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Dec 4, 2013

It’s grin-inducing to watch Christian Bale shrink back at the term “movie star.”

“I don’t have that thing where you get these sort of guys who give a smile that the women fall in love with them. I would just be cracking up laughing,” he says. “I can only do that as a spoof.”  

But movie star he is, the self-deprecating kind who just flew in from the set of Exodus in Europe (he’s Moses) with two much-buzzed-about films on his hands: Out of the Furnace and American Hustle. Right now he’s running two hours behind, ever the perfectionist polishing audio for the upcoming Terrence Malick film, Knight of Cups.

Bale’s fuel? A small pile of potato chips, currently subbing in for the lunch he didn’t have time to eat while chatting about submerging himself into the world of Furnace, a low-budget, intense study on the effects of a crumbling American economy and the emotional tax recovering soldiers pay.

In the film (in limited release today and in theaters nationwide Friday), Bale, 39, plays Russell Baze, a steel worker committed to building a respectable life in the forgotten town of Braddock, Pa. His younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) has returned scarred from his fourth tour of duty in Iraq, turning to bare-knuckle brawling to pay his debts; their father suffers from cancer.

Here, a steady factory job is the only American Dream available, but for both Baze brothers, in 2008, prospects are bleak.

“You’re looking at someone like Russell who is so typically American, and does the right thing but is receiving nothing for it,” says the Welsh actor, who calls the U.S. his chosen home, having lived here since he was a teenager.

In the film, Bale — tattooed and sinewy — is watching his life veer off road. His girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) is torn from him, and local law enforcement, held in the grip of a backwoods crime ring, does nothing when Rodney disappears after a fight in the violent New Jersey Ramapo Mountains. Russell takes the law in his own hands to defend his brother from the ring’s depraved crime boss (Woody Harrelson).

The size of the project was enticing. After putting his celebrated Batman trilogy to bed in Christopher Nolan’s big-budget Dark Knight Rises, the opportunity presented by Furnace, shot in 27 days and helmed by second-time director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), appealed to Bale.

“It’s very rare that people who do massive films like that want to repeat with another massive film,” says Bale. “You’re dealing with a small army, everything you do requires hundreds of people — vs. a lower-budget film where you can spin on a dime. You have less people breathing over your shoulder. You can alter the script in 10 minutes and decide you’re going to go in a totally different direction and nobody questions you, you just do it. There’s great a freedom to it.”

Cooper says he wrote his film with Bale in mind, much as he had scripted Crazy Heart for Jeff Bridges, though he had not met either actor before approaching them with the projects.

“His character is a metaphor for America, and what we’ve experienced in these last five turbulent years,” says Cooper, calling Bale “the best actor of my generation…he plays the part with such restraint and subtlety and shading. Very few people can do that.”

From the steel town to the ’70s

Bale reunites with director David O. Russell, who directed him to a supporting-actor Oscar for 2010?s The Fighter, for American Hustle,out Dec. 13. Russell’s lens travels back to the ’70s , with Bale morphing into potbellied scam artist Irving Rosenfeld, caught between romancing his British sidekick (Amy Adams), pacifying his squawking young Long Island housewife (Jennifer Lawrence) and being strong-armed into stings by a reckless FBI agent (Bradley Cooper).

Hustle comically opens on Bale’s bloated gut as he strategically coaxes, glues and hairsprays his toupee into place. “I loved the contradiction of someone who is such a good con man who does such an appalling job of conning people that he has a head of hair,” says Bale with a grin. .”

On set, two passionate men sometimes collided. He and Russell “don’t hold anything back,” says Bale. “And if we disagree we say it very bluntly to each other and we work things out.” • Read full story »

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