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Christian Bale: ‘As an actor, you get to be a weirdo’

‘I’ve never thought of myself as any kind of a decent leading man,’ Amsterdam star admits

“You know, as an actor, you get to be a weirdo,” Christian Bale says. “You get to follow people around on the streets and go: ‘No, I’m really not a stalker.’ You see people. You follow them and capture mannerisms.”

I’m sure Bale is no weirder than the rest of us. But he certainly has an arresting manner. For a man who slips easily into playing other nationalities — and who travelled the world as a child — he remains almost startlingly English. He speaks in a rumbling, blokeish voice that would sound perfectly at home by the carvery of an Essex pub on a Sunday afternoon. Words tumble out in a veritable avalanche. There is not a hint of the theatrical about him.

We are here to discuss — more than anything else — his role in David O Russell’s peculiar, disordered but profoundly fascinating Amsterdam. In his third film for the American director, Bale plays a doctor who becomes a suspect in a murder case during the Great Depression. Everyone is in this thing. Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Anya Taylor-Joy, Chris Rock, Robert de Niro, Taylor Swift ... We could fill the article with nothing else but the famous people circling Bale in this political comedy.

I’m not a method actor. I just sort of figure it out each and every day and then see what happens

I’m particularly interested in the film’s treatment of American fascism in this era. “What is more American than a dictatorship built on business?” someone says. Few hearing that will be unable to resist drawing parallels with a recent presidency.

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“I do believe that when a film gets made it’s owned by the audience,” Bake says slightly evasively. “So whatever you think about it, you’re right — no matter how different your opinions are about it. As to the relevance and how topical it is for nowadays ... well, yeah. But I like for other people to look at that. But, for a long time, people have said the business of America is business.”

Bale has been juggling questions for a long time. He has been in the limelight since appearing as the lead in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun 35 years ago, and he was, at the age of 13, then already a bit of a veteran. He was born in Wales, but thinks of himself as English (and now carries an American passport). His family sounds like something out of a Booker-nominated novel. His mother was a circus performer and his father was a talent manager.

They lived in Oxfordshire, in Bournemouth, in Portugal and, at 17, they finally moved to Los Angeles. He was eight when he got his first acting gig in a commercial. Following Empire of the Sun, he became the family’s main breadwinner. “That was no fun. So there’s always been a bit of loathing because of that,” he told the Guardian in 2018.

He would not have been the first child actor to drift into unhappy obscurity, but he plugged away with modest success throughout the 1990s. You can see him in Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women and Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine. His breathtaking turn in 2000′s American Psycho took a while to register, but his interpretation of the title role in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins confirmed his status as a star for the new millennium. Rumours began emerging of his method acting approach. But he doesn’t seem to quite buy that.

“I was obviously really honoured to be able to work for the second time with Robert De Niro,” he says of Amsterdam. “And I was just with him in New York, doing a lot of interviews, and I kept on having people saying to me: ‘Oh, you’re a method actor’. And I was sitting next to De Niro, who studied with [Lee] Strasberg. I went for a weekend [of study] at the YWCA off of Tottenham Court Road. I’m not a method actor. I just sort of figure it out each and every day and then see what happens.”

He has had his controversies. I recall approaching the Dorchester Hotel in 2008 to interview Christopher Nolan for The Dark Knight and being surprised to see news crews gathered on Park Lane. It transpired he had been arrested for allegedly assaulting his mother and sister in the hotel. No charges were pressed.

Some months later, a tape emerged of him yelling at Shane Hurlbut, director of photography, on the set of Terminator Salvation. He issued an abject apology. “Please, don’t allow my incredibly embarrassing meltdown to overshadow this movie and to have all of those people’s hard work go to waste,” he pleaded.

So, we know Bale to be a complicated man. Yet, when quizzed on his art, he does his best to make it seem a simple, artisan business. He just turns up and does the work.

“I don’t really look at it that much myself,” he says, “There is zero strategy. There are no sort of tactics.”

He played Batman in three films. He was Moses in Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. He was the psychotic American in American Psycho. Christian Bale is somebody who carries movies

He finds that David O Russell is the right sort of film-maker for this approach. He directed Bale to an Oscar in The Fighter and to another nomination in American Hustle. Bale could be considered the lead in Amsterdam, but, in truth, that responsibility is shared between him, Robbie and Washington. Those three play pals who meet up in the first World War, move to the eponymous Dutch city and later get caught up in a New York whirl following a puzzling murder.

“I just find it more entertaining to look at each character as a supporting role,” he says. “Because it gets rid of that whole responsibility — in my mind the boredom of having to be a leading man. I’ve never quite understood the interest in that. It certainly doesn’t come naturally. And then the physical transformations? You’ve got me a little bit there — in that I don’t like seeing myself. If I do see too much of myself, I go: ‘Oh, God!’ I just don’t want to see it. Ha, ha!”

Let’s probe away at this notion of him not thinking himself a leading man. His CV would argue against that theory. He played Batman in three films. He was Moses in Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. He was the psychotic American in American Psycho. Christian Bale is somebody who carries movies. Put him at the centre and you can be fairly certain your edifice will stand up.

“I do confess that I’ve never thought of myself as any kind of a decent leading man,” he says. “Even if I am the lead in a film, I am trying to pretend to have a supporting role. I just found through my life I’ve had more fun when I’m in a supporting role — and that people get more bold. I think something that really defines David’s movies is that he deals with characters that, in most common, more traditional films, would be just supporting roles that you might see just briefly. But they’re bloody fascinating characters.”

He shakes off notions of being a method actor, but we know that Christian Bale prepares like a professional. You can see that in the finished work. His character in Amsterdam was badly knocked apart in the war. He lost an eye and is permanently encased in a sort of surgical truss. I imagine he had to look through the records to get that right.

“The physical preparation was more just looking at some of the some of the horrendous ailments that many of the vets had,” he says. “They called it ‘the yips’ at that time — PTSD was not something that was really recognised. These poor gents were told they were going to be returning heroes and very few of them were treated that way.”

Bale and Russell have been planning Amsterdam for around six years. What they have ended up with may be too diffuse for some viewers, but it offers the sort of big, complex, socially aware comedy you rarely now get from the mainstream. And it is a delight to see so many stars being stretched in relatively small roles. The city of Amsterdam exists as an place of emotional comfort. The spot the heroes came perfectly alive. Does he have such a place? Having lived everywhere, he must be able to name a few candidates.

“Really, it’s more a spot in my head. It’s more to me a way of feeling,” he says. “It’s not about having to be in one particular place to feel that way.”

He does a good job of appearing engaged. He does a good job of seeming grateful. He doesn’t fret about what the business has done to him.

“I kind of rely upon other people to notice that or any changes that have happened,” he says merrily. “Beyond being incredibly bloody grateful and surprised that anyone’s still hiring me to keep doing this.”

Amsterdam opens on October 7th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist