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.”
His role in that film was overshadowed by controversy when audio surfaced of Bale deriding a crew member on set, sealing his reputation for uberseriousness. But he actually has a wicked, self-deprecating sense of humor.
Though the character of Eklund takes Bale to dark places on screen, it also provides the actor with a rare opportunity to showcase his comedic skills. A born raconteur, Eklund gets laughs not only from his outrageous statements but also from actions, like repeatedly jumping out the back window of a crack house to avoid his mother. For Bale, having a touch of levity in the story was essential to the tale.
“Tragedy goes with comedy, and that’s never truer than in the case of Dickie,” Bale says. “We actually had to pull back on some of the comedy, because we were afraid people wouldn’t believe some of these crazy situations he got himself into.”
Repeat the popular rumor that he disappeared between scenes on the set of “The Fighter,” only to emerge like a ghost whenever he was needed, and Bale can’t resist a smile. “I like that rumor,” he nods. “Some rumors are so great, I’d rather not dispel them. I can laugh at them — not all of them, but most of them.”
But raising the possibility that Bale could now secure his first Academy Award nomination makes him visibly uncomfortable.
“Of course I’ve heard it,” he confesses. “There are people who work on movies called producers, and they make sure I hear it. But I also know there’s going to be people who see me and don’t like what I do.”
Try to push the subject further, and he finally says, “Here’s the thing. You should never talk about stuff like that because no matter what answer you give, you’re a cock. If you say you don’t care about any of that — well, why not? It’s flattering, it’s human. Or you can say, ‘I really want it.’ And who do you think you are? You just can’t talk about it either way.”