With Batman behind him, the actor transforms himself in two roles certain to generate Oscar buzz

By Sara Vilkomerson
November 08, 2013 at 05:00 AM EST

He laughs more than you might expect. For most of his 26-year career, Christian Bale has seemed on a quest to claim the title of Hollywood’s Most Intense Actor. He has radically transformed his body (The Machinist), his psyche (American Psycho), and his voice (the Dark Knight trilogy), and he earned an Oscar for his spiraling-soul performance in 2010’s The Fighter. Whatever the role, Bale taps into such deep wells of torment, it can feel less like acting and more like an act of self-torture. So it’s a shock to hear him chuckle, for starters, much less shrug off all that artiste angst as easily as a Batcape. “We’re talking about reinvention here, and that’s what you do as an actor,” he says, in a soft voice brushed with a Welsh burr. “I’m lucky that anyone is asking me to work. So I’m going to bust my ass as much as I can. I’ll always be making sure I’m busting my ass more than the guy next to me.”

Bale, 39, does just that in two new films next month. In director Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace (rated R), he plays a stoic steelworker forced into uncharacteristic action to help his troubled younger brother (Casey Affleck). And in American Hustle (not yet rated), David O. Russell’s follow-up to last year’s Oscar darling Silver Linings Playbook, Bale stars as Irving Rosenfeld, a swaggering 1970s con man with a meaty gut and an impressive comb-over. Pressured into aiding the FBI by a manic agent (Bradley Cooper), Irving tries to maintain control, but his world is unraveled by his mercurial mistress (Amy Adams) and his wild-card wife (Jennifer Lawrence). “When you meet a complicated person like Irving, they’re confounding, they’re charming, they’re maddening,” says Russell, who also directed Bale in The Fighter. “Christian’s brilliance is that he inhabits all of it.”

Exactly how he does that, of course, is a bit of a mystery, even to those who know him best. “He goes to this Christian Bale workshop, and I don’t know what he’s going to come back with,” Russell says. “But it’s always something different or more extreme than I imagined.” For Hustle, a fictionalized take on the infamous FBI Abscam operation that targeted corrupt politicians, Bale met with the real-life inspiration for his character, Mel Weinberg. “It was a fantastic couple of days,” says Bale, on the phone from Spain, where he is filming Ridley Scott’s Exodus. “Mel is great company. I got excess of what I needed. It was just a funfair playground to pick from.”

What he ultimately picked floored his director. “He gained more weight than I expected,” Russell says. “I said, ‘You don’t have to do this!’ But he wants to do it. He wants to become this other thing that’s alien to him. He even changed his posture — he wanted to appear shorter than Bradley Cooper — and sort of sank his head into his shoulders and created this shuffling walk. I was like, ‘Dude, this is bad for your health!'” In fact, it was: Bale herniated a disk. “The old L4 and L5,” the actor says with a sigh. “I didn’t mean to do that, but yeah. I was just in bad bloody shape.”

That hyperdetailed prep work makes his directors’ jobs easier, at least. Bale showed up on the Braddock, Pa., set of Out of the Furnace wearing his character’s clothes and having already mastered the tricky regional accent. He never broke out of it, even off camera. Scott Cooper compares directing Bale to driving a Maserati: “All you have to do is feather the accelerator — a note or an adjustment — and he’s off!”

For all the attention paid to Bale’s physical and vocal metamorphoses, though, the actor says he’s drawn to these parts by the characters’ interior lives. For instance, his role in Furnace, Russell Baze, is a hardworking rule follower in a rusting Pennsylvania steel town. Bale was drawn to the idea of a good man trying to do the right thing but compelled to do otherwise. And there was something else that intrigued Bale, something more personal. “As someone who has moved around my entire life, I find people [like Baze] who are rooted in a place — the people who stay — really fascinating,” he says. “That’s not me. Not in the slightest.” He laughs. “Thank God there are people like that, because if everyone were like me the world would be chaos.”

It’s impossible to know what the world would be like if everyone were like Bale. As much as he thrives on diving into the lives of the people he plays, he keeps his own life guarded. When not on camera or promoting a project, he tends to vanish, even on location. “He’s a private guy,” says Scott Cooper, who now considers the actor a close friend. “You won’t find Christian at the bar after a day of wrap. He stays deeply ingrained.”

The consequence of all that privacy is that Bale himself remains largely an enigma. His rage-fueled rant from the set of Terminator Salvation in 2009 went viral, but then so did his visit to the victims of the Colorado movie-theater shooting and his moving phone call to an 8-year-old Batman fan with leukemia. Bale and trilogy director Christopher Nolan are done with that particular dark knight, of course. Ben Affleck will suit up to play the Caped Crusader for Zack Snyder (Man of Steel) in a Batman/Superman film due in summer 2015. Of this, Bale has little to say. “This film is a new thing,” he says. “Ours is finished.”

Considering how much time Bale spends creating his often damaged characters, one wonders whether he needs to like them to play them. “I don’t think you do, no,” he says. “Patrick Bateman in American Psycho — how can anyone like that guy? He’s the one who really made me realize [that liking your character] doesn’t apply.” That said, the men of Furnace and Hustle are ones he’d be glad to know. “I liked them for all of their weakness,” he says.

In that context, it will be interesting to see what Bale does with the role of Moses in Exodus, which will be released in December 2014. “Moses is fascinating when you get away from the Sunday-school idea,” he says. “I tell you — the Bible ain’t for kids.” The fact that he was cast as Moses in the first place amuses him — “It just seems unlikely, doesn’t it?” — and there’s that surprising laugh again. “I’m just going, ‘Somebody wants to hire me? All right!'” he says. “Obviously they haven’t found me out yet.”

But there are at least a couple of people who have found him out, who know who the real Christian Bale is. When he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, Bale choked up on stage as he thanked his wife of 13 years, Sibi Blazic, for being “my mast through the storms of life.” Prior to this interview, Blazic phoned to say that her husband was going to be delayed because he was putting their 8-year-old daughter, Emmeline, to bed. Asked about Emmeline later, Bale says she’s never put off by his transformations. He may still be a mystery to the public, but never to her. “She gets it,” he says. “That’s important to me — that she never feels confused by things. And she gets to take the piss out of me for the voices and the looks and everything like that.” He laughs. “She knows it’s just Daddy’s work.”

Agent of Change
Bale is no stranger to extreme transformations for some of his biggest roles.

American Psycho 2000
To get into top sociopathic shape, Bale trained for months before production started. During filming he reportedly worked out for up to three hours a day.

The Machinist 2004
Bale famously lost more than 60 pounds to play the title role — reportedly on a diet that consisted of one can of tuna and an apple per day, plus black coffee.

Batman Begins 2005
After shedding so much weight for The Machinist, Bale packed on the 60-odd pounds he lost — and an additional 20 pounds of Caped Crusader-worthy muscle.

The Fighter 2010
To play boxer-turned-junkie Dicky Eklund, Bale dropped 30 pounds, trained with Eklund in the ring, and ran for hours at a time so he’d look like a welterweight.