In a cinema at 20th Century Fox Studios in Los Angeles, a woman stands on stage and introduces clips from the new Ridley Scott movie. Exodus: Gods And Kings tells the story of the flight of the Hebrews from Egypt as led by Moses. Its famous director certainly hasn't welched on duties in the biblical epic department: against some competition, it's his most expensive film. Spectacular cities have been constructed, battle scenes with thousands of extras have been mapped out (thousands more were added by computer), the Red Sea has been parted. It stars Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver and the Australian actor Joel Edgerton as no-good Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II.
In the Moses role is Christian Bale, the transformative, Oscar-winning star of The Machinist (2004) and The Fighter (2010) who brought gravitas and a gravelly voice to The Dark Knight trilogy (2005–2012), to multi-billion dollar box office acclaim. Last year, there was more acclaim for American Hustle, in which he played Bronx grifter Irving Rosenfeld with a verve reminiscent of classic De Niro, something he pulled off under a Seventies combover and beneath a ballooning belly. Known for drastically changing his appearance and an intense dedication to his work, Bale's reputation is of someone not to be messed with. A notorious outburst recorded while making 2009's Terminator Salvation, where the director of photography put Bale off his lines, contained 39 F-words in four minutes but was perhaps more remarkable for the fact he delivered it without breaking character, in John Connor's US accent.
Bale recently became a US citizen, but he was born in Pembrokeshire, south Wales in 1974, and grew up in a bohemian environment, the son of a circus performer and a commercial pilot dad, later an entrepreneur and environmentalist, jobs that required the Bales to be frequently on the move. (The party line is that Bale won't talk about family life on the grounds that such details are corrosive to acting and storytelling, and also that it's none of anyone's business – though what follows suggests this could be taken with a pinch of salt.)
At 13, he was already a movie star: cast as Jim Graham in Steven Spielberg's Empire Of The Sun (1987), the effect of which was to make him want to abandon acting before he'd really begun. Today, he is surely our most intriguing leading man: an art house actor at home in blockbuster movies, or any movie, really, so long as it's interesting, each role as heroically different as the one before. "Working opposite Christian was one of the pivotal moments in my growth as an actor," his American Hustle co-star Jennifer Lawrence tells Esquire. "I learned so much from him that changed the way I do things. I used to goof off all the way up until 'action!'. After watching Christian, I can't believe I used to do that. When the cameras start getting ready so does he, so by the time 'action!' is called he's already completely in the headspace and everything after that moment is real and authentic."
"His commitment and dedication are unsurpassed," agrees Amy Adams, who co-starred in both The Fighter and American Hustle. "I felt like I was working with two completely different people. But the soul of Christian is still there."
"This young man has been an actor since childhood," says Werner Herzog, who directed Bale in the 2006 Vietnam War drama Rescue Dawn. "I had the most astonishing experiences with him where he lost 65lbs for a role he accepted. The amount of sacrifice. He's the most diligent, professional human you can ever need."
"He's endlessly fascinated with his characters," offers David O Russell, director of American Hustle and The Fighter. "He's a very curious, sensitive and emotional human being who loves other people and loves inhabiting them. Will we work together again? Yes."
After the Exodus clips, Bale walks on stage and takes part in a short interview. He is asked about other cast members and Charlton Heston in 1956's The Ten Commandments, but also about wearing "guyliner" (those Egyptian princes liked to look good), his favourite Ridley Scott film (Alien) and what his armour was made of (rubber from car bumpers, it transpires).
I meet Bale the following morning. It has become the most careworn of journalistic clichés to suggest that a celebrity is actually a pretty down-to-earth guy if they somehow manage to show up to an interview without an army of hangers-on and on the right day. But even with that in mind, Christian Bale manages to be disarming. For a start, our meeting takes place at 8:45am. His venue of choice is a deserted Mexican diner in a shopping precinct 45 minutes outside Hollywood. Bale arrives on-time and alone, driving an ageing pick-up truck. When I suggest it is hardly The Four Seasons, Bale agrees. "Yes," he says. "Exactly."
That Bale breakfast order in full: "Coffee with cinnamon and sugar… the rice with the scrambled eggs – huevos a la oaxaqueña – without the beans, and a nice little mountain of rice." He even tries to pay the bill – and that never happens – pulling out what passes for his wallet: a bunch of credit cards held together with elastic bands.
"That's not very Patrick Bateman, is it?" he grins, referring to his American Psycho character from 2000. It turns out the early hour is because Bale is on his way back from the school run. Indeed, contrary to what had been advertised, he fairly lit up when talking about his family (he and wife Sibi have very recently had a son, and already have a nine-year-old daughter).
