A SPECIAL CHANNEL24 INTERVIEW: CHRISTIAN BALE
In what was only going to be a routine talk about his acclaimed new film, Vice, Christian Bale unexpectedly opens up to Channel24’s Herman Eloff about his South African family and his time in the country.
Cape Town - "Can you talk to Christian Bale at 21:15 tonight?" reads a short but direct message that pops up in my inbox at exactly 07:51.
I take a sip of my freshly brewed Italian blend filter coffee still steaming from the charcoal coloured ceramic mug. It’s part of my morning ritual to prepare a warm cup before I open my inbox. The spicy aroma and lightly toasted smoky finish somehow smother the mundaneness of this morning task.
At exactly, 07:53 I hit reply: "Yes, I can."
It took me two minutes to completely understand the surely unfathomable question that was posed to a journalist sitting at the Southern most point of Africa – far away from the hustle of Hollywood. It took me zero seconds to say yes.
Later that same night, sitting in a meeting room at the office lit up only by the light of my laptop screen, I would speak to Christian Bale himself and discover the most unexpected story about his intensely personal connection with South Africa.
He’s friendly - that’s the first thing I notice about his voice. Excited even. There’s no trace of an American accent or a hint of the aura one would expect from a newly Oscar-nominated Hollywood-superstar.
He’s currently doing hundreds of interviews with press from around the globe for Vice, the film that just landed eight nominations at the 91st Academy Awards, and which opens in South African cinemas on 1 February.
But there’s no clue of tiredness in his voice. He’s clearly giving every interviewer his very best. Just like he does with his films. Just like he got ripped for his role as seductive serial killer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Just like he nearly starved himself for his role in the psychological thriller The Machinist. Just like he beefed up for Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Just like, now once again, he morphed into a potbellied bald Dick Cheney.
There are no half-measures for Christian Bale. You want Christian Bale? You get all of him. Even if you’re his 100th interviewer asking, probably, the same questions as all those before you – he’ll give you his all.
And so, he does.
Once he hears I’m from Cape Town he immediately drops what can only be described as an atomic bomb of an opener: "Yeah, I know Cape Town well. My dad was born in Cape Town…and my grandfather was also down there, I only met him briefly towards the end of his life. I actually came down to Cape Town for that purpose of meeting him."
He shares more without being prompted: "Then both him and I ended up in hospital together. I ended up having to get quite serious surgery whilst I was down there, but you know you’ve got the best surgeons in the world. So, I was down there for a few months in hospital, first in Durban and then down in Cape Town as well."
I had not even asked a single question yet, but Christian Bale had already given me the best interview a local journalist could ask for – the one in which a mega-star shares an honest and true connection with South Africa.
"I had to do a lot of rehab afterwards and couldn’t fly so, yeah I spent quite a bit of time down there…going to Stellenbosch and driving all over the Garden Route and to Joburg. My half-sister was also born and grew up in South Africa. My dad has unfortunately passed but I’ve always wanted to go back and visit his old haunts…It’s beautiful there."
It's weird to hear familiar names like "Joburg", and "Stellenbosch", and "Garden Route" so effortlessly pop out of Christian Bale's mouth in the way that only a local would know to say.
Christian’s father, David Bale – who at age 62 died of lymphoma in 2003 - was a South African born entrepreneur and an environmentalist who in his later years married social political activist Gloria Steinem. Christian’s grandfather, Philip Bale - who lived in Cape Town - was born in England and was a Royal Air Force pilot. Christian, the youngest brother with three older sisters, was born in Wales and started his acting career at age 13 when he took on the role of Jim in Steven Spielberg’s war drama Empire of the Sun.
(DICK: Christian Bale morphs into American politician and businessman Dick Cheney in Vice. Photo: Video Vision/Annapurna Pictures)
About his injury and exactly how long he was in Cape Town I would not ask Christian. Those are the rules of engagement. Although I’m sure he wouldn’t mind answering them, the interview is solely about the film and not the actor’s personal life. It’s a mutual respect and line you don’t cross if you want to be invited back into the inner-circle. Out of curiosity a quick Google search mentions a motorcycle accident in 2012 that saw the actor walk around with his arm in a sling and in 2015 he tore several ligaments in one of his knees after an unknown accident – neither incidents mention SA.
So, I briskly move on to the next big topic. His Oscar nomination which had only been announced a few days before and was still fresh on everyone’s lips: "Congratulations on the Oscar nomination. It’s well deserved. I was wondering where you were when you received the news?"
"Oh, I was asleep," he says sounding almost disappointed with himself but follows it up with a deep belly laugh. This isn’t his first rodeo. Christian took home the Best Supporting Actor golden statuette in 2011 for his role in the biographical sports drama The Fighter in which he played Dick "Dicky" Eklund – a role that both Brad Pitt and Matt Damon reportedly passed on due to scheduling conflicts.
This year Christian kicked of the annual award season with yet another win when he nabbed the Golden Globe for his role as Dick in Vice and in his acceptance speech notoriously said: "Thank you to Satan for giving me inspiration for this role." And after watching the film you’ll understand wholeheartedly why he had to reach to the depths of hell to portray the 46th Vice President of the United States.
