Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
for Radio Free Entertainment
October 4, 2004
In the surreal thriller The Machinist, actor Christian Bale (American Psycho, Batman Begins) completely dedicates himself to his craft by losing over sixty pounds to portray Trevor Reznik, a blue collar worker whose one year bout with insomnia belies a haunted past. Methodically wasting away, Reznik lives in a distorted world where reality overlaps onto unreliable memory.
Filmed in Barcelona, Spain, The Machinist is written by Scott Kosar and directed by Brad Anderson, whose 2001 film Session 9 has been praised by fans and critics alike as a brilliant piece of psychological horror. Christian Bale heads up a cast that includes Jennifer Jason Leigh, Aitana Sanchez-Gijon, John Sharian, and Michael Ironside.
In this interview, we joined the rest of the media to field questions to Christian Bale, who discusses the grueling demands of the shoot and the physical transformation he underwent for his role.
MEDIA: Did you feel it was important to actually lose a third of your body weight just to play your character in this film?
CHRISTIAN: Well, I didn't really see how else to do it, you know? There are parts where it really doesn't matter, your appearance. And there are some where it's a very essential part of the character. And with Trevor, he's in this ridiculously crazy downward spiral emotionally, physically, mentally. He read to me as though he should look as though he was on the brink of death. And I didn't set out to actually go as skinny as I did. I just found that I was being somewhat more successful at it than I had imagined. And I actually ended up being able to get to the weight that was specified in the script, which I never really thought was going to be possible at all.
Did you ever consider using special effects instead of losing such an extreme amount of weight?
You know, a number of people said to me, "Well why didn't you just leave it to CGI or whatever?" I don't know, I don't have enough faith in CGI really for doing that. And I enjoyed the challenge and the slightly self-destructive urges involved in losing that amount of weight. It ended up being a very nice place mentally to be when you get that skinny. Man, you're calm, you know? Because you just can't waste any energy whatsoever. So you just do what's necessary. I was incredibly happy. Other people probably couldn't have told that because I didn't really have the energy to smile too much for them. But inside, I was genuinely probably more content for a longer period of time than I've ever been in my entire life.
What did you eat during this ordeal?
My daily thing was generally like a bit of a coffee and an apple if I felt like it. Well, I had to eat the pie in the scene, and then there was a scene eating chicken as well. But I tried not to swallow. Because it's amazing how you can literally just have a couple of bites of something and your face will expand again if you're really at that low point. To keep that really sunken look, you've got to be eating practically nothing.
Were you constantly being monitored by a doctor during all of this?
I was not. It was something that a number of people had kept on saying to me. "Listen, we really think you should be under a doctor's care." But I felt fine. And I had taken advice from a nutritionist about the vitamins that I would probably come to be lacking, and so I was taking pills for that. But I just decided that as long as I was feeling fine, that probably going to a doctor was going to make me more nervous about what was going on. I don't know, it's just maybe a certain stupidity of feeling invincible. But I felt like I could do it, and I could come back from it, and I would feel fine, and there wouldn't be any problems. I would very seriously consider ever doing anything like that again. I think a second time, certainly you're asking for trouble.
Did you have to at least be examined by a doctor before shooting began?
The physical examination in Spain was a very funny one, because by the time I did the physical examination, I was probably about 135 pounds, and so very noticeably not healthy to look at. But the doctor, first of all, was just smoking constantly--he was chainsmoking. And he just really wanted to know about special effects and how we stabbed people in movies and made it look effective, so I was telling him about retractable blades and blood gushing from things. And he was fascinated with that and never even commented on my weight and just said, "Oh, great, off you go, have a good time." [laughs]
Your character Trevor is unaware of the mystery behind his own identity for most of the story, but you, as an actor, know who he really is. Was the key to that mystery something that was always on your mind?
I purposely put it out of my mind because he had gone into complete denial and had genuinely been able to just shut off that part of his memory. So no, I wasn't thinking about it because what was needed really was this guy's sense of paranoia and having no idea what it was caused by--inducing more fear and anxiety precisely because of that. Obviously with Trevor, we're taking it to absolutely extreme lengths, his insomnia lasting for an entire year. But we have the fact that we are hearing this from him and his point of view, so how much can we really rely upon? And I do think it's a wonderful revelation. I don't think that the whole movie just hinges on that. I find that it has a great deal of substance and intricate kind of gymnastics in play throughout. But I do think it is a wonderful revelation towards the end, where he finally gets his answer that he's been seeking.
Were you always in the same mindset as your character, even when the cameras weren't rolling, or was it easy to switch between your persona and Trevor's?
Well, it was difficult because I was so quiet and happy being quiet, and just kind of there, but not really there. I met up with a few of the crew members after a few months and they kind of said to me, "Wow, it's kind of nice to meet you after all this time working with you, because you were like not there before while we were making it." And it was only an eight week shoot, so I pretty much just remained in that state constantly. But it was also very much an awareness on my part that there are some parts which it's appropriate to disconnect yourself, other parts which it's not appropriate at all, in which you really should be as social as possible and it can actually help. But with this one, it really was necessary because I honestly did find that if I started chatting and being too pally with everybody around on the set, I was exhausted after that, and I just couldn't do the scenes. So my mantra was literally try not to speak unless it's on film, unless I'm doing that scene. So I barely uttered a word to a number of the other actors and actresses.
When you're in that state of being, does everyone else seem more manic or less manic?
I was able to deal with even if people were screaming or seeming manic. I was in my own little bubble. It was kind of like, "Yeah, they can do whatever they want to do there, it's not penetrating this little bubble here." It's a nice place to be. I find it impossible to remain there much as I would like to. It almost sounds like a very Buddhist kind of philosophy, but it's not enjoying life. It's not really being engaged in life in the way that I like. It was more memorable. It was a phase that was really intriguing and very satisfying to experience, but I literally could have had somebody standing there screaming in my face and I could have just been smiling at them and going like, "Hey, man, chill out. It's fine, whatever. It's okay." Nothing got through at all.
As an actor, do you have a particular attraction to darker, damaged characters?
I think there's something attractive about those kind of characters to anybody, really. I've personally always found them very fascinating, and the characters return again and again in literature. But I don't consciously look out for that. I won't be pursuing that in future roles. I will actively look for something different. In fact, I used to be asked, "You always seem to play very good guys all the time?" That changed considerably after I did American Psycho, and suddenly people started seeing me as being capable of playing other kinds of roles. But I don't like to be formatted into just doing one kind of role or one kind of movie. However, there are certain movies that just are obviously more memorable than others. I think probably American Psycho, this one, are more memorable in most people's minds in terms of the strength of the character than perhaps the Reign of Fire character that I played, which is in a completely different kind of movie--a big fantasy movie primarily aimed at kids. But no, I think it would be folly if I was to pigeonhole myself into just always playing those kinds of characters. But they're undeniably interesting though.
You've had to undergo physical transformations, albeit of a different nature, in films like American Psycho and Batman Begins. Is all of that effort ultimately worth it?
I do ask myself that sometimes. [laughs] You do have to look at it because sometimes, if you're looking at the actual amount of time onscreen compared to the preparation time needed, the result and the reward is absolutely minuscule compared to the work that you put in. But I enjoy those mental challenges of, "Can I do it?" I've certainly seen sometimes that I've overdone it and it wasn't necessary. But I certainly don't feel that with, for instance, American Psycho or with The Machinist. I felt like those ones had to go somewhat to excess, and that doing the physical training and preparation for it helped me greatly with actually understanding the character better and being able to play it in a more interesting fashion. Hopefully, I'll learn more as I go on, not out of laziness but just out of what is a better understanding of what is absolutely necessary to do, and what becomes just kind of an extravagance beyond that.
Did you have the energy to eagerly move on to other projects after The Machinist?
I had a lot of different things going on personally, which did actually mean that no, I was not looking forward to going into things so quickly. But I had made the decision and said that I would, so I wanted to definitely honor that. I would have liked a bit more time off and to be honest, I'd appreciate it right now as well. Because I just finished Batman just over two weeks ago, and we started rehearsals in mid-January, so it's been a long haul. And a week ago, I started doing a new movie. But I feel that these are exceptional things--it's the opportunity work with Terrence Malick, and I think the script he has written is a really wonderful one. And then I'm doing another movie right after which is going to be a million dollar budget movie, with a first time director with a script that I really love. And I kind of also feel a need, after having spent so much time doing Batman and that style of acting and that style of filmmaking, to really go back and do something very different--kind of level it out again for myself.
How do you plan a "next movie" when you're working with Terrence Malick?
What, in terms of how do you know when it's ever going to end?
[laughs] Well, you just keep your fingers crossed and hope for the best, but warn the other filmmakers.
Why is he held in such high esteem by the actors who have worked with him?