"Look, being a good parent is not about creating a good kid," he advises. "It's about a good person. And that means you've got to let them do their own thing. But there's the other part of you that goes, 'I just want them to stay this big all the time. I want them to always want to cuddle me. I want them to non-stop just be going, 'You're the best dad.' 'I love you, daddy'. You know? But you've got to let them go."
Esquire: I enjoyed the Exodus: Gods and Kings preview last night, and your Q&A.
Christian Bale: No disrespect to the guy, I thought I was talking to Just Seventeen. He went from talking about the film [to those other questions] and I felt like, the people there, they don't really give a crap about the eyeliner. I was going, "It's getting boring." I appreciate you don't feel that way, though.
ESQ: I liked the guyliner question. I wasn't too bothered what your armour was made of.
CB: No, me neither. I was very happy with the people who came up afterwards. I was talking to some nuns. I had a long conversation with a rabbi. People feel very strongly when you get a subject like Exodus. I'm not religious. I dabbled with things in times of trouble. Growing up, we met really nice religious people who would help us out. We lived with this wonderful lady, a Jehovah's Witness, for quite some time. You know, the whole family's in her house, so we were respectful. But it wasn't for us. My dad was very anti-organised religion but he really got along with priests. He'd often have priests having drinking sessions round at our house. When he was growing up, one of his best friends became a bishop. He was a troublemaker. And he continued to be a troublemaker.
ESQ: Religion's a tricky subject to discuss.
CB: I think that's the opposite of how you should feel. If you have a belief it's such a strong power, why should you be threatened by somebody telling you what their idea of the truth is? You shouldn't. Inevitably, I'm sure there'll be the Fox handlers going, "Oh, I hope he doesn't talk about that." Or, "Please don't go that way with it…" But so far nobody's asked me not to say something.
ESQ: Was that the first time you'd watched those scenes?
CB: I've seen progressions. It's always interesting when you've shot a film and you've got different takes. No matter what I do, Ridley's in the edit room. It's his film. He enjoys opinions and likes hearing notes, and giving big fucking fuck-offs if he doesn't like it. Ridley's got that Geordie attitude. You know: "I like it"; "I don't like it"; "Bullshit"; "Cut out the crap". He's very easy to read.
ESQ: There were limits to the amount of character research you could do for this role.
CB: No meeting Moses. [Thinks.] But it's amazing how many people, even people who are devout, have actually read less than I have now, in terms of the five books [Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, collectively the Torah]. And you'll find they will focus on a certain passage because their priest or their pastor has told them, "Right, that's the important one, focus on that." There's a lot of cherry-picking. I'll say, "Did you know Moses took sadistic pleasure in massacring 3,000 of his own people? Partly by pouring molten gold down their throats?" And they go "What?" Then there's the famous passage, Numbers 31: 13–18 [where Moses' army massacres tribes of nomads on God's instruction, frequently mentioned as an illustration of his cruelty]. I mean: talk about straight to The Hague. Women and children: reasonable, right? PoWs. No. Not in Moses' mind. "Kill them. Right now." In cold blood. "Execute them. But hold on: not the female virgins. Soldiers, they're for you."
ESQ: A contradictory character, then.
CB: But also, you've got to remember: are we dealing with a bit of mental illness? Are we dealing with schizophrenia? Because nowadays, if you come to me and say, "I met God. I talked with him and this is what he wants me to do." I go, "What, you had a spiritual thing?" "No, literally I met him." "Uh, OK. And he's telling you to do things?" Are you religious?
ESQ: Not at all. I'm not anti- but..
CB: That's what I am. I totally understand that it can help you a great deal. But there's an awful lot of violence in the name of it. This was an era when infanticide was not unusual. What, in our minds, is the most barbaric thing was enacted by the state regularly. That's why you get these similarities: Moses, Jesus… both threatened with death at birth. Both saved from water. The Bible is a very violent book. Unbelievable violence. There should be a "Not For Children" warning on the outside.
ESQ: It's The Greatest Story Ever Told.
CB: It's a good story that encompasses absolutely everything. One of the laws was about not getting it on with a goat – I don't think I'm making this up. [Leviticus 18:23: "You shall not have sexual relations with any animal..."] Obviously that was happening because otherwise why make up a law to say, "No! Don't be doing that." Which, coming from Wales, I thought finally, someone's telling me that.
ESQ: You were studiously clipping a goat's toenails in one of the scenes last night.
