Christian Bale has always rebuffed the idea of being a producer and starting a production company, but the Oscar winner has warmed to the idea thanks to his two upcoming projects, Amsterdam and The Pale Blue Eye.
With Amsterdam, Bale and long-time collaborator David O. Russell began developing the idea for the film at a Westside diner roughly five years ago, and Bale quickly fell in love with the trio of friends at the center of the movie that would get caught up in one of U.S. history’s most unknown, yet relevant, conspiracy plots. So Bale served as a sounding board for Russell, all while creating his character, Dr. Burt Berendson, who would later be joined by Margot Robbie’s Valerie Voze and John David “J.D.” Washington’s Harold Woodman.
Bale also fulfilled a similar role to another long-standing collaborator, Scott Cooper, as the duo worked closely to put together their gothic murdery mystery, The Pale Blue Eye. In addition to scratching his creative itch during development, Bale is more open to producing in the event that he ever needs to come to the defense of his director.
“On other films, I discovered that the directors were perhaps forced to make choices that maybe they didn’t want to make. So I found out after the fact, and I always said, ‘Why didn’t you come to me? I could have helped you.’ And then I realized, ‘Well, if I was a producer, they could have [come to me].’ So I always wanted that,” Bale tells The Hollywood Reporter.
After wrapping Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy in 2012, Bale long believed that he was done with the superhero genre until his kids urged him to accept an offer to play Gorr the God Butcher in Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love and Thunder. The Welsh actor also hoped to impress his children once more, courtesy of a scene in Amsterdam where his character sings alongside the most prominent singer-songwriter in the world, Taylor Swift.
“I went to my daughter and said, ‘You know who I sang with today? Taylor Swift.’ And she was like, ‘Wait, what? Why would you be doing that?’” Bale says. “Our pitch was all over the place … and then all of a sudden, David just goes, ‘How about Christian and J.D. [Washington] just shut up for this one and let Taylor do it?’ And it was like we had been drowning out an angel’s voice all day long with our cacophony and our rough, terrible voices.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Bale also discusses his reunion with three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki and the influence that the celebrated DP had on his Amsterdam character. Bale then reveals that he’s talked about a potential third film with his The Big Short and Vice director, Adam McKay.
So you scored some points with your family when you agreed to do Thor: Love and Thunder. Were they equally impressed by the fact that in Amsterdam, you sang with the most popular singer in the world?
(Laughs.) That was a real nice surprise, and I actually didn’t tell anybody about that until afterwards. I went to my daughter and said, “You know who I sang with today? Taylor Swift.” And she was like, “Wait, what? Why would you be doing that?”
It was a very funny scene, actually, because J.D. [John David Washington] and myself had been practicing that song a little bit. David had us sing it all day long, but then there were moments where I would forget the lyrics. So I’d look at J.D., he’d look at me and then he’d forget, too. So I would have to mouth it to him. And then we were going flat. Our pitch was all over the place, but we were like, “Yeah, but the feeling is right!” And then all of a sudden, David just goes, “How about Christian and J.D. just shut up for this one and let Taylor do it?” And it was like we had been drowning out an angel’s voice all day long with our cacophony and our rough, terrible voices. So it’s really something when you have someone with as beautiful a voice as hers, singing right next to you. Oh man, that was phenomenal. David creates so many different phenomenal events and stories and moments in working with him. That’s what he’s trying to create, and he manages to do it beautifully.
Whether it’s the mistreatment of veterans by politicians or the threat of a dictatorship, Amsterdam’s 1930s story reflects much of what’s going on right now. But even though history is repeating itself, I still walked out feeling optimistic because the morality of just a few people can go a long way towards stopping these things. Am I remotely in the ballpark of what you were going for here?
Absolutely. That’s what we loved so much, and I love that you came out with that take. It’s like that saying, “You save one person, you save the world.” There are people who are apparently powerless, who have the ability within themselves not to allow bad people and bad situations in the world, which happens to every single person just being alive. You get those experiences, so do not allow it to make you become numb or full of hate. Keep on being optimistic; I love that you chose that word. “Eyebrows up” was an expression that David and I would say to each other during filming when things might be getting tough or whatever. It’s just about refusing to be crushed by the events of life.
