Bale’s Hollywood saga is unique, a subtly managed trek up astonishingly steep acting challenges and neatly over the barbed hurdle of puberty, all transpiring more or less outside the eye of publicity and gossip. Bale has survived with his sanity, privacy and gift intact. He stands poised on the verge of one of the most promising adult careers of his generation.
“I’ve never worked more than once a year,” Bale tells me in Paris, where I meet up with him. “In between I’ve had nothing written about me whatsoever. It was definitely a strategy. I like not being in magazines, not being seen on TV, except when I’m actually in a film. I want to work as much as I can and still go to parties and be the geezer in the corner.”
Unlike his contemporaries, Bale has never had a publicist. “I’ve got a real minimum amount of people,” he explains. “My agent and my dad.” Bale’s agent used to run her business out of a Dublin pub and a public phone on the street — nearby construction workers would halt work whenever a call came through, and even occasionally answer the phone as if they were her hired team of receptionists. His father, David, does for him those parts of the jobs of manager and publicist the two deem necessary.
Born in Wales, Bale has lived in L.A. ever since making Newsies, and isn’t quite the recluse the lack of offscreen publicity seems to suggest. “I love going to nightclubs, but there are things that should be done anonymously, y’know? The key is to dress like sh*, which I always do.” Bale’s tales of being accosted in public back up his claims. There was a New York subway confrontation with a homeless guy who, after watching Bale get surrounded noisily by schoolgirls, asked him to sign a dollar bill, saying, “I don’t know who the f** you are, but maybe that’ll be worth more than a buck someday.” Then there was the casting director who bumped into him in a Prague hotel lobby. “Christian!” the women cooed right to his face. “It’s so great I met you like this, I have a script you just have to read! This is so terrific – finally I meet Christian Slater!”
Before ‘Empire of the Sun’, Bale had only a handful of stage and TV credits–“All I wanted was to be a Storm Trooper in ‘Star Wars.’” Spielberg picked Bale from some 4,000 British kids to shoulder the film that the world’s most reliable pop culture architect decided to make when Warner Bros. told him he could make anything. “I don’t really remember thinking one way or another about doing the work.
When you’re 13, you just do things. There have been moments when I’ve wished it had never happened – You know, when your a teenager, you just want to be normal. Kids would walk up to me saying, ‘Where’s that kid in Empire of the Sun?’ and we’d get into a fistfight. But I have no bad memories, and I haven’t the slightest idea what I’d be doing now if it hadn’t happened.”
Then he got his second big, starring role in Newsies. “You say something bad about Newsies and you have an awful lot of people to answer to.” Bale says with a laugh.
“I never had any interest in doing a musical,” Bale says. “I still don’t. In fact, when I first read the script, I thought it wasn’t a musical. Later, after I realized it was, I asked Kenny [Ortega] if maybe I could duck over here into the pub while the numbers were going on, and then come out when it was over. I hoped I could be the lead in a musical without doing any singing and dancing! Eventually I said, ‘F** it, let’s just do it.’ But I had a lot of doubts about it — I never liked musicals, and even then I knew I’d never do anything like that again.”
“I look back on it rather fondly now. It was either go to college or go to California and do Newsies. I decided to do the film. Which was an education.”
In addition to surviving Newsies, Bale passed through that most dreaded of child actor gauntlets— puberty. The Bale anonymity tactics served him well. “I’ve been lucky,” he says, “because there wasn’t a sudden leap where people were saying, ‘Oh, what a cute kid,’ and then it’s, ‘Bloody hell, what happened there?”
Then, as a proper reward for his patience and fortitude, Bale won the role of Laurie, the resident March family boy toy, in Gillian Armstrong’s neoclassic Little Women. It was the wisest casting coup in a film bursting with casting coups, and the role suddenly cemented Bale’s reputation in Hollywood as something other than a fine child actor.
“It was Winona, basically,” he says when I ask him how he got the part. “That’s what I’ve been told. I met with Gillian, and then I met with Winona and Gillian, and we read, and then I got the part. Winona was very involved in the casting, in every aspect of the film — she’d contacted Gillian about making the film. She wanted me to play Laurie. Talk about someone who’s seen a lot of movies — she’d seen everything I’d done.”
Little Women was Bale’s exultant coming-of-age in an industry where young actors’ crash-and-burn stories are common. “Little Women was definitely a turning point,” Bale acknowledges. “And not just in career terms. I knew I was doing something new there, something I liked.”
Bale had no problem with preconceptions as he entered the project. “I’d never even heard of the book before.” He’d barely heard of the director, either. “First night in Vancouver — it was summertime, the snow was entirely fake — Gillian and I got out for a drink together, and she mentioned a film of hers, I can’t remember what it was, and I looked at her like, ‘I don’t have a f**ing clue what you’re talking about.’”
“She said, ‘Christian, maybe it’s a good idea to sort of research who you’ll be working with.’” Bale laughs. “Mostly, though, I was very possessive on the set of the film. You’ve got Winona, Trini Alvarado, Samantha Mathis, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst, Gillian — I was experiencing an incredible male possessiveness. I’d been there a month, and I sort of resented when Eric Stoltz arrived. I’ll tell you, I’m in the right profession. I have a jones for actresses. You establish intimacy so easily. When you meet someone for the first time, someone with the guts to be an actress, and you’re auditioning together, you’ve already broken that ice. Rehearsals are even better. For European and American girls, my being a fumbling, dribbling English prat seems to be quite charming. As long as it works, I’m in luck.”
Knowing that this article will probably be devoured by his minions, I ask Bale if there’s anything the fan network doesn’t know about him yet that he’d be willing to divulge. “Well, my mother worked in the circus—she was a clown, a dancer, she rode elephants, she was the lady in the sequins who introduced the trapeze act. My first kiss was from a young Polish trapeze artist named Barta.”
Bale is hyperaware of his position in the industry, and of his competition for roles—he knows exactly what Leonardo, Ethan, Balthazar [Getty] and Lukas [Haas] are doing at any given time. While he had the good fortune to be turned down for Mercutio in William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet after several tryouts, he has been vying for the charmingly amoral lead in The Talented Mr. Ripley. If he gets [his] way, the relaxed career pace and public anonymity that Bale has enjoyed up to now may well be a thing of the past.