Christian Bale May Kill Someone Yet

When a rage for authenticity meets a workingman’s attitude, you get this guy. An actor of great dimension — just don’t call him that. And he’ll probably win some big award for his role in The Fighter, but don’t dare tell him that. A funny and sometimes testy encounter with Mr. Bale.

by John H. Richardson for Esquire | Photographs by Nigel Parry | November 2010

Christian Bale comes to the bar looking much more scruffy and handsome — charming, rakish, ne’er-do-well, with a piratical mustache and goatee — than he ever lets himself look in movies. His English accent hits a sweet spot on the higher edge of working class, with a hint of the warm burr of his native Wales. But within minutes it becomes blindingly clear that he’d be much happier asking the questions than answering them.

CHRISTIAN BALE: Everybody talks about the process too much. The interesting thing about a movie is the movie.

Um, yeah, but we’re here to do an interview.
I don’t get it when you get so much openness about the way movies are made, and the special effects and the behind-the-scenes stuff and all of that. I can’t help but feel like this reduces it a little bit. It’s something that shouldn’t just be handed out as an extra on a DVD. It should be sought out by serious potential filmmakers who wanna learn how to do it.

Yes, but…
Somebody tells me I “should read Dickens,” I’ll be f**ed if I’m ever gonna pick up Dickens. That word ‘should’ just kills it. I’ll never feel a personal connection to it.
It should just happen. It should just happen. If something’s true and sincere, it happens regardless of marketing. The more I talk about it, the more I’m telling people how they should react. And that is an asshole.

Not to argue, but that’s not really true.
Are you calling me a liar? Am I lying?

Sometimes the ground needs to be prepared. And you’ve laid down these onerous rules on me — all I can do is a Q&A.
You don’t like that?

Actually, these are forbidden words that you are reading right now. Bale is in the habit of requesting that his media interviews be printed in a Q&A format. He also makes it known that he dislikes personal questions.

No! I don’t like being told what to do.
I’ll tell you why. Basically, it’s somebody who got stuck having to interview me who really wants to be a novelist, so they’re writing these novellas and I was like, “It’s not true, that didn’t happen, they just made all that up! Why don’t they just go ahead and be a novelist instead of bothering with interviewing me?”

So you want to be perceived accurately, but you also don’t want to give any details. You realize that those two things contradict each other.
No, it’s simpler than that. I want to be able to just act and never do any interview, but I don’t stand up to the studio and say, “I’m never doing another interview in my life!” So I tip my hat and go, “Okay mister! All right mister! I’ll go do the salesman job!”

And you don’t want to talk about your personal life or family background either.
Look, I’ve got incredible pride for my family. I’ve absolutely fallen into that cliché of a dad who could just happily talk about my daughter endlessly. But it’s not what I’m about in terms of being an actor. I don’t want people to know about that.

Why not?
I don’t want people to know me.

Why not?
Because that buggers up my job.

How does it do that?
Because if you know something about somebody, it gets in the way of just watching the guy as the character.

When he was a child actor, Bale did fantasy movies and even sang and danced in Newsies. Now he cringes at the words “child actor.”

BALE: I spent many years trying to pretend I wasn’t.

Why?
Well, it’s embarrassing to be a star. Most people look at you like, “That’s not a f**ing job, is it?” And then on top of that, you learn very quickly that you’re just a tool — other people are manipulating everything you do, you’re at the mercy of editors, and there’s nothing you can do. But I learned that there’s a certain character that can be built from embarrassing yourself endlessly. If you can sit happy with embarrassment, there’s not much else that can really get to ya.

You don’t want to be a vain movie star, I totally get it, I respect it. But there’s nothing that’s more of a d* movie-star move than to say, “It has to be printed as a Q&A.” That’s movie star. You and Tom Cruise back in the day are the only people who do that s*.
That’s not true! [laughing] We’re not the only ones. And it was like I said yesterday, it came from a couple of interviews where they just made up a whole bunch of crap in their effort to practice writing their novel.

