Retrospective: Christian Bale, Batman and The Machinist
Christian Bale: Cinema's extremist
By Stephen Applebaum
This June, Christian Bale swoops into cinemas as the Caped Crusader in Batman Begins. But little over a year ago, he wondered if he even had a career. "I wasn't in demand," he recalls, frankly. His last memorable role had been as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, way back in 2000. Since then, he'd been filling his CV with mediocre fare that included Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Shaft, Reign of Fire and Equilibrium.
Personally disappointed by some of his recent work, he was trying to raise his game. But he needed the right material and didn't like anything he was being offered. Though time was not on his side, he was determined to hang on. "I needed money because I had just bought a house, but I just kept saying, 'I really can't do another movie that I know is not going to turn out the way I want it to, and that I have to make a lot of concessions in my head for.'"
Bale attributes some of his mistakes to his risk-taking approach to work. However, not everyone has the same idea of what constitutes a risk. While American Psycho was presented to him as one, he says he never saw it that way; same with Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes's esoteric take on the Seventies British glam rock scene. "These are films I love," he enthuses. "For me, there's a bigger risk trying Batman.Ultimately, the big point was that Chris Nolan [ Memento], who you would not expect to be doing that kind of movie, was going to direct it, which is exactly what I was looking for, because you want to do something totally different from the other Batman movies."
It was not the man in the rubber batsuit that rescued Bale, though, but a skinny lathe operator named Trevor Reznik, and a little existential thriller called The Machinist. When he read Scott Kosar's script, Bale felt he had finally found something he could throw himself into, body and soul. Actually, he would throw a lot of his body out, shedding an incredible 63lb in order to transform his 6ft 2in frame into the living skeleton that Reznik, the film's haunted protagonist, has become after suffering insomnia for a year. The film arrived not a moment too soon.
"I had spent weeks staring at the wall in my house out of depression because of things that had gone wrong and the choices I had made," remembers Bale. "When I read The Machinist, I just went, 'Wow! This is perfect.' I was having dreams about the character and I couldn't stop thinking about it. I felt like this one was going to save my arse, and pull me out of the depressed state I had got into."
The idea of losing weight did not bother him - he'd gone through extreme physical transformations before. He pumped iron for weeks and went on a special diet to achieve Bateman's sculpted look, and has beefed up again for Batman. He thought the pain of becoming Reznik might even be good for him. "To me, it was a little bit of penance for bad movies I've made in the past," he laughs. "It was like, 'All right, I'll discipline myself and put myself through this miserable time.'"
Bale's reference for what he wanted Reznik to look like was a somewhat morbid photograph of the country singer Hank Williams, taken when he was 29 but he looked 50, says the 31-year-old Welshman. "It was a photograph of him getting released from jail just a few months before he died. He's shirtless and he looks a wreck, absolutely emaciated. So I stuck that on the front of the script to be my image of what Trevor should be, and then just kept going and going and trying to reach that."
He started losing weight under the supervision of a nutritionist, but when he got down to the weight she had set, he was still not satisfied. So he lost another 20lb. By the time he arrived on set in Barcelona, he was surviving on an apple and a café latte a day. He looks like a walking cadaver in the film; when he bends towards a sink, shirtless, you fear his vertebrae will tear through his paper-thin flesh. Bale's wife was worried.
"First of all, think of the tolerance she must have had just to have her husband walking around and coming out of the shower looking like that," says Bale. "It's not pretty. I did wake up a couple of times with her very close, putting a mirror under my nose to check if I was still breathing."
Brad Anderson, the director of The Machinist, also remembers a couple of occasions when he wondered if his star had gone too far. "I looked over at him and he was sitting on a chair, holding an apple with one bite out of it, and staring vacantly into space. He looked so withdrawn it kind of occurred to me, like, 'Man, is he going to make it?'"
On the positive side, Bale says he achieved a Zen-like calm; on the negative, the days seemed endless without meals to break them up. Moreover, when he started to put the weight back on, he discovered that he had the cholesterol level of an 80-year-old man (a strict diet and exercise has now put that right). So what drove him to put his long-term health on the line for a film, even one he felt passionately about? "I had the arrogance of thinking, 'You know what? I'm young. It ain't going to happen to me. I can build myself back up. I'll be fine.' But," he admits, "I would be worried if I was to do it again."
Bale stuck to his guns in Batman, too. "I decided in the screen test, 'I'm going to do it exactly how I want to do it and if they don't like that, I don't want to do the movie anyway,'" he says. He was concerned that, in previous films in the Warner franchise, the villains were always more interesting than Batman, whereas it should have been the other way round.
"Is he nuts?" asks Bale. "What's going on with this man who thinks he can run around in a batsuit in the middle of the night? It's a funny, bizarre place you have to get to in your head for that to become acceptable to an individual. Of course, we're looking at fantasy. But Chris and I really wanted to attempt to answer these fantastical questions with as realistic a motivation as possible."
As any Batman fan will know, the event that tips Bruce Wayne over the edge is the murder of his parents. This had resonance for Bale, whose own father, the activist David Bale, died of brain lymphoma, aged just 62, in December 2003. However, he denies reports that he dedicated his performance in Batman to his late father. Nor did he draw on his own experience to enter Wayne's emotional and psychological space.
Breaking eye contact for the first time during our interview, and clearly having difficulty with the subject, Bale says: "I don't like to actively and specifically use my own life for scenes in movies, certainly when it comes to something as life-changing as my father's death." I begin to wish I hadn't asked the question. "For me, it's an abuse of our time together, as he was ill and as he was slowly fading. Those moments were just too special and a movie cannot compare to that for me, so I don't like to use that, ever.
"I was having a difficult time of knowing if I was actually going to be capable of making a movie because it obviously was so present in my mind that the film paled into insignificance. I just ceased to care, whereas normally I care intensely. I did manage to come around to that and to immerse myself in it. But I think that you cannot help but have everything in your life affect every choice you're making. Did I consciously think of that? No. I couldn't have done that and felt good about myself."
It will be interesting to see how Bale comes out the other side of the whole Batman experience. Following his still impressive debut 17 years ago in Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, Bale found the press attention oppressive, and would frequently find excuses to duck out of interviews. Instead of basking in the limelight, he retreated from it. This perhaps explains why he has avoided the crash-and-burn trajectory of so many child stars. Even now, he admits that he is no fonder of the attention. How ready is he for the hoop-la that will inevitably surround the release of Batman Begins?
"Well, I don't know if this is naive, but I feel that the movie can kind of do it by itself. Because of the size of the film, my hope is that I won't have to put myself everywhere and become some sort of soulless, empty being by the end of it. Frankly, I also just get bored of seeing people who are around too often. And I certainly get bored of seeing myself if I'm around too much. But I have to wait and see exactly what changes may occur. Who the hell knows? I may detest it and run a mile, or maybe I will be able to deal with it."
Whatever happens, you can be sure that we will be seeing a lot more of Bale in the near future, on cinema screens at least. He is back in demand, and has just finished filming The New World, for Terrence Malick, after which he went straight on to the set of Harsh Times, a gritty, low-budget, urban drama directed by the Training Day screenwriter David Ayer.
After that, he says, "I'll be ready to sit back and take a bit of a break, because you start to feel yourself burning out after a while."
First published in The Independent, 2005