Cover Story: Enigmatic as ever in two new films, thesp breaks all the rules of conventional stardom
Christian Bale has an intensity that seeps into performances which leave fans awestruck. His passion for his craft, however, does not include self-promotion. With a pair of compelling perfs to tubthump, the excruciatingly private star now has to do his least favorite thing: face the media.
Christian Bale is the reluctant movie star.
Despite being regarded as one of the best actors of his generation, the enigmatic 39-year-old Brit has no interest in fame. His dashing, tall, dark and handsome looks are often concealed by the unattractive physical appearances and appurtenances of the characters he portrays. In an era when many of his contemporaries take to social media to connect with fans, he chooses to fly beneath the radar, straining to keep details of his personal life private and relying strictly on gut rather than a career strategy when picking roles. He is notoriously press shy, which has no doubt made these past few days of nonstop stumping for his upcoming movies, “Out of the Furnace” (debuting Dec. 6) and “American Hustle” (Dec. 13), more an excruciating journey than a joy ride. Yet Bale has succumbed to the revved-up PR-machine pressure that accompanies the annual high-octane awards season, in large part because he’s a rebel with a cause.
“I want people to see a film I’m proud of, and I feel an obligation to directors and crew members who busted their ass on a project to go out and talk about it,” he told Variety while on a whirlwind press tour that brought him to Los Angeles from Spain, where he is shooting Ridley Scott’s epic “Exodus,” in which he plays Moses.
Walking into a private room at the Soho House on the Sunset Strip, he makes a beeline for two cups of coffee awaiting him. “Bloody hell, I need these!” he exclaims. “In the last week, I haven’t slept for more than an hour and a half each night.”
Like other nonconformist, iconoclastic actors such as Sean Penn and Joaquin Phoenix, Bale eschews playing the Hollywood celebrity game and doesn’t care about how he is perceived publicly, wanting his work to speak for itself.
“He’s not warm and cuddly like George Clooney, but I don’t think he cares about cultivating that image,” says veteran Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman, vice chair of Reputation.com. “He cares about the craft — and good for him.”
But studios today rely on stars, whether they’re as polished and media savvy as Clooney or as disinclined as Bale, to partake in heavy promotion of the movies for which they dish out hundreds of millions of dollars to make and market around the world.
Bale was grudgingly thrust into the spotlight in recent years as he jumped from smaller, quirky movies like “The Machinist” and “American Psycho” into one of the biggest franchises of all time, Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy, and won a supporting Oscar for his performance as boxer-turned-crack addict Dicky Eklund in 2010’s “The Fighter.”
His far less-celebrated offscreen antics have brought him unwanted notoriety. In 2008, Bale was arrested on verbal assault charges filed by his own mother, reportedly after an argument involving his wife, just prior to the London premiere of “The Dark Knight.” A year later, he was famously recorded during a nearly four-minute expletive-laced rant during the production of “Terminator Salvation” when d.p. Shane Hurlbut ignored his repeated pleas not to walk through the set to adjust the lights during a difficult scene.
Bale quickly issued a public apology and used humor to disarm the situation, calling into L.A. radio show “Kevin & Bean” after he heard them making fun of him to laugh along and issue a mea culpa. And when he accepted his Academy Award for “The Fighter,” shortly after co-star Melissa Leo used the F-word onstage, he quipped: “I’m not gonna drop the F-bomb like she did; I’ve done that plenty before.”
While Bale doesn’t discuss the incendiary incident involving him and his mother, even today he expresses regret over losing his temper with Hurlbut.
“It was not the way to behave. It was wrong, end of story,” he says. “I desire not to be that person who would behave in that fashion.” He explains that he wasn’t so much concerned with his public persona, but rather how his work would be perceived in light of it. “It was less about embarrassing myself because I actually have a strange kind of enjoyment of humiliation,” Bale concedes. “It was more about recognizing that I never want to know anything about the actors I watch. The more you’re out there and known for things like that, the less (audiences) can enjoy your performance.”
Said Bragman, who has never worked with Bale: “He had a moment, but it was a speed bump not a sinkhole. It was really indicative of his intensity as an actor.”
Bale’s darker side and fits of rage can be seen onscreen in some of the actor’s raw, combustible performances, both in “The Fighter” and in his portrayal of Batman as a more menacing, brooding Caped Crusader than previous adaptations of the comicbook superhero.