He just has a very different approach. He is an incredibly generous man, but very different from when you meet him outside of the movie set. Extremely focused. His priorities are getting everything on the film, and you don't necessarily know what that is he's going to want to do that day. He made sure that everything is correct for the period at all times so that everything can be filmed. And suddenly I realize I'm being filmed without there being anything scripted, and suddenly Terry's asking me to do different things. So it's very, very spontaneous. And it's very much something that I've always thought that I would love to experience, because so much of more conventional filmmaking revolves much more around the lighting than it does with the actual acting. And I think that he creates a place that's really unusual, but brilliant for actors.
Does Malick's tendency to shoot things spontaneously keep you on your toes?
[laughs] Yeah, and it's continuous. You don't leave the set. You don't have, "Okay, we've finished this scene. Now all the actors head back to their trailers and then they get called back out for the next scene." If you sit around on the set, you might just find yourself in a new scene that you never even knew you were in. He's very spontaneous, and he very much likes to work things out as we're actually filming. So just a very different approach. I'm just enjoying his company as well. He's a great man.
Going back to The Machinist, what was your impression of director Brad Anderson and his work, which has spanned all sorts of different genres?
Yeah, you look at the difference of Happy Accidents and Next Stop Wonderland and then Session 9, which I just thought was a phenomenal movie and made me feel the way that I had felt in watching scary movies as a kid--walking up the corridor in my house afterwards with hair standing up on the back of my neck and trying to stop yourself from looking over your shoulder. I loved the fact that he had been able to give me that feeling as an adult now. He's an interesting character and I like Brad a great deal. He's one of the most laid back directors that I've ever come across. And you have to kind of tune in to seeing what he's visualizing in his head somewhat more than actually what he may be saying to you, which may sound a bit odd. [laughs] But it was a very easy thing to do because he is so clear about how he sees a piece being done. But he also enjoys very much the performances of the actors.
So "laid back" is a good way to describe him?
Well, he literally was laid back a number of times because he was on a gurney because he kept on injuring himself throughout the movie. One time he went running and he fell in a ditch and almost drowned in a canal in Barcelona, and broke his foot, so he was hobbling around on crutches. And then he put his back out, so he was actually lying flat on his back having to direct a number of scenes as well.
Did you and Brad see eye-to-eye on how The Machinist should play out?
We had some rehearsals beforehand, and he had never seen me perform as Trevor. We had just spoken on the telephone and agreed that we both saw the movie in a similar way and just loved it. I liked the fact that he couldn't stop smiling. We both see quite a sense of humor in The Machinist as well. Not a necessarily real laugh out loud humor, but there is a kind of ridiculous extremism going on throughout I can't help but laugh at. [laughs] And I think just through our conversations beforehand, we had been able to reach a point where yeah, I was doing it how he had seen it exactly.
What was your experience with the rest of the cast?
It's really one of the best experiences of making any movie I've ever had, because everybody was doing things that fitted perfectly with what I had really hoped would be possible in a movie. I was just in bliss throughout making this movie. I was returning back to my hotel each night just going, "Yeah, I just did it again." It really worked. I never went through a scene and thought, "No, we just didn't get that one." There was a real great harmony between everybody working together. Brad creates that. It's very much the director who has to create that feeling.
And what was your experience with the crew in Spain?
Many of them, they were very young, it was maybe their first or second movie, so there was that real passion and excitement about what was being made. There wasn't anybody just scratching their ass and looking at their watch and thinking, "When do we get off of this thing?" And I think that really benefits throughout. When I have worked on movies where people are just banging it out and it's a job, you can't help but see it on the screen. But there was a real love and a real interest in what everybody was making over in Barcelona. And who would have known that we would end up making this movie that was originally set in San Pedro in Barcelona? But I think it really works because of Trevor's state of mind and the surreal nature of it. Everything looking slightly askew and off, and not quite identifiable about where exactly in America this place is.
What's your interpretation of The Machinist's title?
I get that it is a man literally a machinist, but also that he has become somebody just going through the motions of life--that his own internal paranoia has consumed him to such a degree that he's unable to really engage in normal life in any way other than in a mindnumbing fashion, which kind of is the only way that he calms himself. And that was, I think, very much what Scott saw it as--that he wanted him to be having a job where we can see that this is a man who is not educated, but is interested in educating himself. There's scenes where he's reading The Idiot, etc. He's a reader. He's somebody who likes to explore his mind, but at the same time is choosing this job which is quite possibly the most monotonous job you could ever come across in life. That paradox.