The great "Contender" - Christian Bale cracks wise

Thu Nov 25, 2010 1:02am EST
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By Jenelle Riley

LOS ANGELES (Back Stage) - As Christian Bale reluctantly soaks in the acclaim for his role in the upcoming drama "The Fighter," one of the people he should thank is his daughter.

It was at an event for her school that Bale ran into Mark Wahlberg, whose daughter is a fellow student. Wahlberg had spent years developing his true-story movie about boxer "Irish" Micky Ward and his offbeat, often overbearing family. Wahlberg knew he needed the perfect actor to portray Ward's half-brother and trainer, Dickie Eklund, a once-great pugilist who had lost his career to a crippling addiction to crack. "The first time I saw Christian," Wahlberg recalls of their chance encounter, "I was like, 'Holy f---! I've figured it out.'"

Before long, Wahlberg and Bale were spending time in Lowell, Mass., where Ward and Eklund still live, getting to know the brothers and their family. Wahlberg and Bale also had to choose a director, and it was Bale who first suggested David O. Russell, with whom Wahlberg had previously worked on "Three Kings" and "I Heart Huckabees."

Recalls Bale, "Mark said he didn't want me to feel he was just going with a buddy of his, but I said, 'No, let's give him a call.' So we sat down, and it was right."

While the script continued to develop, Ward and Eklund spent weeks in Los Angeles, staying in Wahlberg's guest house. "We would meet up every day," Bale reveals, "just to train and spar and hang out together."

The commitment paid off; in the film, opening December 10, Bale is almost unrecognizable as Eklund. The character's body ravaged by drugs, Bale is gaunt and pale, his teeth are fake, and his thinning hair reveals a sizable bald spot on the back of his head. But the performance transcends mere physical transformation, digging deeply into the soul of a man who lost his shot at glory. Hiding his whip-smart intelligence behind hollow eyes, Bale perfectly captures Eklund's jealousy, selfishness, and unwavering love for his brother -- sometimes in the same moment.

Bale is now back up to his normal weight, and sports a thick beard and long hair that remind you he once played Jesus in a 1999 TV movie. He hasn't cut his hair since filming wrapped on "The Fighter," saying he likes to grow it out between roles in case he needs a certain style for his next character.

In his early years, the Welsh-born actor seemed determined to avoid major Hollywood stardom by seeking out roles in small, quirky films such as "American Psycho" and "The Machinist." It only partially worked: At one time, he was the most downloaded celebrity on the Internet, a fact that seems to mortify him to this day. Then, just when people thought they had him pegged as the serious indie film guy, he signed on to play Batman in one of the biggest franchises in film history. After that, it became impossible to predict what Bale would do next: He could team with Werner Herzog for the small drama "Rescue Dawn," then turn around and take the lead in the action blockbuster "Terminator: Salvation."   Continued...

<p>Cast member Christian Bale is interviewed at the premiere of the movie "Public Enemies" at the Mann Village theatre in Westwood, California June 23, 2009. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni</p>