Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Perverse Selflessness of Christian Bale

christian bale

I LOVE Christian Bale - hell, if I were . . . well, never mind, that's a whole other post. Let's leave it at this: He is one of my favorite actors, and I'll see pretty much any film he makes. By the way, Harsh Times is a strangely captivating and under-appreciated film - check it out.

The new issue of Esquire has a long and quirky interview with him - Christian Bale May Kill Someone Yet (by John H. Richardson) - , which is amazing because he hates interviews. He even admits that if he had "bigger balls" he'd tell the studio to eff off, he's not doing another interview for a film, ever.

Here is a bit from the first page he talks here about hating interviews:

ESQUIRE: So you want to be perceived accurately, but you also don't want to give any details. You realize that those two things contradict each other.

BALE: No, it's simpler than that. I want to be able to just act and never do any interview, but I don't have the balls to stand up to the studio and say, "I'm never doing another interview in my life!" So I tip my hat and go, "Okay mister! All right mister! I'll go do the salesman job!"

ESQUIRE: And you don't want to talk about your personal life or family background either.

BALE: Look, I've got incredible pride for my family. I've absolutely fallen into that cliché of a dad who could just happily talk about my daughter endlessly. But it's not what I'm about in terms of being an actor. I don't want people to know about that.

ESQUIRE: Why not?

BALE: I don't want people to know me.

ESQUIRE: Why not?

BALE: Because that buggers up my job.

ESQUIRE: How does it do that?

BALE: Because if you know something about somebody, it gets in the way of just watching the guy as the character.

ESQUIRE: But that's not really true. If you really disappeared into your role, people wouldn't realize it was the same guy from movie to movie.

BALE: No! It's like painting behind the radiator — I'd know about it even if nobody else does.

ESQUIRE: But for the audience, that's part of the pleasure. "Wow! He's a great actor! He's so different than he was in Julius Caesar."

BALE: Well, it's also just I'm bored shitless with myself.

When he was a child actor, Bale did fantasy movies and even sang and danced in a Disney musical called Newsies. Now he cringes at the words "child actor."

BALE: I spent many years trying to pretend I wasn't.


BALE: Because it's embarrassing.


BALE: Well, it's embarrassing to be a star. Most people look at you like, "That's not a fucking job, is it?" And then on top of that, you learn very quickly that you're just a tool — other people are manipulating everything you do, you're at the mercy of editors, and there's nothing you can do. But I learned that there's a certain character that can be built from embarrassing yourself endlessly. If you can sit happy with embarrassment, there's not much else that can really get to ya.

You get the first sense here of his desire to live outside of himself - but it gets more clear later int he interview.

Here is a section from somewhere in the middle, where he talks about the desire to lose himself, to seemingly annihilate his self in the roles he takes - all of which are dark and guilt-ridden in some way or another.

ESQUIRE: You're famous for losing sixty-three pounds on The Machinist. You looked scary. What's up with that?

BALE: That was just a kind of an asshole seeing if he could have the discipline to mentally control himself for an amount of time.

Squirming, he returns to his sore spot.

BALE: I have a very sissy job, where I go to work and get my hair done, and people do my makeup, and I go and say lines and people spoil me rotten. And everyone has that kind of curiosity of how far can you go, how far can you take it. I think it's always good testing yourself. With various things that could be incredibly unimpressive to other people, but there's some meaning to it within yourself — and also stupid, which many people called me during that time [laughs].

But The Machinist prepared Bale for his next part, his star-making turn as the darkest of all superheroes.

ESQUIRE: Batman's a perfect role for you. He's the only action hero who really captures you. [In fact, now that we think of it, Batman is the inconceivable middle point between the roles Bale played in Little Women and American Psycho.] Did you know that going in?

BALE: No. All I knew was that there was a whole lot more there that I'd never seen and there was some extreme in the interpretation that should be taken. So I just said, "I just gotta hope that they're gonna go with that, and if they don't, that's not the version I'd like to be involved with anyway." And it's that perverse thing in life, where when you're able to achieve a certain recklessness, you actually end up getting good results. You have to throw everything aside and say, "What the hell, I'm gonna do it this way, and if they don't like it, I wanna do it anyway." It avoids that anxiety of "How do I manipulate this and fake it so that people believe me?" That's never gonna work. So that's the kind of abandonment you gotta have.

Tugged between these polarities of control and recklessness, Bale is emerging as a paradoxical and driven person of a piece with many of his darker movies, which can feel less like entertainment than forensic research. (This probably accounts for his place on Entertainment Weekly's list of the top eight "most powerful cult heroes of the decade past.")

ESQUIRE: So what's with all the darkness and the miserable characters and the guilt?

BALE: What do you mean "the darkness"? What do you mean? Give me examples.

ESQUIRE: The Machinist.

BALE: All right, that's an extreme example.

ESQUIRE: I'll say.

BALE: I don't like to kinda look at any patterns in my movies. But I guess Harsh Times is kind of harsh. The New World. And the Batman movies. The Prestige. Rescue Dawn. 3:10 to Yuma. I'm Not There. Velvet Goldmine. I'm sure I've got some non-dark-guilt-ridden pieces.

ESQUIRE: Newsies.


ESQUIRE: But you were this singing, dancing, happy kid. What happened to you?

BALE: I'm still singing and dancing and happy. I just don't like musicals, that's all.

ESQUIRE: Or romantic comedies, I hear.

BALE: I just don't find them very romantic or funny much of the time.

ESQUIRE: What about Bringing Up Baby?

BALE: Is that a movie?

ESQUIRE: It's Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn.

BALE: I don't know it.

ESQUIRE:The Philadelphia Story?

BALE: Never seen it.