CB: That's what you call foreplay with a goat.
ESQ: Talking of Wales, this table was booked for you under the pseudonym "Ryan Green", the young Welsh footballer.
CB: I've got no idea who that is. First, I don't know why anybody made a reservation. It's the whole reason I come here: there's never anybody here. There are people who are just far too organised… as if I'd be going to some chi-chi place that's actually popular.
ESQ: Was it fun to do the horse riding and the swords, all the manly stuff, in Exodus?
CB: It's always fun. It's an adrenaline rush beyond belief. It's more fun than doing fight sequences because, you know, I've done a lot of them: Batman... I'm sick of that. Man, I'm sick of that! You've done it 100 times and you're just getting slower and slower, and sloppier and people are really starting to punch you. I've got a herniated disk from me hearing "cut" and Tom [Hardy, Bane in The Dark Knight Rises] not hearing "cut". Me totally relaxed and him – boff! – kicking me, and me landing on the concrete steps.
CB: I thought I was used to it. Like, no big deal: this is going to hurt for a few days and it'll fix up. Three years later, you know [I can still feel it]. I suddenly went, "Oh shit. I'm 40 now, aren't I?" I'm still so immature. There was something I was asked to do recently where they said, "It's a father/son story". I'm going, "Who's going to play the dad?" And you suddenly go, "I'm the fucking dad." What a moron.
ESQ: Biblical epics tend to do good business. The Ten Commandments is still in the Top 10 highest-grossing films. Russell Crowe's Noah did well this year. Now there's a rash of them – Mary is coming, another Moses tale and a Ben-Hur remake. Why do you think that is?
CB: I don't know. It's always weird to me. So often you get a theme to films coming out. I just did this motion capture thing with Andy Serkis [Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings]. He's doing The Jungle Book. Well, there's a second Jungle Book [directed by Jon Favreau and starring the voices of Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray]. Like, are you kidding me? After all these years, there's two being made at exactly the same time? I don't know if there's some sort of zeitgeist. Or if it's just one following another.
ESQ: One risk with these sword and sandals movies is that they can look a bit, well, foolish.
CB: The Life of Brian.
CB: That's why The Life of Brian was the first film I rented when I got the part. Not just because it's fantastic, but because you've got to recognise that you can very easily, without intending humour [slip into parody]. Because so often, when you're trying not to be laughed at, it's funnier, right? "Oh my God, they don't even know they're in on the joke." And you're crying that little bit harder.
ESQ: You are all wearing skirts, after all.
CB: I'd often get, "He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy" running through my head as I'm filming. But it's good. It's a healthy thing to have there.
ESQ: There's been controversy even before it's come out because of the all-white leads.
CB: I mean: guilty. I'd last 40 minutes in the Sinai, before my skin would be blistering. Let alone 40 years walking around. I'd look a right bloody mess. Should that stop Ridley from casting me? I don't know. I don't know what their [the people complaining] suggestions are of who they would rather have seen. I don't know if there have been suggestions. I don't know how much the true colour of the question is green, in terms of money, of studios and who they are able to finance. Because if there's a problem, I'm hoping you've thought about it so you don't just want to create a problem, but you want to find a solution. Give us examples of how it should be done differently. But, look, I always enjoy harsh criticism. I get a kick out of people hating a film I've made. "You were horrible". "You're the worst actor ever."
ESQ: You do?
CB: There's a perverse kind of enjoyment to that. I think it comes from an awareness that it can be one of the most vain jobs going. We get to work, where's the first place we go? Make-up. So, I sort of enjoy whenever I get ripped apart. It makes me feel complete. So many people say, "Well, in your position all you've got is yes-men." Believe me, it's not true. I have lots of no-men – and women, particularly – who are very happy telling me when they think I've ballsed-up. I love those people. That's who I want around me.
ESQ: When was the last time someone stopped you and said, "You know such-and-such a film? You really sucked in that."
CB: I had a soldier who came up to me recently. We were both at this stunt-driving course. He had enlisted and he and his older brother watched this film I did many years ago, called Harsh Times, which had a brief opening sequence [in which Bale, playing a US Army Ranger with post traumatic stress disorder, experiences combat flashback]. And he approached it very well, because he said to me, "Oh, I watched Harsh Times," and he looked like he was going to go, "I loved it." But he goes, "You know there's that bit at the beginning? Man, you did that all wrong. You looked terrible. Myself and my brother looked at it and we laughed, going, 'we don't do that'." Now, we had real soldiers on-set, telling us what to do. But this guy is just enjoying telling me that I was awful.
