Christian Bale is perhaps the king of method acting. Whenever he’s required to do something complicated or even dangerous for a performance, he’ll throw himself into it, no matter the physical cost. The result? Some astonishing transformations that have rendered him almost unrecognizable from one role to the next.
And Bale has been acting for longer than a lot of people realize. He started off, as many actors do, making commercials for things like cereal and fabric softener. Then he moved onto the stage and, from there, to television. But he probably first came to public attention with the Steven Spielberg film Empire of the Sun.
Bale was only 14 at the time, which made his performance all the more remarkable. The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures even gave him a “Best Performance by a Juvenile Actor” award, its first ever such accolade. That set the scene for his career to come.
However, Bale found being a child actor very hard work. The teenager almost threw in the towel before he was unexpectedly approached by actor and director Kenneth Branagh, who asked him to appear in his new film Henry V. Bale took the job, and more were to follow.
During the early ’90s, the young Bale took on a variety of roles. He did everything from musicals like Newsies to Disney animations like Pocahontas. And by the time he appeared in the 1998 glam rock movie Velvet Goldmine, he was a grown adult and looking good.
But he was still only at the beginning of his career, and his most famous performances were still to come. After years spent in development hell, the adaptation of the controversial Bret Easton Ellis novel American Psycho was starting to come together. Bale was desperate for the lead role.
Moreover, as soon as Bale was awarded the part of Patrick Bateman, a role which very nearly went to Leonardo DiCaprio, he began going to the gym. It was important to him that the self-obsessed Bateman look like a man who took meticulous care of himself. So, for three hours a day, he worked out with a personal trainer.
American Psycho was the first time Bale underwent a dramatic transformation for a film, but it wasn’t to be the last. In 2004 came The Machinist, a thriller about a man suffering from severe insomnia and malnourishment. And, understandably, Bale wanted to portray the character as well as he possibly could.
And that meant looking as unhealthily thin as his character. So, for four months, he drastically reduced his food intake, sometimes eating nothing but one apple per day. He ended up losing 62 pounds and wanted to lose even more, but the filmmakers stopped him, citing safety concerns.
Unbelievably, Bale had put the weight back on by the time The Machinist premiered. But then came a big turning point for him: he was cast to play the famous superhero, Batman. However, thanks to The Machinist, his muscles had virtually wasted away.
Bale was given six months to build himself up a Batman-like physique. Amazingly, he managed it. “I couldn’t do one push up the first day,” he told IGN in 2004. “All of the muscles were gone, so that was a real tough time of rebuilding all of that. But you have a deadline, you have an obligation.”
It’s fair to say that many actors would probably have stopped there. Not Bale, though. In 2006 he played a POW in Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn. Again, this was another role he decided he had to lose a lot of weight for.
Bale ended up shredding 55 pounds for the part, and the film was shot in reverse so he would be able to gain weight as filming progressed. His dedication very much impressed Herzog, who described him as “one of the greatest talents of his generation.”
Bale’s next weight-loss adventure would be for 2010’s The Fighter, where he played drug addict Dicky Eklund. By this point he was well aware of his reputation for dramatic physical changes. “I didn’t take this job because I went, ‘Oh, there’s a physical transformation needed.’ I always go, ‘Damn! There’s a physical transformation needed!’” he told MTV in December of that year.
Bale dropped 30 pounds to portray Eklund, running constantly in order to shed the weight. The role turned out to be one of his most successful to date: he won over 30 awards for his performance, including the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Another drastic change came in 2013 when Bale was cast in American Hustle, but this time filmmaker David O. Russell was going for the opposite effect. In order to play the main character, conman Irving Rosenfeld, Bale would have to gain a stack of weight. He’d also have to wear a hairpiece, although that was probably the least of his worries.
“I ate lots of doughnuts, a whole lot of cheeseburgers and whatever I could get my hands on. I literally ate anything that came my way,” Bale told People in 2013. He added 43 pounds to his frame and ended up looking so different that even his co-star Robert De Niro didn’t recognize him.
However, Bale himself has admitted that losing or gaining weight quickly for roles is probably a little reckless. In an interview with Hitfix in 2013, he said that actors occasionally called him for weight-loss tips, but that he was “loathe to give advice, because what if it goes wrong for somebody else?”
And there are signs that Bale himself may be worrying about his health now, too. He was set to star in a biopic of famous car-maker Enzo Ferrari, directed by Michael Mann. However, he dropped out of the movie over concerns about having to gain weight again.
It’s not known, then, when audiences will next see a trademark dramatic Christian Bale transformation, or indeed if they ever will again. But one thing’s for certain: his career so far has been absolutely incredible. And he’s still only 43… so who knows what might come next for him?