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PopEntertainment.com > Feature Stories - Actors > Feature Interviews A to E > Christian Bale




by Brad Balfour

In famed German-born director Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn, Christian Bale's portrayal of the captured Navy pilot Dieter Dengler is riveting, memorable and disturbing. In this film, he endures torture, deprivation and the extremes that Dengler faced as a prisoner in a secret Laotian camp during the mid-1960s. From eating raw snake and maggots to actually experiencing water torture and beatings, Bale did what it took to fulfill his character. An extraordinary piece of work, it's not surprising that it comes from Bale, an actor who truly gives life to the idea of method acting by really inhabiting his parts. 

The Welsh-born Bale brings this same intensity to a raft of characters--from his recreation of Dengler to his revised Batman as The Dark Knight. Even when the character has romantic qualities, such as in Laurel Canyon, he brings an intensity to the part that is inherently Bale's forte. From the obsessed magician in The Prestige to the brutal ex-soldier and cop wanna-be in Harsh Times, the 35 year-old actor plays some very disconnected individuals, but in his off-camera life he actively supports such concerned organizations as Ark Trust, Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Foundation, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, the Redwings Sanctuary, and the Happy Child Mission, and a school for street kids in Rio De Janeiro.  

Was getting a chance to eat maggots what turned you on to this role?  

Yeah [laughs]. 

What else turned you on to this character? 

Dieter Dengler was an amazing man. Who knows what he would've been had he not ever been tested in this way? It's a question that I certainly have myself. What would I be able to do in certain situations? Kind of dying to be tested. He was [tested] and he came out, obviously, looking like a true hero, but he didn't go in looking like that. He was not your typical image of somebody that you would think would be the tough guy who was able to endure. His lighthearted attitude; this sort of dorkiness that I saw in him and kind of naïveté as well. It ended up being the finest tool for his survival.  

I just found that really interesting and was equally interested in the idea of working with Werner Herzog and heading to the Thai jungle. [I had] heard a few stories about him... didn't know his work a whole lot. I kind of researched it after I first met him. But the idea of heading to a guy who on one movie spent four years making a movie in the jungle and threatening to shoot his actors and stuff… It was at least going to be interesting, if nothing else. 

Did you find that having Herzog's Dengler documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, as a reference a good thing or a bad thing? Did it impose a certain responsibility on you as an actor to capture him accurately?  

It's a good thing. I know a lot of other actors that don't like to look at other references to their characters and things. But I like it. I always look at everything, I read all the books. I read Dieter's Escape from Laos. I watched the documentary again and again and again. I recorded it just to listen to him a lot. I just don't suffer from feeling like I'm getting caught into an imitation. I just feel like I want to steal some good stuff if it's in there. 

You go into some very rough territory in this film, there's no question about that. And you do it so fearlessly. How far will you go as an actor before you feel like this is enough? 

You kind of discover it as you go along. There's obviously a point at which you step back and go; it's just a movie. Like for The Machinist, I wasn't doing that for the movie. I was doing that because I wanted to test myself to see if I was somebody who had the willpower to be able to do that. But at certain points, it can become just egotistical and pointless, so you just got to keep yourself in check with that. But I think that I just discover it as I go along. 

How far do you feel you can ride the currents of emotion before you actually cross over to a point where you're beating yourself up? There was a Russian actor playing Othello who needed six Desdemonas because each night he actually strangled his Desdemona. Each one needed a week to recover.  

It's one thing to beat yourself up, it's quite another to strangle a woman. That is the distinction. There are some stories that Werner told me about Klaus Kinski [who starred in five Herzog films: Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, Woyzeck, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde]. People sometimes think that Werner's quite a brutal guy. They think he's quite the sadist. There are stories that he pointed a gun at Klaus Kinski. Well, Klaus Kinski was doing all sorts of things like that and much worse [he had a reputation of brutalizing both his fellow actors and his directors--ed]. I would've shot the guy. If he was doing it to himself: no problem. He's an adult. 

For me, I would never tread on anybody else's toes, or do anything that will reduce their performance or put them in any kind of discomfort whatsoever. But if I want to do that myself, that's my choice. 

Did you have time to live in such barracks, as well as go through jungle training? 

No, we didn't have any jungle training. Nothing. Because Dieter didn't have any jungle training. We watched the video [of the documentary] and that was it. That was the point. They had no idea what to expect [so why should we?]. For me, research can be interesting, but it can be pointless as well. The realities of making a movie often are not conducive with that. For instance, I want to go live in an army barracks for eight weeks beforehand. Well, great, but it's probably going to be nothing different than somebody who didn't, unless it's something you're actually using as you're filming. 

I'm not knocking it. I love doing research myself, but I admit it doesn't always add to the performance. It might and you never know. It could end up adding something, but a lot of it is purely because I get to do it. I have an excuse. I have people who will call up and they all go, "Ok, come on in," whereas normally they'd say, "Stay the hell out of it. We don't just let anybody in." It gives you access and I just like taking advantage of that.  

In the scene with the leeches and the torture scenes you certainly took advantage of having access to those experiences. 

The leeches were no problem. Those things are getting use medicinally in many places. We just grabbed them and chucked them on. They were funny little sort of playthings almost. You just get these slight incisions that take a little while to stop bleeding. It's all very clean and no problem. You don't feel it a great deal anyways. Literally, you throw a leech on me now and I'll probably just be, "What's that? Oh, I've got a strange little leech." Yeah, it's not a big deal.  

As for the torture scenes… for some of them we were in a village. There was this fantastic village that were very unsure of us when we first got there, kind of standing back. Suddenly I was getting dragged behind by this ox. They were looking and a few of them tried to save me. It was real nice of them and they were trying to save me. They wanted the translator to say that I should stand up for myself more and not let these other people treat me this way. They could see the rest of the crew abusing me and I didn't seem to understand it, you know? I was like, "I really appreciate that but I really want to do that. We're just pretending. It's okay."  

