also I hadn't worked in a year and a half before Machinist, and it was just the most interesting script that I read. I thought the writer had done a really incredible job with it, and I looked at the character and thought, "Wow, that's going to be a tricky one to do properly and really do justice to." I believed I could just about manage to do it. It just seemed like the really, really right movie choice to make.

BSW: A lot has been made about your weight loss for the film. Why did you think it was so necessary for this character?

Bale: The extremity of being literally a year that he hasn't slept, the state of mind that he's in -- he really should, I thought, look like he's on the brink of death. There were some parts where his physicality doesn't really matter, and others where I think it really does affect the character and the portrayal a great deal and is very important. I didn't plan on going quite as far as I did, I just realized I was being a bit more successful than I'd imagined in losing the weight. So I just kept going and going and going until the day I got on the scale and there it was: 121. Which was actually the weight that had been written in the script. It put me in a great state of mind, because you're so calm when you're down to that kind of skinniness, because you just have no energy to do anything but be calm. You can't get riled up by anything. Also the isolation that I had to induce on myself to keep away from temptations of food and drink, which also come with socializing, is very much in keeping with the way that Trevor was behaving.

I kind of had a mantra of doing nothing, unless it was on-camera. I literally just sat completely silent and still, pretending I was listening to my Walkman, where I was actually listening to everybody the whole time with my eyes closed.

BSW: When you're so extremely into a character such as that, how do you leave it behind at the end of the day?

Bale: I left it very quickly. I disregarded all advice about putting on weight slowly, which, to be honest, was very good advice. I was just too eager to stuff my face. It's an interesting thing; you find how much your diet affects your moods. I came back, but the irritability and moodiness came back at times, the ability to get pissed off and angry at people. The fact is, I'd much rather be like that, it's human. But it was a very interesting place to be for a while.

We finished Machinist at the end of July and started Batman in February. But I still did gain weight far too rapidly, just because I had to do a screen test for Batman. Chris called and knew how skinny I was and said, "I'm really not going to be able to convince the studio that you're the guy if you're that skinny." I was far more appropriate to play The Scarecrow than that part. So I put on 60 pounds in six weeks, which is just horrendously bad for your body. Then I had to get into the working out and preparation for it. But it all worked out.

BSW: So even with no formal training, you're kind of a Method actor. And I know you worked overtime to get in shape for American Psycho, as well.

Bale: I think, again, that was one of the few characters where the physicality really is essential. I really have no idea; I don't fully know what my "method" is. So I wouldn't be able to say if that's what I do. I tend to find that I change with each and every character, because I think each movie requires a different style of acting. There's a kind of truthful style of acting you can do, and there's a kind of lying acting, which is also appropriate for other things. I think I just change all the time. I'll choose to either be absolutely silent and not really communicate with anybody on the set, if I feel that's best for the movie, and other times I'll be completely social.

I think there is so much to be said for basic hair, clothing, and body language changes. I find it difficult to really notice, because I don't tend to do these things very speedily. I tend to slowly slip into them. I like to do a lot of my own research, which may not always be incredibly useful, but it's mainly about keeping my brain thinking over casually about the character, so when I'm not thinking about it, you get nice ideas, and you can walk around pretending to be them and slowly slipping into it. I don't really think, "Oh, here's the difference from this character to this character." It's more gradual.

BSW: Is there anything you wouldn't do for a role?

Bale: I'm sure there is; nothing comes to mind immediately. I seriously doubt I would do what I did for The Machinist ever again. Certainly not to that degree. I would lose weight for a part, but I wouldn't take it that far again, because I think I would be really asking for trouble. I think a second time would also be less of a challenge, because I know I can do it. There was that challenge of, "Am I actually able to do this?" Now I've answered that question. And I would be worried if I did it a second time it would turn into a gimmicky thing, people would say, "Oh, he's the guy that likes to lose a lot of weight for movies." I can't envision there being an awful lot of other parts where it would be so essential. You know, on The Machinist, my wife did get to witness what my ass is going to look like when I'm 90. Not a pretty sight.