Christian Bale profile: Knight of the dark side

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MANY families live with workaholics who bring the office into the home, but not many women find themselves eating breakfast with a partner transformed into a serial killer, a Greek fisherman, a chronic insomniac or Batman for months at a time?

Christian Bale is the method actors' method actor. He eats, lives and breathes his characters for the duration of filming. But Bale jumped from the newspaper arts pages to the news pages last week when, in London for the premiere of Batman flick The Dark Knight, he found himself being fingerprinted and DNA tested in a nearby police station, following allegations by his mother Jenny and elder sister Sharon that he had assaulted them in a London hotel.

The 34-year-old actor was released on bail after four hours of questioning and vehemently denies the allegations. He has, however, still managed to upstage the late Heath Ledger's remarkable performance as the Joker, a role that has been dominating headlines amid calls for a posthumous Oscar.

That's some feat, but then Bale is some man. He lives his life the Bale way, to the extent that he kept his marriage to the former model and make-up artist Sandra 'Sibi' Blazic secret for months after the private ceremony.

The marriage saga and the way he stood up for what mattered to him (in this instance, the manager-wife with whom he has a three-year-old daughter, Emmaline) was classic Bale. The actor remains kooky, idiosyncratic, enigmatic and passionate, displaying an almost psychopathic inability to compromise. It's why he's been a vegetarian since the age of six, why he is so dogged in his support of causes such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, and why he almost had his house repossessed rather than accept commercial roles he felt were beneath him. It should not be any surprise, though, as the thinking man's film star is the stepson of radical feminist Gloria Steinem.

Yet Bale, an Englishman born in Wales and living a peripatetic childhood in England, Sweden and Portugal before moving to the United States, defies easy pigeonholing. As a child he trained in ballet and guitar but was a rugby fanatic; as an adult many have spoken of his warmth and humour, while others have talked of his aloofness and hissy-fits on set, of the repressed anger that they say stems from being bullied at his Bournemouth school. One co-star, Matthew McConaughey, scrubbed him from his Christmas card list after their fight scene during the making of Reign Of Fire famously turned into a real scrap.

What is certain about Bale, though, is that he remains fiercely individualistic and determined to succeed on his own terms, or not at all. Driven and ambitious, he yearns to be recognised as the greatest actor of his generation; as a latter-day Brando.

He has, however, sometimes struggled for accolades from a media with whom he has had a particularly fraught relationship. After his youthful film breakthrough as the 12-year-old hero of Steven Spielberg's epic film Empire Of The Sun, he literally ran away and hid from the press.

He disappeared from more than one press conference, his early exposure to the fourth estate almost causing him to give up acting. Persuaded to stay in his chosen profession, Bale does his very best to keep out of the limelight, but his edgy dynamism in a plethora of roles has made him a cult figure with younger filmgoers.

Since 2005, he has been the movie world's first English caped crusader, (although the acknowledged master of accents conducts all interviews to do with the film in his best middle American lilt), but Bale has found his media duties even more onerous than usual this month. He was particularly affected by Ledger's demise, even if it has ensured massive interest in the film, which set a box-office record of $158.4m during its opening weekend in the US.

The movie now looks set to outgross all other Batman films so far, and has enabled Bale to say: "I have been referred to as box-office poison quite a lot, so it's nice this has happened now."

Bale is being disingenuous. The truth is that he has appeared in several dire films, but none of them flopped because of poor performances from him. Renowned for his dark and edgy roles, Bale has always given his all, to the point where he risked his health by shrinking to a skeletal 8st 9lbs to play a paranoid insomniac factory worker in The Machinist, before gaining almost six stones of rippling muscle to play the schizophrenic Batman/Bruce Wayne.

Bale had a nomadic childhood with his ex-pilot father David and mother Jenny, a circus clown (his first kiss was with an acrobat called Barta), but his background is so firmly rooted in the theatre that he can trace his lineage back to Lillie Langtry. His elder sister, Louise, who would later play Batman's mother in a film, was the actor in the family, though by no means the first: his uncle Rex Bale was also a thespian and his grandfather was a stand-up comedian, ventriloquist and magician. Bale was convinced to pursue an acting career after watching Louise and another Welsh girl, Catherine Zeta-Jones, on stage in the 1980s West End production of Bugsy Malone.

After kids' roles in advertisements and the television drama Anastasia, he shot to fame with Empire Of The Sun. Since then, Bale's career has never been anything less than varied. His early film roles included Falstaff's Boy in the Kenneth Branagh film of Henry V, then Jim Hawkins alongside Charlton Heston, Christopher Lee and Ollie Reed in the 1990 version of Treasure Island.

Along with close contemporaries Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Winona Ryder, his co-star in the 1994 version of Little Women and the friend who introduced him to his wife, Bale is one of a clutch of teenage actors who have successfully made the transition to adult stardom. But unlike his contemporaries, Bale doesn't swim in the mainstream: his triumphantly chilling turn as yuppie serial killer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho only came after DiCaprio was advised the role was career suicide and walked away.

Bale comes from the Daniel Day-Lewis school of character acting and maintains his character's accent and persona both on and off-screen. It is a gruelling regimen for all concerned, but his willingness to take risks and unwillingness to compromise are beginning to pay dividends. Last year's Western re-make, 3:10 to Yuma, with Russell Crowe, and the magic-based The Prestige with Hugh Jackman and Michael Caine were huge successes. His latest film sees him play John Connor, raging against the machines in the post-apocalyptic world of the Terminators, and industry sources insist he will be the next James Bond.

It would be an appropriate next step for a man who has been left stirred but not shaken by the events of the past week.

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