Then in another scene where I was hanging upside down with the ants nest [tied to me] as well. By then, we've been there for quite some time. The kids really knew us and so they were laughing and pushing me and things like that. There was one slight misunderstanding at one point with one of the guards where he started spinning me. I was getting pretty dizzy and the blood rushing to my head and these ants crawling on me and things. 

Then Werner kind of went, ok, pfft [Bale motions with his hand] and the guy thought he meant more, do more. He went crazy spinning me. I couldn't stand up for about half an hour after that. It was fantastic to be able to go to these villages. Some of them were refugees from Burma and they didn't have the same rights as anybody else. Some of them, in fact, were not allowed to leave in certain areas that we would go into. But all of them [were] absolutely delighted that we were there and found us hysterical. These bizarre, strange people. Especially me… this strange person who lets all these other people beat him up all the time. I was a source of great amusement for the kids. 

Also, this soldier story has a redeeming quality, considering the psycho soldier character you played in Harsh Times. 

I did do this one after Harsh Times. I didn't connect the two in the slightest. They're such radically different characters.  

You seem fascinated by characters that have been in brutal situations or who dealt with some level of brutality. In a sense, even Batman was like that. What draws you to them and what do you find fascinating about them?  

It's fascinating, isn't it? I'm sure you find it fascinating. It's always interesting for everybody to look at people who've been pushed to the brink. You wonder how would you fare with that? Nobody's interested in somebody who doesn't ever really do anything. I don't have a choice in that. I will always go for those kinds of characters. Each one is a separate choice for me but I think it's fairly natural to find yourself gravitating towards people who have done extraordinary things. 

You must have special insight into what made Dieter succeed. What was it about him that made Dieter the survivor? He's the only guy that's actually survived and escaped from a prison camp during the Vietnam War. 

It had to have been his crazy optimism, because there isn't a difference other than that. He believed when the others doubted. Much of it was probably the power of denial as well. If he had looked at the big picture and obsessed over that, he probably would never have gotten out of that camp or made it out of the jungle whatsoever, which must have been a loathsome place. Up until he actually sees the plane, at which point, yeah, the jungle became his salvation. It was potentially a death trap up until then. 

But he just wouldn't quit. He doesn't quit. He just persevered. Much of it is his denial of the big picture, a denial of the real hideous circumstances he's in. That's what to me, he means when he's saying [in the film], "What is empty? What is full?" It's a very practical kind of optimism. It's about you dealing with what's right in front of you and you keep moving. You keep in motion. You keep busy. 

Your fellow actors Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies (who portray Dengler's fellow prisoners) said that Werner was surprisingly detached from this project given that Dieter was a good friend of his, and that his style of working kept shifting. He had no consistent approach from day to day, week to week. Was that your observation as well? 

I like that because I find that I do that myself. It all depends so much on your own moods each and every day and how you feel and what's happening to you in your life and what's working for you. I've never understood anybody who has said they have one particular technique and that's that. For me, it has to adjust to how you are feeling and what people are like.  

I wouldn't say he was detached. He's a very muscular director. He really wrestles it. He liked to do everything that we were doing. Literally, if we had to go into the rapids, he really wanted to get in the rapids with us. He was losing his toenails. He was willing to jump and grab a snake. I would watch him and he'd be performing half the movie right in front of us. Not in the way of, "Hey, do what I'm doing." Just in excitement. He can't help it. It was like he was possessed. I wouldn't have used the word detached. 

Instead of approaching things in a linear way, he approached things laterally. Does that make sense to you? 

Yes, I think it's also to keep people guessing. Most people working on a movie, they are accustomed to a conventional way of moviemaking and you can very easily slip back into that. So I think that on purpose, he approaches things in a way [in which] people are a little confused. He encourages confusion on the set, because then he knows he can truly be in control. It's not just getting the same old, same old from people working with him that they would give to other directors. He got them questioning what he's doing. He's got them being a little confused and trying something new. He certainly enjoys that. You can certainly see he enjoys putting the people he is working with on the wrong footing as he's working with them. 

Does it takes a sort of crazy optimism, like what Dengler had, to become successful as an actor?

Absolutely, because what's the likelihood of it actually ever happening? You have to be a little crazy and you've got to be prepared for ridicule. Dignity can't be high on your list of importance. So, I think Dieter would've made a pretty fine actor. 

So that's the story of your success! 


With Dieter's story you could do research, but obviously that's not necessarily open to you with Batman in The Dark Knight. So what is that experience like now that you have a new cast? 

It's the old cast as well because Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman... everybody is still there.  

There's a rumor that Cillian Murphy will be there too.  

If it's a rumor, then I won't confirm it. Because I never know what I can or can't say about that. I usually wait for other people to say it. Then it must be common knowledge then, I guess. We got some new cast members as well, with Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and obviously, all the usual suspects behind the camera. It will be a nice progression and we have the confidence now that people will embrace what we did. 

It sounds like you have enough of a family from before that it's been a seamless transition from re-casting the Katie Holmes role onward.  


So how do you stay grounded? 

I have a lot of people around me telling me I'm an asshole.

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Photo Credits:
#1 © 2007 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.
#2 © 2007. Courtesy of MGM Pictures.  All rights reserved.
#3 © 2007. Courtesy of MGM Pictures.  All rights reserved.
#4 © 2007. Courtesy of MGM Pictures.  All rights reserved.
#5 © 2007. Courtesy of MGM Pictures.  All rights reserved.
#6 © 2007. Courtesy of MGM Pictures.  All rights reserved.

Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: July 7, 2007.

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Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: July 7, 2007.