At 41, Christian Bale has had the kind of career you’d expect from someone twice his age. Between his breakthrough with Steven Spielberg, his award-winning collaboration with David O. Russell, his work on the Christopher Nolan-helmed Batman trilogy and his latest feature with Terrence Malick, Bale has experienced it all.
Following the much-anticipated Berlinale premiere of Terrence Malick’s latest, “Knight of Cups,” Indiewire sat down with the British actor to discuss his second collaboration with Malick as well as some other career highs.
“Knight of Cups” marks Bale’s second film with Malick in a decade, with the first being a minor role in the 2005 drama “The New World.” In a roundtable discussion, the actor gave some insight on his long relationship with “Terry,” who he first met in 2003, and how the filmmaker’s unconventional style has played into his performances.
“Terry has a thing where he loves it when you are not trying to please him, which is very different from most directors. Most directors want you to please them. And they’ve got a definite goal, which is not really always egotistical. The nature of having a script is that you have points and scenes where you have to take the audience to a certain place by the end of it. So there’s always a goal there. With ‘The New World,’ there was a script. But, he abandoned it most of the time. He would never have the scenes be in the same place or a repetition of them. There would never be a request of, ‘Can you change that a little bit and then we’ve got it.’ It would be, ‘OK, let’s discover something new about it.”
Bale explained how with “Knight of Cups” he was given no script at all, and the only thing he knew about his character was based on conversations he had with Malick. Other featured actors and members of the crew had more information though.
“But what [working with Malick] means as an actor is that you are not trying so hard. You just sort of see what happens. If it comes naturally, you do it. If it doesn’t, you don’t. That’s what he loves. With this one you’ve got a character who is a man of words, who has lost all use for his own words, who is tired of talking. But there would be certain scenes where Terry might say to me, ‘Alright, this is the topic. Talk a little bit about this.’ And it just felt wrong. And sometimes I would be totally silent and it would go great. It’s all I needed. As long as you are not attempting something, you are just discovering it as you go along. That’s what delights him. He’s very excited by what he does and by making films.”
In “Knight of Cups,” Bale plays Rick, a successful screenwriter who wanders aimlessly through a dreamy (and often nightmarish) Los Angeles. The film, while not exactly linear, has Rick interact with a series of women, who come and go and mean different things to him at different moments. Bale spoke about the role these women, played by Imogen Poots, Freida Pinto, Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman (to name a few), with respect to this character.
“I think certainly with my character there’s the guilt of wondering whether he’s cast a shadow over these women in his past. Was he a good man to them? Was he not a good man? We’ve got, especially, Cate Blanchett’’s character, the ex-wife, and then we got Natalie’s character, who he had an affair with and she was a married woman. And him trying to work out what did he do to these women. That seems to be something essentially he needs to do before he can continue on in whatever his search is. There’s a great deal where he feels he used women entirely for pleasure, and sometimes ignored who they are and their substance. He’s trying to revisit that and indeed that’s exactly what he is doing with himself and almost everyone around him. It’s become that the novelty no longer excites him and the substance is gone. He needs to discover something new.”
Despite his connection with Malick’s work and style, the actor, who also shot for two days for Malick’s next film, an untitled romantic drama with the music scene of Austin, Texas as a backdrop, made it clear that he’s able to work with a more conventional director as he did with his last film, Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” He then spoke about Los Angeles, which appears to act as a character of its own in “Knight of Cups” and so many other films.
“I kind of love the L.A. that it depicts. I know that sounds strange. Because to me, it has such different facets. It’s a horror story. There’s ugliness. There’s real beauty. There’s real substance. But there’s overall incredible potential. It’s all in your choice of where you go. And just finding that success often takes you to the ugliest places. They can seem like the most grand, but they can often be ugliest. To me, I think that’s same as every other city I’ve ever been to or lived in. Or every other business. Hollywood is a bit more, everyone gesticulates a bit bigger. It’s maybe a little bit more colorful.”
Although Bale speaks so naturally about working on such a small endeavor, the actor has also led three Batman movies and also starred in “Terminator Salvation.” Still, there’s a preference.
With the Batman narrative continuing without him, Bale spoke about superhero reboots and all the remakes that have been coming about as of late.
“Yeah. I knew I was entering into that. I said no a bunch of times before I went, ‘You know what? Lets see how this goes.’ You hope that even with such a behemoth of film, this monster, that maybe something can be made of it. Then you fail miserably. Then you go, ‘Aw man, never again.’ But then you see someone else is doing it and it is its own nature and you know what you’re getting into. I’ve done enough of them, especially with having done the Batman films, that you know the very very clear difference between those kinds of films and a film like the ‘Knight of Cups.'”
The conversation moved to Bale’s breakthrough role, the lead in Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun.” He was 13 at the time.
“I think it was an extraordinary experience. I think that I was introduced to some of the top level people. I think about the sets that we built that were just unbelievable. These entire worlds that were created. I think about that very visceral, raw talent that children have. Where this unquestioning belief in what they do and what they say. It so often works so very well in film. In many ways it’s like Rick, who is looking back at things. You don’t ever lose that. There’s such a sincerity and honesty to that. A lack of guard any kind of strategy to it. It makes it really quite mesmerizing.”
Bale also spoke about his drive, why he continues to act and how he celebrates success, like with his Oscar win for David O. Russell’s “The Fighter.”
“It makes me feel useful. It’s the only thing I ever found that people said I did well. It’s nice for people to say that to you. You get addicted to that. I’ve never met anybody who doesn’t like feeling useful. It’s the thing that I’ve found I’m most useful at. [The Oscar] was wonderful because I never would have expected that. That was great and it came from a film I really enjoyed. I liked the wrestling that David O. Russell and I go through. I really enjoy that and he’s a brilliant filmmaker.”
The session ended with Bale talking about having fun, and the most fun he’s ever had making a film.
“I’ve had fun on so many different films. I’ll tell you one of the tricky things, though. One thing that was great on this film was that we had fun on it and I really love it. Often what happens is you have great fun on a film and it’s awful. You get films where you go ‘this is such a nightmare’ and everyday you feel like you’re banging your head against the wall, and then you watch it and think it’s fantastic.”