Who craves adulation, worships trickery, requires suspension of disbelief, and sells sophisticated illusions with the invaluable assistance of pretty female accomplices? Old-time magicians in creaky theaters and Hollywood’s leading men. Offstage, says Christian Bale, who plays a magician in The Prestige, the parallels get even more interesting: “You’ve got people in both professions who want to call it an art, and other people saying, ‘That’s not art!’ And then there are the rivalries.”
Christopher Nolan’s new movie is a mind-bender thriller about a feud between two turn-of-the-century magicians in London, but it feels like a La-La Land tale of backlot backstabbing. Bale broods as an obsessive craftsman who spars with the inferior, show-offy entertainer (Hugh Jackman) desperate to steal his secrets. It’s a fantasy flick, sure, but the effects take a backseat to an actor’s showdown between two franchise heroes: Batman vs. Wolverine. My money’s on Bale, who burns holes through his co-star with that square-jawed glare, then undercuts it with some strange twist that happens so fast you’re not quite sure you really saw it in the first place. “With anyone whose work involves showmanship,” Bale explains, “the competition just gets expressed in this larger-than-life way.”
As an actor, he seems particularly protective of his goods. “It’s great people are curious [about moviemaking], but I wish DVDs wouldn’t give away so much,” he says, half-jokingly. “I like being kept in the dark myself. You know, like mushrooms: Keep ’em in the dark and feed ’em shit. See, I think that’s an enjoyable vegetable to be.”
Best known for his David Blaine–like stunt of losing 67 pounds for The Machinist, only to gain 101 pounds in six months to play Batman, Bale is a slippery shape-shifter himself. He’s honest about having lied to journalists, and he once ran out of a press junket at the age of 13, sick of all the attention that followed Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (the National Board of Review invented the Outstanding Juvenile Performance award just for him). The son of a dancer and a pilot in Wales, Bale is only 32, but he’s been an actor for more than two decades. He played a rock-star kid in a Pac-Man cereal ad at age 9; spawned an Internet cult with the musical flop Newsies; worked with Todd Haynes, Terrence Malick, and Kenneth Branagh; lured ladies with period-pics; and posted a scattershot résumé of genre flops that largely wasted his talent.
“I’ve always been a problem for directors to cast,” he admits. “Mary Harron had enormous problems getting American Psycho shot, because she was always being told all the other actors she should cast before me.” Bale almost lost the Patrick Bateman part to first pick Leonardo DiCaprio, who beat him out for Titanic, which at least makes a little more sense. He even lost the sidekick role of Robin in Batman Forever.
But then came Batman Begins. And so now, with a flourish of his bat-cape, Bale, who just wrapped up Todd Haynes’s Bob Dylan film, I’m Not There, has three terrific films coming out this fall—Nolan’s big-budget The Prestige, followed by two ferocious indies. “I think there’s a kind of pretentiousness to the idea that serious work is only found in low-budget independent movies—I can’t stand that snobbery,” he says. “There’s no better way to make something sound boring than to say a film’s important so they should go see it.”
That said, The Prestige is roller-coaster cinema at its whiplash wildest, while Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn and David Ayer’s Harsh Times are topical and important: You should go see them. In Harsh Times, out November 10, Bale plays an Iraq War vet who can’t come down from combat’s contact high. At home, he tries to get back in the action as a DEA agent and celebrates his new gun-toting gig by going on a bender that rages from one side of the Tijuana border to the other—absurdly convinced that he’ll always be on top of the world, Ma, no matter how low he bottoms out. “He just can’t stop moving,” says Bale, who was drawn to the “magneticism and momentum of the disaster this man is.” In Rescue Dawn, out December 1, he plays another soldier: Herzog’s old buddy Dieter Dengler, a fighter pilot whose brutal experience in a Laotian POW camp barely dampened his enthusiasm for war. In Dawn, Bale is deeply strange and charming and utterly unsettling—nattering small talk with the prison guards who just finished torturing him. Bale, who’s always been unafraid to play the reprehensible or inexplicable, shrugs off the conflicted consciences of Vietnam’s Quiet Americans and offers up something more timely: the Blithe American, a giddy Bush-like optimist grinning through the apocalypse, admirable for his stupid, unflappable resilience.
Bale hedges at first, but he doesn’t deny the connection between Iraq and these men, or even Batman, whose vigilante crusade pointedly escalated the terrorism in Batman Begins. “You can’t help but find that violence is endlessly fascinating—and I mean true violence, not action-movie violence,” he says, “just because it is used as the answer to so many problems. We’re all taught as kids not to be violent, but you can’t help but also see that violence is what works very often. Bullies thrive.” Especially in the movies.