Christian Bale is a man who enjoys a challenge, and damn near drools over the prospect of an adventure. He lost 63 pounds to play a disturbed insomniac in 2004’s The Machinist; was the first Brit to portray Bruce Wayne, in 2005’s hugely successful franchise reboot Batman Begins; and ate live worms while filming this year’s Rescue Dawn, directed in the jungles of Thailand by Werner Herzog. There were those, however, who felt Bale had bitten off more than he could chew when he accepted his latest mission: acting in a movie with Russell Crowe.
”Everybody seemed to think I was going to be having fistfights with Russell,” explains Bale, 33. ”But it was the easiest damn thing ever. He’s just no-nonsense, that’s all.”
The film that brings together these two famously dedicated actors is 3:10 to Yuma, a remake of the 1957 Glenn Ford Western. Bale plays a rancher trying to save his family from penury by jailing Crowe’s homicidal desperado; the result is a faithful tribute to the classic horse opera.
”I’m glad you said that,” declares Bale. ”I don’t feel the Western needs to be reinvented. Certainly nobody wants to see Young Guns again.”
While Emilio Estevez may argue that point, there can be no doubt that Bale’s recent career trajectory has been both skyward and steep. ”I use the word undeniable,” says Yuma director James Mangold. ”Sometimes people will talk about how someone ‘broke out.’ But, in Christian’s case, you can take away any movie and still the body of work is so good that, to me, he becomes undeniable. He makes decisions from his gut, not his head. I think it’s true that he does things as much for the adventure as anything else.”
Blame it on the Bale blood. The actor’s grandfather piloted bombers during the Second World War, and later stunt-doubled for John Wayne on 1962’s Hatari! Bale’s late father worked as a pilot too. By the age of 10, young Christian was on a West End stage performing with Rowan Atkinson — which probably makes him the only person to have worked with both Werner Herzog and Mr. Bean. His big break came when Steven Spielberg cast him in the WWII drama Empire of the Sun. But fame proved the wrong kind of adventure for the then 13-year-old. At a press junket in Paris, he responded to questions by silently jabbing a pen into an orange and then walking out. ”I had an awful lot of people telling me that I had responsibilities,” Bale recalls. ”Responsibilities way beyond what would be usual for my years.”
Still, certain young stars of today could stand to learn from the Welsh-born actor about being known for their work rather than their private life. ”There’s a kind of performer who is more about selling their persona, their brand,” says Mangold. ”That’s certainly not what Christian’s about.”
Post-Empire, Bale’s first major project was the Disney musical Newsies, a commercial disaster though later a cult favorite. He then spent much of his 20s in films that were more acclaimed than seen, until his buffed-up performance as Huey Lewis-loving Wall Street serial killer Patrick Bateman in 2000’s American Psycho sent him into the limelight. Bale remains proud of the controversial project: ”I don’t understand anybody who can’t find the humor. It’s twisted and sick. But it’s so ridiculous. Come on!”
While his cadaverous turn in The Machinist confirmed Bale as one of Hollywood’s best young actors (”It’s a wonderful movie — it just needs to get away from being ‘The Movie Where the Guy Lost All That Weight”’), Batman Begins established both his star status and a mutually advantageous relationship with filmmaker Christopher Nolan, who also directed him in The Prestige and is reteaming with the actor on The Dark Knight.
”I wasn’t looking forward to putting the suit back on,” admits Bale. ”Just being in the suit is a full-time occupation, physically and mentally. But, while I know that everybody says, ‘Ah, the next one’s gonna be even better!’ I truly think Knight is.”
These days Bale is a family man, devoted to his wife Sibi and 2-year-old daughter. ”I have a whole different set of principles and ethics when it comes to my daughter, which is just far more cutthroat than my own personal ones,” he muses, suddenly sounding very Patrick Bateman-ish. ”It’s this animal nature that comes out in you — which is actually a fantastic feeling!”
So, will these principles give Bale pause next time Werner Herzog invites him on a far-flung cinematic adventure? ”No, because my daughter was 6 months and with me in the jungles of Thailand,” he explains. ”In fact, I enjoy it more knowing that I’m gonna have my daughter along to experience these adventures as well. Because the worst thing in the world to be is a boring example to a child.”
There seems fat chance — or maybe that should be very, very, very thin chance — of Christian Bale becoming that.
Who doesn’t love the Disney musical? Christian Bale, that’s who.
Released in April 1992, the Disney musical Newsies was supposed to be the High School Musical of its day. The tale of plucky late-19th-century newspaper-hawking kids was even helmed by future HSM director Kenny Ortega. Instead, the film was one of the lowest-grossing in Disney history. ”Well, it’s nice that it achieved something!” laughs Bale, who signed on to Newsies before the addition of musical numbers and had decidedly mixed feelings about the result. ”At 17, you want to be taken very seriously — you don’t want to be doing a musical,” he says. Thankfully, Newsies, ultimately, left no lasting damage. ”Time healed those wounds. But it took a while.”