Meeting Christian Bale for the first time, you realize how much baggage you are bringing into the room. It’s because he has shown so much intensity, shape-shifting and commitment in a range of roles that are far more consistently memorable than most actors can claim over a long career, launched 26 years ago with Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun.” He doesn’t agree– a sign of the high standards to which he holds himself, which have served him well.
Clearly he knows how to pick roles– and deliver. He finally landed a Best Actor nomination for “American Hustle.” Bale is pleasant and forthright as he talks about his latest performances in two excellent films hitting theaters during the height of award season. He’d rather talk, though, about hard-working factory welder Russell Baze, a good man trapped by an unforgiving world in Scott Cooper’s carefully structured rust-belt drama “Out of the Furnace,” which arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on March 11. (Review here, how-it-got-made feature here, Ramapo controversy here.) That seems to have been a more pleasurable experience than the wildly improvisational set of David O. Russell’s “American Hustle.”
Bale should have known what he was getting into after his performance as a drug-addicted trainer in Russell’s “The Fighter” yielded a supporting actor Oscar. Bale’s wily Long Island con-man Irving Rosenfeld in “American Hustle” is an astonishing creation that has to be seen to be believed. This time the actor gained 50 pounds, perfected an elaborate comb-over, and is utterly, hilariously believable as the reluctant husband of blonde bombshell Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and ardent lover of fellow con-artist Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Who else could have pulled this off? (Bale clearly has little to say about his latest Russell experience. Here’s my early take on the film.)
Anne Thompson: How do you make decisions about what you’re going to do and
who you’re going to work with?
Depends what your situation in life is. There are many films you look back on
and you can say, “he didn’t think about the director at all.” You’re being very
complimentary and presumably you’re talking about the better films. There might
be a lot of good ones, but there’s a lot of bad ones. They’re there, ok? Obviously you’re not making
the right choices all the time but you know what? Necessity. Sometimes this is how you make your living.
you’re in a fortunate enough position which yes, I am now, where you can say, “you know what? Finish the film. I don’t have to be working within another
month.” I think, what a wonderful position to be in, that you’re not just
desperately trying to keep yourself afloat but you actually say “wow, how did
that happen?” There’s nobody who becomes an actor who’s a good businessman. It’s
just total bloody luck. You suddenly find yourself going “what? I just did
something I like doing?” And I’m actually now in a position where I don’t have
to work for a little while, and in that case yeah, you’ve got a responsibility,
you best be doing something that’s really good! At those moments you are declaring
who you are and what films you want to make.
In a weird way not
doing Batman anymore makes you free to be you.
I didn’t really want
to be me anyway. You have different characters, you get movie stars who are
wonderful at being themselves, who are charismatic and charming. And that’s not
me. And you get people who just want to create absolute other inventions alien
to themselves and that’s what I enjoy. Yes, there’s an element of course of the
director and his reputation but you also want to take a chance on somebody
who’s never done anything.
Such as Scott Cooper?
Well he did
“Crazy Heart,” which was wonderful but there are times when you just
say, “everything is a leap of faith.” “Harsh Times” is an example. I
really enjoyed that. I don’t think hardly anybody saw it. David [Ayer] hadn’t been
able to get the financing for it and I was making “Batman” and called
him up and said, “Look, we might be able to get financing together now that I’m doing
this.” Wanna do it? And he said “great, okay.” He remortgaged his own house for it
and paid for it all himself and we shot it. I’ll never stop wanting to take a chance. I didn’t
get into this to be making solid, safe movies.
That is not you. You take chances all the time. With
“Out of the Furnace,” it was interesting to see you play the relatively
solid citizen, the guy who had it together even though bad things happened to him. The scenes with you and Zoe Saldana are so touching.
He’s a man with
wonderful values, he’s a man who stays. It doesn’t matter that his town is falling apart around him. He just has that innate goodness and responsibility to
take care of people, and to stay in the town regardless. That’s part of who he
is. That’s his roots, and I find that fascinating as well, because I never
really felt rooted anywhere. I feel the most roots actually here because my daughter was
Do you live in Los Angeles?
Yes, but I feel the roots for those reasons, because of my
daughter. Other than that, I’ll go anywhere. I was just born in Wales. My dad
was working on a dairy farm at the time. I just popped out. So I look at that and
find that mentality fascinating, [Russell Baze] is always trying to do the right thing. He’s
got impulses that are not the right thing necessarily. But he’s always said
that he has become stoic through necessity, and he does the right thing. Even
though his dreams and his girlfriend’s dreams are different, he recognizes his
commitment to his brother [Casey Affleck]. So he’s constantly bailing him out. He’s really not
doing anything that’s selfish in any manner whatsoever. But he’s finding that
he’s just eating shit the whole time.