Bale’s bold creative choices and unwavering commitment to roles have been well documented, as have the chameleon-like physical transformations he’s undertaken for characters, which render him practically unrecognizable from film to film.
He lost 63 pounds for his role in “The Machinist” and a similar amount for “The Fighter.” For his recent turn in “American Hustle,” he gained nearly 50 pounds. In preparation for that role, Bale became obsessed with taking on the squat appearance of Melvin Weinberg, the real-life conman with a horrible combover, who inspired his character Irving Rosenfeld, in the fictionalized retelling of the Abscam scandal.
Bale compulsively studied DVD interviews with Weinberg in an attempt to nail the character. “I would watch it every day,” he recalls. “I loved the way he looked, because when I heard his story, I incorrectly assumed he would be this slick, smooth operator who assumed an air of wealth and control over his life. And when I saw him, I thought, ‘Oh my word, this is not what I would have expected at all!” In Bale’s view, it was an amazing juxtaposition. “Here’s the most brilliant con artist in the world, and who does he thinks he’s kidding with that combover? It looks like one ear throwing a lifeline to the other ear!”
Bale also wanted his co-star, Bradley Cooper, who plays an FBI agent in the film, to tower over him. “I would hunker down and physically try to make myself much shorter than Bradley, and communicate how Irv resented that,” notes Bale, whose physical appearance, along with big, blinking eyes behind tinted sunglasses, earned him the affectionate nickname the Badger.
Cooper, who confesses to being a longtime fan of Bale from afar, says, “It’s usually hard to meet your heroes; there’s a fear they won’t live up to your hopes. But he far exceeded my expectations. He’s giving and natural, and someone who loves to laugh.”
To hear his peers tell it, despite all his intensity both on- and offscreen, Bale is actually humorous in real life.
Amy Adams, who played his adversary in “The Fighter” and is his lover in “American Hustle,” echoes this sentiment. Asked what would surprise people most about Bale, she responds without hesitation: “He’s funny. Really, really funny.”
Zoe Saldana, Bale’s co-star in “Out of the Furnace,” recalls a tense moment during a recent Q&A session to promote the movie when a man wearing a shirt that said “Wanker” stood up to ask a question. “Christian was answering a very serious question, and he abruptly said, ‘I want to know something … Are you from England, or are you trying to tell us something with that shirt?’ ” Saldana says she and everyone else in the room burst into laughter. “He was totally joking, and I was very happy to see that side, to actually finally meet Christian.”
That’s not the only instance in which his humor has popped up unexpectedly. Bale was discussing how meeting Eklund (for “The Fighter”) marked the first time he had come face to face with a character he was portraying when he joked, “I tried with Batman, but he’s always so busy.”
So, to crib the Joker’s line from Bale’s biggest hit, “Why so serious?” Bale admits to some confusion about his persona. “I tend to stay in character between scenes … to be rather serious on set, but here’s why, and I think people will find it surprising. I’m one of the worst ‘corpses’ on a movie set, which means you can’t keep a straight face. You start to get the giggles and you can’t stop. I never want to step out of a scene and be objective, because as soon as I do, I find it hilarious.”
Bale says he not only considers “nearly ever scene I do really funny,” but “I find what I do for a living really funny. I mean, acting is kind of a hilarious thing for a grown man to call a job.”
Bale’s wit is also laced with a kind of endearing self-deprecation.
“I’m a giant dumbass,” Bale says — more than once during this interview — when asked about how he chooses roles and defines his career strategy: “I have no clues, no plans, no giant scheme.”
Born in Pembrokeshire, Wales, Bale, whose father, David, was a commercial pilot and entrepreneur, rarely stayed put as a child, traveling with his family to various countries, including Portugal, England and the U.S. (David Bale died in 2003; at the time, he was married to author and activist Gloria Steinem.)
When Bale was a child, one of his sister’s became involved in local recitals, which Bale says was the impetus for him to start performing. “I would be hanging around waiting for her to finish, and some people said, ‘Do you want to join in?’ I eventually found myself doing school plays, suddenly getting asked to go and audition for actual professional plays — and amazingly I got a couple of them.” That included a 1984 West End production of “The Nerd,” alongside Rowan Atkinson. Soon after, Steven Spielberg cast him as the star of his 1987 war drama “Empire of the Sun,” a role he played at age 13.
