Spotlight By: Stephen Snart
In Rescue Dawn, the dramatization of real-life POW Dieter Dengler’s daring escape from a Vietnamese prison camp, lead actor Christian Bale rides wild rapids on a flimsy raft, hangs onto a helicopter, gets dragged by a cart, bites into a snake and eats a bowl of bugs. But none of the grueling physicality that went into playing the role seems to have fazed the 33-year-old actor. When asked if the ordeal was trying he responds coolly, “At times it was but it never takes long to recover.” Presumably his tongue is somewhat in his cheek when he says this but his delivery is straight-faced and unflappable. His quick dismissal of the physical hardships instantly illuminates two of the reasons he has been hailed as one of his generation’s greatest actors: his fastidious work ethic and his ability to mask acting as naturalism.
These two qualities are part of what made him the perfect choice (the other is his smoldering good looks) to take over the role of the dark knight when Christopher Nolan revamped the flailing franchise with the $200 million-plus grossing Batman Begins in 2005. Shooting has just gotten underway in Chicago on the sequel (entitled The Dark Knight) and is on track for a July 2008 release date. It marks the first time in his 21-year film career that he will revisit a role on screen. He’s quick to warn that the character has developed quite a bit (“Moving on, evolving, a lot of things are happening.”) and that he won’t be merely sleepwalking through a paycheck. Although he does add that, “slipping into it is surprisingly easily.”
Witnessing a single frame of Bale’s gaunt, haggard face in Rescue Dawn makes it instantly evident that he didn’t sleepwalk through his role there either. In fact, he even seemed to enjoy some of the more off-putting demands. The stomach-churning scene in which he merrily wolfs down a bowl of bugs
Filming Rescue Dawn gave Bale the chance to work with legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog, but his draw to the film was routed most strongly in the character of Dieter himself. “[It's] purely this one man’s story of survival and his character. His naivetÃ©, his childlike approach, his crazy but pragmatic optimism that I found to be really unusual and really fascinating.” Bale also relished the opportunity to play a real life hero who isn’t already well-known to the masses. “How many people actually know of him? There aren’t many who are familiar with his name. People in the military? Yes many are. But in public life most people are not. So I didn’t have to worry about getting a spot-on impersonation or anything like that.” Herzog, who was good friends with Dengler, had brought the tale of his escape to the cinemas once before with the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly but even so, he didn’t instill Bale with any fear of not living up to the real-life counterpart. “With Werner, even in the documentaries he makes, he directs and he changes things, asks
While he is unafraid of taking risks in veracity for the sake of the medium, he’s still very meticulous in gaining as much knowledge about his subject as he can beforehand. “There’s often enjoyment I get from research. Equally, I often find, I really didn’t have to do it at the end. But you never know; there might be something great. It just gives you the confidence of knowing that for sure. There could be something wonderful to steal. If I wasn’t going to look back at the documentary or read the books or speak with the familyâ€¦ and also speak with Werner extensively about him, I might be missing something. There might be something very nice that I could be bringing to the project which I’m unaware of.”
By once again exemplifying his commitment to his craft, it’s easy to tell that Bale not only takes his job seriously but that he finds it very rewarding personally. While he will be hard at work donning the bat suit again for the rest of the year, fans have the opportunity to see him on screen this fall in two very different films: Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan pseudo-biopic I’m Not There and 3:10 to Yuma a psychological western co-starring Russell Crowe.