Scott Cooper insisted on shooting in that Braddock, Pennsylvania location. How much
did that help you?
It helps immensely.
You don’t have to act as much. When you’re in a real place, it’s right there. I
find the hardest places to act are in studios, on sound stages. Here’s the
difference: When you’re shooting on a sound stage, everything’s about the
rectangle and let’s make it work for that rectangle. It’s all about that rather
than, forget the rectangle, make the entire world feel correct, and then they
can film anywhere and go wherever’s interesting. You can see what happens and make
more mistakes, which are wonderful things! You feel like you’re giving less of
a performance; you’re just doing it. You’re just being and the camera can find what’s interesting, instead of as an actor, you have to fill up that little rectangle because
there’s nothing outside of it.
What’s “Moses” like?
It couldn’t be more
different than “Out of the Furnace.” I’m so much happier now that we’re on
location. We’re shooting in Spain. It’s about having a real bloody rock around
you. It just makes everything easier for me. I grew up with some element of
religious background, varying degrees of belief and skepticism. My dad had many
different friends with various religions. He was interested in all but also was
very kind of anti-organized religion so he was a paradox with that. And for me
it was just a great surprise because it’s not often that you actually read, in
a linear fashion, “The Bible.” When you do it, “oh my god! Moses is a fascinating
contradictory character.” But, that’s for another time.
Personally it was fun seeing you as the handsome Christian
Bale in “Out of the Furnace.” But now you’re doing this physical
transformation with “American Hustle.”
You just do what
feels right, from a subjective point of view. The director has to tell you, “stop doing that,” and you have to go, “I’m going to do it anyway.” Whatever you
want to do. But the thing is, it just requires, ideally, like I said, “it’s a
living.” There are times when you go to work and you take the best available and
it’s not alway so good. Look at my filmography.
Then you get certain ones like
“Out of the Furnace,” which didn’t look like it was going to happen. There
was something about it. It wasn’t an articulated thing. It was just a feeling.
There’s something there. I liked Scott. He’s sincere and he’s dogged as well.
He stuck to it. “I’m not doing it without you.” And when I saw a few months opened up, I said, “that guy is
different.” I called him up and said I wanted to do it. He needs to work. He’s
got a family. “Let’s do it.” I shot for 27 days. We didn’t have a lot of prep but it was
You had a great cast, opposite Casey Affleck, who you could
We talked about that
a little bit. Once we mentioned Casey it became another thing. If it’s not him,
forget it. It’s got to be him and he gives such a wonderful performance as do
the other actors. It attracted such great actors. You’ve got to be careful with
that, because once you go from a piece where you can disappear into that world
to a piece where there are all these cameos coming up. I look at it and I go,
man, the quality of actors was such that you just buy every single character.
You’re not jumped out of it by the cameo roles. You can really feel a much larger
life with each of them.
Do you weigh in on post-production? Or do you just let the
director do his thing?
If I was a director
I’d want to be able to do my own thing completely. So I will respect that with
other people and that’s the price you pay as an actor, that they may be cutting
your very best scenes. Why did you pick that? If you don’t like that, become a director or become a
producer and tell them to put those scenes in. But I don’t have any interest in
doing that. I believe in just accepting what you’re doing. But Scott invited me. I
was in the edit room the whole time. It’s through no sense of needing guidance.
It’s through a sense of he’s got so much confidence that he’s really happy to
hear all my thoughts about it. And he’ll reject them or accept them. So I saw the
film go through different guises over many months and I liked every choice that
What’s going on with the two Malick films?
With “Knight of
Cups” I was there the whole time. The other one I unfortunately wasn’t
able to do everything I was meant to do, so I ended up doing like three, four days on that. Which in Terry’s world means you’re never going to see me in it.
Do you think “Knight of Cups” is heading toward
some kind of finish? Are they asking you to do post-production sound or
anything like that?
Yeah. I’ve been doing that for months. Terry is on fire. They’re both going to get finished.
There’s no doubt about it. WHEN, I can’t tell you. But they’re both going to
get finished. He’s just lit up. He’s possessed.
So the Batkid. What was that all about?
I didn’t know
anything about it but then I just looked on the news this morning. What a great
thing. I’ve never been on Twitter or anything like that but you know what a wonderful
thing that was, that he managed to create that. What a day for that kid.
Fantastic and to me, look, way beyond anything to do with the
“Batman” thing and my association with that, it’s just a symbol. It’s
irrelevant who’s playing him. It doesn’t matter. He’s so much bigger than that.
This little kid is having the best day of his life. Everyone went far beyond
what anyone would have expected and what a joyous moment. Just phenomenal to