The actor, who turns 40 in January, continues to surprise audiences even after 27 years of making movies. Just when he was pegged as the arthouse guy from independent films like “American Psycho” and “The Machinist,” he signed on to play Batman. After teaming with esteemed auteurs like Werner Herzog for “Rescue Dawn” and Terence Malick for “The New World,” he took on director McG’s action sequel “Terminator Salvation.”
“I like to keep people guessing,” Bale says.
His performances in “Out of the Furnace” and “American Hustle” couldn’t be more different.
“Furnace” director Scott Cooper describes Bale’s character in that film as “a very good man who is beset on all sides by relentless fate,” a dark and quiet soul who stands to lose everything he loves. In “American Hustle,” Bale’s conman is larger than life, a colorful spirit that writer-director David O. Russell says “loves food, loves people, loves jokes, and is a true people person.”
Bale is famous for disappearing into his characters so completely when shooting a movie that he often throws his co-workers and filmmakers off guard.
Cooper says that after Bale signed on to play Russell Baze, a steel worker in a dying Pennsylvania town who tries to rescue his Iraq veteran brother (Casey Affleck) from tragedy in “Out of the Furnace,” he never saw the real Bale. “He arrived on the set as Russell Baze, and it wasn’t until I saw him at my home weeks later that Christian Bale emerged.”
Russell, who has now worked with Bale on two movies, “The Fighter” and “American Hustle,” says Bale’s extraordinary physical alternations are one thing, his complete ingestion of a character quite another.
“Christian underwent a deep soul transformation for this part,” Russell says about the actor’s role in his latest movie. “It’s in his eyes, how he becomes this person.”
Agrees Adams, “Yes, he brings that same intensity to the character. But he also brings an amazing vulnerability and sincerity and humor. It’s a side of him I don’t think people have ever seen before.”
Though Bale has affection for the two films, at one point he resisted signing on to either one.
Cooper had rewritten the “Furnace” script specifically with Bale in mind, even though he’d never met the actor. “It may seem foolish, as trying to get Christian Bale to star in your movie is next to impossible,” the director says. “But there was something about it that connected with him, and I was very lucky he wanted to do it.” However, following “The Dark Knight Rises,” Bale found himself exhausted. “I just didn’t think I could do anything after that for awhile,” says the actor. “It was a 125-day shoot over seven months and I needed a break.” Cooper, for one, was crushed. “I entertained a couple other scripts but, really, I was heartbroken.”
Bale was surprised that Cooper truly wouldn’t move forward on the project without him. “Directors always tell you they won’t make a film without anyone else, then they turn around and tell another actor, ‘Hey, I wrote this for you!’ But he actually meant it. And he had mouths to feed and work to do, and I thought it was kind of insane for him to be so adamant. And insane people make for good directors.”
Bale jumped aboard after all, and the film was shot in Braddock, Pa., in just 27 days.
Similarly, Bale, ever a perfectionist, was concerned he couldn’t give “American Hustle” the attention it required, going straight from “Furnace” to two films for Terrence Malick — one of which (“Knight of Cups”) he also tried to back out of. “With ‘Hustle,’ I needed a lot of time to prepare, and just didn’t think I could do it properly,” he admits. “And I would come home to Post-It notes on my door from David saying, ‘Come on, let’s do this!’ ”
Unbeknownst to Bale, his wife of nearly 14 years, Sibi Blazic, had at one point contacted both Russell and Malick and told them to keep asking. “Without telling me, my wife called them both and said, ‘Yeah, he can do it,’ ” recalls Bale, who eventually relented on both counts. “Look, I’m always trying to back out,” he says. “Because I’m always convinced I won’t be able to do it. But thank God I did.”
Although many in the press and industry often refer to Bale as a great Method actor, he in fact had no formal training in the arts other than “a class at the YMCA when I was 10 or 11 where we pretended to be a fried egg.”
The thesp says that from time to time he considers giving up acting, though his close pals always bring him back to reality.
“My friends quietly remind me that I left school at 16, and I’m not qualified to do shit.”
Besides, Bale says that he has finally found a happy medium between his work and his home life in L.A. with his wife and their 8-year-old daughter.
“In some ways, you’ve got to enjoy the insanity,” he says, adding, “And I do remove myself as much as possible. If I’m not working, I really have nothing to do with it — I’m not hanging out and mixing with film people. Not that I have anything against film people, they’re some of the best people around and some of the worst people around, just like in any business … they just gesticulate a little bit more.”