The Mystery of Christian Bale

At 13, he starred brilliantly in Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, which was a box-office disappointment. At 18, he starred in the musical Newsies, which bombed. How is it that Christian Bale, with only small performances in Little Women and The Portrait of a Lady to recommend him, stands poised at 23 on the edge of what odds say will be a long, impressive screen career?


Ten years after the fact, Hollywood and most filmgoers have still not caught up with the blistering, mysterious experience of Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun. An unreal-but-true chronicle of a British boy imprisoned in China during World War 11, the film has moments of ascension and naked grandeur that are unlike any other in American movies. At its shuddery heart burns the complex, unnerving presence of Christian Bale, all of 13 at the time, and dominating nearly every frame. As Bale's character. Jim, gets separated from his parents in a heaving Chinese mob, or stares off at the distant Hiroshima explosion and mistakes it for a dead woman's soul rising to heaven, it's obvious we're not talking about another mere coming-of-age tale starring another proficient kid thespian. Bale's performance is without question one of the best ever given by a child on film. All the same, Empire and Bale were largely overlooked when the film was released and so today it may seem that Bale, if you notice him at all, is slowly, craftily emerging from next to nowhere.

Bale's Hollywood saga is unique, a subtly managed trek around career potholes, up astonishingly steep acting challenges and neatly over the barbed hurdle of puberty, all transpiring more or less outside the godlike eye of publicity, gossip and personality hype. His career and public profile could be an object lesson for his contemporaries, many of whom have already skidded out or gone squirrelly. Bale has survived with his sanity, privacy and gift intact. He has never been the subject of a publicity campaign, and even in the current Era of Hype, where unknowns vie for magazine covers, he keeps a low profile. Hence, his name might not fluster your chimes like "Leonardo DiCaprio" does, but he occupies the same high ground, and stands poised on the verge of one of the most promising adult careers of his generation.

That Bale has never quite gotten his due for Empire may have been his divine good fortune: if the Spielberg film had been a hit, what 13-year-old on the planet could have kept body and soul together under the pressure, opportunity and madness that would have inevitably ensued? Having been spared or cheated of such a fate, Bale has, in the years since Empire, alternated quietly between lofty supporting roles (e.g., Henry V) and leads in a couple of big-budget train wrecks, including an unforgettably monstrous studio musical (_Newsies_) that plummeted into the dirt like a not-so-smart bomb. Bale breezily rose above the dark times like a gull above landfill. And then his grownup profile suddenly lit up stark with his appearance opposite Winona Ryder in Little Women, which initiated a subterranean cult following that has engulfed the online world. Now Bale is shooting the lead in the film of Julian Barnes's novel Metroland, and will, sooner or later, very likely emerge into the glare of certifiable stardom.

"I've never worked more than once a year," Bale tells me in Paris, where I meet up with him. "In between I've had nothing written about me whatsoever. It was definitely a strategy. I like not being in magazines, not being seen on TV, except when I'm actually in a film. I want to work as much as I can and still go to parties and be the geezer in the corner."

Unlike his contemporaries, Bale has never had a publicist. "I've got a real minimum amount of people," he explains. "My agent and my dad." Bale's agent used to run her business out of a Dublin pub and a public phone on the street--nearby construction workers would halt work whenever a call came through, and even occasionally answer the phone as if they were her hired team of receptionists. His father, David, an ex-hippie/ex-pilot, does for him those parts of the jobs of manager and publicist the two deem necessary.

Born in Wales, Bale has lived in L.A. ever since making Newsies, and isn't quite the recluse the lack of offscreen publicity seems to suggest. "I love going to nightclubs, but there are things that should be done anonymously, y'know? The key is to dress like shit, which I always do." Bale's tales of being accosted in public back up his claims. There was a New York subway confrontation with a homeless guy who, after watching Bale get surrounded noisily by schoolgirls, asked him to sign a dollar bill, saying, "I don't know who the fuck you are, but maybe that'll be worth more than a buck someday." Then there was the casting director who bumped into him in a Prague hotel lobby. "Christian!" the woman cooed right to his face. "It's so great I met you like this, I have a script you just have to read! This is so terrific--finally I meet Christian Slater!"

Before Empire of the Sun, Bale had only a handful of stage and TV credits--"All I wanted was to be a Storm Trooper in Star Wars"--one of which was the miniseries Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna with then-Mrs. Steven Spielberg, Amy Irving. "I usually just say I costarred with Amy Irving and that's how I got into Empire, but that's not true at all," he says. "I was shooting and auditioning at the same time. Spielberg actually told me he didn't like my performance in Anastasia." Nevertheless, Spielberg picked Bale from some 4,000 British kids to shoulder the film that the world's most reliable pop culture architect decided to make when Warner Bros. told him he could make anything.

