Christian Bale is a cool, calm, understated and effortlessly edgy actor. You sense that every role is selected with a level of intricate care and attention that very few of his peers would even consider.
Here Bale, 48, tells RSNG how he feels about acting as he gets older, what draws him to a story, how his legendary body transformations felt, and what perfectionism means for him.
Intensity On Tap
While Christian Bale sways between extremes in his portrayal of absorbing, engaging characters across all genres, from all eras, what is constant is a renowned intensity, both on and off screen.
From his now infamous outburst while filming Terminator: Salvation (in which he subjected Director of Photography Shane Hurlbut to a three-minute rant after a disagreement over changing a lightbulb), to bloating his body to preposterous levels for his portrayal of Dick Cheney in Vice, to scaling back to a worryingly thin frame in presenting Trevor Reznik in The Machinist; with such passion for his art, it’s strange to think Bale didn’t want to act in his teens.
“I’ve always felt that acting is a funny way for a grown man to make a living,” Bale says. “Acting was never something I dreamt about doing when I was younger. I didn’t go through school thinking I wanted to become an actor.”
He continues: “There were moments where I took an acting job just as a way of doing something that helped my family, and it was a situation where it was my responsibility to keep working or I couldn’t have lived with myself.
“It’s fair to say I’ve started to get more satisfaction out of it now but I’m always going to be a realist, and in many cases in this industry, those types of people are few and far between.”
What I love about a great story is a sense of fatalism – that’s usually what draws me to a project
Bale appears to invest each project he works on with a yearning for perfection. “I think being careful is important, but I don’t consider perfectionism as some sort of battle I need to overcome,” he says. “If I had to try to put it into words I’d probably surmise it more as like a noose around the neck. It’s not something you are in control of, rather the other way round.
“My own journey with perfectionism is something that will ultimately play itself out over the years to come. I’m not completely constricted by it, nor do I think I have conquered it, so I guess I must be somewhere in the middle.”
Mellowing With Age
While Bale clearly doesn’t suffer fools gladly, he never sets out to make enemies. “I think we’re all just trying to do our own thing – we’re all trying to survive,” he says. “It’s not an easy industry and it’s only going to get harder, and the overall aim must always come back to giving people pleasure.
“I must be mellowing a bit as I get older as I even find myself sympathizing with film critics. Sometimes I’ll see a film and hate it and then two years down the road when I’m in a different mood I’ll love it. So much depends on the day you’re having sometimes when you see a film. It’s all opinion.
“That said, if people really have a reason for not liking a film I’ve done I’m interested in hearing it.”
Diversity has always been a big part of Bale’s make-up – even his reacquaintance with the superhero genre sees him taking invention forward, as Gorr the God Butcher in 2022’s Thor: Love and Thunder.
“It doesn’t matter to me what the genre is, what the subject matter is, who the character is or what the era is. What I love about a great story is a sense of fatalism – that’s usually what draws me to a project. It gives me a drive and focus because I know there is a destructive, uncomfortable end-game.
“Ultimately, once you are on that path to what is usually a sense of implosion, it opens up a pathway to what I consider my best work.”
As for how the Brit moves himself into that space of intensity, in the past he has achieved that by undertaking uncomfortable body transformations. In 2004, he lost 63 pounds for The Machinist (2004) and packed on 43 pounds for American Hustle in 2013; while had to gain a similar amount for his portrayal of Dick Cheney in Vice five years later.
“It was disgusting,” he admits. “Sure, It was fun for the first few weeks, just eating everything I wanted and as much of it as possible; but after that time your body begins to scream that you are doing something wrong. There was no nice way around it, and the lethargy was tough.
“Losing the weight was worse. It involved me going to bed hungry and miserable, eating the scraps and leftovers from my kids’ plates. Doing simple things became difficult, both when at maximum weight and when trying to lose it. You do wonder if you can get back to how you once were.”
Focus Comes In Different Forms
Yet such dedication is a byproduct for anything Bale invests his time and talent in. And by his own admission, that focus comes in many different forms. “Perhaps the most intense project I’ve done was Ford vs Ferrari, which will surprise some people, but I loved that because the absorption, the darkness, was right up there with almost anything else I’ve done.
“For me, that was a movie that had to be made because it held in its grasp a great story of human and technical endeavor. In this day and age, we probably need those types of stories; but unless you can channel that intensity into drama, there’s no point.
Success is also not bowing down to what others expect of you – it’s being confident enough to forge your own path
“Ultimately, I think you have to be of a certain frame of mind to go after success to such an extent that you are willing to sacrifice absolutely everything you have to accomplish that. You could say the same thing for engineers, architects, sportspeople, journalists even.
“I don’t think it really matters what you do in life – if you are in a mindset for accuracy and detail in your work then you will always look at the finer margins, no matter what the project is. That’s certainly important to me but I don’t think it stops at actors – it’s just a personality trait, it’s a human thing.”
Success Is Context-Dependent
Whether Bale’s voyage back into CGI turns out to be as profitable as his portrayal of Bruce Wayne, or as artistically satisfying as Patrick Bateman, remains to be seen, but the notion of success is one that Bale has his own definition for anyway.
“Success is relative. Success in the movie world isn’t necessarily success in life. Success comes about when you choose the things that make you and those around you happy. I’ve not worked as much as some other actors because my definition of success isn’t entirely linked to seeing my face on a screen.
“Success is also not bowing down to what others expect of you – it’s being confident enough to forge your own path.
“People often ask me what my version of success is,” he concludes. “Well, even just being asked back onto a film set is success for me, and no small miracle.”
WHAT NEXT? Beyond Bale, Hollywood is full movie transformations but it’s hard to think of one that fitted the role better than Alexander Skarsgard’s when he trained to ‘look like a bear but move like a wolf’ for The Northman. Read the RSNG interview with the star to find out how he did it.
Photos: Shutterstock, MovieStillsDB