The Mystery of Christian Bale

"Hey, want to hear about the Newsies prostitution ring?" Bale offers, happily steering the conversation away from himself. "We shot at Universal Studios, and it was a massive production, with hundreds of extras, which is where I got work for lots of my family and friends, even my dog. But apparently there were a few extra kids who were offering their services to anybody who paid, all during the time we shot there. There was even a Newsies pimp ring. They used the sets, wherever--they were using my dressing room on my days off, I heard later."

In addition to surviving Newsies, Bale passed through that most dreaded of child actor gauntlets-- puberty. ("No I didn't," he blurts. "I never did. I'm bald down there, like an action figure.") The Bale anonymity tactics served him well. "I've been lucky," he says, "because there wasn't a sudden leap where people were saying, 'Oh, what a cute kid,' and then it's, 'Bloody hell, what happened there, he's got zits and hair in his armpits--he must be spending a lot of time alone in his room.' Of course, I was spending a lot of time alone in my room."

Following the ill-conceived Newsies, there was the ill-conceived Swing Kids, in which Bale played a Glenn Miller-loving Hitler Youth to Robert Sean Leonard's lispy Hamburg good kid. The movie was unanimously trashed and died an unceremonious box-office death. Bale remained untouched--no matter how miserable and bloated the film, it seemed, Bale landed on his feet unsullied by association. Then, as a proper reward for his patience and fortitude, Bale won the role of Laurie, the resident March family boy toy, in Gillian Armstrong's neoclassic Little Women. It was the wisest casting coup in a film bursting with casting coups, and the role suddenly cemented Bale's reputation in Hollywood as something other than a fine child actor with the luck of a roadrunning squirrel.

"It was Winona, basically," he says when I ask him how he got the part. "That's what I've been told. I met with Gillian, and then I met with Winona and Gillian, and we read, and then I got the part. Winona was very involved in the casting, in every aspect of the film--she'd contacted Gillian about making the film. She wanted me to play Laurie. Talk about someone who's seen a lot of movies--she'd seen everything I'd done."

That included, I'm presuming, The Land of Faraway, a Swedish/ Norwegian/Russian-made fantasy Bale likes to note did better than Platoon in Sweden that year, and was shot only a few hundred miles away from Chernobyl when the infamous meltdown occurred. ("We actually left the country for a while, but nowhere near long enough, of course. We couldn't wait, what, 2,000 years?") Another missing link is Prince of Jutland, an unreleased medieval saga (available only on British video) that includes, to the delight of Bale's nation of followers, his first on-screen bare butt.

Little Women was Bale's exultant coming-of-age in an industry where young actors' crash-and-burn stories are as common as daily horoscopes. "Little Women was definitely a turning point," Bale acknowledges. "And not just in career terms. I knew I was doing something new there, something I liked."

Bale had no problem with preconceptions as he entered the project. "I'd never even heard of the book before--in England we read Lord of the Flies." He'd barely heard of the director, either. "First night in Vancouver--it was summertime, the snow was entirely fake--Gillian and I got out for a drink together, and she mentioned a film of hers, I can't remember what it was, and I looked at her like, 'I don't have a fucking clue what you're talking about.'" Armstrong was no Spielberg, sure, but she'd gotten Hollywood's attention years before with My Brilliant Career, and she'd earned critical if not box-office respect since then.

"She said, 'Christian, maybe it's a good idea to sort of research who you'll be working with.'" Bale laughs. "Mostly, though, I was very possessive on the set of the film. You've got Winona, Trini Alvarado, Samantha Mathis, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst, Gillian--I was experiencing an incredible male possessiveness. I'd been there a month, and I sort of resented when Eric Stoltz arrived. I'll tell you, I'm in the right profession. I have a jones for actresses. You establish intimacy so easily. When you meet someone for the first time, someone with the guts to be an actress, and you're auditioning together, you've already broken that ice. Rehearsals are even better. For European and American girls, my being a fumbling, dribbling English prat seems to be quite charming. As long as it works, I'm in luck."

After supplying the voice of Thomas in Pocahontas, Bale rode the Little Women express to snag a plum role in Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady. "I've only got five or so scenes, but it seems I'm in the film more than I am because everyone else is constantly talking about me. That, and each of my scenes is a major crisis." Bale shot Lady more or less back-to-back with Christopher Hampton's little-noticed The Secret Agent. "Which was fun--Gerard Depardieu belching in my dressing room with just his underpants on, Bob Hoskins yelling, 'You fucking cunt!' at the crew whenever he got in the mood, Patricia Arquette practicing kung fu in her corsets..."

Only now is Bale tiring of the period-piece niche he has so guilelessly carved out for himself. "Metroland is set in 1977, and that's the most contemporary I've gotten," he says of the film he's currently working on with Breaking the Waves's attention-getter Emily Watson. "Up to now the most recent I've played is the 1940s. I'm really looking forward to doing this one: no top hats, no waistcoats, nothing." Nothing is right: Metroland involves substantial skin. "The whole film is about sex--how great it is, is it as great as it used to be, etc. I haven't really worried about it. Possibly on the first day I'll become suddenly shy, but I don't imagine I will. It comes down to just pulling off your pants and standing there naked. Once they've seen everything, there's nothing else to worry about."

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