ESQUIRE:Breakfast at Tiffany's?

BALE: Never seen it.

ESQUIRE: Get the fuck outta here.

BALE: You're not talking to a cinemaphile.

ESQUIRE: But I bet you've seen Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

BALE: Yes.

ESQUIRE:Blue Velvet?

BALE: Yes.

ESQUIRE: What else?

BALE: I saw The Wild Bunch recently. I remember being rocked by Naked when that came out — and I hate the pretentiousness of that, referencing a Mike Leigh movie, but it really did fascinate me for some reason.

ESQUIRE: It's a very grungy movie.

BALE: And Chris Farley was just phenomenal. Beverly Hills Ninja will always remain one of my tops.

ESQUIRE: Now you're lying.

BALE: I have watched that movie. One time I sat down and watched it two nights in a row, and cried with laughter both times. The guy just was a phenomenon, and is missed dearly in my household.

Now it's time to dig a little deeper.

ESQUIRE: You have these very strongly held beliefs, some of them a bit peculiar. Were you troubled by some growing egotism or vanity or something?

BALE: No. I primarily felt embarrassment through most of my performances.

ESQUIRE: Because of the quality or the doing?

BALE: I'm not sure. I never put my finger on it. But there was a love for it at the same time — and I don't think it's amazing to have those contradictions. None of us are sound bites, you know.

ESQUIRE: You seem to have a puritanical streak.

BALE: Puritanical? Really?

ESQUIRE: The embarrassment. The rigor.

BALE: The flagellations?

ESQUIRE: Yes, exactly.

BALE: I have a hair shirt on right now, you know.

ESQUIRE: Instead of reveling in the fact that you're a rich and famous movie star, you're embarrassed.

BALE: Believe me, I have things I revel in without any hesitation. This is just not something to be quite as proud of as many people would have you believe.

ESQUIRE: What do you mean?

BALE: Art is something to be proud of. Art is no compromise. As an actor, you're giving it up, you're at the mercy of so many other people. So are you truly reaching the lofty goals? No, of course you're not. And there are some movies where that was never the aim anyway.

After a brief pause, he continues.

You know, I've been doing this quite a long time. It doesn't make me feel special. But I actually love it more for the reality of how it is done, the sinew and the bone of how it's really put together.

ESQUIRE: Can you be more specific?

BALE: One word: immersion. It doesn't matter whether I would be acting or doing anything else. It's about taking things a little too far. It's about you don't know the edge until you've gone over it. That fascinates me.

Later, explaining why he refuses to use the "Method acting" technique of remembering the past to stimulate emotion, he returns to the theme.

BALE: I'm not on a couch having therapy. And it's very limiting if I have to be able to relate every damn thing in somebody else's life to something that's happened in mine. At the end of the day, I'm faking it. Pure imagination, and it's only phony if you don't go far enough with it. You can become obsessive and it can get to the point where you're almost losing yourself. You've become a vessel. And holy shit, things start happening. And I'm hating the way I'm sounding right now, because I sound like a tosser, but that's my secret ambition.

ESQUIRE: To become a vessel.

BALE: Yes, but I don't believe in revealing that.


BALE: Just do it! Don't talk about it, get on with it.

ESQUIRE: But you're a fucking actor! You're in the self business!

BALE: It's the opposite of self! It's actually saying, "I don't stand a chance being myself. I've gotta create somebody else in order to communicate. If I remove myself from all of my own memories and inhibitions and create another character — holy shit! I can reach out and communicate in that way." So to me, it's actually about trying to fucking destroy the self, and then you might be able to hit something. There's some quote, I think it's Oscar Wilde, "An artist puts nothing of himself into his art."

ESQUIRE: You know that's total bullshit, right?

BALE: Explain that! Explain that! Why is that bullshit?

ESQUIRE: Look at Scorsese, he's all over his movies —

BALE: He's the director!

ESQUIRE: Dostoyevsky's all over his novels!

BALE: He's the writer!

ESQUIRE: Jack Nicholson is all over his parts!

BALE: Great movie stars, that's what they do provide. Steve McQueen, you wanna fucking be Steve McQueen. What cooler fucking guy in the world than that? I can't do that. I don't believe in myself enough to do that. I've always thought, if I was in a band, I'd never want to be the lead singer.

ESQUIRE: Bassist? Drummer?

BALE: Well, I've got to admit to a bit of ego. I'd have to be lead guitarist [laughing].

Clearly, this was the site of a major — as Sig Freud used to say — "cathexis." The obvious course was to push harder.

ESQUIRE: I totally get it except for one thing.

BALE: What?

ESQUIRE: You were this way when you were thirteen, so it must be an instinctive reaction that goes deeper than any of your explanations.

BALE: All right! We're not gonna delve into this greatly, but it comes from moving around a lot and the necessity for re-creation. There you go. That's what it stems from. I was doing it in my own life well before I was doing it as a job.

One more bit from the end of the interview - I admire this part. I don't know how honest it is of him, but since I want to be understood and appreciated, I like that he does not.

ESQUIRE: I release you, you can go.

But you can't resist a last assault on his cloak of invisibility.

So how would you like people to think of you?

BALE: I don't care.

ESQUIRE: Really?

BALE: I don't care. Being misunderstood is not a bad thing as an actor. I know the truth.

He stands up and flicks his eyes across the scene before us, the balcony overlooking the Pacific with the rich men and their wives, and flashes a last charming smile — this time with a measure of mischief.

BALE: You know the reason I picked this place?


BALE: 'Cause it has nothing to do with my life. I never come here, ever. It's as far removed from any place that I would ever go to. And that's exactly why I chose it. 'Cause it has nothing to do with me.

Read the whole thing from the beginning.

No comments: