Christian Bale

What won't the best actor of his generation do for a role? Not much.

You know, I was still only 14. When I say I wanted to kind of take a step back from my career, I didn't even consider that I had a career. I just found myself doing this thing which I liked a great deal, and suddenly people were talking about it as though it were a career. It seemed to be taking the fun out of it for me.

Did you even know what it meant to be in a Steven Spielberg movie?

No, no, I couldn't have cared less. It didn't matter. Vaguely knew him, vaguely knew movies, but movies were never something that was very important to me — remain not that important to me, really.

Director Werner Herzog was thrilled to rope Christian Bale for i>Rescue Dawn/i>.
Director Werner Herzog was thrilled to rope Christian Bale for i>Rescue Dawn/i>.

So, how did a kid who never spent much time in the movies end up getting tapped for a Steven Spielberg blockbuster? Bale tells me of hearing about the casting auditions on the radio, and something about that prompting his sister and others to push him to go for it, and suddenly a thought that had never occurred becomes a life. “It really came out of nowhere,” he says. “Lucky beyond belief, since I'm still doing it, and I'm here and everything, ‘cause if that never happened...” He doesn't finish the thought, and one struggles to imagine other alternatives, how a life like Bale's father's could unfold in these coarser times. “There was certainly no intention, and we weren't a family that had any connections,” he says. “It was nothing like that.”

I tell him that I understand that things can be accidental and chosen at the same time.

