A Nice Quiet Chat with Christian Bale

He slips into the room without fanfare. He walks slowly, on his heels, toward the terrace. When I stand, he points at me, or my table, or my general area still without turning to look at me, his eyes fixed on the terrace in front of him – and in his low English accent asks, “We doin’ this here or what?”

Christian Bale detests interviews, on the predictable grounds that his offscreen life is nobody’s business, but also because he thinks the whole enterprise of movie-star “journalism” is corrosive to acting and storytelling. 

This opener “here or what?” is less interesting for what it is than for what it skips the part where we shake hands and say hello and I thank him for taking the time, and he says, “Don’t mention it,” and…smiles. Or something. Let’s just get through this, right? Now he looks at me. I can’t see his eyes behind the Ray-Bans and won’t at any point today, because he doesn’t take them off. He points his chin at the sundeck. “How ’bout out there?” Right.

Please tell us Terminator Salvation is going to rock. Please tell us the title represents what this fourth installment will do for the franchise.
Look, I hate to throw people under the bus for making movies I don’t think are very good. But for Salvation to be considered with any legitimacy, you have to throw number three [Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines] under the bus. It began to spoof the whole thing. To me, that was a sign that the franchise was dead, the mythology was finished.

You rescued the Batman franchise from spoof by giving us a dark Bruce Wayne. Is Christian Bale now the go-to guy when an action franchise needs a booster shot of serious?
Look, that’s laughable. How serious can a movie about time-traveling robots be? You want it to be cool and fun.

Don’t do that. Don’t apologize for being a serious guy. You’re the first actor playing Batman to understand that he’s as anarchic and freakish as his enemies.
It’s true. I do like taking stuff seriously that a lot of people look at as nonsense. I enjoy the insanity of that. And I like the commitment that is needed for that. But this is a movie about time-traveling robots. I guess I’m always wary of this bullsh* where people are makin’ it sound like what you do is far more impressive than it actually is. Everyone always tells you that you’re the only one that can do this or that role right, and if you say no, they go to somebody else and tell them that they’re the only one that can do it right. But when they’re talking to you, you’re always the Best Actor of Your Generation.

So is that how [Terminator director] McG sold you on the project? By dubbing you TBAOYG?
At first they wanted me to play another character. I read the script and was like, Nah. But McG, who had a fear of flying, flew to England to meet me. He still didn’t convince me. I was very open with him and said that I hadn’t seen anything he had done before that justified him being the guy to make this. But I’ve always been grateful for people giving me that opportunity to do things I’ve never done before, and I’m always for people transforming themselves. But without the script there, there was no way in hell this could work. Ultimately, McG came back and wanted me to play the Connor role. But the Connor role was small. I said, “This guy has no real role here.”

How can that be?
Exactly. The Connors are the story. But then I was in Hong Kong on the very last week of shooting The Dark Knight. I had been to some teahouse where this local guide insisted I drink this tea he’d made. I don’t know if he’d spiked it, but within half an hour I turned to my wife and said, “Eh, I kind of feel like doing this.” So I called McG up, said, “If we can get a new script, then yeah, let’s go for Connor.” I felt good about it, because we really did have a lot of time. And then f**, writers’ strike. I learned a lesson then about movies like The Terminator and Batman. Most people assume that if you’re risking that amount of money, you don’t begin until you’re completely ready. In fact, that’s what they do only with the lower-budget movies. With the bigger ones, the ones that keep the studios afloat, they have to release it on a certain date. In my naiveté, I thought, ‘Of course we’ll push back filming.’ No. Ain’t a possibility. And that strike kept going on, and we were getting less and less time to get it together. In the end, it was a film experience unlike any I’d had before. A real balls-to-the-wall kind of effort.

So who is John Connor?
Well, he’s not a freak like Bruce Wayne. There’s nothing pathological about him. He has a burden. He knows he’s to be the savior of mankind. J.C., right? In early versions of the script, they had all these weird paganistic amulets and talismans all over me. I told ’em to get rid of that crap. John Connor is all about utility: “There is no fate but what you make.” As far as playing him, I thought of it mainly in terms of his mom. He’s got this mad dog of a mom who everybody thinks is crazy but whose prophecies turn out to be true. I felt that a lot of her ferocity and recklessness had to be passed down.

Would you have unleashed the Rant as intensely, if at all, had you been playing someone other than John Connor?
Of course not. And it wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t been playing that scene between John Connor and his wife, which is probably the most intense one in the movie.

I’ve been wondering if you’re so Method-y that when you kept yelling, “What don’t you f**ing understand?” the question between the lines was, “Don’t you f**ing understand that by walking in front of the lights, you’re putting the survival of the human race at stake?”
[an irritated sigh] I’d definitely say that that guy who was yelling was at least half John Connor, and the rest was Christian Bale.

