When you think of Christian Bale what picture do you conjure up in your mind’s eye? Is it as American Psycho’s square-jawed investment banker Patrick Bateman? Or is it as the gaunt whisper of a man from The Machinist? Perhaps it’s as 3:10 to Yuma’s scruffy cowboy Dan Evans or the cowled Caped Crusader of the Batman films.
The point is Bale recreates himself from film to film. “It’s helpful not to look like yourself,” he recently told The Guardian. “If I look in the mirror and go, ‘Ah, that doesn’t look like me,’ that’s helpful.”
He could make a fortune playing superheroes in action movies but instead chooses to shake things up. Since his breakthrough performance in 1987’s Empire of the Sun, he has been a chameleon, losing 60 pounds to play the skeletal lead in The Machinist and gaining a beer gut and a combover for his role in American Hustle.
Creating the “Olympian physique” of serial killer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho took some discipline. “I’m English,” he said, “we don’t have many gyms around. We’d rather go to a pub instead.” A trainer and a protein diet took off the pounds.
As boxer and former drug addict Dicky Ecklund in The Fighter he dropped 30 pounds and used makeup and prosthetics to age himself. How did he lose the weight? “Usually I always say, ‘Oh, I do a lot of coke whenever I lose weight.’ I’m not sure if it’s so funny for this movie, to say that.” In reality he trained with the real-life Ecklund and boxed the pounds off.
In Velvet Goldmine he plays a London journalist looking into the life and faked death of glam rock singer Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Once again he had to physically transform, but not in the traditional way.
When his mom saw that he was working out and running at 6 a.m. she said, “Christian, what are you doing? You’re doing a film about sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Why don’t you do it the way they did it? They weren’t out running. They drank a helluva lot and lived unhealthily.” “I took that to heart,” he said.
This weekend he appears in Hostiles as the elaborately moustachioed Joseph J. Blocker, an 1892-era U.S. Army captain approaching retirement, grappling with the anguish and regret that has scarred his soul. The impressive ’stache may be his biggest physical transformation for this role — the AV Club joked “Christian Bale’s moustache is the best thing about Hostiles” — but he says the biggest change here was spiritual.
To create the character’s contemplative demeanour he spent a lot of time “sitting in a room quietly staring at a wall.” He says he likes to get as “distant as possible” from his own personality. Imagining Blocker’s life journey before filming allowed him to internalize the character and “feel like you’re trying very hard by the time you get to be working.”
Next up for Bale is the biopic Backseat. He shaved his head and packed on pounds — “I’ve just been eating a lot of pies,” he says — to play former U.S. vice-president Dick Cheney. “I’ve got to stop doing it,” says the 43-year-old actor of the extreme weight gain. “I suspect it’s going to take longer to get this off.”