“Yes, yes, that's exactly what it was,” he replies, “and it wasn't until a long time after that I realized, ‘You know what? I think I will keep doing this.'" On Empire, do you remember the process? Was it something innate? Do you remember how it happened? I didn't really try, you know? It wasn't me thinking, “Oh, I'm an actor. I'm acting.” I just sort of did it. It was just having a laugh and not giving a crap if you made a fool of yourself, if you looked like a tit doing it, and that was fun. I've always enjoyed making a total tit out of myself and the feeling of people going, “What did he do there? Why would somebody do that to themselves?” That was before you do get self-conscious and embarrassed and you start to think about other people's reactions to what you're doing instead of just doing it. That comes later, into the more advanced teenage years, where you get the awkward teenage feelings, and you're suddenly consumed with embarrassment permanently, and you're somebody getting a sense of yourself by comparing yourself with other people. But at that age, you don't have that, so you can do anything, and it's just a laugh and it's all hilarious. It's the perfect age to be an actor because you don't care if you're misunderstood. Do you try to find that place now, where you're totally ingenuous and guileless and not being self-conscious? What a great life, if you could live that way completely, almost thinking about no consequences. When it concerns yourself, I mean. Obviously, you can't help as you get older — and you shouldn't — but recognize consequences on other people. But for yourself, yeah, it's more fun that way. **** Rescue Dawn opens on the Fourth of July weekend. It wasn't intended that way. “It's a strange and wonderful coincidence that the film is going to be released on July 4,” says Werner Herzog. “You see, we've had a couple delays, and the competition is murderous, but it doesn't matter. We're coming out on the right day now.” The film tells the tale of Dieter Dengler, a German-born American who was inspired by watching American pilots bomb his native country to become a pilot himself. Dengler, who died in 2001, got shot down over Laos on his first mission in the early days of Vietnam, before it was even called a war, and spent six months in horrific confinement in a jungle prison before plotting a harrowing, and disastrous, escape. In 1997, Herzog made an Emmy-nominated documentary about Dengler called Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and he calls Rescue Dawn unfinished business — a work that, for obvious reasons, has enabled him to go beyond the narrative confines of documentary. The director, known as a brilliant documentarian and the maker of a handful of brilliant, iconoclastic features, has high hopes for the film. “I'm out for new horizons,” he tells me. “Well, it's like before Grizzly Man. It's not foreign films anymore. This was my first feature film with English dialogue and American actors. I'm proud of it, and it fits very well into the line of movies I've made so far.” In some ways more than others, perhaps. Last year, a lengthy article in The New Yorker, written by Daniel Zalewski, titled “The Ecstatic Truth — Werner Herzog's Quest” described a shoot rife with chaos, rebellion among the crew, tense run-ins with machine-gun-toting local authorities, and near catastrophes at every turn. In other words, if legend is to be believed, a typical Herzog set. Herzog takes issue with the article's characterization of the shoot. “It wasn't a difficult film at all,” he says. “I've made much more difficult ones. What the New Yorkerarticle have to understand, the journalist was there in the first week of shooting. We had an inexperienced producer and technical crews from Hollywood, Europe and Thailand, and it took a few days to get it streamlined, which was witnessed by the New Yorker journalist. Three different philosophies about how to make a film had to come together. But do not worry about this: I have the authority to make a crew follow me, which came through a very clear vision of where we were going.” And there's no doubt that, despite this being Herzog's “Hollywood” moment, Rescue Dawn bears all the imprints of a signature Herzog film. It's meditative and oddly paced, and how it will play with mainstream audiences remains a very open question. To Herzog, though, the film is a valentine to the best aspects of the American character. “Everything that I like about Americans was in Dieter Dengler,” he says. “Courage, optimism, self-reliance, loyalty. It's what is, in essence, America. I'm not in the business of America bashing.” In the end, the film is also why Bale and I find ourselves staring across a wood table at each other on a burnished morning in a luxurious beach-side setting. “Rescue Dawn, I guess we have to talk about that,” I say. “Oh, did you see the movie?” Bale asks. “I did.” “You did, but you didn't like it.” “What makes you say that?” “Because you said, ‘I guess we gotta talk about that.' You're like, We gotta get on with that.” “I gotta be honest. I didn't love it.” “Why was that?” Bale is almost laughing as he prods me. It's reassuring to know this shit is funny to him, too, and it betrays the quiet confidence that has been evident in him from the beginning. He doesn't really care whether I liked the film, but he isn't above provoking an interesting conversation about it. I tell him that, though the performances are great — and they are — I thought there was an odd flatness and distance to the film. Things stopped just short of where I felt they needed to go in order to fully pull in the viewer. I suggest — and this shouldn't surprise fans of Herzog's docs — that there was, despite the incredible attention to the physical geography of Dengler's imprisonment, almost too much room left between the audience and the internal landscapes of the characters as they go through their Job-like struggles. In other words, I know what Dieter endured — torture, deprivation and hopeless jungle — but I'm not sure I came away knowing him. Does that make sense? Let me put something out there and see if this might be what it is. I can't speak for Werner, but I can say what my understanding is of some of his beliefs about moviemaking. He loathes quick-cut editing and the reliance on editing to manipulate an audience. He feels that it's a fraudulent way of approaching film. He will go for a very simple setup. He doesn't believe in creating a heightened tension, or comedy, or anything through editing. He believes something is either there or it's not there, and you should just sit back and watch what unfolds. The article in The New Yorker raised a lot of questions about Herzog's methods, one of the more interesting ones being: Is he making a movie or is he on an adventure? Did you ever question that yourself? You see, I like being on an adventure. I would say, yes, he's on an adventure, with the belief that that will become part of the movie as well. Certainly, with Werner, there's a whole lot more than what is going on the screen. Which is why you can get whole movies made about the making of a Werner Herzog movie...there's a whole world of, like you said, adventure and craziness going on outside the movie. I want nothing more than heading off to strange places and having an adventure. I never felt with Werner that there's such a strong pull for that adventure that he forgot there was a movie being made. He's very, very passionate about that actual movie and what he's making. He's a very intense man, or he's the most gentle and laid-back you ever met. It's one or the other. There are no in-betweens. He's extreme in that degree. As long as it's not just posturing or vanity, then I love that. I love seeing people who care very much about what they're doing and the fights that ensue because of it, or the crazy just try it, you know? Just give it a shot. And Werner still has a sense about him...Like you said, is it really 50-odd movies?...and yet there's still this sense about him, like he's trying it for the first time. How deeply were you put to the test — physically, mentally, your patience? Ah, I could have been pushed a lot more than I was. I mean, it's not like there aren't...I mean, when I see [co-star Steve Zahn] again, there's always great stories to reminisce about — ludicrous situations we'd find ourselves in, sitting in rivers with snakes going down it, or squatting in a paddy field for hours on end, or, you know, torrential rains coming down and flooding the whole set, or whatever. I kind of love getting pushed like that, you know. I love it, and Werner's the man for doing that. He would just keep on pushing and pushing and pushing. There's no limit to how much he'll keep pushing somebody, but he'll do it with himself as well. He'll be in there, you know, head-to-toe covered in clay from crawling around in it one day. He'll be washed down the rapids with us. He'll be coming away with losing toenails. He loves doing that. He just absolutely loves it. He doesn't really want anybody else to have more of an experience than he does. There's definitely a kind of competition going on there. And I was very much up for that. I think there's a great, almost Boy's Own idea of struggling through the jungle and coming across snakes and diving into pools and not knowing what's in there and doing things that other people would look at you and think, You're nuts, why would you ever do that? How many chances do you get to fly with a crazy Thai helicopter pilot who's flying a foot above the trees and who is doing this crazy shit you'd never get to do in a helicopter and — not only that — I'm standing outside the helicopter on the rails? Well, I don't want anyone else doing that. I want to be the one doing that. It occurs to me that Bale, especially in his most memorable performances — whether it's inAmerican Psycho, orThe Prestige, in which he plays a magician who goes to absurd lengths for his craft, orThe Machinist, for which he lost 60 pounds to play a haunted insomniac, orHarsh Times, in which he's a violent Gulf War vet returning to the mean streets of L.A., or evenBatman Begins, as a superhero who's a borderline sociopath — is attracted to roles that explore the limits of both character and actor. What draws you to a role, especially to such extreme roles, where you have to do such extreme things? I mean, doesn't everybody have that? It'd kind of like being given a dare. Can you go through with it? Can you test yourself, push it, and how far will you go and how far can you go? It's a craving to know the answer to that, you know? I know that I get obsessed with what's right in front of me, and I'll just be thinking about that, and I may look back later on certain things I've done and think, What was I thinking there?, you know? I kind of lost the plot a little bit, didn't I? But I know nobody could have convinced me otherwise at the time. You seem uninterested in attention or fame. You seem like one of the least movie-star-like movie stars that I've come across. How do you get to the level you're at and stay so removed from that part of it? Maybe just by obsessing about your failings instead of focusing on your strengths. [Laughs.] To be honest, I don't know what else to do. What else would I do? You can start prancing around, but you're becoming just a model or something at that point, you know what I mean? I like being comfortable as much as anybody else, but you get too used to that and you become a right little whining softie. I guess it's just not interesting. What's interesting about it? What is there to that, except for swanning around pretending you're not interested in what anybody else is doing? That sounds boring as hell to me. **** With that, the accident is over, I go off to ride waves, and Bale leaves to ride dirt bikes. We'll be seeing a lot of him in the near future, though — if not as one of many Bob Dylans in Todd Haynes's meta-biopic I'm Not There, then perhaps in the remake of the Western classic 3:10 to Yuma, which promises to show off more of the actor's horsemanship. Both come out later this year. And if not there, then surely in The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan's sequel to Batman Begins, which is currently filming. If he isn't careful, the best actor of his generation will also soon be the biggest, but something tells me he'll be careful. There's only one bit of unfinished business that I feel compelled to address. It's the question I get asked by every woman whom I tell that I've recently interviewed Christian Bale. The question comes accompanied by a raised eyebrow and a sly, carnal grin. “Well?” they ask. “Well, what?” “Well, what was he like?” And then they go on to tell me how they've loved him since Empire of the Sun, fell more in love with him in Swing Kids, the one about a group of prewar German kids who'd rather dance to the beat of swing music than march to the beat of war drums. And, oh god, they say, that body in American Psycho. And what they mean by the question is, Was he just as hot in person? Well, ladies, here's what I remember: He had more facial hair than Charlie Chaplin, but less than two out of three members of ZZ Top. His eyebrows were luxurious. His cheekbones were noticeable. His hair was thick, but bordered precariously on mullet-esque beneath the baseball cap. He was tall enough to be commanding, but not tall enough to tower or loom. He wasn't cut enough to chop ice, but I don't think anyone's gonna kick sand in his face. His style? More American Apparel than American Psycho. Would I do him? Well, a good rule is to avoid sex with anyone — no matter how hot — that you wouldn't want to have a conversation with, and as I learned, Bale is someone you do want to have a conversation with. Or, as Herzog says, “You see very handsome actors, and they don't have depth. He has so much depth behind what you see on the surface.”

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