Save for a few British inflections in those four minutes of sustained screaming, the Rant occurred in your Americanized John Connor accent. Did you use that voice off-camera throughout filming?
I do that because I’m just not very good at switching between two voices. If I had the talent to turn it on and off on cue, I would. But I don’t, so I have to maintain. Otherwise I’m aware that I’m “doing an accent” whenever I’m filming, instead of just speaking. Hey, listen, I don’t make any excuses. None of it is excusable. You know, I feel I already said everything about this that needs to be said when I called up the radio station.

[Four days after the Rant became public, Bale phoned the Kevin & Bean show on KROQ in Los Angeles. After telling the hosts that during an otherwise “miserable” week, their Rant-related riffing had made him laugh, Bale launched into a ten-minute apology.]

What’s your favorite Christian Bale Rant dance remix or mash-up?
A friend sent me one. They did a bloody good job! I’ve gotta say, what a great impulse, you know? To take something ugly like that and make it into a dance? That’s a wonderful thing.

You know, I thought you’d look bigger. Did you bulk up for Terminator?
No, I’m roughly the same size in the movie that I am right now. I felt John Connor needed the wiriness of a soldier.

The bodybuilding and unbuilding you’ve done for your roles is alarming–the former all the more so for its being accomplished without any animal protein.
Actually, I’m in and out of the vegetarianism now. But yeah, the majority of the building up you’re talking about was done when I was still a vegetarian.

Dietary reasons? Or something to do with the character?
I was up in Toronto and went to see that movie Life Is Beautiful. By myself. And when I came out, I had a craving for blood unlike anything I had ever experienced since I decided to go vegetarian at the age of 7. It was a compulsion. It was undeniable. I went to several restaurants, one right after the other, and got the biggest, bloodiest steaks I could get my hands on. It was the first time I had tasted flesh in almost twenty years.

You once said that if you didn’t commit the way you do, acting wouldn’t feel like a “job.” Was that the kind of winking acknowledgment movie stars make about the absurdity of making millions to, you know, dress up in a cape? Or was it something more earnest that you need to endure not just to play a role correctly but to test yourself?
Definitely the second one. Look, I was doing that long before I could ever have had any guilt about getting paid. I learned a long time ago that if I don’t commit completely, I’m not very…content. And yeah, it’s bizarre but true: The easier the role, the more they pay you for it. I’m into a realm now where it doesn’t matter what you do, you don’t deserve to get paid that. It’s fair, because if you’re not, someone else is gettin’ it and they didn’t do what you did for it. But do you deserve it? Hell no.

You once described what you did for The Machinist starving off a third of your body as “calming.” Can you elaborate?
I guess you just sort of have to focus on other…pleasures than food. So you focus on things of the mind. It really is almost mind control. And I found that very calming. Usually, you’re getting nervous energy from what you’re taking into your body. Since I wasn’t putting anything in, I was left in a low-energy state. I didn’t even have the energy to sleep much at all, if that doesn’t sound too strange. But that absence of energy was replaced with an ability to focus in a very slow and steady way for hours and hours. Physically, I was incredibly relaxed I really didn’t have a choice but mentally very acute. It was very nice to be in that state while it lasted. My family enjoyed that one as well, after they got over the horror of looking at me.

You enjoyed it because…?
It was uncluttered. The Machinist changed me. I learned that I really enjoy, literally, not saying a damned word for days at a time, except for what was in the scene. Whole days of…nothing. Just…standing still. I know a lot of people found it bizarre, because they’d be standing right next to me thinking, ‘Why aren’t we talking? What’s going on?’ Hours would pass and I wouldn’t say a word, not even to Brad [Anderson], the director. And then it would be like, All right, I think I heard “Action.” Talk now. The purity of that, the satisfaction. Now I fall asleep on sets all the time. I’ve done it in the middle of scenes where they’ve had to shake me because I’ve missed my cues.

In Batman Begins, in the first scene I had with Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, I fell asleep. In the scene, I was meant to be waking up, so I laid down and just fell asleep. And I didn’t hear “Action.” So Michael and Morgan were talking, and I was supposed to join in. I woke up with Michael Caine poking me in the ribs and going, [pitch-perfect Michael Caine accent] “Look at ‘at! ‘E’s bloody fallen asleep, ‘asn’t ‘e? ‘E’s bloody fallen asleep!”

* * * 

There’s a polarity between the early-morning Bale of our first interview and the late-afternoon Bale who shows up in the same spot the next day. Today there are no Ray-Bans. He’s shaved. His clothes are fresh-pressed and cut to fit. Even a man just rescued after thirty years on a desert island could tell you: That there’s a movie star.

He approaches, makes eye contact, smiles. Bale holds forth amiably on everything from his childhood film acting to his abhorrence for photo sessions.

But not before duly (and yes, intensely) apologizing for being fifteen minutes late. (“No excuses…just shabby…sorry, really…”) I lock into those black eyes and assume a confidential tone.

You’re a nice guy, Christian. You’re a nice guy. But seriously, man, you and me, we’re f**in’ done professionally.
[Bale issues a half smile and a nod to acknowledge that the shot is legal.]

