Christian Bale doesn't mind letting audiences see the machinery behind his craft.
The handsome actor bulked up to play the swaggering killer in "American Psycho," and his rippling physique helped viewers get inside his troubled character's head.
Mr. Bale reverses course to play the sleep-deprived lead in "The Machinist," and the results are more skeleton than man.
"My initial response wasn't, 'Hey, here's a part I have to lose weight for,' it was the storytelling," he says during a recent phone interview regarding his 60-plus pound weight loss.
"The physical change did help with the psychological, it always does," says Mr. Bale, one of those doubly lucky chaps who've been privileged to combine leading man looks with character actor range.
The British-born actor shot to prominence as the young lead in Steven Spielberg's 1987 epic "Empire of the Sun." He worked steadily thereafter, burnishing his indie credibility with appearances in "Velvet Goldmine" (1998) and "Laurel Canyon" (2002) in between clunkers like 2000's "Shaft" and the silly "Reign of Fire" (2001).
He's the kind of actor to inspire slavish devotion on Web sites, but he couldn't open a movie to save his soul... at least, not yet.
In "The Machinist," he banks on his chameleon reputation to play Trevor, a machine operator accused of accidentally injuring a colleague. Trevor's life appears haunted long before the accident. He hasn't slept in more than a year and can't pack any weight on his emaciated frame.
Mr. Bale's dramatic weight loss for "The Machinist" is already the stuff of movie legend.
"It's bizarre how quickly you adjust to yourself, no matter how much you change," says Mr. Bale, who compared his transformation to that of the gaunt, withered Hank Williams Sr. in the months before his death.
"You can see all the gears," says "The Machinist's" director, Brad Anderson of his star.
The director didn't ask Mr. Bale to go on a crash diet, but he knew how devoted the actor could be on any given project. Given a year's time between signing onto the film and stepping before the cameras, he had the window he needed to startle cast and crew.
"He kind of surprised us," Mr. Anderson says. "When he stepped off the plane [upon his arrival in Barcelona, where the movie was shot] it was a shock, but it also excited us. It was the right look for the movie."
The Spanish setting fit Mr. Anderson's vision of the story's City of Angels.
"I never read a description of L.A. that sounded more like ... Krakow," Mr. Anderson says of the film's near-monochromatic veneer. "The dark alleys and fog coming in, it felt very Eastern European."
The early reviews for "The Machinist" have been ambivalent. Entertainment Weekly, in fact, chided Mr. Bale for starving himself for such superficial purposes.
"Not everyone is going to enjoy this movie. It's not a mainstream movie," Mr. Bale says, a bit defensively. "Whilst I'm obviously appreciative of people recognizing the hard work, it defeats the point if all there's written about is the weight loss."
If Mr. Bale thought his body drew media attention for his skin and bones trickery, wait until he dons the Caped Crusader's charcoal cowl.
Mr. Bale is the latest actor to take on the Bruce Wayne/Batman dual role in "Batman Begins," arriving in theaters next summer.
"I would genuinely have no interest if this was 'Batman Part 5,'" Mr. Bale says of the film franchise that hit a dead end with 1997's "Batman & Robin."
"I don't think anybody would have had interest in that," he adds.
What sold him on the project? Working with director Christopher Nolan (2000's "Memento") and the fact that they let his screen test dictate how the role would be portrayed.
Mr. Bale is an actor's actor, but he's also no dummy. A hit film, he knows, will catapult him onto the A-list -- where scripts have nary a fingerprint on them and production budgets are approved by the mention of his name.
"I haven't had a hit movie in my life. I'm a working actor, and I'm very happy," Mr. Bale says. "I'm also not a complete fool. I can recognize that if it does do well, then it doesn't take a year to get a 'Machinist' made."
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