(DICK IN OFFICE: A scene from Vice with Christian Bale as Dick Cheney. Photo: Video Vision/Annapurna Pictures)
"But how does one decide to take on a role like Dick Cheney?" I ask with sincere wonder.
"First off…the craziness of me playing Cheney doesn’t sound right, does it? Obviously, my prior relationship with Adam (McKay). He’s wonderful with taking things that seem very uncinematic and making a wonderful film of it," Christian explains as his warm voice is filled with awe for the director behind the biographical comedy-drama that’s receiving critical acclaim from across the globe.
"With this it was that you have such a desperately uncharismatic man as the lead. I came to see that I love the fact that you can have this lead who has no particular charisma but also, he was absolutely pivotal in the last few decades of politics within America and the Republican Party," he says and then energetically adds the part that probably explains Christian Bale’s psyche the best: "Then there’s just loving a challenge. Having a challenge gives much satisfaction in life, doesn’t it? And there is no bigger challenge than this because it seems so clearly like bad casting. I wanted to see if we can prove that wrong."
And boy, did he.
The 44-year-old actor erases himself completely from this role and leaves behind a full-bodied 77-year-old cinematic interpretation of an infamously secretive political leader. If anyone ever had any bets against Christian Bale being able to ‘chameleon’ himself into this role then they’re about to eat their hats.
"There are other ways of transforming into characters – like prosthetics. But the physical transformations you undergo in your roles seem important to you?” I ask.
"Yeah, very much. Because I think it completely enforms the interior of a person as well. They’re not separate. They are combined entirely. It’s also nice to look in the mirror and not see yourself. It helps a great deal with sort of going full board down the rabbit hole of how immersive you’re going to be with playing the character."
But it comes with a price, Christian reluctantly admits when I ask about the physical toll these jaw-dropping transformations have on his body.
"It’s not good. It’s tough. You sort of end up rolling around the place and get back problems. Aches and pains and all that. He (Dick Cheney) also stood in a very slouched position with almost no neck. Yeah, no…I was hurting," the actor explains before quickly adding: "But my son loved it. He loved to jump up-and-down my belly. He was like Mowgli jumping up-and-down Baloo bear. He still misses that now."
(DICK AND HIS WIFE: Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney and Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Adam McKay's Vice. Photo: Matt Kennedy / Annapurna Pictures)
But who sees Christian Bale and thinks: ‘Hey, he could totally be Dick Cheney!’? Adam McKay does.
And it caught Christian just as off guard as everyone else: "I was like: ‘You want me to play Cheney? That’s nuts!’ Then I said to him he had to give me a couple of months. Not only to do the research but also, we have to start doing the prosthetics and make-up and I’ve got to start gaining the weight. And I’m fine if after all of that it’s a ‘no’. Then…hey…we did all the work…but if it doesn’t work then we walk away. And we agreed to that."
And so, started the journey through tyranny that would end up in award season gold.
"There are great many books on him. I read everything I could get my hands on. I particularly liked Angler by Barton Gellman and Cheney’s own memoirs. Adam found it to be some of the worst writing and completely useless, but he saw that from a different point of view," he laughs – the kind of laugh that friends who share an inside joke would laugh. Then he adds: "For me seeing his perspective in the memoir was absolutely essential. Also seeing psychological assessments of him and then the abundance of interviews. You know my phone is just full of thousands of photographs and videos of Dick Cheney. I look like a Cheney stalker! There’s a wealth of information that you could utilise."
(BEHIND THE SCENES: Sam Rockwell, director Adam McKay, Christian Bale, and producer Kevin Messick on the set of Vice. Photo: Matt Kennedy / Annapurna Pictures)
As my last few minutes with Christian tick by I ask one last question: "Most of what we consume online today is influenced by or infused with politics or political matters. The cinema is usually seen as entertainment and an escape from that. Yet, here we have a film that deals exactly with that topic. Would you say we need films like Vice to enable us to digest all of this information we’re being fed? To make us think while being entertained?"
"Yeah, I do agree. There’s no better way to convey that than never forgetting that it is first-and-foremost entertainment. We could go make a documentary if we just want to be giving the facts and presenting absolute horror. This must be first-and-foremost entertaining. Adam is ridiculously entertaining. He needs to be a performer. He’s the funniest bloody man in the room ever. In that respect it makes it a very comfortable way of digesting the realities of the world. Of course, people need escapism and I think this affords a little bit of both. Yes, it’s comical, but I find it to be incredibly poignant, terrifying, but very moving tale. I found it to be one of the most emotional films I’ve watched in years."
I could’ve spoken to Christian for hours still, but time was against us.
I found him to be one of the most comfortable, engaging, and genuinely funny famous figures I’ve had the privilege of interviewing over the last few years. I’d share a cup of my Italian blend with him any day.
Now, we wait for the next e-mail.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:
The American biographical comedy-drama, Vice opens in South African cinemas on Friday, 1 February 2019.
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(All images courtesy of Video Vision/Annapurna Pictures)