"Where are you calling from? Toronto? Good. We're here in Los Angeles."
The first thing that strikes you when you get the actor Christian Bale on the phone, as one does, is his accent. It's an English one. Of course, you knew that. He's an Englishman after all – born 43 years ago in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, Wales, but raised in Surrey and Dorset and educated at the Bournemouth School. You first saw him as the child star of Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, in which he played an English boy stuck in an internment camp during the Second World War. He's English – it's well-documented.
And yet the accent – a bit posh, truth be told – is foreign to your ears. Because you know him from his roles, and while those roles have been all over the map, the map is decidedly an American one. Bale played an emaciated, sleep-deprived Californian in The Machinist. He was Batman three times. He was a loopy Irish-American in The Fighter and he chased down John Dillinger as FBI special agent Melvin Purvis in 2009's Public Enemies. I mean, he was the American psycho of American Psycho and the American hustler of American Hustle. He puts on weight, he takes off weight; wears a wig here, slaps a mask on there. The constant, with a few exceptions, is Bale's Americanism.
Bale's latest role is the taciturn U.S. Cavalry officer Joseph Blocker in Hostiles, a saga of the most American kind, a western. The character is a war hero with a dutiful but violent past and an all-consuming hatred for his enemy, the Native American.
"I'm fascinated with America," says Bale, a resident of Santa Monica, Calif. "It has a much more digested history than England's, in terms of time span."
Hostiles is set in 1892, on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution and in the last throes of armed conflict between European descendants and Native Americans. The final duty of Bale's horse-riding captain is to escort an imprisoned, dying Northern Cheyenne war chief and his family from New Mexico to Montana.
When Bale and director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Black Mass) first read the late Donald Stewart's original manuscript for Hostiles, they were impressed with it on a "gut level," according to the actor. It was a story about a soldier's long journey to find his lost humanity. Once filming began, however, the story's topicality revealed itself.
"We began to see its relevancy, in terms of people's perceptions of what America is," says Bale, who will portray former U.S. vice-president Dick Cheney in the upcoming biopic Backseat. "What is the ideology of America? Are we an inclusive county?" Yes, Bale uses the first-person plural when referring to the United States. "America is my adopted home," he explains.
Helping him understand his adopted country and the Cheyenne culture in the film was consultant Chief Phillip Whiteman, Jr., who sat in on the interview with Bale. A not-insignificant amount of Hostiles's dialogue is spoken in a relatively obscure Northern Cheyenne dialect – a language Bale struggled to get his tongue around. "Bloody difficult," is how he describes it.
Where Native American language is circular, according to Chief Whiteman, Westerners speak with a linear tongue. In that difference, opposing belief systems are reflected. Chief Whiteman explains: "The linear language thinks in lines and corners. With a circular language, there's no beginning and no end. There is no power structure. Everything is in the moment. But when you think in terms of lines and corners, you're running out of time, and fear, shame, ego and arrogance is the dominant force."
Now Whiteman is speaking Bale's language. If fear, shame, ego, and arrogance are not the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, they most certainly can be applied to the American psyche and its current cultural situation. "What's happening now is all about division and creating false enemies," says Bale, "which allows people to attain or maintain power."
The final scene of Hostiles finds the former Cavalry officer on a train platform, standing under a sign clearly marked "baggage." Does Bale's character board the train? Does his character continue the journey to regain his humanity? "There's hope, but it's not wrapped up in a nice, neat ribbon," says Bale.
The same question can be applied to America and its own humanity. "I'm hopeful, absolutely," says Bale, as his publicist wraps up the phone interview. "We're certainly at a moment of reflection and consideration of who we are and what we've become."
And, no, he's not using the royal "we."
Hostiles opens Jan. 19