Before he becomes Batman, the Welsh actor literally starves for his art in this month’s The Machinist.
By now you may have heard that Christian Bale lost 63 pounds for his role as tormented insomniac Trevor Reznik in the new thriller The Machinist. Best to get that out of the way early, because when watching the film – in which Bale resembles a stick figure with skin – it takes a long time, and a strong stomach to get past it. Bale lost more weight than Tom Hanks (Castaway) and Adrien Brody (The Pianist) did combined.
As shocking as it is to see the results of Bale’s two months of starvation blown up garishly on a big screen, what’s harder to comprehend is why anyone would do that to himself voluntarily. Actors do funny things, and it’s common knowledge that drastic physical changes can be a shortcut to awards. But Bale doesn’t seem that calculating – or that cynical. To say he is “intense” or “serious” doesn’t do justice to a man who has merged performance with masochism (or sadism, come to think of it, in 2000’s American Psycho more than any film actor in recent memory. Yeah, yeah, DeNiro in Raging Bull comes to mind. But at least he got to eat.
Bale’s not eating – or drinking – anything today; he’s slouching in a suite at New York’s Essex House hotel. Wearing jeans, a blue track top, and a Nike cap that covers half his face, he looks like he’s hiding out. Paparazzi will undoubtedly be more of a concern next summer, when Batman Begins hits the screens. Directed by Christopher Nolan (whose cult film Memento is referenced more than once in The Machinist) and starring Bale as, yes, tormented millionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne, it will begin the Batman myth at an even darker place than Tim Burton’s gothic 1989 version did.
But although Bale left the Batman Begins set just last week, he is not here to talk about that today. After entertaining a couple of questions, he directs a curt “I think we’ve spoken enough about Batman now” to the wall, the focus of his relentless gaze for the rest of the conversation. And, fair enough – when a man has suffered so much for his art, he might want to get the word out. But why the hunger-artist routine? “It was good enough, you know?” he says. The Machinist, filmed last year in Barcelona (standing in for the bleak industrial neighborhoods of the San Fernando Valley), is what its director, Brad Anderson, refers to as a “puzzle movie,” one which its star has seen eight times. “I loved the script,” Bale says. “I was really haunted by it.”
Bale may in fact be the only actor in history who envies screenwriters. “They can do their job and they don’t have to speak with anybody,” he says in a none-too-subtle dig at the promotional process. He spent last night at the film’s New York premiere and doesn’t recall any audible gasps when he reveals his grotesque, shirtless torso in front of the bathroom mirror. “It’s probably the movie that I’m most proud of,” he says. “Even if I had nothing to do with it, I would still rate it as some kind of a classic.”
The actor’s spectral frame, though, threatens to overshadow the film itself. “I hope people take away more from this movie than that he looks like some sort of walking skeleton,” says Anderson. “But, like anything, it’s a hook.”
Bale’s career has been governed by very deliberate, almost contrarian choices (well, apart from that dragon movie with Matthew McConaughey). An armchair analyst might speculate that it’s a partial response to being thrust into the spotlight as the 13-year-old star of Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun – the relentless attention and the teasing from classmates almost turned the young Bale off the business for good. After he spent time in frock coats in Little Women and The Portrait of a Lady before stepping up to the mirror in American Psycho. Bale’s physical transformation into the buff, preening killer Patrick Bateman had people talking, but in a good way. “I had to adopt a very vain look and lifestyle so that I still gave a damn about going to the gym,” he says. “In my normal mind-set, I think it’s a waste of time.”
The Welsh-born Bale, 30, speaks with an odd blend of clipped Britishness and an almost goombah drawl. He makes the epic weight loss from his regular 180 pounds sound easy. “I was told I could get down to about 140, 145 safely. So I did that and I felt absolutely fine. But then I thought, eh, I could go further than this, so I got down to 130 and then went, ‘You know what, the script says 121. It’s just nine pounds.'”
If Bale’s acting career flatlines, he can always go into business writing diet books for New York socialites. (“You can put on seven, eight pounds in one night if you’re not careful. It completely ruined the whole week’s work.”) Batman Begins will make that unlikely. “Initially, I thought they were doing a lower-budget Batman,” Bale says. “I thought in that case it will be more interesting.” Things got even more interesting when Nolan, who had tested the mainstream water with 2002’s Insomnia, came on board and the budget ballooned. “Then I though, ah, it will probably be the same as all the others. But Chris is not going to make something we’ve seen before.”
Still, Bale doesn’t foresee himself as a $20 million man anytime soon. “If you start thinking ‘I’m a leading man,’ you get more boring roles because people don’t like you taking any risks,” he says. “You get paranoid about whether your movie will do well. Honestly, I’ve never really had a movie that has done particularly well.”
No matter how high Bale’s profile in Hollywood is at least he has the love of a good woman. His wife, Sibi Blasic, whom he married in 2000, travels with him to every film set. “Otherwise we’d never see each other,” Bale says, adding that his preparation for The Machinist drove her witless. “She thinks I’m crazy.” Blasic is packing her bags to head for Virginia, where Bale joins Colin Farrell in Terrence Malick’s The New World, a drama about the clash between Native Americans and the British in the 17th century.
Dodging flying arrows will probably seem like a walk in the park after The Machinist, and Malick and moody actors seem to go together like peaches and cream. “The only time I saw Christian get upset on the shoot was when there we were talking about food and restaurants.”
“The thing is, whatever you do physically, you cannot fake,” he said. And no one would accuse him of that.