Okay. Keep this on the down-low but truth be told, there are some supposed stars in Hollywood who aren’t that great at acting. Shocking, right? So should they toss their money away on acting classes? Spend evenings in their trailer flicking through Acting For Dummies? No - they should trot down to their local cineplex and take in Harsh Times. The sight of the ferocious Christian Bale in action will surely cause them to run home and apply for that job in their local Starbucks.
Harsh Times comes from the pen of Training Day scribbler David Ayer. In his directorial debut, Ayer takes the tension created in the Denzel Washington starrer and cranks it up notch after notch. Bale is Jim, a frazzled and psychotic Afghanistan war vet, desperate to break into law enforcement but happy to cruise the streets getting drunk with his buddy Mike (Freddy Rodríguez) in the meantime.
Bale’s beginnings are well documented - the Welsh-born child actor was thrust into the limelight aged 13 as the star of Steven Spielberg’s Empire Of The Sun. A series of movies followed, some good (Metroland, Velvet Goldmine), some not so good (Newsies, Swing Kids), but Bale was consistently terrific. But whether he’s chilling the spine as the slick slicer-and-dicer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho or battling crooks and some hefty personal demons as the Dark Knight in Batman Begins, this is an actor of the highest calibre – a true student of the School Of Chameleon.
Faced with Total Film at his LA base, Bale is cool, sharp and funny and not anything like any of the characters we’ve seen him play! He explains that, for him, transformation is something that comes naturally.
“I just saw Jim straight away when I read the script; he’s a guy who is valued for one thing and that’s for violence, for being the guy who will go that much further than anyone else. I think everybody likes to be good at something and be recognised for something and you’re going to cling on to that – especially if it means giving it up will leave you with nothing. So I found him immediately because of that.”
Bale had been desperate to get Harsh Times off the ground ever since he and Ayer met up to first discuss the project, some four years ago.
“I read it back in 2002 and I met with Dave and we sat for about five hours in a bar – lots of Bloody Marys were drunk, let me tell you,” he laughs. Despite his enthusiasm for the script, Bale was faced with a bit of a problem – he wasn’t a big enough blip on the Hollywood radar to get the movie green-lit.
“At the time I think it was with a studio, and David was being told who he could cast and I wasn’t on that list. So that was how it was left for a while,” Bale says with a shrug. Disillusioned, Ayer made the stunning decision to mortgage his house, raise $2 million and finance the movie himself. “He put everything in man,” Bale says with an admiring bob of the head for the Fast And The Furious scribbler. “Dave realised he had to do it himself and be the boss. I just gave him a call while I was doing Batman, and said, ‘What’s going on with it?’ I was thinking that maybe if it was now with a studio they’d give the nod for me. I didn’t have to worry about that, because Dave was doing it independently.”
A 24-day shoot ensued, gruelling, intense and yet enjoyable. “Like being back at school,” Bale says with a chuckle, “such a great atmosphere.”
Famed for his ability to bend his voice to suit a role, in Harsh Times Bale has to tend with the unique tones of East LA. “One of the interesting things that Dave wanted to make sure I knew is that within the military, there is an awful lot of domination from the south, so sometimes military men who’ve never even been to the south come out with the odd twang here and there. You just have to keep at it until it feels natural and with this accent, you have to push yourself because it’s a whole different language in slang terms – things that absolutely wouldn’t be understood on the Westside of LA is everyday speak in East LA. If you’re going to be using that in the movie, you can’t be saying it for the first time, you have to work with it until it’s habitual.”
Hitting the naturalism nail on the head, Bale and his co-star Freddy Rodríguez display an electric on-screen chemistry. They play life-long buddies whose fates have pulled them apart, then slammed them back together to deal with the changes they face as adults. They are seemingly desperate to hang on to the street-punk mentalities of their youth.
“It was kind of… oh man, I was actually going to say ‘fast and furious’ but that’s what it was,” he lets out a laugh, tipping forward on his chair. “But honestly, the making of the movie was like that; we were thrown together and I liked that, it added a manic intensity to the movie. Freddy and me were chucked together in a car, eating a lot of fast food and you kind of get used to each other in ways that you wouldn’t always want to with someone you haven’t known for too long! You have to get it together quickly and I really like Freddy. I like him a lot. There are a lot of dubious characters in this business but he’s very straightforward. What you see is what you get and I liked working with him a lot. It was kind of ‘do or die’ anyway, with a 24-day shoot on a movie, we might as well have all been living together because we pretty much didn’t leave the set, just barely making it home, then right back there first thing in the morning.”
With the intensity of the shoot and the severity of Bale’s character, it was probably a blessing that filming was wrapped in under a month. Jim strikes TF as a character who you wouldn’t want to pop out for a drink with.
“Oh God no, I definitely wouldn’t want to hang out with the guy. He has a sharp brain on him, we can see that, but he tries to conceal it because he thrives on momentum. He just keeps going and going and I found that to be electrifying. It’s a common thing and I liked him being that unstoppable force; he never hesitates, he has a real dichotomy of nihilism and this other side of him is very constructive and I found that really engaging. He was somebody I definitely wanted to know about.”
Sparking controversy over a supposed anti-war message, Bale doesn’t see the need to add his thoughts to the swelling debate. “I’ve had people say, ‘this is anti-war’ and I’ve had people say ‘this is pro-war’ and you take it for whatever you want it to be,” he says earnestly. “Obviously I have my opinion and I’m not going to give it because it doesn’t matter, it’s totally unimportant because if it’s not saying that to you, it doesn’t matter. It says what it says to each individual and I think it would be boring if I was to say what I want people to think.”