And even though the subjects that you mentioned are factual events and things that happened in American history, I was completely unaware of those at that time. The core of the film and the reason that I love the film so much is because of this friendship in the midst of it, this triangle of friends, Margot Robbie’s character, J.D.’s character and mine. They have all suffered absolutely crushing circumstances in their life, but they refuse to be beaten by it or defined by it. So David and I just loved those characters. We want to be around them, and we want to watch them. We want to see these friends take care of each other no matter what. Oh man, that’s a friendship that I want to have in my life.
David O. Russell is one of several directors that you’ve been loyal to over the years. What’s made your collaboration last?
Like every great director, he’s got a very unique way of working. He’s got a very unique and singular vision. That’s what makes fantastic directors so fascinating, and he’s certainly one of the greats. We started with The Fighter and went to American Hustle, and each time we just dove a little bit deeper to the point where I’m so grateful he brought me in right at the beginning [of Amsterdam]. We were literally scribbling on napkins, watching documentaries, listening to jazz, and looking at photographs in old books, and then gradually, we built up these characters and different inspirations. So we talked for years about it, and that was a great thing. We had no deadline. It was just, “Hey, when it’s ready, we’ll go make it,” and it was such a bloody joy.
I’m probably reaching here, but as two of Chris Nolan’s leading men, did you and John David Washington use that commonality at all to build your on-screen friendship?
(Laughs.) Not in the slightest! I don’t know if J.D. would’ve liked that, but I loved playing Burt so much that I sort of stayed as him a little bit. Not all the time. People make the mistake of calling me a method actor. I’m not that. I don’t understand how you can possibly stay in character all day long without just being exhausted. I couldn’t maintain it at all, but you always keep that simmering a little bit. So I don’t like to reference other work too much when I’m working with other people. I just want to get to know the person. Otherwise, I get too sort of self-conscious about it, like, “Oh, we’re making films here.” I think the best actors in the world are animals and children, and it’s precisely because they don’t give a damn about the effect. They’re not thinking about any consequences whatsoever. And obviously, J.D. worked with Chris, who’s so very different from David, but an equally absolutely stunning filmmaker. But no, we were just set on having our own experience with David O. Russell.
Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki did yet another masterful job with the photography.
Did you help bring him on board given your shared history with Terrence Malick?
I can’t remember if I was the first person to mention him, but I’m sure every single one of us would like to get credit for mentioning him first even though it’s not as if he’s an unknown. We call him Chivo, which means goat and also stands for Greatest of All Time. New Regency, who were fantastic and made the film with us, have also made at least a couple of films with Chivo, I believe. And so when David mentioned him, I went, “Oh my God, Chivo is absolutely incredible,” and I don’t just mean in terms of how it looks. He’s a true artist with [the photography], but he is a true artist in the process of making the film as well.
I was the constant on set. I’m in virtually every scene. So in the film, we’ve got the triangle of friendship, and on the set, the triangle was myself, David and Chivo. He is absolutely invested and passionate with the story. When the scene is joyous, Chivo is joyous, and when the scene is sad, he’s down. He’s just a fantastic presence behind the camera for me as an actor. The way that David and Chivo work is often really close to me, so I can reach out and kind of smack him at any given point. (Laughs.) And so it’s great to have such wonderful artists and collaborators as the two of them.
And we have Chivo to thank for Burt’s hair, right?
Yes, absolutely. I had this photograph of [Irish novelist] Samuel Beckett. I’m not sure if he looked like it all the time, but his hair was just sort of standing straight up. So I was going to do that, and then a week later, the pandemic shut us down. And so David just kept on honing the script. And then, one day, I was on a Zoom call with Chivo, and he’s got just the most fantastic thick head of curly hair. So I was looking at that, and then I went to a friend of mine and said, “Could you do just a real tight perm on my head? Let’s see what it looks like.” I didn’t tell David about it at first, but then I sent him photographs and he fell in love with it as well. So that was my tribute to Chivo.
