Christian Bale: ‘I was asked to do a romantic comedy. I thought theyd lost their minds’

The actor, famous for playing brooding, damaged men, is back playing, well, a brooding, damaged man in the gritty western Hostiles. He talks about why the film industry has to change, balding up to play Dick Cheney and why he will never, ever, do a romcom

The interviews first surprise is that a chubby, grungy figure is occupying the Beverly Hills hotel sofa reserved for Christian Bale. The impostor sports a shaved head, heavy paunch, worn black T-shirt and khaki camouflage trousers. He looks like a bouncer, maybe, or a resting football hooligan, but certainly not the man who pops up on lists of the sexiest stars alive. But Bale it is, sunk into the seat, inhabiting his latest physical transformation. I ate a lot of pies, he says.

The actor is well known for going to extremes gorging, starving, bodybuilding which reshape his physique from Olympian to emaciated to portly and back. He has just done it again, packing on the pounds and going near-bald to play Dick Cheney. At the age of 43, these transformations are not getting easier. Ive got to stop doing it. I suspect its going to take longer to get this off, he says, indicating the belly.

But the chances of Bale not going all the way for a role are, on the basis of the ensuing interview, negligible. He may be from the small Pembrokeshire town of Haverfordwest and speak with an emphatic, non-posh English accent, but he is Americas Zelig: a versatile talent who incarnates his adopted countrys dreams and nightmares with singular physicality and intensity.

A driving force, apparently, is insecurity. The fact anybody hires me is surprising, says the Oscar-winner (for The Fighter in 2011) hired by Terrence Malick, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan and David O Russell. It could be false modesty, but Bale seems genuinely worried that someday the work on average one or two films a year over the past two decades could dry up. That could be really short-lived.

Play Video

Watch the trailer for Christian Bales new film Hostiles video

Bale reputedly has a temper. He was arrested for allegedly assaulting his mother and sister at the Dorchester hotel in London in 2008. The authorities did not press charges, citing insufficient evidence. The same year, he launched an expletive-filled tirade against a director of photography on the set of Terminator: Salvation in 2009. A leaked audio recording zinged across the internet.

Both are ominous portents that set up the interviews second surprise: today, Bale is affable, chatty, relaxed. He chortles. Possibly it is because of a cold he is under the weather and sips lemon tea but it comes out as a wheezing gurgle that for all the world sounds like Muttley, the cartoon dog.

Asked if the nearly decade-old on-set meltdown dogs him it is the butt of jokes and parodies he shrugs. People dont mention it to me, but that doesnt mean it doesnt follow me around. Im not aware of it if it does.

Bale has brought glamour, angst and taut menace to memorable roles ranging from Batman to Patrick Bateman, the axe-wielding yuppie of American Psycho (2000). He plays spoiler alert another brooding, damaged, hyper-masculine character in the powerful film Hostiles. As a US army captain, he is tasked with escorting a Cheyenne chief through 1892 western badlands. Blood flows as Bales character shoots, stabs, suffers and mourns.

Bale in American Psycho Id no idea people saw it as anything other than satire. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

The actor rivals Robert De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis for diving deep physically and psychologically. He doesnt do it for fun. There is a much easier way, but I cant do it. I dont know if its because I dont have any training. I see actors who can just be themselves and then switch and give these really incredible performances, and then switch back to being themselves. I find I start laughing because Im too aware that its still me. So I try to get as distant as possible. Otherwise, I cant do it.

Hence the metamorphoses. Its helpful not to look like yourself. If I look in the mirror and go, Ah, that doesnt look like me, thats helpful. Bale vowed to not pack on weight again after playing a conman in American Hustle (2013), only to bloat anew to play Cheney in the biopic Backseat (shot after Hostiles), leaving him now, days after wrapping, facing another extreme diet. These pants are one of the few pairs Ive got that have these straps on the side so I can still fit into em. A fluctuating waistline, he says, has consequences. Im not big on shopping, so you end up with a lot of elasticated things.

He is calmest, he says, during extreme fasting, such as the time he lost 27kg (60lb) for The Machinist in 2004 (makes De Niro look like an uncommitted wuss, Peter Bradshaw wrote in the Guardians review). Its an amazing experience doing that. When youre so skinny that you can hardly walk up a flight of stairs youre, like, this being of pure thought. Its like youve abandoned your body. Thats the most Zen-like state Ive ever been in my life. Two hours sleep, reading a book for 10 hours straight without stopping unbelievable. You couldnt rile me up. No rollercoaster of emotions. Alas, it doesnt last. As soon as you start putting the food back in your stomach, the rollercoaster comes back.

Sipping his tea, admiring the afternoon sunshine seeping through a canopy of palm trees, Bale ranges over a variety of topics: the USs polarisation, Hollywood scandals, feminism, the horror of romantic comedies.

Bale in the Machinist Its like youve abandoned your body. Photograph: Allstar/Paramount

First, there is a film to promote. Bale calls Hostiles a western with brutal, modern-day resonance. Based on an unpublished manuscript by the late screenwriter Donald Stewart, it is written, produced and directed by Scott Cooper, who previously directed Black Mass, Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace.

It opens with the massacre of a white family by Comanches, then shifts to Captain Joe Blocker, a grizzled, racist veteran of the genocidal Indian wars who is forced by political masters to escort a former foe, a dying Cheyenne chief played by Wes Studi, on a 1,000-mile odyssey to his tribal homeland.

