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'Out of the Furnace' Star Christian Bale on His 'Love-Hate' Relationship with Acting (Q&A)

The 39-year-old Oscar winner talks to THR about Scott Cooper's new film, as well as his experience as a child actor, his reservations about fame and yes, Batkid.

Out of the Furnace Christian Bale - H 2013
Relativity Media
Christian Bale in "Out of the Furnace"

There are few actors of Christian Bale's generation whose talents are more widely respected than his. The 39-year-old, who has been appearing in films since the age of 12, has given unforgettable performances in Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun (1987), Mary Harron's American Psycho (2000), Brad Anderson's The Machinist (2004), Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy (2005, 2008, 2012) and The Prestige (2006) and David O. Russell's The Fighter (2010), the last of which brought him a best supporting actor Oscar.

This December, Bale is outstanding in leading performances in two terrific and totally different sorts of films: the higher-profile one is Russell's period piece dramedy American Hustle, which opens Dec. 13; but the one in which Bale is even better -- perhaps as good as he has ever been, in my view and apparently in his own, from what I have heard through the grapevine -- is Scott Cooper's contemporary dramatic-thriller Out of the Furnace, which opened in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday and everywhere else on Friday. It is truly a landmark achievement.

In the film, Bale plays Russell Baze, a steel mill worker in Braddock, Pa., an old industrial town that once represented the heart of America but has been driven into decline by globalization and the recession. Like his younger brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), Russell has lived in Braddock for his entire life and has no plans to go anywhere else, even when the going gets tough. He tries to conduct his life in an honorable way, but a litany of setbacks force him to compromise his principles and endanger his survival.

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There are several scenes in this dark film that capture this actor operating at levels of excellence few others have ever even approached: reacting to a tragic accident, celebrating a reunion with his brother, receiving devastating news from his ex-girlfriend (Zoe Saldana), etc. They are truly something to behold.

I recently sat down with Bale -- one of the more intense but soft-spoken and hypnotizing people I have ever met -- to discuss his complicated life and career and to discuss Out of the Furnace. What follows are highlights of our conversation, throughout which he spoke candidly about a number of personal topics he has rarely discussed -- his unhappy experience as a child actor supporting his family, his resulting love-hate relationship with his profession, the thought process that led him to accept the role of Batman, his feelings about fame and much more.

The Hollywood Reporter: I had the opportunity to visit Braddock while you guys were shooting the film, and it is truly a place unlike any other I have ever seen. Do you think this movie could have been shot anywhere else or was it really essential to be among the places and people that you were making the film about?

Bale: I think there are many industries, cities and towns throughout America that are going through similar circumstances, but I do believe that Braddock was actually declared the most bankrupt -- or something like that -- town in America, the most in debt. And [in the film] we can really see what Braddock is -- the fact that there was this heyday and there were these glory days when it was thought to be the absolute place to be and then whew, it was just gone. What’s fascinating is the people there today said, “I don’t care. I don’t care that everyone’s deserted. The houses are being sold for a buck. That storefronts are boarded up everywhere. That there's no apparent hope." They’re staying. They’re saying, “No, no, no. This is where I come from. These are my roots. This is where I belong." You know? I saw something recently -- it was very interesting -- about these old Russian babushkas who lived in the Chernobyl area and were evacuated, were forced to leave, and snuck back in because they said, “I don’t care. Something’s going to kill me. If it’s radiation, so be it. This is where I belong. This is my land." And that connection to the land is just phenomenal. And the interesting thing is that those people who snuck back in are actually living longer than people who got uprooted and left, because those people are depressed and sad and that’s killing them quicker than any radiation sickness. For me, this notion of people who absolutely identified with the location where they were brought up and were staying there? That's who Russell is. He’s going to do the right thing; he’s going to stay. And I find people like that really fascinating, very much because that’s not been my life. I’ve moved around a lot of times -- all the time -- so I just find that really, really intriguing.

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Because you had to move around so much as a kid, I suppose that, by the very nature of that, you had to reinvent yourself each time. Is that something that you think drew you to acting?