So…outside of your roles, do you have a history of putting yourself in situations where you have to test yourself physically or even court danger?
Definitely. Though the one that stands out to me wasn’t physically demanding or dangerous. One of the places where we lived when I was growing up had this big wood out the back. And starting when I was about 8, I used to enjoy just walking alone through the wood late. Eleven p.m. Midnight. Later. Deep into the woods. It was terrifying. And I wasn’t allowed to look behind me, no matter what noises I heard. That was the point. That thing. The fear. To go into some deep place, a well of fear, that you’ve never been to before and that you didn’t know the way out of. Not looking behind, not turning around, just going deeper and deeper into those woods. I always enjoyed that.

That’s the word? Enjoy?
I learned something about myself, didn’t I?

That I don’t want to be comforted. That I want to be able to face the hell I’m in.

On its face, that’s patently unbelievable. I mean, come on: an 8-year-old? And yet that impulse was fully realized in your performance in Empire of the Sun, which was when you were…?

Your childhood film acting blows Haley Joel Osment’s out of the water. How did you feel about it?
Extreme. It was always either “I’m done with this, I’m gonna quit” or just loving every second of it. But even hating it the way I did, when I did, indicated to me that I was destined to keep doing it.

Because feeling that strongly about something it signaled to me that it was something I needed to pay attention to. You know, when you first get recognized by anybody, it’s a very uncomfortable thing. I really used to just try to be invisible. A teenager usually wants to try to get people to notice him in some way, to feel like someone gives a damn. Me, all that attention, I just wanted to fade into the background. Be invisible. Disappear.

So for that 8-year-old boy it was two things at once: I am afraid and that is unpleasant; at the same time, I am enjoying this.
But it was also I am staying. I am not running. There’s a beautiful epitaph on the gravestone of Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent I play in Public Enemies. All that man went through, the gun battles, being a high-priority target of underworld figures… One time he was in Al Capone’s hotel room, meeting with him, and bullets started flying through the window, the two of them duckin’ down, firing back, looking at each other, and Capone says to him, “They after you, or they after me?” And neither knew. True story. So many situations like that the man went through. And on his gravestone it’s written in Latin, so I had his son translate it for me “I was often afraid, but I never ran.” Back in the day, he would admit to being scared. It was a bravery in and of itself just to admit that in that era. But that’s exactly what I was enjoying in those woods as a kid. I am afraid for my life, but I will not run and I will not look back. I will just go deeper. Until I come through.

It’s funny. The impression a person gets listening to the Rant is that you’re the biggest prima donna of all time. Maybe you are. But you’re also a Hollywood leading man who’s comfortable playing a supporting part or letting someone else be the most charismatic guy on the screen, as in 3:10 to Yuma.
Yeah, Russell [Crowe] and I had the same amount of screen time, but he was definitely the scene stealer, and I have to say I enjoyed that. I find something fascinating about the quiet man in the background who has no desire to be the center of attention. And you know, as Russell’s character starts to understand what my character is up to, the weight of our characters, I guess you might call it, starts to shift. He remains the alpha guy, but he also starts to appreciate the quest I’m on and to realize that it’s going to kill me that in the end I’m more of a lunatic than he is. I’m a supporting role in Public Enemies, too. Purvis was important in bringing down Dillinger (Johnny Depp), but it’s the story of Dillinger.

Do you think in terms of whether you’re entertaining an audience when you’re working out a character? Or do you think of it purely from within the skin of the character?
It’s always from the inside out for me. You know, there are movies where actors aren’t characters but movie stars, being cool beyond belief throughout the whole movie. That is what it is. And we reveal ourselves when we act, very often without noticing. But if I can manage to do a character without showing anything of myself, then that’s the ultimate goal for me. No leakage. Hey, you know, I’m really startin’ to sound like a wanker, talking about acting and all this? Can we stop this?

That anti-movie-star sentiment is funny coming from someone who’s now carrying two of the biggest action-movie franchises on the planet.
Yeah, I’m perverse. I know.

Which pre-Brando, pre-Method actors do you most admire?
I don’t have any answer for that. I watch so few movies. I didn’t get into this because I love movies. I got into it because I love putting myself in other people’s shoes and investigating.

Have you ever considered comedy?
[defensively] I think American Psycho is a very funny movie.

Right. Let’s end on that.
No, wait can I say something? I want to say that I’ve got this long history of just, I can’t stand havin’ my photo taken. Which is why in half the photos you see of me, I look like I was gettin’ a tetanus injection when they took the picture. Okay? And there was a [fashion] campaign during The Dark Knight in which they used me, in which I had no f**in’ say-so. I would never have done that had I had any f**in’ say-so.

What I’m tellin’ you is that I will not ever be a model. If I’m ever modeling, you’ll know I really f**ing need the money. Okay?

This article has been edited for girlsspeakgeek.com. The complete story appeared in GQ Jun.2009.

June 1, 2009 | draft, Interview | this post contains affiliate links