Charlotte Le Bon, the Montreal-born actress, was nervous. She'd been cast in the new drama The Promise as Ana, an artist in 1915 Istanbul who falls in love with two dashing men: Mikael, an Armenian medical student played by Oscar Isaac; and Chris, an American journalist played by Christian Bale. Le Bon sent an e-mail to each, admitting she was eager to meet them, but intimidated.
"Oscar wrote back and said he was intimidated, too," she recalled last September, during a news conference after the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. "Christian didn't answer anything. Then I met him. He's intimidating in life as well. He talks a lot."
Her fellow panelists, including Isaac; the film's director, Terry George (Hotel Rwanda); and three other co-stars, broke into snickers and murmurs of agreement. Le Bon flushed a little. "I was in awe sometimes," she hastened to add. "Christian's range is so wide. I felt like I was going to school every day."
You'd be crazy not to be intimidated by Bale. He headlined a Spielberg movie, Empire of the Sun, at 13. He was icily convincing as the title character in American Psycho. He lost a million pounds for The Machinist, packed on muscle for Batman Begins, lost it again for Rescue Dawn (director Werner Herzog gleefully admits he almost killed Bale in that one) and then played Batman twice more, emphasizing Bruce Wayne's sociopathy over his heroism.
Although Bale later apologized, the viral video of him yelling at a cameraman who walked into his eyeline on Terminator Salvation is hard to forget. He's been nominated for three Oscars, for The Fighter, American Hustle and The Big Short, winning for the first. Married, a father of two, he was raised in England and still speaks with an English accent, but he became a U.S. citizen in 2010, and now resides in Los Angeles. And he has a reputation for intensity, which can be code for a lot of things, not necessarily positive.
When we spoke by phone last week, Bale, 43, agreed that he asks a lot of questions at work. The Promise is a sweeping historical romance set against the Armenian genocide. It doesn't flinch from dramatizing how the Turkish government set out to systematically destroy the Armenian nation, and includes documented events, such as the roundup of Armenian intellectuals on April 24, 1915, the massacres and labour camps Armenians suffered, the mountaintop siege some attempted, and their rescue by the French navy.
But the story isn't widely known, so Bale did his research. When he learned that the Turks' torture of Armenians was often "grossly barbaric" and "stomach-turning," he asked George to explain why he wasn't showing that. Although he respected George's answers – the story was the romance; he wanted a rating that would allow young audiences to watch; he hoped the film could become an educational tool – Bale went back to the question several times.
"I never attempt to be a director, that's not my place," he says now. "Film is a director's medium; I play a role and that's it. But you should have a level of commitment where you're interested, and questioning everything. I expect people to question my choices, and if I don't have an answer, I need to consider that. Likewise with any director. I tend to find they enjoy it. In this case, I found the facts of the genocide so striking, I couldn't push them out of my mind."
This fact chilled him, too: In 1939, Adolph Hitler held a meeting of his generals at one of his villas before they invaded Poland. Instructing them to brutally wipe out entire villages, he said, "Who now speaks of the Armenians?"
"So the very suppression of this event, the fact that it hadn't been recognized, became justification for more slaughter," Bale says.
Being intense also means thinking through scenes that might not seem significant to anyone else. Over the course of the film, Bale's character moves from being an objective observer of events to a participant in them. Bale needed to lock down for himself how that happens. "It's always convenient for stories to have one big turning point, but I've never found that in my life," he says. "So I was trying to locate a series of events."
Bale decided the first such event was when Chris sees a woman shot during a forced march. "It's an apparently simple scene, but I obsessed about it quite a bit," he says. "I considered many choices about how to witness that. This character is a worldly man, who has reported on numerous topics all around the world. Who is fiercely intelligent but quite arrogant, highly opinionated but generally correct, cynical, and some would call him dissolute. So at what point does that man change?"
Bale's obsessing comes not from ego, he says, but from need: "I'm not a trained actor. I always feel like I don't quite belong. I try to justify to myself how come I'm employed. I don't want to feel like I've taken anything for granted."
Oscars and accolades don't change that. "Not at all, actually," Bale says. "If anything they make me question even more why I'm here. It's an addiction, I suppose. With any addiction, you have love and hate for something."
In contrast to himself, he continues, Isaac is "a true actor. He studied, he understands his craft. He can talk about acting in general, and impart knowledge from his experience. I could never teach, because no matter how long I've been doing it, I don't know what it's all about. I can talk about each of the characters I've played. Beyond that, you get tumbleweeds."
So what's Bale's addiction? "I suppose it's to that feeling, to pursuing something, as a process," he says. "Not as a reward; that's in the director's hands. You can do some very good work, and they choose not to use it in the film. You can have ideas, but ultimately you have to defer to someone else's vision. I agree with that, by the way – film isn't a committee."
The moment of creation is the only moment Bale has. No wonder he's intense about it. Or as he modestly puts it, "It's the only thing I've ever been useful at."
The Promise opens April 21 across Canada