I had a brief chat with actor Christian Bale who was in Mumbai to promote his new film Mowgli and attend its world premiere on Sunday. The Netflix film directed by Andy Serkis has Bale playing the role of Bagheera, the black panther, via performance capture technology, a first for the star from Christopher Nolan’s Batman series.
Bale talks about the toll that physical transformations to play various roles have taken on him and how he’s slowly adapting to prosthetics. The actor also talks about his journey of self-discovery as a child and learning to be a survivor coming from a family that was often in dire straits because they needed money. Here’s Bale, straight from the heart.
Q: Hi Christian Bale and welcome to The Quint. You were earlier in India to shoot for The Dark Knight Rises, you were in Rajasthan and it was really, really hot I believe. Now, you’re back here around 6 years later to promote Mowgli and you’ve been around Agra and Rajasthan again. Is it good to be back minus all the heat and shooting that you had to do the last time?
Christian Bale: Very nice, far more temperate now, but the added bonus now I’ve had a son since that time, so I bringing my son with my daughter and my wife and we’ve had absolutely wonderful time and lifelong memories remain.
Q: One of your most shared pictures at least in India on Twitter, on social media is, this series of pictures where you’re seen gaining and losing weight for The Machinist to Batman Begins to other films. When you see it in a picture it looks like almost doable and easy but as an actor what do you go through when you do that and what kind of toll does that take on you and your body?
Christian Bale: Aww man it’s miserable! It’s horrible. If you are losing weight, nothing to it except for going to bed hungry and feeling miserable, not socialising with anybody because generally food or some sort of drink tends to be involved in socialising. But a great sense of really getting control over yourself and then the complete opposite when you are gaining weight, you’re just absolutely losing all discipline and gorging like crazy. I need to stop it, it’s not healthy for your body. I’m in my mid-40s now, it’s going to start catching up with me now if I don’t stop being a little bit aware of my mortality. But I have almost always enjoyed transformation - mental, physical, sometimes it can be a great help to look in the mirror and not see yourself, in terms of being able to remove yourself from any kind of character. I’m glad I did it, but I think it should be in the past now. I’ll have to try and learn how to transform myself in other ways.
Q: Would you rather do that than do prosthetics? Would you rather go through that phase of transformation?
Christian Bale: I think a mixture - is what is possible. There are certain things you cannot achieve with prosthetics, but it’s coming around in leaps and bounds and I spoke with not only my friend but somebody who actually is the reason I’m acting because I started acting because my family needed money and I found people will pay me to do this. My family were in dire straits and they needed it. But I looked for an inspiration, if I was going to have to do this thing, I looked for an inspiration of - who’s really good, who inspires me and it was Gary Oldman and he was the one who I studied and I said if I could ever be as good as him and if I could ever inspire people like the way he’s inspired me then it will be worth it. I called Gary up, because he played Winston Churchill and I was about to play Dick Cheney and I had already gained about 20 pounds by that time about not even half of what I ended up gaining. And I say, “Gary how much did you gain for playing Churchill?” and he says, “I didn’t gain anything, I just do prosthetics” and I say, “No, no, no. You didn’t hear me right. How much weight did you put on?” and he went, “I just told you Christian, not a single pound” and I went “Aww! Man!” and it looked so good! So they have come such a long way now in the ability to do prosthetics and actually make it move and breathe and all that and so I think I’ll have to trust more in other people to be able to achieve that. But I did with Cheney, it was a mixture. Yes, I put on a great deal of weight but I could not have done it without the wonderful Greg Cannon and Chris Gallagher who are just incredible artists.
Q: Be it Batman or The Jungle Book there are some stories that give itself to retelling a lot of times. What do you think it is about The Jungle Book which makes it such an evergreen source of storytelling?
Christian Bale: I think it’s very relatable in terms of survival, in terms of a sense of belonging of who we are, what our identity is. The interpretations can adjust in terms of, you look at Andy’s version, we recognise that man has come to be very much the master of the future of the jungle. It was that to a certain degree in Kipling’s era, but for more so now than ever before. You can see the vast interpretational differences of the warm and fuzzy fairytale of the musical and Baloo bear floating down the river, these fantastic scenes I remember and love in the song ‘Bare Necessities’, just joyful. You don’t have to love one and dislike the other, I love them all. I think its most fascinating to see Disney’s most recent iteration, and see the Netflix Andy Serkis iteration now, which goes from the fairytale version to this one being the fantasy that everybody has of wanting to run free with the animals and wanting to be wild and shrug off the chains of our existence, howl at the moon and truly be wild. Mowgli does get to do that, but also learns that there must be some sense of law and order.
Q: This is the first time you’re in a motion capture performance kind of a role, how liberating or constricting did you find it as an actor?
Christian Bale: Every film no matter what, no matter how many times I’ve made a film it feels constricting to begin with because I’m trying to understand not only the style of what the director is looking for but getting under the skin of the character and you must always want to go back and reshoot the first few days work. With this, the difference, which is what I wanted to learn about from the master of performance capture, Andy Serkis, you have cameras in a ring around your head like that, but beyond that it’s just acting, it’s about being truthful. And the difference with just doing your voice, where you’re just standing in front of a microphone, and you’re not interacting with any of the other actors is this - you’re actually physically moving around and they are going to keep that physicality. Andy and I actually fought and rolled around and had to fight where Baloo and Bagheera are having their very friendly fight between each other. And it ultimately comes back to the same thing, that once you breakthrough the superficial distractions, it’s just about truthfulness and that’s what they are looking for in the performance capture.
Q: I was talking to Andy Serkis and he said what he identified most with The Jungle Book was this boy’s search to find himself, to search for an identity, to where he belongs. We all go through that in some phase in our life. Did Christian Bale also go through that, probably as an actor, to find where you belong and what you truly are?
Christian Bale: Absolutely, that’s relatable to every single person. My family were quite nomadic, not always by choice, sometimes driven by economic necessity of being pushed out of houses. My dad was a master of taking difficult times where us kids didn’t truly understand that we just lost our home and he used to make it into an adventure. Now as an adult and as a father I look back and realise what he did and what a wonderful dad he was in not inducing panic in us but instead inducing a sense of adventure, even though I know for him it must have been nerve wracking beyond belief the fact that he didn’t have a place for his kids to live for a while. And so there was that sense of adventure, and that really builds in you an ability to be a survivor. But because of having to move so many places, I think that informed me very much as an actor. I didn’t have a good education, but what I taught myself through moving around is how you are able to adapt to new locations, new friends and ultimately no matter how upsetting it might be to leave an environment that you feel safe in, you are going to land on your feet, it’s going to be okay. I think that was a wonderful lesson that I learnt from adverse circumstances of my childhood.
(Mowgli starts streaming on Netflix from 7 December)