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Making Bale

He'll go to any length (or weight) to nail a role, but don't call him 'movie star'

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Christian Bale in a scene from Out of the Furnace.

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Christian Bale in a scene from Out of the Furnace.

LOS ANGELES -- It's grin-inducing to watch Christian Bale shrink back from the term "movie star."

"I don't have that thing where you get these sort of guys who give a smile that the women fall in love with them. I would just be cracking up laughing," he says. "I can only do that as a spoof."

 

But movie star he is, the self-deprecating kind who just flew in from the set of Exodus in Europe (he's Moses) with two much-buzzed-about films on his hands: Out of the Furnace and American Hustle. Right now, he's running two hours behind. Ever the perfectionist, he was polishing audio for the upcoming Terrence Malick film, Knight of Cups.

Bale's fuel? A small pile of potato chips, currently subbing for the lunch he didn't have time to eat while chatting about submerging himself in the world of Furnace, a low-budget, intense study on the effects of a crumbling American economy and the emotional tax recovering soldiers pay.

In the film, Bale, 39, plays Russell Baze, a steel worker committed to building a respectable life in the forgotten town of Braddock, Pa. His younger brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), has returned scarred from his fourth tour of duty in Iraq, turning to bare-knuckle brawling to pay his debts; their father suffers from cancer.

Here, a steady factory job is the only American dream available, but for both Baze brothers, in 2008, prospects are bleak.

"You're looking at someone like Russell who is so typically American, and does the right thing but is receiving nothing for it," says the Welsh actor, who calls the U.S. his chosen home, having lived here since he was a teenager.

In the film, Bale -- tattooed and sinewy -- is watching his life veer off the road. His girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) is torn from him, and local law enforcement, held in the grip of a backwoods crime ring, does nothing when Rodney disappears after a fight in the violent New Jersey Ramapo Mountains. Russell takes the law into his own hands to defend his brother from the ring's depraved crime boss (Woody Harrelson).

The size of the project was enticing. After putting his celebrated Batman trilogy to bed in Christopher Nolan's big-budget Dark Knight Rises, the opportunity presented by Furnace, shot in 27 days and helmed by second-time director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), appealed to Bale.

"It's very rare that people who do massive films like that want to repeat with another massive film," says Bale. "You're dealing with a small army; everything you do requires hundreds of people -- vs. a lower-budget film where you can spin on a dime. You have fewer people breathing over your shoulder. You can alter the script in 10 minutes and decide you're going to go in a totally different direction and nobody questions you, you just do it. There's great a freedom to it."

Cooper says he wrote his film with Bale in mind, much as he had scripted Crazy Heart for Jeff Bridges, though he had not met either actor before approaching them with the projects.

"His character is a metaphor for America and what we've experienced in these last five turbulent years," says Cooper, calling Bale "the best actor of my generation... he plays the part with such restraint and subtlety and shading. Very few people can do that."

Bale reunites with director David O. Russell, who directed him to a supporting-actor Oscar for 2010's The Fighter, for American Hustle, out Dec. 13. Russell's lens travels back to the '70s, with Bale morphing into pot-bellied scam artist Irving Rosenfeld, caught between romancing his British sidekick (Amy Adams), pacifying his squawking young Long Island housewife (Jennifer Lawrence) and being strong-armed into stings by a reckless FBI agent (Bradley Cooper).

Hustle comically opens on Bale's bloated gut as he strategically coaxes, glues and hairsprays his toupée into place. "I loved the contradiction of someone who is such a good con man who does such an appalling job of conning people that he has a head of hair," says Bale with a grin.

On set, two passionate men sometimes collided. He and Russell "don't hold anything back," says Bale. "And if we disagree, we say it very bluntly to each other and we work things out."

One disagreement included the initial casting of Lawrence as Irv's young wife, Rosalyn. In Russell's original script, Rosalyn was more "appropriately aged," Bale says. "I like Jennifer an awful lot and she is incredibly talented but I said, you know what, I think this provides extreme complications. I don't know why we're doing this. Through no fault of her own, I could be her dad. I've got friends who had kids when they were 17, 18 years old."

 

But Lawrence played up the aspects of a mismatched couple and a scheming young housewife eager to crush her husband's mistress (Adams). "It really worked," says Bale. "I was very surprised and amazed."

Irv, in all his bare-chested tubbiness, is the latest in a slew of Bale's onscreen transformations, from his stunning 62-pound loss in 2004's The Machinist to his ripped Batman Begins frame, and back to gaunt for a turn as a drug-addicted former boxer in The Fighter.

As 40 approaches, his body is sending warning signals. Bale suffered from the 40-pound weight gain of Hustle and has screws holding his arm together after a motorcycle accident earlier this year.

"At one point I said enough already," says Russell. "He lost three inches of height, and even got a herniated disc. He's a quiet, sweet, smart person with endless passion. Women find him sexy in this movie, but it's all in the eyes."

Yo-yo-ing for roles is no longer so easy, Bale admits.

"I think I'm certainly getting older. I thought I was going to lose the weight I gained for American Hustle. I said, two months, flat, that'll do it. I was 185 and I went up to 228 for it. And I'm still working that off!" he says in disbelief. "It's almost six months later. Now I know that when I was in my early 20s it would have been two months and that's it."

Adams sighs at their menu disparity on set. "The thing that really bothered me on this one is I was in all those small dresses and swimsuits so I was eating egg whites and avocado for breakfast and he would have these amazingly delicious bacon-egg-bagel concoctions," she says, laughing.

At home, Bale has become watchful of his total immersion into roles. The actor's soft spot is clearly his daughter, whose name he has never released for her privacy ("people have gotten the name completely wrong" on blogs, he says). With her and his wife, Sibi, he's begun to disappear into his roles with less intensity than in the past.

"I recognize that now, having a daughter, that taking it too far is an indulgence that becomes pure vanity. My priority over anything to do with acting obviously is my daughter," he says. "And so I would never want her to be confused in any way whatsoever."

That said, the eight-year-old is having fun teasing her famous dad.

"She understands what I do," he says. "I say to her, I believe you should try to do whatever you do as well as you can. And this is what it involves. So with American Hustle, this is why I'm having a bald head for a while, darling. And she didn't like that for a little while, and then she loved it because she could slap it and make fun of me with it.

"And growing a belly and she could prod my belly and she goes, 'You've got man-boobs, daddy. Look at that! Boobies, boobies, boobies,' " he says, mimicking his pecs being squeezed. "She started to have enormous fun with it."

She wasn't the only one. "Massage them? I kind of wanted to do that, too, but I didn't know where the line between co-stars was drawn and I guessed it was drawn at man-boobs," says Lawrence. "That was very exciting. I made out with Batman."

 

-- USA Today

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 8, 2013 A14

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