Christian Bale plays a screenwriter who has lost his own narrative in Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, an expressionistic portrait of the city that Hollywood calls home, the temptations in an industry of excess, and the quest for spiritual redemption that emerges from that.
He knew what he was getting into working with Malick, having starred in The New World a decade prior and relished in the unconventional process - for the most part. Malick even sent his actors out with GoPro cameras to bring back their own footage. (Bale lost one in the ocean).
Does everyone working in this industry have complicated feelings about Los Angeles?
I hated Los Angeles when I first came out here. I came here for work and I left as soon as I could. And then gradually it grew on me. I learned to see that LA is a wonderful place. That’s what you see in the film. There’s the ugliness of the architecture and an awful lot of the people who appear beautiful but you get up close to them and you sort of get nauseous. But there is so much sincerity as well and beauty within it too. I went through the same thing in terms of first getting out here and parties that I was invited to. And I’m not a party person at all anymore. I don’t deal well with a room full of people. I just never have. But the novelty of it was just so extraordinary. I was seeing houses, attitudes, and faces that I didn’t think really existed. And I would lap it up. I was coming from a small town in England where our idea of a party was you hang out under a freeway, get stoned and smash bottles against the wall. Suddenly I was here in Malibu just going “oh my god.” But you do that for a little bit and you realize this ain’t for me.
Did you know better what you were getting into this time having worked with Malick before?
The New World was different in that we had a script and (Knight of Cups) didn’t. The minute he sees even a single line that you’ve settled into feeling like you’ve got that line down, he goes, “OK, cut, something different please.”
(For Knight of Cups) there was a morning we were in Vegas and we’d been walking all night through the neon and everything and through the casinos and the next morning we were all a bit bleary-eyed and Terry was just kind of chucking a few lines to me and I was saying them and he was like “just riff, just do what you want,” which was rare because most of the time he just wanted me to listen. But sometimes I was like ‘I’ve got to talk for a little bit!’ I knew he was never going to use it, but he just let me go.
So this one morning, I went “that’s it. I’m done. I’ve got no interest. I don’t really care. I don’t want to make this anymore. I’m done. I’ve got nothing.” And he went, “Start filming immediately, this is fantastic.” Because it’s sincere. I’m always an actor who wants to quit acting and he just went “great.”
What made you stay?
Oh, I do that every project. I do! I know I’m going to get over it. I’m always doing it. My entire life. I’ve been doing this now since bloody Reagan was in office. There have been hundreds of times when, no doubt about it, I’m done. But then something will happen and I’ll go “bloody hell, I’m an addict!”
I think rarely can you call things art. And occasionally you’ll see something and you go “maybe that is possibly getting close to something people might actually consider art.”
Were you at all disappointed that The Big Short didn’t walk off with more Oscars on Sunday?
No, of course not! Oh my god, just the fact that it did as well as it did and got the conversation going as it did. Adam (McKay) and Charles (Randolph) winning the adapted screenplay? Just wonderful. And the fact that it can open up a conversation regardless of winning? It’s kind of like Bernie Sanders. Whether he wins or not, he’s opened up this conversation, which is invaluable.
You’re famous for your physical transformations, but recently had to drop out of Michael Mann’s Enzo Ferrari because of health concerns. Is your body betraying your ambition?
I’m just getting older (42). I could lose and gain so much weight before and didn’t feel any different. I just felt invincible. I’ve had a series of accidents - motorcycle accidents, concussions. I’ve got so much metal in my body holding me together. It’s a great shame because Michael is a very good friend and it was a very special thing, but I just had too many red flags. And I’m a dad. I’m not (expletive) around with that. So I just said I’ve got to surrender on this one.