Christian Bale
Christian Bale

Meeting Christian Bale for the first time, you realize how much baggage you are bringing into the room. It's because he has shown so much intensity, shape-shifting and commitment in a range of roles that are far more consistently memorable than most actors can claim over a long career, launched 26 years ago with Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun." He doesn't agree-- a sign of the high standards to which he holds himself, which have served him well.

Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale in "American Hustle"
Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale in "American Hustle"

Clearly he knows how to pick roles-- and deliver. He finally landed a Best Actor nomination for "American Hustle." Bale is pleasant and forthright as he talks about his latest performances in two excellent films hitting theaters during the height of award season. He'd rather talk, though, about hard-working factory welder Russell Baze, a good man trapped by an unforgiving world in Scott Cooper's carefully structured rust-belt drama "Out of the Furnace," which arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on March 11. (Review here, how-it-got-made feature here, Ramapo controversy here.) That seems to have been a more pleasurable experience than the wildly improvisational set of David O. Russell's "American Hustle."

Bale should have known what he was getting into after his performance as a drug-addicted trainer in Russell's "The Fighter" yielded a supporting actor Oscar. Bale's wily Long Island con-man Irving Rosenfeld in "American Hustle" is an astonishing creation that has to be seen to be believed. This time the actor gained 50 pounds, perfected an elaborate comb-over, and is utterly, hilariously believable as the reluctant husband of blonde bombshell Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and ardent lover of fellow con-artist Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Who else could have pulled this off? (Bale clearly has little to say about his latest Russell experience. Here's my early take on the film.)

Anne Thompson: How do you make decisions about what you're going to do and who you're going to work with?

Christian Bale: Depends what your situation in life is. There are many films you look back on and you can say, "he didn't think about the director at all." You're being very complimentary and presumably you're talking about the better films. There might be a lot of good ones, but there's a lot of bad ones. They're there, ok? Obviously you're not making the right choices all the time but you know what? Necessity. Sometimes this is how you make your living. 

Christian Bale in "Out of the Furnace"
Christian Bale in "Out of the Furnace"

When you're in a fortunate enough position which yes, I am now, where you can say, "you know what? Finish the film. I don't have to be working within another month." I think, what a wonderful position to be in, that you're not just desperately trying to keep yourself afloat but you actually say "wow, how did that happen?" There's nobody who becomes an actor who's a good businessman. It's just total bloody luck. You suddenly find yourself going "what? I just did something I like doing?" And I'm actually now in a position where I don't have to work for a little while, and in that case yeah, you've got a responsibility, you best be doing something that's really good! At those moments you are declaring who you are and what films you want to make.

In a weird way not doing Batman anymore makes you free to be you.

I didn't really want to be me anyway. You have different characters, you get movie stars who are wonderful at being themselves, who are charismatic and charming. And that's not me. And you get people who just want to create absolute other inventions alien to themselves and that's what I enjoy. Yes, there's an element of course of the director and his reputation but you also want to take a chance on somebody who's never done anything.

Such as Scott Cooper?

Well he did "Crazy Heart," which was wonderful but there are times when you just say, "everything is a leap of faith." "Harsh Times" is an example. I really enjoyed that. I don't think hardly anybody saw it. David [Ayer] hadn't been able to get the financing for it and I was making "Batman" and called him up and said, "Look, we might be able to get financing together now that I'm doing this." Wanna do it? And he said "great, okay." He remortgaged his own house for it and paid for it all himself and we shot it. I'll never stop wanting to take a chance. I didn't get into this to be making solid, safe movies. 

That is not you. You take chances all the time. With "Out of the Furnace," it was interesting to see you play the relatively solid citizen, the guy who had it together even though bad things happened to him. The scenes with you and Zoe Saldana are so touching.

He's a man with wonderful values, he's a man who stays. It doesn't matter that his town is falling apart around him. He just has that innate goodness and responsibility to take care of people, and to stay in the town regardless. That's part of who he is. That's his roots, and I find that fascinating as well, because I never really felt rooted anywhere. I feel the most roots actually here because my daughter was born here.

Do you live in Los Angeles? 

Yes, but I feel the roots for those reasons, because of my daughter. Other than that, I'll go anywhere. I was just born in Wales. My dad was working on a dairy farm at the time. I just popped out. So I look at that and find that mentality fascinating, [Russell Baze] is always trying to do the right thing. He's got impulses that are not the right thing necessarily. But he's always said that he has become stoic through necessity, and he does the right thing. Even though his dreams and his girlfriend's dreams are different, he recognizes his commitment to his brother [Casey Affleck]. So he's constantly bailing him out. He's really not doing anything that's selfish in any manner whatsoever. But he's finding that he's just eating shit the whole time. 

Scott Cooper insisted on shooting in that Braddock, Pennsylvania location. How much did that help you?

It helps immensely. You don't have to act as much. When you're in a real place, it's right there. I find the hardest places to act are in studios, on sound stages. Here's the difference: When you're shooting on a sound stage, everything's about the rectangle and let's make it work for that rectangle. It's all about that rather than, forget the rectangle, make the entire world feel correct, and then they can film anywhere and go wherever's interesting. You can see what happens and make more mistakes, which are wonderful things! You feel like you're giving less of a performance; you're just doing it. You're just being and the camera can find what's interesting, instead of as an actor, you have to fill up that little rectangle because there's nothing outside of it.

What's "Moses" like? 

It couldn't be more different than "Out of the Furnace." I'm so much happier now that we're on location. We're shooting in Spain. It's about having a real bloody rock around you. It just makes everything easier for me. I grew up with some element of religious background, varying degrees of belief and skepticism. My dad had many different friends with various religions. He was interested in all but also was very kind of anti-organized religion so he was a paradox with that. And for me it was just a great surprise because it's not often that you actually read, in a linear fashion, "The Bible." When you do it, "oh my god! Moses is a fascinating contradictory character." But, that's for another time.

Personally it was fun seeing you as the handsome Christian Bale in "Out of the Furnace." But now you're doing this physical transformation with "American Hustle."