After five years and three movies of playing arguably the definitive screen version of Batman -- with a pit stop or two along the way for weightier fare, like his Oscar-winning turn in "The Fighter" -- Christian Bale returns this month to the kind of physically and emotionally intense roles he was making a career of before he donned the cape and cowl and helped relaunch that legendary franchise.
First up is "Out of the Furnace," the second effort from director Scott Cooper ("Crazy Heart"). Bale plays Russell Baze, a native of the steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, who steadfastly holds onto his job at the factory and his honorable desire to lead the kind of small-town, working-man life that has become increasingly rare in modern, corporatized America. When Russell runs afoul of the law -- he's not perfect, after all -- and his restless, war-traumatized brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) runs afoul of a malevolent crime boss named Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), Russell takes matters into his own hands and follows a dark path from which he may never return.
Bale is gaunt, laser-like, and moving as Russell, a man whose clear vision of right and wrong you can't help but respect. Just a few weeks later, however, Bale will show up as scam artist Irving Rosenfeld in David O. Russell's "American Hustle," a blackly comedic look at the ABSCAM scandal of the mid-1970s. For Rosenfeld, Bale went in the other direction, famously changing his appearance by packing on the pounds and donning the worst combover since Rudy Giuliani.
Moviefone sat down with Bale recently to talk about "Out of the Furnace," but also managed to get in a few questions about "American Hustle"; the handover of the Batmobile keys to Ben Affleck; and his role as a different kind of superhero -- Moses -- in his next film, Ridley Scott's "Exodus."
Moviefone: What first struck you about this script when you got it and when you read it?
Christian Bale: I don't actually remember. I guess the initial thing was the brotherly relationship and the notion of a man who had always done the right thing but his life had ended up being sh*t regardless. And a man's dilemma of "Do you continue with no reward or do change your thinking completely and do something utterly different?" That was fascinating to me.
Scott Cooper said earlier that Russell was based on someone that he knew. Have you ever known anyone like that -- someone who just seemed like a good, decent person that had a world of hurt piled on them?
Yeah. Not in America. In England.
Was that something you were able to use for Russell?
No, I don't do that. Some actors do that. I understand why they do it. For me it's always -- I just like to create the character to such a degree that all I think about is that character, you know. You think about how they would think and how they would approach it. I've never found it conducive for myself to go to people in my past. You obviously have that in the back of your head, you know. You can't help but know that, and you've seen the real people. And I do love playing characters who are alive still and you get to meet with them. I think that that is just wonderful. But I do have a tendency, not really an overt kind of strategy or anything, but a tendency to not wish to go to people in my own life, you know.
In a bigger sense, this is such an American story that a lot of people can see in this country and relate to. Is there a parallel to this in England, a similar sense of the working class getting hit so hard over the past 30 years or so?
Yeah, definitely. Union busting when I was growing up. Breaking of the coal miners, [union leader] Arthur Scargill and everything. And the manufacturing people who were seeing themselves becoming apparently irrelevant after being so essential for so long. Yeah, there's a similarity. Interesting question because I'd never thought about that before.
Was filming on location in the real town of Braddock a vital element of the production?
Very much so, you know. It's so much easier when you're shooting on location in the actual places. You feel like you don't have to give a performance. You can just sort of exist, and the camera also has such a wealth of things around that they can shoot instead of just you. You just do it and the camera shot sees what it finds interesting and that's a much more interesting way to work.
You have happened to spend a lot of time in eastern Pennsylvania in recent years, shooting both "The Dark Knight Rises" in Pittsburgh and "Out of the Furnace" in Braddock. Do you get a chance to talk to people? Is it possible at all -- especially because they obviously can recognize you from your movies -- to talk to people one-on-one about their lives?
Yeah. I contacted a very good guy called Doug Sakas who lives in Braddock. I questioned him about all his life, got the accent from him, which is a very peculiar one. It is possible, and whilst I was filming in Pittsburgh on "The Dark Knight Rises" I would take trips out to Braddock, look around the town and just walk around the town by myself. It's one of those things, you know. If you're ever at that point where you can't do that, I don't know how you get any information, you know what I mean? It's a tricky thing and Batman has made it a little trickier than I would love for that. I'm hoping it will become easier as I get more distance from [the Batman movies]. But it's something which to me is essential, you know -- how on earth can you be representing life when you're living in a little cocoon? For me, it's just interesting, you know. I love people. I really do. They don't have to be nice people. They don't have to be good people. I just want to find out more about them. So that would be a horrible day when I found I couldn't do that any longer.
Since you mentioned it, are you relieved that you will no longer get asked, "Hey are you gonna play Batman again?" We officially have a new Batman now.
Yes, because we always intended it to be a trilogy if we got the opportunity. And before "Dark Knight Rises," Chris [Nolan] said, "This is it." So that was the expectation for me. But it's great to actually put a period on it.
Any insight or thoughts on Ben Affleck taking the role? Have you met him at all?
Very, very, very briefly. Hey, look, you know, just create his own thing. Ours is finished and, you know, look at this wonderful story -- this Batkid in San Francisco. You see it's a symbol, you know. It's a symbolic gesture. It's not entirely relevant which actor is playing it. The point is this is a character that goes beyond the actors playing it.
Which was kind of the theme of the last movie, too.
Going back to "Out of the Furnace," is Russell's loss of his moral center and the fact that he goes in a darker direction symbolic of the country's problems at large? Does he represent the idea of the country having all these issues yet not finding a way to solve them?
I question if he truly loses that moral center because the alternative is to do nothing. That's an impossibility for him because in his slightly anachronistic sense of honor, he says he must be doing these things himself. If you truly put yourself in his shoes, I find it hard to believe that anybody -- many people would not actually go through with it, but I think you'd see a lot of people who wish that they would. Because it is regaining a sense of life and vitality that have been lost through the abuse and easy disruption in the extreme of a family. So I do see that as being actually very understandable, especially coming from somebody who has repressed himself so long throughout his life, in terms of his responsibilities and becoming the patriarch very young. He has essentially repressed his impulses for very long, and this is finally an outlet for them.
We're seeing you go this winter from playing a guy who's tried to play by the rules to playing a guy in "American Hustle" who's a scam artist.
What's the tone of "American Hustle," and is that character almost kind of the flip side of Russell Baze?
I see very much that he's actually -- I came to see a very romantic side to Irv in "American Hustle," in that he's an incredible optimist and that he will wade through a ton of sh*t just to find some little gem. He sees his lies as being acceptable because they are for a bigger truth. There's a desire to change his life -- to say my life is sh*t, do I sit back and accept that or do I say I can change it and reinvent myself? He recognizes that sure, he's going to tell some lies, but in his mind it's for a bigger truth that he will achieve. I find that really interesting about him, because he's conflicted and he is not your usual romantic, but he has a real romance to him.
You're right in the middle of playing Moses now. Do you call Russell Crowe [who is starring in "Noah"] and compare notes on how to play these biblical figures?
[Laughs] We haven't had any phone calls. But I like the question.
"Out of the Furnace" opens in theaters on December 6. Stay tuned for our review, arriving tomorrow.