The arc of polarisation and redemption grabbed Bale from the outset. It was a gut feeling of reading it, wanting to read it again and thinking: theres really something here that I can obsess with for a number of months. Its an incredible story of American history from the point of view of a man who is absolutely consumed with bigotry and hatred, finding his way back to being human.

Speaking Cheyenne dialogue was nerve-racking, but uplifting, says Bale. Its a beautiful language; very poetic, with a wonderful rhythm to it. Chief Phillip Whiteman, a Cheyenne consultant who tutored Bale, says the actor nailed it: The joy that it brought me to hear our language being preserved through a spirit such as Chriss, this made me emotional. This is going to live on for ever, captured by this big screen.

The film, shot on location in Colorado and New Mexico in the summer of 2016, ended up reflecting Trump-era themes, says Bale. We didnt think that when we started it, but it just started becoming clear as we saw what was happening in America seeing how comfortable people were becoming in expressing contempt for the other.

Revelations about sexual misconduct in Hollywood underscore the films observation that everything is run by old white men, he says. The richness that we could all enjoy if we started embracing a much wider variety of sources of storytelling from women, from minorities. Worthy hopes, but some critics complain that in Hostiles the native characters are ciphers.

Nonetheless, Bale reckons the cascade of post-Harvey Weinstein scandals will permanently change Hollywood. I cant see that this will become a footnote and be swept under the rug. It does feel like it will change. Since moving to Los Angeles in the 90s, he has worked on dozens of films, indies such as Laurel Canyon, blockbusters such as Exodus: Gods and Kings, and garlanded fare such as The Big Short. But he says he was unaware of sexual misconduct in the industry.

Some people might call me almost reclusive. Nobody gossips with me. I was clueless. If Im not making a film, I dont really socialise with that many people who make films. The casting couch, yes, Id heard of that. But specifics? No, nothing at all. Do I believe that it has all been happening? Absolutely.

Surprising Bale fact: he is Gloria Steinems stepson. His now-deceased father married the feminist author in 2000. It was news to me; I was in Germany, says Bale, wheeze-chortling anew. I found out about it afterwards. He has not discussed Hollywoods scandals with her, he says, but considers himself a feminist. If were talking equality, absolutely.

Asked about Ridley Scott expunging Kevin Spacey from All the Money in the World, Bale pauses. Ridleys a very smart man, a friend of mine. I imagine hes made exactly the right choice. He says he has been too busy shooting Backseat to say more. I dont know if the allegations were so egregious that it was a moral choice of Ridleys or if it was a purely business choice.

In Empire of the Sun with John Malkovich. Photograph: Everett Collection / Rex Feature

In playing Cheney, Bale sought pathways to understanding George W Bushs vice-president. What you discover when you start investigating any person is nobody is singularly bad or singularly good. Hes a wonderful family man, by all accounts. He didnt hesitate for a second when his daughter Mary announced that she was a lesbian despite the fact that was complete anathema to his party at that time.

Bale withholds his own views on Cheneys politics. I dont want to do this as a nudge-nudge, wink-wink performance. I dont want to be revealing my own political leanings and then making a little joke. Its totally irrelevant what I think. Im an actor, Im a vessel of that character.

Bale was born in 1974 to atypical parents. His mother, Jenny, was a circus performer and his father, David, an entrepreneur and talent manager. They moved frequently Bale remembers an idyllic stint in Portugal. The future Batman broke into acting aged eight in a commercial for the fabric softener Lenor. Two years later, he was on the West End in London, playing opposite Rowan Atkinson in The Nerd. At 13, he landed the starring role in Steven Spielbergs adaptation of JG Ballards memoir Empire of the Sun.

Overnight, he became famous and the familys main earner, which prompted a love-hate relationship with acting. There was nobody (else) to make any money. At that age, it was, Oh, Christ, Ive got to be the breadwinner. That was no fun. So theres always been a bit of loathing because of that.

After his parents divorced, he moved with his father to Los Angeles. American Psycho, based on Bret Easton Elliss novel, established Bale as a leading man with a very sharp edge. When I read the book, I was laughing straight away. Id no idea people saw it as anything other than satire.

Then came acclaimed performances in Chris Nolans Batman trilogy, though Bale is self-critical. He wanted the superhero, for once, to be more interesting than the villains. Then Heath Ledger turned in a sublime performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight, leaving the caped crusader relatively vanilla by comparison. I didnt achieve what my plan was there.

Bale has admitted conflicted feelings over Ben Affleck inheriting the role, but withholds any verdict on Batman v Superman and Justice League, saying he hasnt seen either.

His two children the product of his marriage to Sandra Blai have not seen his own films, but mock his thespian efforts during games at home, he says. They think Im the worst actor ever. My daughter cant believe that anyone pays me.

Times up, so a final question: has he considered romantic comedy?

Bale bats the question back with what sounds like a challenge. Have you ever enjoyed a romantic comedy? I pause and he presses the point. Have you ever enjoyed a romantic comedy?

A few, I say, but my mind blanks.

Can you name em?

Er, When Harry Met Sally.

Thats going back quite a ways, isnt it? Youre hard pressed. He shakes his head. I was asked to do a romantic comedy recently and I thought theyd lost their minds. Cats have those insane half hours every evening. I think it must have been that for the production company. I dont know why anyone would ever offer me a romantic comedy. I find American Psycho very funny.

Hostiles is released in the UK on 5 January 2018

Read more: