It’s not makeup that has Christian Bale looking dirty, wind-chapped and sunburned in his latest movie. He spent a month earning every bit of that cowboy grit by riding horses and firing revolvers in the sweltering New Mexico desert.
Bale plays weathered rancher Dan Evans in the remake of the 1957 Western film 3:10 to Yuma, which recently opened in the US. And like every character he plays, Bale melts into the role, disappearing behind Dan Evans’ dirty fingernails and scruffy beard.“So much is the dirt,” the 33-year-old says, slumping into a sofa at the Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel. “Real sun, real wind, real dirt. And I think you needed that, to get out there and just get the feel of it.”
Bale is the chameleon of his generation, as convincing as a muscular cartoon hero as he is an emaciated insomniac or an obsessive young executive with a murderous streak. But he follows no formula or character-development ritual. In fact, he hardly follows film, saying he doesn’t “consider it to be necessary to have a great knowledge of movies to make them.”
“I would be troubled by knowledge of where I fit or where a movie fit in the pantheon of moviedom,” he says. “I prefer not knowing and making it for its own reasons and my own reasons.”
Bale’s reasons revolve around story and setting, the experience of making a film. He likes “sitting in mud or in tents all day” more than lounging in a plush trailer. But his real motivation is “putting myself in other people’s shoes and investigating what life is like looking through their eyes.”
Sometimes he does heaps of research, like learning magic tricks for his role in The Prestige. Other times he undergoes physical transformation, like losing more than 27 kilograms to play the lead role in The Machinist, then gaining it all back, plus 18 kilograms more, to play the sturdy superhero and his alter ego in Batman Begins.
Sometimes Bale becomes so immersed in his characters that 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.
Bale’s informal acting education began when he was a child. The youngest of four in a family that moved constantly, he says he “was acting somewhat in my own life in terms of adapting to the different kids in schools I had to go to all the time.”
After some TV work, at age 12 he landed his first film role, and it was a doozy: the lead in Steven Spielberg’s epic Empire of the Sun.
“After seeing Christian in Empire of the Sun, I went, God, I hope they don’t just shove him into films. Maybe he’ll step back a bit and learn the working that an actor does,” recalls Peter Fonda, Bale’s co-star in 3:10 to Yuma.
Despite a steady stream of roles, Bale did step back, considering again and again if he really wanted acting as a career. Once he’d decided, somewhere around age 21, Bale devised his own acting-class curriculum - with real roles in real films - that culminated with 2004’s The Machinist.
“Before that, I would say that was kind of the equivalent of me doing my drama-school training, my film-school training,” he says. “I experimented with things, just wanting to see if it would work. Many times it didn’t.”
The Christian Bale Film School included his breakthrough role in American Psycho, a bloody drama that he considers a black comedy. (”I have a twisted sense of humour,” he says.) His portrayal of an uptight psychiatrist in the dysfunctional-family tale Laurel Canyon and a futuristic fighter in the sci-fi thriller Equilibrium also came during this time.
Bales draws on his own creativity and life experiences, too, in becoming a character. But he says the “ideal actor” would have “no life whatsoever.”
“There would be an absolute void, so they could truly just study somebody without putting any of their own interpretations onto it,” he says, adding that “it’s obviously impossible.”
One gets the feeling Bale would do it if he could.
“He’s got a fire, and he understands acting at its core,” says 3:10 to Yuma director James Mangold. “Part of Christian’s power I think is the economy with which he delivers his choices and that he doesn’t work too hard, and he has the confidence in his own physicality and just the kind of lightning streaming out of his eyes. Sometimes, he has to do no more than just that.”
Bale can next be seen in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, playing one of the many Bob Dylans the film presents, and in Christopher Nolan’s anticipated sequel to Batman Begins, The Dark Knight.
When he’s not working, he spends time with his wife and young daughter or exercising his most important acting muscle: imagination.
“I’ve always been too much of somebody who can sit there kind of thinking, daydreaming and doing stuff,” he says, “which I think has always been helpful for acting.”