ESQ: What was the stunt course? Bikes?
CB: No, my bike days are over. I've got a steel wrist. I've got a titanium clavicle. I've got about 25 screws holding my arm together.
ESQ: Didn't you also lose the top of your finger in a bike crash?
CB: I chopped that off. But we managed to reattach it. I'll still dirt-bike out in the desert. I'm much happier going slower there. But on the track the whole point is speed.
ESQ: How was the training for Exodus? You're back in shape after the gut and combover combo of American Hustle.
CB: You know, barely. If you look closely, you can see my left arm is skinnier than my right. You really can. Because I hadn't been able to use it for a long time. I lost all my use. It was just a limp thing hanging.
ESQ: Because of the crash?
CB: Yes. It takes, like, a millimetre a day for the nerves to grow back. I had to wait months. That was at the end of 2012. I couldn't move my fingers at all, so I just wasted away. My whole arm just became nothing. And then gradually I started to be able to get tiny movement. I still don't have the same mobility. So, I am definitely trying to favour my right arm through [Exodus]. I'm glad of those costumes. They could cover a bit of the American Hustle gut which I was desperately trying to get rid of. But – wooo – it's taking a long time.
ESQ: Is Mrs Bale pleased the buff guy's back?
CB: She doesn't care if I get fat. It makes her look skinnier, so she is all for it. My daughter still thinks I've got boobs. She goes, "Look at your boobs!" I'm going to start wearing a bra. No, they're glad that's over. Because part of the thing I love is running around playing with my daughter: wrestling, climbing… And I couldn't do it. I felt horrible. You do appreciate it when you get back to a place where you can spend time on a trampoline and not feel like you're going to die.
ESQ: You're known for all your prep: including getting close to the real-life versions of the characters. Boxer-turned-crackhead Dicky Eklund was one of those, in The Fighter. How helpful is that?
CB: [Getting excited] I love that. Man, I love that. So often I'll have a character and I might be basing it on somebody I know, or a few different people, or there might be something I'm reading and I'm seeing it all together with all that, but it's still my creation, right? And so I'm putting this person [Dicky] together and I'm doing these mannerisms, and it's very easy to tear apart any of those mannerisms. The director can very quickly go, "Why are you doing that? I don't want it." Then, when it's a real person and they're even more outlandish, when they go, "I don't like that" you go, "Hey, Dicky, can you come over here for a second, mate? Are you really not going to tell me to do that now? I called up my proof." Then the director had to concede: "You got me. I surrender. Go and do your thing…"
ESQ: How often does that happen? A director taking issue with a thing you've developed?
CB: I've certainly had it where directors didn't expect me to do something, and I just did it. They might not like it. They're like, "OK…" David [O Russell] was very worried about how much weight I'd put on [for American Hustle]. He hasn't asked me to do that at all.
ESQ: It's in the script. Amy Adams' character says what bad shape he's in...
CB: Yes, but [before we start filming] it's far more isolated. You get together, you talk about the concepts and then you go away and work on it yourselves. And my working on it was, "This is what I'm going to do". Then when I see David a month later, he's going, [aghast] "What's going on?" And I'm going, "That's what I'm doing." But he comes round. And I'm going to come up with my own stuff because it's totally unfair to say to a director, "I not only want you to do your job, I want you to do mine as well." Because of course they're going to have an opinion. There's not a director alive who walks on set and goes, "Who would be the best person to tell everyone else here what to do? Not me!"
ESQ: Staying in character on set: does that weird people out?
CB: I don't really do that. It's not as extreme as people think. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.
ESQ: You're not aware any of your peers are thinking, "This bloke's a nutter"?
CB: But I enjoy nutters! And I like it when I work with someone who's done that. I go, "Good for him, man. Good for her." I like it when I can get down in the mud and play. Instead of it being a bit precious, a bit "I just want to come, do the minimum and then leave." When there's someone who's got that attitude, don't bother. I want to know when you go and see a film that people really went for it. It doesn't always work. But give it a bloody shot.
ESQ: Where's that urge from?
CB: In some ways it's a necessity for me. Not to get in the therapy chair too much but there is definitely a sense of, "Are you fucking kidding me? I'm the lead. I'm the one who people are expecting something from." Exodus was like that. Arriving on this gargantuan set, and everyone's looking at you, just waiting. Can I, like, just get back in the car and drive away, please? Because I don't get a kick out of that. That's not power, because I'm totally replaceable. So I go [to myself], "Fucking step up. Don't be the one who didn't really give it everything". It's a way of combating the fear that's knocking inside your head all the time, going, "Not you, mate. Not you. You can't do this. Are you joking? No, you can't do it." And part of that, ludicrous as it sounds, is trying to convince myself there isn't actually a film being made. That it dies at the end of the day – "No one will ever see this." Because that's the way to go at it with abandon.
