THE chameleon actor of his generation, Christian Bale goes above and beyond the call of duty to get into character for a role.
Often it’s purely research, like being taught to sing and play guitar for his stint as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, or learning magic tricks from real magicians, as he did for his part in The Prestige. Other times he undergoes remarkable physical transformation, like going without sleep for prolonged periods and losing an untold amount of weight for his role as a skeletal insomniac in The Machinist, then gaining it all back, and then some, to portray the muscular superhero in Batman Begins.Sometimes Bale becomes so immersed in his characters he can’t easily leave them behind. “It’s almost like you want to go get a drink with them, get to know them a little bit,” he says.
“I have to say, I look back on The Machinist and I’m very proud of it. It’s absolutely one of my favourites. But looking back on it, I can see that I was crazy, though I certainly didn’t feel like at the time.”
For Rescue Dawn, Werner Herzog’s true-life drama, the 33-year-old actor once again shed dozens of pounds, trudged barefoot through wild forests, ate worms and plucked leeches from his body, all to portray an escaped POW on the run. And while the film’s director made clear exactly what Bale was getting himself into, the versatile actor happily accepted the challenge.
“It’s because I like going to hell and back,” says Bale, who was born in Haverfordwest and first came to international fame as a child star 20 years ago in Steven Spielberg’s Second World War epic Empire of the Sun.
He may have a reputation as someone who will do whatever it takes to achieve perfection but, while Bale likes to do his own stunts, he has his limits. “Where people have to be set on fire and jump three stories, I ain’t doing that,” he smiles.
Though known for his laid-back demeanour off-screen, filmmakers and co-stars alike say that Bale’s languorous manner masks one of the most intense work ethics in Hollywood.
“He’ll look completely relaxed, almost like he’s ready for a nap,” says James Mangold, director of 3:10 to Yuma, Bale’s last film to be released in the UK. “But then you say ‘Action’, and he is suddenly awake and into the scene. He completely disappears into character.”
Like so many others who have worked with Bale, Herzog feels the actor is deserving of far more recognition than he has received so far.
“I feel that he is among the best of his generation,” he gushes. “There are some very, very good ones out there. Tim Roth. There are a couple of very good ones, but in Rescue Dawn I think that Bale is better than he ever has been before.”
Away from the set of Rescue Dawn, Bale reveals that he acquired something of a taste for Thai-fried insects. “It was something I was doing off-camera,” he laughs. “In the Thai markets they fry pretty much everything. They’d add salt and pepper and then stick them in a bag.”
Renowned for being a very private person who makes no secret of his dislike for celebrity, Bale has, nevertheless, been in the public eye since a very young age. When he was just nine he landed a TV commercial for cereal and three years after that was chosen from more than 4000 hopefuls to play Jim in Empire Of The Sun.
“I don’t want to know about the lives of other actors and I don’t want people to know too much about me,” says Bale, who, despite not quite being Hollywood A-list, has quietly established himself with an impressive repertoire of roles including parts in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, Little Women, Portrait Of A Lady and as a glam rock journalist in Velvet Goldmine.
In terms of box office bucks, his biggest role to date has been Batman Begins, and while Bale admits that he’s “not averse to the big payday”, he makes it clear it’s not what drives him. “I don’t want to get into that comfort zone – it doesn’t seem interesting,” he insists. “It’s not what filmmaking is about.”
• Rescue Dawn is released today.