Yeah, inevitably, because you’re kind of doing it, you’re kind of doing that the whole time. But back to your point, I think that there would’ve been no better place than Braddock to do that; you have people there like the mayor, who’s a phenomenal man, who is just devoting his life to the revival of Braddock. The point is you don’t have to act as much when you’re in the place. When it’s all happening all around you, you don’t feel like you have to compensate for things, to sort of broadcasting your acting, and that makes it so damn easy. That makes it really easy because it’s just there, you know? You just do it.

I went back and read early interviews of yours, and you talked about how you had seen your sister acting one time and wanted to do it. What appealed to you about what she was doing?

Honestly, I didn’t really give a shit about that; it was more just suddenly people asking me. It was money, you know? "Christ, my family can do with that!" So sure, all right, I did it; there was no reason not to do it. And everybody kept asking me to do it, and then it became sort of a thing of, "Oh, I could actually really provide with this," and there’s a pride in being able to do that -- but there’s also a prison, you know, at such a young age. I certainly wouldn’t have my daughter do anything like that because it becomes a necessity and, in that case, it killed it -- it actually killed my drive of acting because it became something I felt like I had to do. You know, you can't enjoy something when you’re actually -- not being forced to do it, but you feel that duty and obligation that if you don’t a lot of people are going to suffer. And so it became that, and it’s always been a love-hate thing for me because of that, you know? When I love it, I love it. When I hate it, I just can’t. It’s just disgusting, this vanity-fueled profession. I mean, I just can’t stand it. I can’t stand the people and I hate them all, and I hate the films and I don’t want to see a film again in my life. And then I’ll find something and I’ll go, "Yeah, forget everything I just said. I want to go back in. I want to go back into it." But it’s always like that for me. It’s a very black-and-white thing.

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After Empire of the Sun, I believe you did stop acting for a while. What convinced you to come back that first time?

I actually didn’t really stop because I recognized that -- just circumstances I don’t have to explain, but things that I said [previously about having to support my family]. I couldn’t live with myself for not doing it, with the possibility of provisions for the loved ones and stuff like that. But then, you know, something went off and I started actually enjoying it again and getting a kick out of it and getting obsessed with it. I can’t quite identify why, but it slowly started to come back. And it disappeared again at moments, you know? You’ve only have to look back at some of the films I’ve done and, "Holy shit, what was he thinking with that?!" And you know what I was thinking with that. (Laughs.) But then you’ve got these opportunities where it truly can be something that’s higher than any of that. Storytelling -- it’s just an absolutely wonderful thing. You know, why are we storytellers? There’s way too much business in this [movies] to really, truly call myself any kind of an artist, but I just find that to be such an incredible thing to call yourself. I don’t call myself that at all, but I admire the people who unequivocally are.

When have you felt that you were most able to transcend the BS and get as close to doing what you aim to do as possible? Please tell me if these are incorrect examples, but your performances that seem to generate the most admiration from people certainly include American Psycho, The Machinist, The Fighter, and now this one.

Yeah. I would add Rescue Dawn to that, as well. I hope I’m not forgetting anything else. I enjoyed working with Todd Haynes [on I'm Not There], as well. But yeah, you kind of called it.

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It seems like those were the parts that required the most total commitment from you.

Right, which is what you want, you know what I mean? You want to immerse yourself. I mean, for me, the thing about life is, "What are you searching for?" I can’t speak for anybody else, but for me personally, you cannot allow yourself to think about anything else but that one thing that you’re doing, you’re so immersed in that one thing. You can’t allow yourself any distractions. And when you can hit that point, whatever it be in -- I had a bad f---ing motorcycle accident and I kind of stopped doing that because it was all f---ing touch and go. That’s why that enthralls me so much. It’s that edge, it’s that thing. If you stop concentrating for one second, oh, my God, the consequences are going to be disastrous. Now, with films, not the same consequences, but the disappointment? You know, I always question, "What the f--- are we making films for? What’s the point? Aren’t they useless? Who gives a shit?" You know? People ask me, "Why should I watch this film?" I go, "I’ve got no f---ing clue. I don’t know. Answer that for yourself. I can’t tell you why you should watch a film." But you just occasionally get those moments where you go, “I love this. This is good. This is really telling a story." And I love hearing stories. I love watching stories. I love listening to stories and the music to stories.” You know? And in those few moments when you feel like you’re actually doing something that you would admire yourself, you go, “Wow, all right. That’s it. That’s why I keep on being intrigued by this whole thing and keep coming back to it.”