ESQ: You've certainly done that. For The Machinist, you lost so much weight you couldn't climb stairs.
CB: Yes. That was stupid, wasn't it? I wouldn't do it now. I don't think my body would recover. I'm glad I did it, though. I was the age to do it. And you know, it was a mental task.
ESQ: How come?
CB: The patience of it. I try so hard to be a patient person and I think I've kind of gotten it down. But I've always got that very impatient person inside of me. For that, oh my Lord, patience was needed so much. Just having to watch yourself waste away, in tiny, tiny amounts. Like slicing the thinnest slices of onion. Just gradually, gradually getting there. It was a mental place I had never been to.
ESQ: How long did it take?
CB: Well, they kept delaying the film! I was crying my eyes out. Because you become so sensitive to everything: "Oh, I've got to keep doing this for longer? I can't do it anymore!" The day we wrapped, my wife brought me some food. Little tapas and stuff. I sat there sucking these olives and I was crying my eyes out. And I hate fucking olives! Because my whole body was just, like… it had been five months of denying pleasures.
ESQ: Were there any positives?
CB: I slept two hours a night and could sit and read for eight hours straight. I would start a book and finish it in one go. I didn't have to get up to pee. I would sit for hours like this [utterly still] and I wouldn't have to move a muscle. I was originally told by a heart surgeon: the skinnier you can get, the better. You're going to live longer, less problems, blah blah blah. And it's something people really strive for. But then you've also got to go I'm going to die at some point, don't I want to enjoy the roller coaster a little bit? I like roller coasters. No one who's doing these low-calorie diets with their brain in this Buddhist Zen state constantly – I've noticed none of them live forever.
ESQ: Can we talk about Batman? Given the success of those films, it's easy to forget that the first one was a real gamble.
CB: It's always the case with hindsight. Absolutely, going into it, it was like, "Is this going to be a big joke?"
ESQ: Because the franchise was really in the dumper.
CB: But you know what? I've done a bunch of films where you go, "Is this going to be a big joke?" And some of them did end up being big jokes. So it wasn't new territory for me. It's always a leap of faith.
ESQ: After The Dark Knight, all the blockbusters went dark, didn't they? Star Trek Into Darkness; Thor: The Dark World; X-Men: Apocalypse…
CB: I confess, I've never seen another comic book film. But I understand they… set a different tone.
ESQ: It's your fault.
CB: Strictly, it's Chris [Nolan's] fault. We were partners but I was the lesser partner. The first time [I wore the Batman costume, at the audition], I went and presented him with my take on it. And [after I did the voice] everyone kind of stared. There was a silence for a little bit. And then just staring. Then he went, "Alright, thanks for coming in!" I went home and the wife goes, "How did it go?" And I went, "Look what I did…" She said, "You just fucked it, didn't you? Why did you have to go with what you think is right?" I was, like, "Because he's a fucking idiot if he stands there talking like a bloke. He's dressed as a bat. What more of an idiotic thing, if it's not Halloween, can you do? The guy's clearly lost his marbles. He's got to be a beast or else you just look like an idiot." And after that Chris went, "You know what? I like it. He's different from any of the others that auditioned. I want that one."
ESQ: Have you seen Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon do your Batman in The Trip To Italy?
CB: I'm dying to see it. I sent their versions of Michael Caine [the comedians also do Caine as Alfred, Bruce Wayne's loyal valet] to Chris. When he's all old and upset. So good!
ESQ: I've got the clip with me. I'll show you.
CB: I've been a Steve Coogan fan for years. I saw him recently at this weird thing when they get you together for a lunch before the Academy Awards and take a big picture. I walked over and there's some very serious people – you know, he's there with Philomena [the 2013 Stephen Frears drama that Coogan co-wrote and starred in, to much playing-against-type acclaim] — and he's looking the part, very serious. I went over to him and said, "Mate, real pleasure to meet you. Always rinse your knob off because a clean penis can really tip the balance." People kind of looked at me, "What did he just say to this man?" It's Paul and Pauline Calf, two of his characters, going back 20 years. He got it. But he looked at me, like, "God, I wish you hadn't just said that."
ESQ: Does the Batman voice ever come out in public?
CB: For my daughter's friends. It's like, yes... alright. I've become easier about it. [Smiles] Because I'm not it any more, you know?
ESQ: Did you keep any souvenirs?
CB: I've got the cowl.
ESQ: What about American Hustle? Did you keep any of those shirts? A neckerchief?
CB: You know what I had from that? From the real guy he's based on, Mel [Weinberg, convicted swindler turned FBI recruit]. He gave me cigar cutters. He also gave me his ID badge. Afterwards he went into security for designer labels. He was Louis Vuitton's top guy. It's like a sheriff's badge with Louis Vuitton across the top and "Mel Weinberg".
ESQ: Being Batman's a bit like being Bond, isn't it? You're in that select club for life.
CB: Of course, yes.
ESQ: The fan club circuit is your oyster…
CB: The things where you charge people for signing autographs, and that's how you make a buck? [Witheringly.] That could always be my future, yes.
ESQ: Is it true you were offered Bond before Daniel Craig?
CB: No. I've never heard of that. Equally untrue about them coming to me for Batman, before Ben Affleck.
ESQ: To continue the franchise, you mean?
CB: Yes. I think it's the right decision. People were talking about this obscene amount of money they were saying was thrown at me. No. I didn't have a single conversation with anybody about ever playing the role again.
ESQ: Still, never say never, eh?
CB: I think, probably with that, it's never. Because I can't help but feel it would just be a spoof on it. You know what I mean?
ESQ: Several characters you've played are lone men trying to do the right thing in the face of tough odds, to do right by their families, to put food on the table…
CB: Well, which ones?
ESQ: Well, in Batman…
CB: Trying to put food on the table?
ESQ: OK, forget about the food.
CB: Right. That doesn't apply to that one.
ESQ: Out Of The Furnace. 3:10 To Yuma…
CB: 3:10 To Yuma. You've described that. We've only named two. Keep going.
ESQ: My point was to ask you whether that old-school idea of a man's role, the provider, was something you associated with.
CB: But isn't that what you do? It's not an old-school thing, it's still totally relevant. But do I look at [the roles] and go, "Oh, I understand that, therefore…"? No. Not in the slightest. I really enjoy doing parts where I don't understand the person at all. You know, you're a vessel, so take it and play the characters. That's what's so wonderful about people, and why I'm so interested in them. Because otherwise you're just a boring actor who is pushing forward ideas of what he thinks a role model should be for people. Oh my Lord! Stop acting if that's what you're going to do! That to me is more like a movie star. And thank fuck I live in an era where it seems like there's not so many around any more. So somebody like me can get a look-in. And people actually give me leads.
ESQ: What do you mean by "movie star"?
CB: To me, a movie star is somebody who you know what you're going to get when you see them. Just like you said. There's a reliability. You go along and go, "I know they're going to be the good guy, I know they're going to fight for the right cause, I know they're going to look good." Thankfully, there's room enough nowadays for someone like me to be able to make a living, without being that.
ESQ: That's true in 3:10 To Yuma. It ends with you being shot dead in front of your son.
CB: Right. I remember the dribble. [Thinks] I was lying there in some scene in Batman and I started dribbling. Because I was, like, "Well, he's passed out. You'd have no control. In the position you guys have put me in, dribble would be coming out of my mouth." Michael Caine came over [Caine's voice] "Dribble? Dribble? You can't bloody dribble. You're Batman." And Chris had to come over and go, [fussy voice] "He sort of has a point. Yes, we don't really want to see Batman dribbling".
ESQ: If you're fascinated by people, are you good at people-watching?
CB: Yes. It's a bastard that, though. It's a lovely thing to be able to do but when people are looking at you it's trickier. I really miss it.
ESQ: You could wear a hat.
CB: That signals it even more. I do miss those days when you're at that point, where you're getting work, but nobody recognises you. But contrary to what everyone tells me, I can get back to that. They all think I'm stupid and I can't. I think I can.
ESQ: Yes? How?
CB: I haven't got that part worked out.
ESQ: As well as your dedication to the roles, there's also your dedication to getting them. When Ewan McGregor was cast as Patrick Bateman, you called him up and persuaded him you'd do a better job. Is that level of proactivity unusual in the acting business?
