Pushing the Limits: Christian Bale
You had your breakthrough role when you were still a child and have since become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, even winning an Oscar. Does acting give you a sense of purpose in life?
That would be going too far. And I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting it that way either. My purpose in life is with the people that I choose to spend my life with. Acting is not my purpose. It is something that I do, and I enjoy it. Often it is a great deal of fun.
But acting isn’t a job like any other. After all, you have to put your heart and soul into your roles. Isn’t acting a part of who you are?
You are absolutely right. I don’t know what I would do otherwise. I love this job. It’s a fascinating thing I’m allowed to do. But I don’t want to sound pretentious. And for the important people in my life, it doesn’t matter what I do.
But we’re talking about you. What do you get from acting?
There are a few different things. I have always enjoyed observing people, and acting affords me the opportunity to do that and have a reason for doing it. So that way I don’t have people punching me because I’m staring at them or observing them so much. I have an explanation. I also like stories. I like telling stories and I found that I enjoy telling stories through film. Though I must admit I don’t know much about film. I don’t watch many films, but that’s for the director to understand and have knowledge of, not for the actor. And there is a certain enjoyment in potentially humiliating yourself. When that does happen, it’s quite informative to see how you deal with that. That sort of experience makes you feel alive.
But you’re also a master of understatement. And you’re known for going to extremes when it comes to slipping into your roles. You lost over sixty pounds for The Machinist and then had only six months to build up those muscles for Batman Begins.
I admit that wasn’t particularly healthy. But I like to push myself. And I want to give it my all. There’s a pleasure in that, too. And I believe in pushing yourself to the limit. My body is also the only thing in a film that I can control myself, everything else is guided by the director. Though in the end, it’s all illusion anyway. No matter how realistic you try to be, the acting is always fake. That’s why I don’t like it when actors talk about how real their acting was. When you jump around in a black rubber suit, how is that real?
You once let yourself be bitten by a snake for a film. Was that snake real?
The snake wasn’t venomous, and we had everything under control. So that’s not a good example. The only time where a role spilled over into reality was when I played Jesus for a TV movie several years ago.
"No matter how realistic you try to be, the acting is always fake. That’s why I don’t like it when actors talk about how real their acting was. When you jump around in a black rubber suit, how is that real?"
Did you walk on water?
I had nightmares and hallucinations. One night I had this feeling as if something was dripping onto my palms. I woke up and looked at the ceiling to see if their was any water dripping down from there – but there was nothing. But then it started dripping again, and it only stopped when I put both hands under the blanket. Something like that has never happened to me since. Otherwise, I maintain a healthy distance from my job as an actor. Like my daughter. She used to make fun of me when she was a little kid. She would say, “Dad, you keep doing the same thing over and over and over again.”
What is a particular challenge for you as an actor? Apart from the challenge of playing the role itself?
Having to work with people I don’t get along with. Of course, I can’t just come out and say that, otherwise things would get out of control. I have to ask myself how to deal with the situation. Does everyone really need to know how I feel about this person? And the conclusion I come to is that the film is more important. We need to accept each other as we are and just avoid stepping on each other’s toes. Otherwise, we would end up destroying the whole project with our egos. Every film is a team effort. You have to be able to rely on each other and not get in each other’s way. Which isn’t always easy, because shooting a film is a very intense undertaking.
"We need to accept each other as we are and just avoid stepping on each other’s toes. Otherwise, we would end up destroying the whole project with our egos. Every film is a team effort."
Are there times you absolutely hate your job? When a film flops, for example?
That is certainly unpleasant. I can’t say that I’ve never done a terrible film. Most of the time you notice that during the shoot. Perhaps there’s a breakdown in communication, or you realize that you’ve made a complete mistake in choosing the role in the first place. And then my acting becomes bad as well. The worst thing about it is that you’re actually just wasting your time and everyone else’s time with something like that. But on the other hand, it is particularly satisfying when you feel a sense of harmony in your interaction with others. Though that may not quite approach the experience of writing, composing or painting something. That’s a whole other level of artistic expression. Still, the worst thing about my job is something else entirely . . .
And that is?
I don’t naturally take to being the center of attention. I don’t like being in the public eye. I noticed that already as a child when I had my first roles. So actually, it’s quite a perverse profession to have chosen because acting involves being the center of attention. Because if you are somebody else, it’s the very definition of somebody not being comfortable in their own skin. It’s the byproduct afterwards that is the perversity . . .
Like this interview?
In a way, yeah. But I enjoy the irony of that.
Does acting give you insights that can help you grow as a person?
Absolutely. It helps you understand that people are quite radical creatures who behave in ways that can be extremely unpredictable. Understanding that means that fewer things will surprise you in life. Most people can understand that through their own family and friends. You may try to sit and work out why a friend behaved a certain way, why they did a certain thing, either negative or positive, or why you love someone the way you do. Most people do that for a few hours. I get to do it for a few months at a time. That’s very fascinating. If you are allowed to do it.
Why shouldn’t they let you?
Because there are some films that are made in a way that they are almost designed to prevent you from thinking like that. The technical aspect and the logistical aspect can be huge the bigger the film gets – it becomes like a small army. That can get in the way.
Many of your films confront you with life and death situations. Even if they aren’t real, what do you learn from them?
I know that I could kill, without hesitation, if my children were in danger. No question. As a parent, you come to understand the meaning of sacrifice. That’s the heart of life. And that means (…)