So you produced Amsterdam as well as your next movie, The Pale Blue Eye. What prompted you to add even more to your plate?
It wasn’t like any bold decision. I’ve had people in the past always ask me, “Do you want to produce? You want to have a production company and stuff?” And I’m like, “Oh my God, no. I don’t want to do that,” because I never wanted to work in an office. And to me, that was like, “Oh, I’ve gotta sit in offices, have meetings around big tables and look at spreadsheets.” I was like, “I don’t want anything to do with that,” but there’s a creative producer. So it’s just because David and I were the first people involved with it, and I wanted to be more deeply involved.
Also, one essential thing was that a few times, on other films, I discovered that the directors were perhaps forced to make choices that maybe they didn’t want to make. So I found out after the fact, and I always said, “Why didn’t you come to me? I could have helped you.” And then I realized, “Well, if I was a producer, they could have [come to me].” So I always wanted that. It’s first and foremost to be a support to the director’s vision. Now, thank God, that wasn’t really necessary on [Amsterdam]. Everyone absolutely loved what David was doing, and we had total collaboration and support throughout. But I was there from the inception, and David ran everything by me, as a friend. And so they went, “Alright, yeah. Producer.”
Alessandro Nivola told me that besides shooting the script, David will actually talk to you and your scene partners during takes and throw out “alts” for everyone to say. So based on your work with David and Adam McKay, have you become pretty adept at working in this unscripted style?
Yeah, there are some directors who are more like target snipers, and that’s it. You don’t go anywhere else but the script. You perfect it, and they’ve got an absolute vision. And then there’s Adam and David who embrace and love the chaos of what can happen outside of that. Instead of fighting the chaos, they surrender to it and enjoy it. I mean, they’re both different in the way that they behave, but yes, you’re quite right. It would be a disservice to Adam and David’s writing to say it was improvisation. They’re totally open to improvisation once you get the script first, and then it’s like Alessandro said. Oh man, he’s superb. We’ve worked together a few times. This was our third film together [Laurel Canyon, American Hustle].
So when you start to play in that realm, they love it if you come up with things, but most of the time, David is on the floor at your feet, giving you direct lines or switching lines or telling you to talk about something. And Adam will be on a microphone, talking similarly. So there’s definitely a similarity, but each of them has very unique styles and points of view.
You’ve said over the years that you’re not a big movie buff. You don’t watch a lot of films. Is that partially because you’ve been watching the sausage get made since you were a little boy? Can you see the strings?
No, I don’t actually find that. I can totally immerse myself in a film, no matter how much I know, but I don’t like to get to know about actors. It’s a real delight when you get to watch an experienced actor that you’ve never seen before because they are the character. So I do manage to go into denial about any knowledge I have [of the process]. It’s actually because I didn’t really start out doing this because I loved sitting and watching films. I love making films, and I really love being able to get obsessive and really study people. I’m absolutely clueless when it comes to people. I always read people wrong. My friends and family say that I’m the worst judge of character. I don’t read the room right, ever, and because of that, I’m eternally fascinated in trying to figure people out.
For the last decade, I’ve noticed that you pretty much make one movie a year. Of course, there are exceptions such as last year, but you typically don’t wrap one movie on a Friday and then start another one on a Monday. So is your output as programmatic as I think it is? Or can exceptions be made for the right material?
Absolutely. I mean, I ended up making three films last year, but that was because of the accordion effect of the pandemic. But nobody needs to see me in that many films, so I’ll disappear now for a little while. Amsterdam was the main one David and I were always focused on, and then I met with Taika [Waititi]. We were meant to have made Thor: Love and Thunder earlier. And then I made The Pale Blue Eye with Scott Cooper, who’s a wonderful director I collaborate with a lot as well.