CB: I don't think it's unusual in humans. If you want something you have to say you want it. That was a situation where I had been preparing for six months, even longer [Bale initially won the part, then it went to Leonardo DiCaprio. When he dropped out, Ewan McGregor was cast] and… "What just happened?" You know? So many people see showing your passion for something as a weakness. Because then they've got leverage on you i.e., "He's passionate about making this, therefore we can pay him less." So a lot of people play the game of only so much [interest]. I'm no good at that. I've got the worst poker face. If I like something, I call people straight away: "Fucking love it. When do we start?" Then my agents go, "Fuck! Why did you do that? Alright, let's go and try and work this out, now that they know you really love it." I'm not a businessman. I want this to be about feelings. That's how it should be.
ESQ: On the other hand, before you started Terminator Salvation, you told McG that he didn't have the right CV to direct the film, and that he should rewrite the script from scratch, or else you weren't going near it.
CB: Well, here's the thing. You can either choose to say it straight upfront, or you can have real issues and have wasted a lot of people's time by saying it after you've started. Because at some point it's going to come out. Right? And why bother pretending that it's all there when it's not? The harshest critics are going to be the audience who have no investment in it. Who could sit down and go, "Fuck off, terrible."
ESQ: Tell me about Terminator Salvation.
CB: It's going to always be a thorn in my side because it didn't work. The problem was it was so obvious to see how it could have been done, and it wasn't happening. It was a very frustrating time.
ESQ: Do actors know when what they're making is a turkey?
CB: I did on that, yes. You don't always. But on that it was blatant.
ESQ: What happened?
CB: It involves throwing people under the bus and I just can't bring myself to do that. Because to me it's still just trying to make a film, and even if their best was not that, nobody deserves me throwing anyone under a bus. I would be embarrassed at my own behaviour if I did that. You can't control an entire film. It was a great shame, I really think it could have been successful. I'm not talking about box office, but in terms of the expectations that we all talked about it going in. But there's a chasm between saying the right thing and doing the right thing. They're making another one [Terminator film] now. Not with me.
ESQ: John Connor's initials are intentionally "JC": he saves mankind. You're playing Moses. And, little-discussed fact: you've also played Jesus…
CB: That was a moment. [1999 US TV movie, Mary, Mother Of Jesus.] I thought it was a joke, actually. Because I spent so long trying to put American Psycho together that I hadn't worked on anything. I was getting my house repossessed. Like I was saying, I had shown such passion for American Psycho that they hadn't paid me anything for it. So that didn't help. Then I get a call, "Do you want to play Jesus?" I laughed, "Come on. What?" Then it was, like, "And they're offering this amount…." "Ah! That's exactly what I need to keep my home."
ESQ: You enjoyed playing Patrick Bateman.
CB: Yes, I loved it.
ESQ: You hung out with some proper Wall Street players.
CB: That was good fun, and troubling as well. The older guys had a better perspective on themselves and the world they're in. The younger guys were totally lost. Endless amounts of coke. The interesting thing was they somehow didn't manage to recognise I was an actor playing Patrick Bateman. They talked to me like I was Patrick Bateman. Which was even more helpful. When they started talking about women walking past in bars, and their attitudes towards people and society… stunning. Just crazy white entitlement, but with a real chip on their shoulders. One guy kept wanting me to look at his ATM, he said I wouldn't believe how much money he had. He was 26, maybe. He was going to a high-school reunion and he tracked down this guy who used to pick on him. He knew he was the manager of a gas station in the town he came from and, unbeknownst to the guy, he'd bought that gas station a couple of years back. On the day of the reunion he was going to say hi to him, and ask him what he was up to. He knew what he was up to. And then he was going to tell him he owned the gas station – and fire him in the middle of the reunion. And this guy was just gleeful. He could not wait for this to happen.
ESQ: You appear to live your life at the opposite end of that largesse. Amy Adams says you barely own a mobile phone.
CB: There are a couple of things. One is I don't like being inundated with too much stuff. I guess people respond differently to how they grow up. Some people grow up without much and go nuts, "Wow, I've got something! I'm going to spend it all!" I go, "I want to make sure my kids have something." Also, for all the turmoil of growing up, I don't want to turn my back on that. I don't want to say, "Hey, because we had cars that broke down all the time, or we had to get kicked out of places, 'Oh, thank God, I'm away from that'." As though there were some embarrassment of my family. And all of a sudden I've got to get the flashest car on the block and show off.
ESQ: You've really thought about this.
CB: I'm all for people doing it. I love it when I see people living large and going for it. And I'll come ride with them and we'll go out. But personally… maybe it's guilt. I don't know if it's a healthy response. I want to say that my life growing up, the most important things were there. I drive my pick-up truck that's 12 years old because I love it. And I don't really care if people say, "What the fuck are you driving?" To me, it's keeping that part of my life going. Because it's who I am. It's what I come from. I'm just crazy fortunate. It's hard to get your head around when you get to a place where you're not going, "Fuck, how am I going to pay for this?" because that takes up all your time. It's like a drug. It's like it's enjoyable because it takes up all of your attention, so you don't have to think, "What am I really doing? Who am I really being?" You're suddenly being fortunate enough to go, "Wow, I'm alright. I don't have to worry."
