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Oscar-winning actor Christian Bale has been hard at work the last several months playing Dick Cheney for director Adam McKay. It will be yet another bit of whiplash from one role to the next as he’s coming off the much lower key “Hostiles,” a post-Civil War western in which he plays a cavalry officer tasked with transporting a dying Cheyenne elder (Wes Studi) to sacred lands in the north. It’s Bale’s second outing with director Scott Cooper after 2013’s “Out of the Furnace,” and it’s ongoing collaboration that seems to drive out some of his very best work.

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In researching the role, Bale drew on previous experiences talking to Marine recon groups in Camp Pendleton, as well as looking at the Army Times, which he says is quite open about the psychology of combat and how it affects soldiers.

“For me it’s an indictment of politics and politicians,” Bale says of the new film. “[It’s about] these men who go and live and die based on decisions made in Washington. [My character is] someone who has done horrendous things, seen horrendous things done to friends of his. But in the big picture, he is not the victim of genocide. He is enacting that. But for him he’s doing his duty. He’s a soldier and does it well.”

Bale is often pegged as a method actor. His dedication to a role and seriousness on set seem to drive that particular perspective, but he confesses he’s just winging it.

“My feeling is I don’t really know what it is, and I’m quite happy doing that,” he says. “I don’t really know why I like doing it. The one thing I think that is very important in life, and I want my kids to find, is an obsession with something — hopefully a healthy obsession. I know I’m obsessed with it because I love it and I hate it as well, but I keep going back to it. In my head I don’t know how to act, really. I just look at it as someone who studies one person in great depth and that’s it, and other people decide what to call that.”

That love/hate relationship with the craft is notable, because indeed, Bale has wondered in the past if he’s had enough. He’s accomplished more than he could ever have imagined, but it would be “a little death,” he says, to discover he had checked off all the boxes and there was nothing left undone.

“It can be so satisfying, but it can also be so disappointing as well,” he says. “Sometimes you look and you go, ‘Man, it’s not the sort of purist thing I thought it was going to be.’ But that’s life. You deal with it. I’m not going to whine about it at all. But I’m constantly saying, ‘Ahh, yeah, that’s it,’ and then I sit back and go, ‘What else can I do?’ I get very strong compulsions to hang it up, but I suspect I would probably prove myself a liar down the track.”

Bale also opens up about his opportunity to star in the wildly successful “Dark Knight” trilogy for director Christopher Nolan. Prior to landing the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman in the 2005 reboot “Batman Begins,” he had already been in the trenches for 20 years. The spotlight of a major superhero franchise opened countless doors, but as someone who fiercely protects his personal and family privacy, that new wave of attention was a bit of a double-edged sword.

“Mixed emotions about it,” he admits. “I’m always eternally grateful to Chris. For instance, ‘Rescue Dawn,’ Werner [Herzog] and I had been trying to put that together for a few years. ‘American Psycho,’ Mary Harron and I had been trying to put that together for a few years. No one was interested. Why? Me. Suddenly everyone said, ‘Yeah, alright. We’ll go with him.’ It did change everything. It was the first time I had done a film of that magnitude. That was a real learning curve for me. I wrestled with it for a long time. I still do on occasions. But I’m just learning, hey, accept the good things.”

Cheney, meanwhile, proved to be a whole new exploration for an actor who relishes the opportunity to investigate characters and draw on both the good and the bad.

“People who despise the man are going to go, ‘How dare you say there are nice things about Cheney.’ There absolutely are,” he says. “What I attempted to do always was put myself in his shoes and not to judge him, but to truly try to understand him, and it’s for Adam to have the bigger perspective. That’s going to make a far more entertaining film with the confusion of really presenting a human there, rather than a caricature.”

For more, including working with performance capture on Andy Serkis’ “Jungle Book,” advice for up-and-coming actors and thoughts on the “cultural shift” happening in terms of diversity and gender equality in Hollywood, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

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Christian Bale photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback Podcast
Dan Doperalski for Variety