LEAD: When Christian Bale auditioned for Steven Spielberg’s ”Empire of the Sun” a year and a half ago, he had never been in a feature film and was but one of 4,000 teen-age boys vying for the role of Jim Graham, a pampered, cocky schoolboy in pre-World War II Shanghai who is transformed by four terrifying years of war into a gaunt yet courageous young man.
When Christian Bale auditioned for Steven Spielberg’s ”Empire of the Sun” a year and a half ago, he had never been in a feature film and was but one of 4,000 teen-age boys vying for the role of Jim Graham, a pampered, cocky schoolboy in pre-World War II Shanghai who is transformed by four terrifying years of war into a gaunt yet courageous young man. In fact, the 13-year-old English boy had never really considered acting professionally until three years ago, when his sister Louise was cast in a musical in London’s West End. ”I thought it was really good fun, and it looked easy,” said Mr. Bale, whose critically acclaimed performance in Mr. Spielberg’s new $30 million movie has made him an odds-on favorite to join the very select group of child actors ever to be nominated for an Academy Award.
The film, which is based on J. G. Ballard’s autobiographical account of his childhood in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in China, follows Jim through a remarkable emotional landscape of fear and pathos, bewilderment and bravery as he is separated from his parents during the Japanese invasion, befriended by an American drifter named Basie (played by John Malkovich) and herded into the Soochow Creek internment camp, where he learns the skills of survival and the art of compassion. A Tough Span of Years
”At the beginning, Jim’s a spoiled kid who wants his own way,” said Mr. Bale in a recent telephone interview. ”But he grows up really quickly. By the end, he’s not as selfish or pigheaded.”
Although Jim loses his choirboy innocence, his energy never flags. As he tirelessly runs errands for Basie, helps the camp’s physician, barters with other prisoners and stands up to the often brutal Japanese guards, this leather-jacketed waif begins to look and act like a young Harrison Ford.
”We realized that it’s extrememly difficult for an actor who is 13 to carry a film, and that the span of years from about 10 to 15 is a very tough time for a child to be able to convincingly portray a character,” said Kathleen Kennedy, who produced ”Empire of the Sun” with Mr. Spielberg and Frank Marshall. ”But Christian was remarkable. He showed a real, natural spontaneity as well as many levels of concentration and a great deal of attention to detail.”
The young actor was born in Wales and now lives with his family in Bournemouth, an English seaside town where Robert Louis Stevenson once lived. His father is a financial adviser and former pilot, and his mother is a former circus dancer, while one sister is a 20-year-old aspiring musician and the other is a 15-year-old actress. Barely a year after he began taking acting lessons, Mr. Bale got a part in a London stage production of ”The Nerd,” playing what he described as ”a really obnoxious American kid who shouted his head off.” He appeared in several television commercials and BBC productions as well as the 1986 NBC mini-series, ”Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna,” before he began the long process of auditioning for ”Empire of the Sun.” ‘Nothing to Do’ in China
During 16 weeks of filming this year, Mr. Bale shuttled from England to Spain to China for a production that was monumental even by Steven Spielberg’s standards. The streets of Shanghai were cordoned off for several days of shooting, and more than 15,000 extras and 500 crew members were recruited for the film, which is the first major Hollywood feature to be shot in China since the 1949 revolution. Despite the historic, larger-than-life scale of this undertaking, the young actor was nonplused by China. ”There was nothing to do, and everything is very dusty and crowded,” he recalled. ”There’s no color anywhere and the Chinese are always coughing.”
California, however, was another story. Like Jim, who finagles his way into living in the American barracks in the internment camp and is ecstatic at the appearance of an American bomber squadron, Mr. Bale was very much taken by the United States. ”I really like working in America, especially California,” he said. ”I like the weather and the beaches, and the people are more friendly than in England.”
”I enjoyed doing film more than the stage,” he added. ”Ideally, I’d like to do a couple of films and a TV series over the next few years.” He said he had received several film offers, and Ms. Kennedy confirmed that Mr. Spielberg ”would very much like to cast him in another film,” but because of British child-labor laws, he cannot work again until the spring. In the meantime, he returned to Bournemouth this weekend, just another schoolboy back from his first gala Hollywood opening.
Source: New York Times