When I sat down with Christian Bale in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, he'd just flown in from shooting Ridley Scott's Exodus in Spain, and the Dark Knight Rises star (who had just learned about Batkid) admitted to feeling a little jet-lagged. Still, the fatigue vanished as soon as Bale was reunited with his friend Scott Cooper, who directed Bale in this weekend's Out of the Furnace; in an instant, the supposedly serious star turned giddy and outgoing. Out of the Furnace casts Bale as a soulful Pennsylvania steel mill worker who must intercede when his younger brother (Casey Affleck) gets mixed up with a vicious crime boss (Woody Harrelson), and Bale says it's one of the films he's most proud of. Here's how they made it — and along the way, how both men figured out they were meant to be artists.
You both have these big grins on your faces.
Cooper: I'm just catching up, Kyle. I haven't seen Christian in a while. Not for a couple months, I guess.
Bale: You know, I've been busy doing a film, and when you're doing a film, you lose all sense of time. You can't even believe that anybody else has a life outside of the film you're doing. You completely lose track.
Cooper: But for a while, we were seeing each other so often that when he was gone, I completely missed him. I was like, "God, where is he?" And now he's back, fortunately.
When Christian went off and made another film, did it feel like he was cheating on you with another director?
Cooper: [Laughs.] It's interesting. It's a very intense experience that you have — you're like this traveling circus, basically — and then they travel on to other venues and you don't. When you grow close to people and you really care about them, like I do with Christian, that can be hard.
Bale: But also, with this film, Scott would invite me to the editing room quite often, so I saw him in a few different guises. It was great to see the process and all these different stages of the cut.
Cooper: It was a true collaboration.
Christian, you plunge so deeply into your roles that it must be interesting to sit back in the editing room and choose your best takes.
Bale: Listen, I've always believed that the director does whatever the hell he wants. That's what you sign on for as an actor — I can't stand it when you have actors who are trying to leverage directors into doing things they don't want to do. That being said, I'm fascinated by directing, and I gave Scott whatever thoughts I had knowing that he would listen to the ones that are good and disregard the ones that aren't. And that's how it should be.
In Out of the Furnace, Casey Affleck's character says he's meant for more than working at the steel mill. Did you also have that realization at some point in your career, that you were meant to do more than hold down a normal 9-to-5 job?
Bale: For me, I started doing this when I was quite young. It did unfortunately become a necessity for me, in that I was having to support people through acting, and even at the lowest end of what the union requires you to pay actors, that was a phenomenal amount of money for my family. So there was a slight responsibility I felt with all of that, but the one thing that my father would have absolutely just killed me for is if I'd ever taken a 9-to-5 job. That was the one thing that he said, "Don't ever fuckin' touch that kind of crap." The biggest rebellion I could've ever had with my father would be to work in a bank. He would have disowned me. As long as I was doing something where I didn't have to wear a tie, I was good.
Cooper: I grew up in small-town Virginia in the shadow of the Appalachian mountains as the grandson of a coal miner, and I suffered a great deal of loss at a young age when I lost a sibling, so I retreated into myself and into the world of cinema. All those things went away when I watched movies, even though they started to affect me subconsciously. I knew that I always wanted to have a career in the arts, but when you grow up in small-town Virginia, you can only dream of sitting in a suite at The Four Seasons with you, like I am now. That just doesn't happen. The only way I could do that was to tell very personal stories, and though I won't read the reviews [for Out of the Furnace], I'm sure it will meet with criticism, and that's harrowing. You try to make something that isn't derivative, that isn't a sequel, or all the things that I don't want in cinema. I had these cinematic heroes who took me through these very difficult times as a kid, and now I'm able to make those stories myself.
Bale: That requires very big balls. You take this kid in Virginia who wants to make movies, and often, in order to get there, he has to take any shortcut he can. People tell you, "You're going to have to make this kind of movie first, and you're going to have to cast so-and-so." And Scott never did that, and that's what impressed me and made me want to work with him so much. When he said something, he stuck to it, and that doesn't happen that often. You have a lot of people who'll say something, but it doesn't usually mean anything.
Christian, between this film and The Fighter, you've really become proficient at a sort of character we don't see onscreen very often, this impoverished American just trying to eke out his small space in the world.
Bale: I do it for totally selfish reasons. I look at a character and I think, That's an absolutely fantastic character I can dig into. As a consequence, if you're representing those sort of people, that's great. I'd love to say I'm altruistic in that fashion, but I'm not — and you can't go out aiming for that, because it could be a bit patronizing. I just look at the project and think, Is this what I want to be doing and can I spend two months digging into that character?
Scott is a former actor, and I'm curious how that informs your interaction with him. I was looking over your résumé, Christian, and you've been directed by very few actor-directors …
Bale: Who was the last one?
I think Kenneth Branagh was the last one, for Henry V, back in 1989. Unless I'm forgetting somebody.
Bale: I forget them as well. [Laughs.] Scott tries to make himself as invisible as possible, which takes a lot of confidence. But also, there's a difference between a director saying, "We'll create what I see on the screen," versus "We'll create a world and see what I find interesting and film within that world." That's a much bigger endeavor, and that's the kind of filmmaking I prefer to do, and that's what Scott does, completely.
Cooper: Let me just say that as someone who had a very unremarkable acting career, I didn't have a lot of opportunities to receive great direction, but I choose wisely when I cast. You can get in trouble when you write for someone you don't know, but I wrote Crazy Heart for Jeff Bridges and got fortunate, and I wrote this for Christian in mind without knowing him, and knowing that bringing Christian to the dance is nearly impossible. But I think when I work with actors, there's a sense of trust. They know they can take big risks and always be protected, both on the set and in the editing room. I never really want my fingerprints to be on the film, or for you to say, "Look how clever Scott is with the camera, or listen to how wonderful that score is." Those things don't interest me, and I really want to strip them away to give Christian and the rest of the cast the freedom to create and find those characters.
And now you've gotten to make your first two movies exactly the way you wanted to.
Cooper: You know, Kyle, whether you personally embrace this film or disdain it, I don't want you to ever feel indifferent about it. Francis Coppola, who's one of my favorite filmmakers, would say, "If you aren't trying to make the biggest artistic risk you can, why are you doing it?" I have two girls that I have to feed and you understand that certainly, but I would never take on a project because it was the right career move. Who knows, this film could be a career killer, but I'll have worked with Christian Bale and Casey Affleck and have gotten to make the film that I want to make.
Bale: The reason that I say it takes big cojones for that is that you risk that you'll lose everything. But hey, there's no reward without a great amount of risk. You either fall flat on your face or you get something superb. If you just go for the middle of the road, you'll just get something mediocre.