"I don't really remember thinking one way or another about doing the work," Bale recalls. "When you're 13, you just do things. Before we started, my dad told me, 'This could be a fantastic experience, but it could also be the worst thing that could happen to you.' There have been moments when I've wished it had never happened--you know, when you're a teenager, you just want to be normal. Kids would walk up to me saying, 'Where's that kid in Empire of the Sun? and we'd get into a fistfight. Things like that happened a lot. But I have no bad memories, and I haven't the slightest idea what I'd be doing now if it hadn't happened."

After doing a superb Shakespearean bit in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, and a turn as Jim in the TNT version of Treasure Island, Bale was already well on his way to being pigeonholed as a costume-picture mascot, a situation that wouldn't change for many years to come (and, who knows, may never). Then he got his second big, starring role in what turned out to be the cinematic Three Mile Island that was and still is Newsies. "You say something bad about Newsies and you have an awful lot of people to answer to," Bale says with a laugh. He's right: Newsies has a burgeoning cult following that can be described as nothing less than rabid--one fan literally changed his name to that of Bale's character in the film, Jack Kelly.

The musical that Bale's admirers discovered retroactively, after being turned on by his performance in Little Women, was released at a time when no one was dying to have the musical form revived. Even if they had been, it wouldn't have been this musical. "I never had any interest in doing a musical," Bale says. "I still don't. In fact, when I first read the script, I thought it wasn't a musical. Later, after I realized it was, I asked Kenny [Ortega] if maybe I could duck over here into the pub while the numbers were going on, and then come out when it was over. I hoped I could be the lead in a musical without doing any singing and dancing! Eventually I said, 'Fuck it, let's just do it.' But I had a lot of doubts about it--I never liked musicals, and even then I knew I'd never do anything like that again."

Maybe it's me, but I get the sense that no matter how sunny Bale's sky gets. Newsies will always occupy a corner of it like a dark cloud heavy with hailstones. But Bale maintains he's philosophical about what would have sent other young careers into smoking tailspins. "I look back on it rather fondly now. It was either go to college or go to California and do Newsies. I decided to do the film. Which was an education.

"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."

It's hard to imagine the shock waves that will run through the international "Balehead" community when their idol steps boldly into the world of adult semi-smut; for now they've had to content themselves with freeze-framing and analyzing the spittle of the Christian-Winona kiss from Little Women. And don't think they don't do that. Bale's fan club's website withstands an average of more than 60,000 visits every week. To put this in perspective, note that in non-Bale-associated Internet chat rooms, Bale is more talked about than, say, Leonardo DiCaprio or Chris O'Donnell.

The single-minded passion of Baleheads can be downright creepy, whether it's online, in the preposterous video rental popularity of Newsies, in newsletters or in letter-writing campaigns to studios aimed at getting Bale into specific films. Bale thumbs covertly through the sample newsletter I show him, trying to hide it from the Parisians swarming around us. "Look at this: 'I love the way his mouth moves when he talks.'" He starts working his mouth like a Tourette's victim. "Half of me thinks, let them print and do whatever they want, it's great, it can't hurt. And the other half of me is sometimes saying, 'Fucking Christ!' After being quite mortified a few times, I decided to get involved, so now I can kind of tell them, 'No, I'd rather you didn't put this or that into the newsletter.' The fellow that runs most of it is this Chinese guy who only sleeps four hours a night and once reorganized the Canadian National Library system for free, just because he saw it was a mess. I'm just another project for him."

Perhaps here are the first glimmerings of what Bale has successfully avoided all along: watching his public profile slip out of his control. "In a small interview recently I made a joke about how people may start getting snakes in the mail if they don't give me a role, and soon after I heard there were discussions online--people wondering, 'Does he want us to send snakes through the mail?' Amazing. But I don't think all of my fans are morons. At least I hope not." Knowing that this article will probably be devoured by his minions like piranha chum, I ask Bale if there's anything the fan network doesn't know about him yet that he'd be willing to divulge. "I have no penis!" he offers. Then he actually delivers: "Well, my mother worked in the circus--she was a clown, a dancer, she rode elephants, she was the lady in the sequins who introduced the trapeze act. There were incredibly beautiful women walking around naked all the time. That was the first time I'd seen a naked woman. There I was in the caravans, seven years old, ogling all these incredible women walking around completely naked in front of me. My first kiss was from a young Polish trapeze artist named Barta."

Bale is hyperaware of his position in the industry, and of his competition for roles--he knows exactly what Leonardo, Ethan, Balthazar and Lukas are doing at any given time. While he had the good fortune to be turned down for the drag Mercutio in William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet after several tryouts, he has been vying for the next film by gay indie scalawag Todd Haynes (_Safe_), as well as for the charmingly amoral lead in The Talented Mr. Ripley, a remake of the 1960 Alain Delon noir Purple Noon. If either he or the Baleheads get their way, the relaxed career pace and public anonymity that Bale has enjoyed up to now may well be a thing of the past.


Michael Atkinson wrote "The New Flesh" for Movieline's Jan/Feb issue.