In a quiet restaurant in Los Angeles, Christian Bale takes a sip of carrot juice as he tries to make sense of the gigantic billboards for The Dark Knight Rises on either end of the street outside. “It’s just begun, hasn’t it?” says the English actor, 38, sporting scruff and looking gym-ready in shorts and an athletic shirt. He uses the word monster a lot when talking about Batman, both in terms of the character and the marketing machine that’s about to bring his last stint as the Caped Crusader to the world. “These movies always start as small affairs, just me and Chris, sitting across a table, talking,” says Bale. “By this point, it starts to become this monster, just kind of roaring. For me, it’s kind of exciting, but don’t get too close, because it might devour you with its jaws.”
Not that Bale isn’t grateful for the beast that’s been Batman. He credits the three movies with bringing him career opportunities he yearned for but that eluded him prior to Batman Begins. Indeed, over the past eight years, in films like Rescue Dawn and The Fighter (for which he won an Oscar), Bale has established himself as one of Hollywood’s most adventurous actors: focused and dedicated to the extreme. The current beneficiary of Bale’s total-immersion approach is director Terrence Malick, who is shooting his newest top secret project, about which Bale will say nothing. He says working on the Malick film has already been a refuge from the overwhelming pop culture moment at hand. ”I was on the beach the other day,” Bale recalls, ”and a surfer was sitting next to me, and he said, ‘Big summer for you.’ I was like, ‘Why?’ I was so in the midst of my work, I forgot. And I think that’s a healthy place for me, when all of this is going on.”
Batman Begins arrived at a pivotal time in your career. You were 30. You had just shot The Machinist after taking a year off from acting.
People are always very generous in the way that they put that: ”Oh, he took a year off.” It sounds wonderful when people say, ”Oh, he just didn’t find anything he liked.” Yes, that may well have been true, but there’s also the fact that you’re not being offered anything that you like. So it’s not necessarily a sabbatical that was planned.
Why do you think you were not being offered the parts you most wanted?
I don’t really have the answer to that. It’s movies, so no matter how low-budget it is, it’s expensive. A million dollars is a huge chunk of change, no matter who you are. These people who put up that money, they’re not charities. They want to know they’re going to get a return on their investment. If you’re not the likely candidate, you’re not going to get the part, no matter what your talent is.
Playing Batman was certainly going to enhance your marketability. But it also meant wearing a mask, and many actors worry that can be bad for business. Did you?
You have to have actors who can overcome those costumes — who don’t let those costumes bury them completely.
How did you approach the challenge of not getting buried by Batman?
It was playing the idea of there being three Bruce Waynes. The public, vacuous billionaire. The private Bruce Wayne who is still a child. And then the vengeful one who is a monster. Remembering that, I was no longer playing a guy who was dressing up and looking silly. It was a man playing multiple parts, and a man who dressed up as a monster for a reason, because he feels monstrous, and so he must become a monster in those moments.
You were never concerned that playing Batman would end up defining you?
I always enjoyed that. Because I felt like it was a challenge to overcome. I always felt like if I was unable to overcome that, if I became ”pigeon-holed”…well, then I deserved it. But I certainly was not going to make any choices because I was fearful that I wasn’t going to be able to do something afterward.
In fact, you’ve been prodigiously busy between Batman films. You’ve starred in 10 films over the past seven years. What drove you to work so much?
Just variety. Just gut instinct on scripts and people you meet. And there was also that element of — how did you put it? That I “chose to take a year off before The Machinist.” Suddenly I didn’t have to “choose to take a year off.” Suddenly there were possibilities of working. I had options. So I took them.
Do you watch or pay attention to other superhero movies?
Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any. At all. I see kids’ movies. I don’t see anything else. Animated movies have gotten so much more advanced in recent years. I said recently to one producer, ”The problem is, no matter what we do, we can never compare to what they’re doing in animation.” He laughed, and I said, ”I’m not joking.”
What was the last great kids’ film you saw?
I have a daughter, so it becomes very important to me, more and more, to do things like making sure there’s a female artist playing on the radio. Just making sure that she’s aware that she can do anything. Therefore: Brave. That’s just a wonderful example.
One of your past movies is now a hit Broadway musical: Newsies. Are you surprised that this early flop in your career has had the cultural life that it’s had?
Of course! Yes! These things never make any sense. I’m incredibly happy for them. They’re having the success our movie never had.
Do you have any interest in seeing it?
I’m not really into musicals. But I wish them the best. And I’m sure the person playing the character I played exceeded whatever I did, and congratulations to them.
Would that be hard for you? Watching another actor play a role you played, possibly with greater success?
No, no, no. That wouldn’t be hard. I’m going to have to do it with Batman. They’re going to rejuvenate it soon, and I’ll have to be watching someone else play it. I’ll be fascinated. I’ll be fascinated to see which way they go, which choices that actor makes.
When people talk about you as an actor, they talk a lot about your willingness to transform yourself physically. Where does the drive come from? Do you ever see that drive abating?
There’s a story — I don’t know if it’s true, and I don’t particularly want to know if it’s true — that Jimi Hendrix played guitar until his fingers bled, and he didn’t even feel the pain because he had the ecstasy of what he was creating. That was always my model. Imagine applying that to acting. So yes, I still have that drive. But I apply it only when it’s appropriate. If it’s not going to damage me. I’m a father; I have to be responsible to my family. It’s nice to go through that pain without feeling it. I hate to sound pretentious, but reaching some kind of ecstasy — I assume we all want to experience that in what we do. It’s not the only way, but it’s mine.
In short, your feeling about the ride that’s been Batman is…?
Gratitude. It afforded me a change in my life. And it’s up to me to make a hash of that. Most actors — ones like me, who have had to “take that year off” — desperately hope for work to come their way. Batman has given me the ability to say, “I don’t have to.” I can choose, and choose wisely, and make the most of it.
When you read the script for The Dark Knight Rises, what did you think of the ending Nolan came up with for Batman?
[Pause] Can I take a rain check on that one? I don’t know how to answer it without ruining the ending for people.
Okay. Did you like it?
When Christopher Met Christian…
Bale on Nolan
”I’d been working with Wally Pfister [Nolan’s longtime cinematographer], and he’d say, ‘I think you and Chris would work very well together.’ We met before I went to shoot The Machinist. With Chris, I finally found somebody who has the rare ability of making large movies that have personal resonance, and who doesn’t slough off the details.”
Nolan on Bale
”Bruce Wayne is such an extreme character. You needed someone who could project that quality. Christian had that fire. I also realized, selfishly, I had met somebody who was effortless. I was dealing with the largest scale of production I had ever taken on; it was great to know I had somebody who could take care of his end of things. He screen-tested a few weeks after finishing The Machinist. He had lost so much weight, but he managed to turn up looking like someone who could fill a Batsuit. I still don’t know how he did it. A lot of pizzas, I think.”