ESQ: You moved around a lot as a kid.
CB: Because my dad was a lot of fun. And his priority was not what most people's nine-to-five priorities were. You know?
ESQ: Sounds like a swashbuckling character.
CB: Yes, he was.
ESQ: In what ways are you like your parents?
CB: I see my dad in me, very much. I grew up mostly with my dad. When people say to me, "Christian, I like what you're saying but it's so unrealistic and impossible…" Then I go, "Oh right, that's my dad." That's what he was like as well. And I love that. Because I miss him so much.
ESQ: What about your mum?
CB: I love her dearly, she's my mum. But I see more of her in my sisters.
ESQ: How was growing up with three sisters?
CB: All I can say is, compared to friends of mine growing up who had no sisters, then… you're not as stunned. You're not as surprised by women and the surprises they throw at you. I would see it in my friends…
ESQ: "Argh… girls!"
CB: Not just that. Just the absolute bewilderment of, "I don't understand what just happened here". Far be it from me to understand it. But at least I wasn't surprised.
ESQ: You didn't enjoy your early success, did you?
CB: No. I don't think it's healthy.
ESQ: But it messed with your head.
CB: Yes. I didn't want to do it any more. But there was also family things that happened and there could not have been a more opportune time for me to be able to earn.
ESQ: At 13 you became family breadwinner.
CB: Through no fault of anyone else. I mean, illnesses happen [Bale's father stopped flying after an illness, his parents split and he moved to California]. But it's too much weight when you have to stop being a child because of responsibilities. Whether they're declared or not, you recognise that if you don't: disaster. And I think that that's always fuelled a love of the play of what I get to do [as my job]. There's a definite left and right with me. "Yes, I want to do it. Fuck, I love it so much." "Don't ever come near me again. I need to get out of doing this." Those two things are battling with me constantly. It can be overwhelming. All I can say is I'm still doing it so it can't have been that bad an approach. Although it's an unusual one, and not one I'd ever let my children become a victim of.
ESQ: What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?
CB: OK, you know who I want to be? I want to be a particular person, actually. There's a specific person in this world alive today who I look at and I go, I want to be you.
ESQ: Tell us.
CB: A Spanish man called Marc Márquez. He started in MotoGP and he won on his first year in. It's kind of like Lewis Hamilton with Formula One. He is beyond belief, what this kid can do on a bike. I think he's all of 21.
ESQ: Can you tell us a joke?
CB: A lot of my jokes come from my daughter. What do you call a nun who sleepwalks?
ESQ: I don't know.
CB: A roaming Catholic. What did the Buddhist say to the hotdog vendor?
ESQ: Go on.
CB: "Make me one with everything."
ESQ: Let me show you The Trip To Italy.
Esquire plays Bale the clip on an iPad. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon sit in a five-star Portofino dining room. A bout of Michael Caine impressions leads to The Dark Knight Rises. They then trade mumbling impressions of Batman and Bane, hands over mouths — Coogan: "They're competing to see who can be the least understandable" — and imagine the crew's exasperation. "'Um, do you want to try a different voice? The director's just a little bit worried that maybe people can't understand what you're saying...'" At Brydon's Bane, Bale really starts laughing.
CB: That is so well done! Wouldn't it just be wonderful if they stuck that after the credits on The Dark Knight Rises?
ESQ: It might have altered the mood a bit.
CB: Just the two of them, I think people would love it so much! Listen, it isn't far wrong because you've got those scenes and you're getting all adrenalined up, because you've got to fight each other. Tom and I would have this thing where, because I couldn't see his mouth and we'd be standing 100ft apart on this bridge talking, we did a couple of takes and we'd be all over each other's lines because we couldn't hear one another. "Has he finished, or not?" So, we ended up with a little code between us I'd say my piece, and then I'd go [points finger] like that, so Tom would know to look for my finger. That means I'm finished, it's your line next. Then he'd do it and clench his fist, so I'd know he's finished. Those guys are fantastic.
ESQ: Glad you liked it.
CB: Thanks for showing me that. That made my day.
Exodus: Gods and Kings is out on 26 December
From Esquire's January issue, out now. See our subscriptions page for great offers.