CHRISTIAN BALE is one actor who enjoys putting himself through the wringer. “Because I like going to hell and back,” admits the Welsh-born star.
From his dark take on Batman to his skeletal struggle in The Machinist, the 33-year-old has never shirked from the physical demands of his roles. Now, in Werner Herzog’s true-life drama Rescue Dawn, Christian wades into the jungles of Thailand to depict Dieter Dengler, a real-life German-born US navy pilot who escaped a Laotian communist POW camp during the Vietnam War. Swimming in snake-infested rivers, eating maggots and hanging from helicopters over the jungle were just part of the fun, says the actor. “How many times in life do you get to do this crazy stuff? It was something I was going to take advantage of. That’s the big appeal to me of doing it.”
But while there are limits, Christian likes to do most of his own stunts. “I feel like these are experiences I’m not going to have ever again in my life.”
Although the snake he wrestled wasn’t venomous, it did have a nasty bite. “He had some pretty good fangs on him and I got them in the shoulder,” he recalls. “One of the local kids caught it and put it in position and I just ran in and grappled with it.”
The helicopter scenes also caused the actor some discomfort. “They had these fantastic pilots who were crazy bastards and I would just hang on as they were taking out tree branches. I got an incredible little tour of the Thai jungle.”
Although the physical stuff was fraught with danger, Christian was more than happy when it came to the I’m A Celebrity-style part of the shoot, which saw him eating maggots. In his time-off from the production, he had acquired a taste for for Thai-fried insects. “It was something I was doing off-camera,” he reveals.
“In the Thai markets they fry pretty much everything. They’d add salt and pepper and stick them in a bag.”
But while you may think the star will do anything that’s necessary to get the perfect shot, he says there are limits, even if the insurance people aren’t there. “Where people have to be set on fire and jump three stories, I ain’t doing that,” he says.
He also drew a line at repeating the starvation look that threatened his health while shooting The Machinist. “I didn’t have to slim down too much for Rescue Dawn. It wasn’t anything like the scale of The Machinist. I don’t need to prove that to myself again.”
Herzog based the film on his 1997 documentary, Little Dieter Needs To Fly, and Christian admits that Dengler romanticised war and wanted to be part of it. Although, as he was an actual person – Dengler died in 2001 – the actor was keen to empathize.
He says: “I really think he had a very unique outlook where he didn’t see the Vietcong as the enemy. He saw them as just other people.”
Look at Christian’s CV and you’ll see he’s drawn to characters that don’t tend to fit in with the mainstream. “You’re in these circumstances and you find a whole different side comes out,” he says. “Everybody doesn’t have a predictable life.”
Hence his sympathy with Dengler. “I could probably have a good conversation with this guy. His optimism and curiosity disarmed so many people. He’s tied up and beaten but he’s still interested in these people. He’s not being scared when he’s meant to be scared. He’s not being depressed and giving up hope when he is meant to be doing that. He was just wired very differently.”
Despite being married to a model, Christian doesn’t have a typical Hollywood life. He took wife Sibi Blazic and and young daughter Emmaline with him onto the set of Rescue Dawn, but since it was an indie production directed by maverick Herzog, there was no service table laden with shrimp, or trailer complete with mod cons.
“For me Rescue Dawn was just as much about the adventure of making the movie,” says Christian. “There’s something about taking yourself away from everyday life.”
Having got his big Hollywood break with American Psycho seven years ago, Christian has managed to swing between odd independent projects and the high profile Batman films. It was 20 years ago that he first wowed critics in Steven Spielberg’s Empire Of The Sun, while recently he co-starred with Russell Crowe in the dark Western 3.10 To Yuma.
“I like ducking between them all because, obviously, Batman Begins is not a movie you can shoot in the same fashion as Rescue Dawn,” he says. Playing the Caped Crusader again in the upcoming The Dark Knight was easier, he adds. “We hit our stride from the get-go. It’s just like riding a bicycle. It eliminates that period where you’re questioning everything you do.”
Not that he particularly cares for the cape. “Whichever superhero came up with the idea of wearing a cape, wasn’t really on to anything,” he says. “The number of times I tripped on that damned thing or thrown a punch and end up with it covering my head.”
Next up for Christian is another true-life story in Killing Pablo, about the assassination of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, co-starring Javier Bardem. And while he’s considered one of the best actors in the world (and a shoe-in for an Oscar at some point, with Rescue Dawn already generating buzz), it’s funny to think that unlike many Brits, he is not a trained actor. He admits that any guilt about that has since dissipated.
“I used to feel that way,” he says. “A lot of people think you can go and study to do this and have techniques they use. I just don’t believe that any more. I don’t think you’ve got to take a single lesson. All you’ve got to do is just watch people.”Rescue Dawn is available on DVD November 20th.