You really wanna be freed up from just doing the Q&A, don’t ya?

I went back to my hotel last night thinking, This guy’s very cool and he doesn’t wanna act like a poncy movie star, he wants to be a regular bloke, but he’s got instructions on what format the f**ing story should take. He’s delusional!

Bale is laughing…

Poor guy! He actually thinks he’s normal!
I do love people ripping the s* out of me. I don’t know what that’s about, but I love it. The more crap you give me, the happier I get.

But Bale takes control again, a hint of British irony in his voice.

BALE: Have you seen the movie that we’re here to discuss?

The Fighter? You’re so great in it, and it’s a really good movie.
Would you tell me if you thought it was crap?

I’m not sure.
Because I’ve enjoyed interviews so much when the writer has said to me, “You know what? Not my thing. Didn’t like it too much.” I find that endlessly entertaining.

You’re famous for losing sixty-three pounds on The Machinist. You looked scary. What’s up with that?
That was just a kind of an asshole seeing if he could have the discipline to mentally control himself for an amount of time.

Squirming, he returns to his sore spot.

BALE: I have a very sissy job, where I go to work and get my hair done, and people do my makeup, and I go and say lines and people spoil me rotten. And everyone has that kind of curiosity of how far can you go, how far can you take it. I think it’s always good testing yourself. With various things that could be incredibly unimpressive to other people, but there’s some meaning to it within yourself — and also stupid, which many people called me during that time [laughs].

Batman’s a perfect role for you. He’s the only action hero who really captures you. Did you know that going in?
No. All I knew was that there was a whole lot more there that I’d never seen and there was some extreme in the interpretation that should be taken. So I just said, “I just gotta hope that they’re gonna go with that, and if they don’t, that’s not the version I’d like to be involved with anyway.” And it’s that perverse thing in life, where when you’re able to achieve a certain recklessness, you actually end up getting good results. You have to throw everything aside and say, “What the hell, I’m gonna do it this way, and if they don’t like it, I wanna do it anyway.” It avoids that anxiety of “How do I manipulate this and fake it so that people believe me?” That’s never gonna work. So that’s the kind of abandonment you gotta have.

Tugged between these polarities of control and recklessness, Bale is emerging as a paradoxical and driven person.

So what’s with all the darkness and the miserable characters and the guilt?
What do you mean “the darkness”? What do you mean? Give me examples.

The Machinist.
All right, that’s an extreme example. I don’t like to kinda look at any patterns in my movies. But I guess Harsh Times is kind of harsh. The New World. And the Batman movies. The Prestige. Rescue Dawn. 3:10 to Yuma. I’m Not There. Velvet Goldmine. I’m sure I’ve got some non-dark-guilt-ridden pieces.

Newsies. But you were this singing, dancing, happy kid. What happened to you?
I’m still singing and dancing and happy. I just don’t like musicals, that’s all.

What [other movies have you seen]?
Chris Farley was just phenomenal. Beverly Hills Ninja will always remain one of my tops.

Now you’re lying.
I have watched that movie. One time I sat down and watched it two nights in a row, and cried with laughter both times. The guy just was a phenomenon, and is missed dearly in my household.

You have these very strongly held beliefs, some of them a bit peculiar. Were you troubled by some growing egotism or vanity or something?
No. I primarily felt embarrassment through most of my performances.

Because of the quality or the doing?
I’m not sure. I never put my finger on it. But there was a love for it at the same time — and I don’t think it’s amazing to have those contradictions. None of us are sound bites, you know.

You seem to have a puritanical streak.
Puritanical? Really?

The embarrassment. The rigor. Instead of reveling in the fact that you’re a rich and famous movie star, you’re embarrassed.
Believe me, I have things I revel in without any hesitation. This is just not something to be quite as proud of as many people would have you believe.

Art is something to be proud of. Art is no compromise. As an actor, you’re giving it up, you’re at the mercy of so many other people. So are you truly reaching the lofty goals? No, of course you’re not. And there are some movies where that was never the aim anyway.
You know, I’ve been doing this quite a long time. It doesn’t make me feel special. But I actually love it more for the reality of how it is done, the sinew and the bone of how it’s really put together.

Can you be more specific?
One word: immersion. It doesn’t matter whether I would be acting or doing anything else. It’s about taking things a little too far. It’s about you don’t know the edge until you’ve gone over it. That fascinates me.

Later, explaining why he refuses to use the “Method acting” technique of remembering the past to stimulate emotion, he returns to the theme.

BALE: I’m not on a couch having therapy. And it’s very limiting if I have to be able to relate every damn thing in somebody else’s life to something that’s happened in mine. At the end of the day, I’m faking it. Pure imagination, and it’s only phony if you don’t go far enough with it. You can become obsessive and it can get to the point where you’re almost losing yourself. You’ve become a vessel. And s*, things start happening. And I’m hating the way I’m sounding right now, because I sound like a tosser, but that’s my secret ambition.

To become a vessel.
Yes, but I don’t believe in revealing that.

Why?
Just do it! Don’t talk about it, get on with it.

But you’re a f**ing actor! You’re in the self business!
It’s the opposite of self! It’s actually saying, “I don’t stand a chance being myself. I’ve gotta create somebody else in order to communicate. If I remove myself from all of my own memories and inhibitions and create another character — s*! I can reach out and communicate in that way.” So to me, it’s actually about trying to f**ing destroy the self, and then you might be able to hit something. There’s some quote, I think it’s Oscar Wilde, “An artist puts nothing of himself into his art.”

Jack Nicholson is all over his parts!
Great movie stars, that’s what they do provide. Steve McQueen, you wanna f**ing be Steve McQueen. What cooler f**ing guy in the world than that? I can’t do that. I don’t believe in myself enough to do that. I’ve always thought, if I was in a band, I’d never want to be the lead singer.

Bassist? Drummer?
Well, I’ve got to admit to a bit of ego. I’d have to be lead guitarist [laughing].

I totally get it except for one thing. You were this way when you were thirteen, so it must be an instinctive reaction that goes deeper than any of your explanations.
All right! We’re not gonna delve into this greatly, but it comes from moving around a lot and the necessity for re-creation. There you go. That’s what it stems from. I was doing it in my own life well before I was doing it as a job.

What would you do if you weren’t an actor?
I think I probably would have tried to experience my own stories in the way my father did — the sort of travel, the randomness of life, educating himself through experiences. [Bale’s father was a swashbuckling figure who flew planes, sold jeans and skateboards, worked as an animal-rights activist, and married three women — including, late in life, Gloria Steinem.] I think I get that partially through acting, but you have to make an effort to be in an unprotected environment because everyone thinks you’re a completely incapable idiot who couldn’t possibly brush his teeth without an assistant. You have to make an effort in order to be able to actually experience the country that you’re in.

I would have been very happy just cruising around and enjoying the unexpected. I’ve never been ambitious. I didn’t go to college. I came from a family who didn’t. My dad was a f**ing brilliant man who pretended he went to college and got a long way with that.

Really?
Yeah! And kudos for him, man. He had the brains. He was a very, very capable man.

When did he die?
Seven years ago.

So he got to see you succeed.
Yeah, if you call it success. But I don’t think his notion of success was ever, “Hey, do some nice big movies, son.”

Ain’t none of ’em gonna be what I’m thinking about when I’m about to go off the clock. Not a single one of ’em. s*, I’m gonna be sad if that’s what’s on my mind at that point.

“I was in Batman once.”
Dementia would have to set in to a severe degree for me to be happy with that.

But this contradicts the intensity Bale brings to his work. He pauses, then makes one last point about the college education he never got.

BALE: It’s just not something I could do. Maybe I would do it now. I probably would. I don’t mean literally. No way in hell I’m doing it now. But if I could go back then and do it, yes, maybe I would have done. I do remember, at the time, looking at my friends who were in college and kinda thinking, “That looks like a laugh.”