They all ended up going, “Hey, we’ve all been vaccinated. We can make a film now,” and everybody wanted to go instantly. So I probably won’t be doing that again. I love taking a lot of time, but I had a good amount of time on each of those to think about them in tandem. I’m not very good at spinning multiple plates. I like to do one thing at a time. I’m not exactly somebody who can juggle a lot of balls at the same time. I like to obsess about one thing at a time, but there’s truly no strategy behind anything that I’ve ever done with film or acting.
I’m enamored with your Scott Cooper collaboration, and I’m so glad that you circled back to him years ago after initially being unavailable for Out of the Furnace. How is your next film, The Pale Blue Eye, shaping up?
Oh, it’s looking fantastic! Scott is also very collaborative. He has these wonderful themes like the ethics of revenge, et cetera. He created this fantastic character around the origins of Edgar Allan Poe, which is a real delight to see in this gothic murder-mystery piece. It’s looking absolutely extraordinary. We worked with DP Masa Takayanagi, who we’ve worked with multiple times. He is absolutely wonderful. I’ve really been very privileged to work with incredible directors, DPs and fellow actors.
More and more Adam McKay movies are being written in the news every single day. Have you guys talked at all about a third movie?
Absolutely, yeah. I love Adam to bits. David, Adam and I just saw each other the other night [for an Amsterdam screening and Q&A]. So Adam is cooking something up, and I hope he’ll come my way with it.
So as much as I love your performance as Darth Vader in Reign of Fire, I, like the rest of the galaxy, want to see you in the real deal.
(Bale nearly keels over with laughter.)
Do you still have a desire to do Star Wars someday?
All I ever wanted in Star Wars was to be in a Star Wars outfit and hit my head on a door or something as I walked through. The real nerds who watched Star Wars way too many times always knew about that one scene where the Stormtrooper hits his head on the door as he comes through. I wanted to be that guy. That was it. But look, if I’m fortunate enough to be more than that, oh man, yeah. What a delight that would be. I’ve still got the figures from when I was little. I also know Kathy Kennedy very well because she was working with Spielberg when I did Empire of the Sun, and now, she runs the Star Wars universe.
It’s been over 10 years since you last worked with Chris Nolan, and given that The Prestige is my favorite film on both of your résumés, I’d sell most of my organs for the two of you to do something along those lines again.
I would love to work with Chris again. He’s an extraordinary filmmaker, and I’ve got very good memories of working with him. So, likewise. I feel the same.
I collect Knight of Cups stories any chance I get, and my favorite one, by far, is Jason Clarke taking pride in shooting you in the eye with a water pistol.
(Laughs.) Yeah, he blinded me, the bastard.
Sounds like a painful memory …
But a fun one as well. That was a thing. We truly didn’t have a script on that at all, but Terry, likewise, was off camera, talking to me. Most of the time, it was to tell me to shut up, actually. (Laughs.) Most of the time, he was like, “Rick [Bale’s character], stop talking. Enough. You don’t need to keep talking. Let everyone else talk.” But I love working with Terry as well. He’s a delightful man and a really fascinating guy. He makes the most beautiful films, ever. And man, working with him is one journey, and I’d love to repeat that as well.
I just watched Harrison Ford introduce his final Indiana Jones movie at age 80, and it got me wondering about your long-term outlook. Do you envision yourself acting into your eighties and being the elder statesman someday?
It’s quite a desirable position to get to because there’s nobody left to cast, is there? So you must end up getting all the roles because there’s just barely anybody else left. (Laughs.) And that’s the nature of acting. It’s a thing of attrition, really. I started way too young, but when you start, there’s a lot of people who also want to be actors. But you gotta pay the bills, and if acting is not paying the bills, people gradually disappear. So that’s how I account for my career. They’ve got no other choices. They’re going to offer everything to DiCaprio, and that’s great. He’s a wonderful actor. The rest of us all benefit from whatever he passes on most of the time, and I’m all good with that. I’ve got no pride about coming in second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth choice or whatever. We all bring something different to it, but as you get older, there’s less and less competition. So that must be a nice feeling.
Amsterdam opens in theaters on Oct. 7. This interview was edited for length and clarity.