Christian Bale is about to swoop into cinemas as the Caped Crusader in Batman Begins. But little over a year ago, he wondered if he even had a career.
"I wasn’t in demand," he recalls. His last memorable role had been as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, way back in 2000. Since then, he’d been filling his CV with mediocre fare that included Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Shaft, Reign of Fire and Equilibrium.
Personally disappointed by some of his recent work, he was trying to raise his game. But he needed the right material and didn’t like anything he was being offered. Though time was not on his side, he was determined to hang on. "I needed money because I had just bought a house, but I just kept saying, ‘I really can’t do another movie that I know is not going to turn out the way I want it to, and that I have to make a lot of concessions in my head for."‘
Bale attributes some of his mistakes to his risk-taking approach to work. However, not everyone has the same idea of what constitutes a risk. While American Psycho was presented to him as one, he says he never saw it that way; same with Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes’ esoteric take on the 70s British glam rock scene.
"These are films I love," he enthuses. "For me, there’s a bigger risk trying Batman. Ultimately, the big point was that Chris Nolan [Memento], who you would not expect to be doing that kind of movie, was going to direct it, which is exactly what I was looking for, because you want to do something totally different from the other Batman movies.
"I always thought there could be a really good movie made about Batman and when I heard that Chris was doing it I thought, ‘Well, he’s not a director that you would expect, therefore you’re going to get the unexpected from him.’
"I think there’s a great potential for going very dark with it, it’s a fascinating character, very complex psychologically, which I’ve never seen done. You know, you have the two extremes, which are both very good. You can either go the very camp Adam West TV series thing, which was great in its own way, or you can go more the way of the graphic Dark Knight novels which delve somewhat deeper."
It was not the man in the rubber batsuit that rescued Bale, though, but a skinny lathe operator named Trevor Reznik, and a little existential thriller called The Machinist. When he read Scott Kosar’s script, Bale felt he had finally found something he could throw himself into, body and soul. Actually, he would throw a lot of his body out, shedding an incredible 28kg in order to transform his 1.9m frame into the living skeleton that Reznik, the film’s haunted protagonist, has become after suffering insomnia for a year. The film arrived not a moment too soon.
"I had spent weeks staring at the wall in my house out of depression because of things that had gone wrong and the choices I had made," remembers Bale. "When I read The Machinist, I just went, ‘Wow! This is perfect.’ I was having dreams about the character and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I felt like this one was going to save my arse, and pull me out of the depressed state I had got into."
The idea of losing weight did not bother him - he’d gone through extreme physical transformations before. He pumped iron for weeks and went on a special diet to achieve Bateman’s sculpted look, and beefed up again for Batman.
Regaining the weight proved "a whole lot easier" he says. In fact he got a little carried away, to the extent that when he turned up for his batsuit fitting for Batman Begins, he was embarrassed as he couldn’t fit into it.
With the help of talcum powder he squeezed into a second, more generous costume.
"At the time that Chris Nolan asked me to do it I actually couldn’t do one push-up. They sent me to a trainer, who was having to hold my T-shirt at the back just to pull me up.
"I’ve come a long way from that."
Bale had other concerns apart from fitness. And it wasn’t being part of an attempt to resurrect a franchise that, after Tim Burton’s operatic 1989 original, which rang up $US251 million at the box office, bottomed out with 1997’s disastrous Batman & Robin, featuring George Clooney in a batsuit studded with rubber nipples.
Bale was worried that, in previous films in the Warner franchise, the villains were always more interesting than Batman, and it should have been the other way round.
"Is he nuts?" asks Bale. "What’s going on with this man who thinks he can run around in a batsuit in the middle of the night? It’s a funny, bizarre place you have to get to in your head for that to become acceptable to an individual. Of course, we’re looking at fantasy. But Chris and I really wanted to attempt to answer these fantastical questions with as realistic a motivation as possible."
As any Batman fan will know, the event that tips Bruce Wayne over the edge is the murder of his parents. This had resonance for Bale, whose own father, the activist David Bale, died of brain lymphoma, aged just 62, in December 2003.
However, he denies reports that he dedicated his performance in Batman to his late father. Nor did he draw on his own experience to enter Wayne’s emotional and psychological space.
"I don’t like to actively and specifically use my own life for scenes in movies, certainly when it comes to something as life-changing as my father’s death."
I begin to wish I hadn’t asked the question. "For me, it’s an abuse of our time together, as he was ill and as he was slowly fading. Those moments were just too special and a movie cannot compare to that for me, so I don’t like to use that, ever.
"I was having a difficult time of knowing if I was actually going to be capable of making a movie because it obviously was so present in my mind that the film paled into insignificance. I just ceased to care, whereas normally I care intensely. I did manage to come around to that and to immerse myself in it. But I think that you cannot help but have everything in your life affect every choice you’re making. Did I consciously think of that? No. I couldn’t have done that and felt good about myself."
It will be interesting to see how Bale comes out the other side of the whole Batman experience. Following his still impressive debut 17 years ago in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, Bale found the attention oppressive, and would frequently find excuses to duck out of interviews. Instead of basking in the limelight, he retreated from it. This perhaps explains why he has avoided the crash-and-burn trajectory of so many child stars. Even now, he admits that he is no fonder of the attention. How ready is he for the hoop-la that will inevitably surround the release of Batman Begins?
"Well, I don’t know if this is naive, but I feel that the movie can kind of do it by itself. Because of the size of the film, my hope is that I won’t have to put myself everywhere and become some sort of soulless, empty being by the end of it.
"Frankly, I also just get bored of seeing people who are around too often. And I certainly get bored of seeing myself if I’m around too much. But I have to wait and see exactly what changes may occur. Who the hell knows? I may detest it and run a mile, or maybe I will be able to deal with it."
Whatever happens, you can be sure that we will be seeing a lot more of Bale in the near future, on cinema screens at least. He is back in demand, and has just finished filming The New World, for Terrence Malick, after which he went straight on to the set of Harsh Times, a gritty, low-budget, urban drama directed by Training Day screenwriter David Ayer.
After that, he says, "I’ll be ready to sit back and take a bit of a break, because you start to feel yourself burning out after a while."
LOWDOWN WHO: Christian Bale
BORN: Pembrokeshire, Wales, 1974
KEY ROLES: Empire of the Sun (1987), The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Velvet Goldmine (1998), American Psycho (2000), Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001), Reign of Fire (2002)
LATEST: Batman Begins opens June 16, The Machinist opens July 21By Stephen Applebaum