But you were working.
Yeah, I was working. It was when I was first getting employed out here.

And you were supporting your family. There was pressure on you.
You don’t recognize it until later. But I don’t like being a little whiner. So I don’t wanna follow down that pathway.

But you could whine if you let it loose.
Who couldn’t? But hopefully you choose not to.

How often did you move?
Pretty regularly. One place, the longest I was in, was for five years. At times two months, six months. No knowledge in advance. Two days’ notice — “We’re going somewhere else.” That kinda thing.

That’s tough.
All fantastic. All fantastic, I loved it.

I think there’s such enjoyment in just getting lost in a city. Having no idea where you are, how you’re gonna get out of it. Getting to be the middle of the night, you’re still lost, walking around. That’s the best way to discover a city. That’s how you’re born into life. You got no freaking idea which way’s up or down.

It’s interesting. You have this trauma of moving around a lot, so you either try to control it or embrace chaos. Or both.
Embracing it and going, “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Later, equally unprompted, another remark bubbles up from the place where not wanting to do something brushes the naked perfumed shoulder of wanting to do it even more:

BALE: I have to admit that yeah, it’s absolutely perverse, it’s contradictory, it sounds hypocritical, I like being invisible. “A f**ing actor? Who says he wants to be invisible? Oh yeah, good choice, mate.” But the point is, you do get to become invisible as an actor. And I know that much of that also comes from [his pitch keens high as he breaks into a mock lament] growing up, moving around, different towns, and all that kind of stuff, and then getting attention at a very young age when you’re not ready for it and you have responsibilities, financial responsibilities, stuff which other people don’t get until much later in life. So you go, “Man, wasn’t it great before all this happened? Back when I was eight years old and I could go shoplift and nobody knew who I was and I was invisible.” You know? And what glory days those were, and how I lost ’em too early. You know?

That was good, a two-part answer — first the rationalization, and then you anticipated where I was gonna go and gave me the real reason. Now I don’t have to ask any more questions.
We’re done?

No.

As Bale relaxes, he reveals a gentler side.

BALE: I spent most of the morning being the audience for my daughter’s singing and dancing today.

His daughter is five, almost ready for first grade.

BALE: It’s a whole different party circuit that you find yourself in. I love the bouncy-castle party circuit right now.

The last few years of my life have been spent just watching animation — for my daughter — and getting a kick out of that.

But he seems most relaxed on the topic he calls “my extreme low level of motorcycling that I’m very, very into currently.”

Do you race?
I race myself.

It’s hypnotizing. It looks simple, but you try it and you learn the nuances and you come to appreciate it incredibly. I wish to God I discovered that years back, you know? It’s just it’s a beautiful thing, it really is. You get those occasional moments when you’re absolutely calm, and you’ve just done something that would have scared you s*less earlier that day, and you’ve just done it like it was nothing. I find that very relaxing.

What I like about it is that I’m not somebody who’s in movies. I’m a guy who’s not very good going around the track with a bunch of guys who are a hell of a lot better.

The technical stuff you get through fairly quickly. After going around the track, we sit down and talk about what happened, and it actually all comes down to: What are you thinking about as you’re going through this? Can you relax as you’re doing this? Are you understanding what’s fully happening? Are you looking far enough ahead so you’re not panicked and you’re not surprised by anything?

You don’t feel like I’m allowing you to do a good story? I’m inhibiting your process? I’m inhibiting your talents?

Yeah. You should say, “What do you need?”
I’ll tell my story. I ain’t gonna let you tell it.

But I can do it better than you. So how would you like people to think of you?
I don’t care. Being misunderstood is not a bad thing as an actor. I know the truth.

You know the reason I picked this place?

Why?
‘Cause it has nothing to do with my life. I never come here, ever. It’s as far removed from any place that I would ever go to. And that’s exactly why I chose it. ‘Cause it has nothing to do with me.

This article has been edited for girlsspeakgeek.com. The complete story appeared in Esquire, Nove.2010.

November 15, 2010 | Interview , | this post contains affiliate links