What I find interesting is that for somebody who is as serious about this as you obviously are, who is as much about the artistic and creative pursuit as you are and who does not really respond well to working within "the system" and doing the stuff that comes with it ...

But recognize, I have done that, you know, because life is life. There are realities to it, bills to pay and everything like that, you know? And I’m a f---ing fortunate guy that anyone’s asking me to work on anything. Holy shit! On anything. I’m lucky that they’re asking to have me. Have you seen some of the shit I’ve made? Oh, my God.

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Well, I guess what I'm saying is that I'm somewhat surprised, in light of what you've said, that when you were pitched the Batman movies -- which I, like most people, think turned out great -- you went for it, because they seem like the antithesis of what you are looking for.

I did see potential in that as something that was not what would be expected. Movies like that take an enormous amount of stamina; that’s not my great thing, you know? I love making a film in 30 days if we can do it. And inevitably, hey, look, there’s a lot of business in those films, and that’s why I say you can’t really call yourself an artist when there’s that amount of business involved. Having said that, I'm grateful as anything for those films because you know what? Firstly, Chris Nolan really did everything that he said he wanted to do. You know, you look at the symbolism and that kind of thing, you look at this "Batkid," you know, you look at the different things -- oh, my God, what an honor to have been involved in any of that. I will never complain about that whatsoever, you know what I mean? To play that kind of a meaningful and iconic role to the whole culture, especially within America, was just a mind-boggling thing. And so, I do actually appreciate those movies very greatly because it was so stunning to me that I would be asked to do that. I do find that stunning. I go, “I was asked to do that? What were they thinking? All right, really?” And so I did actually say, “No, you know what? I will never take that for granted. I will bust my ass every single day for that.” And not only with the extra satisfaction of playing that role, and the consequent knowledge of the repercussions and the symbolism of it, and looking at "Batkid" and the number of other people who feel that way about it -- you know, just a phenomenon -- but in a very basic survival mode, with what it has afforded my family and myself. Because, prior to that, I'd just f---ing make it through each film without going, “Oh my God, if I don’t work within another month, everything’s gone.” That afforded me some time. It afforded me to be able to sit and wait. I’m not in those dire straits where you’re just knowing that your house is going to be taken out from under you. Unlike American Psycho. I finished doing that and it was like, “Oh, my God, I’m getting repossessed" and everything, you know? "Everything’s being taken." That gave me the ability to plan a little bit as an actor. Holy shit, you never expect that to happen, because you’re not a businessman if you become an actor.

My last question: One of the things that’s always struck me as interesting is that a lot of actors seem to not particularly like talking about themselves or their own lives -- and yet they’ve chosen a profession that inherently makes them a public person. And so I wonder, for you to do what you like to do, is it worth having to deal with that sort of thing, the loss of anonymity, the loss of the ability to just walk down the street, the loss of other things that most people take for granted?

It depends which day you catch me on. It really does. I think that it is different from a lot of other things where you’re in the public eye. Look, there are some people who play themselves, and they are fantastic, and they’re so charismatic and charming that you want to keep watching them. And then there are other people who don’t have those qualities, so they have to create very different characters. Now, if you’re doing that -- creating different characters -- it doesn’t help your cause if you’re letting people know who you are; it’s a very practical thing. Also, people can be very surprised to learn that, actually, a lot of actors can be very shy people; that happens an awful lot as well. It doesn’t make sense to most people, but if you actually did it [acting] you might understand it. The thing is that while the loss of anonymity will allow you to get films made, you know, you hope to God that you’re not losing touch, because that’s what’s giving you the ability to play those characters. If you can no longer go and just be anywhere, socialize anywhere and mix with people, then you’re losing something, you know? You’re losing that information. I’m not a film buff at all. Dare I say, I don’t give a shit about films whatsoever. When I see a good one, f--- it, I appreciate it. But, you know, you ask me to talk about the history of film and I’ll just sit there looking at you dumbly. I like people and I like to investigate people. I like looking at it as a kind of a detective’s work -- a detective’s work which brings a whole lot of heart and soul to it, as well. And so if you can no longer mix with people, then you’re lost; you’ve screwed yourself because you can no longer do the job the way that you want to do it. So yeah, it’s always a toss-up.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg