Blood sucking leeches, maggots, all in a day's work for The Dark Knight!
Christian Bale is a hardcore, ass-kicking dude. Most A-list actors have their luxury trailers, army of underlings fetching cappuccinos, on-set masseuse to rub away the stress of acting, not Christian Bale; he's too busy eating maggots and getting pulled by an ox in a Thai jungle. The guy is just not afraid of pushing himself. Bale stars in Rescue Dawn as Dieter Dengler. Dengler was shot down over Laos during the early days of the Vietnam War. He spent months being tortured in a prison camp before escaping into the jungle. Dengler's story of survival is pretty much mirrored exactly by Bale. You see him withering away, almost to his weight in The Machinist. It's obvious that he eats up the challenge. I'm pretty sure we won't see him doing lighthearted romantic comedies.
Try as we may, we couldn't drag anything out of him regarding The Dark Knight. He was completely mum about the Batman sequel. I can only imagine the torture he would get from Warner Brothers if he leaked anything...just kidding WB!
You've made a career of playing strange characters. What drew you to Dieter?
Christian Bale: Dieter Dengler was an amazing man. Who knows what he would've been had he not ever been tested in this way? It's a question that I certainly have myself. What would I be able to do in certain situations? He came out, obviously, looking like a true hero, but he didn't go in looking like that. He was not your typical image of somebody that you would think would be the tough guy who was able to endure. His lighthearted attitude, this sort of dorkiness, and naivete; it ended up being the finest tool for his survival.
What about working with director Werner Herzog?
Christian Bale: I was equally as interested in the idea of working with Werner Herzog and heading to the Thai jungle. I had heard a few stories about him. I kind of researched it after I first met him. But the idea of heading to a guy who on one movie spent four years in the jungle, threatening to shoot his actors and stuff.; it was at least going to be interesting.
Did you find that having Herzog's Dengler documentary, "Little Dieter Needs to Fly," as a reference a good thing or a bad thing?
Christian Bale: It's a good thing. I know a lot of other actors that don't like to look at other references to their characters and things. But I like it. I always look at everything, I read all the books. I read Dieter's "Escape from Laos." I watched the documentary again and again and again. I recorded it just to listen to him a lot. I just don't suffer from feeling like I'm getting caught into an imitation. I just feel like I want to steal some good stuff if it's in there.
You go into some very rough territory in this film. How far will you go as an actor before you feel like this is enough?
Christian Bale: You kind of discover it as you go along. There's obviously a point at which you step back and go, it's just a movie. Like for The Machinist, I wasn't doing that for the movie. I was doing that because I wanted to test myself to see if I was somebody who had the willpower to be able to do that. But at certain points, it can become just egotistical and pointless, so you just got to keep yourself in check with that. But I think that I just discover it as I go along.
Did you go through any survival training?
Christian Bale: No, we didn't have any jungle training. Nothing...Dieter didn't have any jungle training. We watched the documentary and that was it. That was the point. They had no idea what to expect, so why should we? Research can be interesting, but it can be pointless as well. The realities of making a movie often are not conducive with that. I'm not knocking it. I love doing research myself, but I admit it doesn't always add to the performance.
How far do you go before you feel the line is crossed? There was a Russian actor playing Othello who needed six Desdemonas because each night he actually strangled his Desdemona. Each one needed a week to recover.
Christian Bale: It's one thing to beat yourself up, it's quite another to strangle a woman. That is the distinction. There are some stories that Werner told me about Klaus Kinski. Klaus Kinski was doing all sorts of things like that and much worse. I would've shot the guy. If he was doing it to himself, no problem, he's an adult. I would never tread on anybody else's toes, or do anything that will reduce their performance or put them in any kind of discomfort whatsoever. But if I want to do that myself, that's my choice.
But still, the leeches, the torture scenes, the maggots...it's pretty extreme to actually subjugate yourself to conditions like that.
Christian Bale: The leeches were no problem. Those things are getting use medicinally in many places. We just grabbed them and chucked them on. They were funny little sort of playthings almost. You just get these slight incisions that take a little while to stop bleeding. It's all very clean and no problem. You don't feel it a great deal anyways. As for the torture scenes, for some of them we were in a village. Suddenly I was getting dragged behind by this ox. They [the villagers] were looking and a few of them tried to save me. It was real nice of them. They wanted the translator to say that I should stand up for myself more and not let these other people treat me this way. They could see the rest of the crew abusing me and didn't seem to understand it. I was like, "I really appreciate that but I really want to do that. We're just pretending. It's okay."
Any other memorable torture scenes to share with the fans?
Christian Bale: In another scene, I was hanging upside down with the ants nest tied to me. By then, we've been there for quite some time. The kids really knew us and so they were laughing and pushing me and things like that. There was one slight misunderstanding at one point with one of the guards where he started spinning me. I was getting pretty dizzy and the blood rushing to my head and these ants crawling on me. Then Werner kind of went off. He went crazy spinning me. I couldn't stand up for about half an hour after that.
You seem to have really embraced the local villagers. What were their lives like?
Christian Bale: It was fantastic to be able to go to these villages. Some of them were refugees from Burma and they didn't have the same rights as anybody else. Some of them, in fact, were not allowed to live in certain areas that we would go into. But all of them were absolutely delighted that we were there and found us hysterical. Especially me, this strange person who lets all these other people beat him up all the time. I was a source of great amusement for the kids.
You seem fascinated by characters that have been in brutal situations or who dealt with some level of brutality. What draws you to them?
Christian Bale: It's fascinating, isn't it? I'm sure you find it fascinating. It's always interesting for everybody to look at people who've been pushed to the brink. You wonder how you would fare with that. Nobody's interested in somebody who doesn't ever really do anything. I don't have a choice in that. I will always go for those kinds of characters. Each one is a separate choice for me, but I think it's fairly natural to find yourself gravitating towards people who have done extraordinary things.
What was it about Dieter that made him a survivor? Why was he the one to escape?
Christian Bale: It had to have been his crazy optimism, because there isn't a difference other than that. He believed when the others doubted. Much of it was probably the power of denial as well, because if he had looked at the big picture and obsessed over that, he probably would never have gotten out of that camp or made it out of the jungle. He just wouldn't quit, he doesn't quit. He just persevered. Much of it is his denial of the big picture, a denial of the real hideous circumstances he's in. It's a very practical kind of optimism. It's about you dealing with what's right in front of you and you keep moving. You keep in motion. You keep busy.
Your fellow actors Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies (who portray Dengler's fellow prisoners) said that Werner was surprisingly detached from this project given that Dieter was a good friend of his. Was that your observation as well?
Christian Bale: I like that because I find that I do that myself. It all depends so much on your own moods each and every day and how you feel and what's happening to you in your life and what's working for you. I've never understood anybody who has said they have one particular technique and that's that. I wouldn't say he was detached. He's a very muscular director, he really wrestles it. He liked to do everything that we were doing. Literally, if we had to go into the rapids, he really wanted to get in the rapids with us. He was losing his toenails. He was willing to jump and grab a snake. I would watch him and he'd be performing half the movie right in front of us. He can't help it. It was like he was possessed. I wouldn't have used the word detached.
So you go from Dieter in the jungle to Batman in The Dark Knight. What is that experience like now that you have a new cast?
Christian Bale: It's the old cast as well because Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, everybody is still there.
There's a rumor that Cillian Murphy will be back too.
Christian Bale: If it's a rumor, then I won't confirm it; because I never know what I can or can't say about that. I usually wait for other people to say it. Then it must be common knowledge then, I guess. We got some new cast members as well, with Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and obviously, all the usual suspects behind the camera. It will be a nice progression and we have the confidence now that people will embrace what we did.
It sounds like it has been a seamless transition from re-casting the Katie Holmes role onward.
Christian Bale: Yes.
Rescue Dawn hits theaters wide on July 13th.