Interview: 'The Big Short' Actor Christian Bale Loves And Hates Acting

Christian Bale has played plenty of "real-life" characters throughout his career. From Melvin Purvis to Dickie Eklund to Irving Rosenfeld, he's portrayed all walks of life. In Adam McKay's The Big Short, based on Michael Lewis' nonfiction novel, Bale plays Dr. Michael Burry, a brilliant hedge fund manager who spotted the impending doom in the housing market.

The Big Short is very much an ensemble piece, but Bale's role is quite different from his co-stars. Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling are almost always in the same room with another actor, sharing clever exchanges, while Bale is often alone in his office. Loneliness is a theme in The Big Short, and Burry best represents that theme.

Christian Bale was kind enough to discuss Dr. Michael Burry with us, as well as the other real-life characters he's played and his love-hate relationship with acting. Read our Christian Bale Big Short interview after the jump. 

I think the characters are so well-drawn you don't really need to understand the nuts and bolts of the financial crisis, because you always get a sense of what all of the information means to them. 

Yeah. That was what was nice about it. Even if you don't really have an idea about quite what happened, but maybe you are a bit indignant about it but not sure why, you know, it spells it out very nicely, but very entertainingly and with great wit. Based on these four characters, who are not heroes, but just people who saw the bullshit that was happening, whether it was flawed or whether it was just incompetence. Nobody is really wearing a black hat or a white hat. It was a bit both. How come it was able to be spotted but nobody did? Nobody really raised the red flag in a way that it was able to stop the entire thing. And my character, Mike Burry, how come... very specifically he not only saw what was going to happen, but exactly when it was going to happen. And if it hadn't have been for the stupidity or ugly fraud, really, it would have happened exactly when he said. It took a bit longer, but it still eventually did happen.

People nowadays are going, "Well, it could all happen again, couldn't it? What's really been done in order to stop this from happening?" But it's done in such a nice way where you don't have to have any real idea. It's all hedge funds and all the sort of lingo, frankly, that that world uses to confuse the shit out of you. You don't really have to be party to that and understand it in order to understand the film. That's what Adam's done so well, and Michael, too.

Your scenes are almost like a one-man show. Is that how Michael Burry generally works?

It's how he likes to work. It's how he works best. That's him. I think he enjoys separating himself from Wall Street, from any influences that would not be positive. He knows what he's doing. He just wants to be left alone to get on with that. He's not your slick typical Wall Street financier. He doesn't go near Wall Street. Has a brilliant mind. And really no vanity about him. So, very entertaining, charming character who I really enjoyed getting to know.

What are maybe some small details you picked up from him that informed your performance?

You get to talk about things, ask people questions that would usually seem particularly obscure or suspect, even, without the parameter of research. We sat down for 8 or 9 hours and didn't stand up and talked that entire time. It's not often that you get to do that in life because it just feels too odd. It feels like you are in sort of an interrogation. But you let it go both ways. I tell him about myself. He tells me about himself. I'm protective about him in terms of, if he's going to tell me things in private, I'll honor that.

But one of the things that really struck me about Mike was that alongside his very brilliant brain and very idiosyncratic and fascinating character is that there's a genuine emotion about the consequences of what these numbers mean. No kind of celebratory patting each other on the back for having sort of won over a sucker kind thing, which you see represented. Mike is not like that at all. In fact, it is highly unusual for him to go for a short. He likes longs because just sort of ethically he believes in, "Hey, it should be about progress and you should support." But this was just such an undeniable eyesore that he saw coming and couldn't understand why nobody else saw it and why they weren't really alerted and panicked in a way that he was by it all.

Since a lot of people don't know Michael Burry's persona, do you feel more responsibility to accurately portray him or do you feel more freedom because a lot of people won't be comparing your performance to him?

I think for me, even if people do know the character well, you've got to move beyond that to try to get to what, after all, can only be your own opinion shared with the director of who the person truly was. You never know if you are correct. Of course you don't know that. You are taking license, of course, with anything that's only two hours long.

I've found there's an enormous freedom to playing a real-life... It sounds funny, "real life." It's like a little kid. "In real life...!" But that's what we still say, isn't it?

So, a real-life person, there's a great freedom to that because you've got evidence. People are just so fascinating and mannerisms and contradictions, and there's not always logic to decisions, necessarily. I know for a fact if I had gone to many directors on the films where I was portraying a real character, if it had been a fictional character and I said, "All right. This is his mannerism. He talks this way. This would be his response to this." If we were trying a bit of improv it would be, "OK. This is how he'd react." I know for a fact they would say to me, "Christian, stop trying to steal the scenes. You are doing too much. Nobody really has all those things struck together." But the truth is yes they do.

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Very often in film you are having to pull back. You are having to restrain because people say you can't get away with that. In fictional characters, you get a bold director and he'll let you do it. But the truth is yes, people do have these amazing mannerisms, these amazing thoughts, characteristics, things which are bizarre, odd, wonderful. And when it's a real person, every time a director would say to me, "I'm not sure. I think you are taking this somewhere..." I would just go, if they are on the set, just call the person over and just chat with them a little bit with the director there. Look at the director and go [raises two middle fingers]. "All right? I'm doing it. There you go. Evidence." But no, absolutely they do.

And it makes it very interesting when you go back to a purely fictional character. You've always got to keep your ego in check because you are a piece of a puzzle. You are not there to steal scenes. You must know when it has to be that character's moment to step forward and when it's not, that's not the moment, and start it with a sort of childish, you know, back to real life thing of like, "I want to be the center of attention." It doesn't work. You go with what is correct for the film.

But it's very interesting when you put them together, an entirely fictional character, you do, like myself, I often go, "I can't do that because it seems like I'm trying to..." Basically, you are trying to be too interesting. You go, "I'm making this character too interesting and that's not fair, because it's upsetting the rhythm of this film because this guy shouldn't be that interesting in these moments." You really should be focusing on the other character.

But you kinda know in the back of your head you don't know. But when I've played those real characters, they're just so interesting the whole bloody time, nonstop. And so, you've got to keep your ego in check and make sure you are doing it for the right reasons. But it's actually freed up every performance I've ever done ever since playing the character who I actually could sit with and get to know. It totally changed my outlook.

And absolutely it's always the director's film. And I believe in giving directors choices. Some actors don't. Some actors say, "Nope. This is the truth." I go, "Well, there's lots of truths." In my life there are all these sorts of truths, different points of view, these different moments. I'm all right if a director says, "Try this. Try that." Then I'll say to him, 'I want to show you this. I need to do this. We'll get it all together.'" And I know at the end of the day he's going to pick what he likes. And that's that.

But I love playing 'real-life' characters [laughs] in this career of dress up that I have. This very grown-up profession that I've delved into.

In the past, you've said you have to hate acting to bring something new to it. Do you still feel that way?

There are moments of real sort of hatred of it and thinking that it's the most pitiful, funny, ridiculous profession that you could ever pick. And it feels like anything but art; it feels as far from art as you could ever get. And then other moments where you go, "I love it! There's all that crap that goes with it. Holy shit! I love it as well." But I do think of having that healthy dose of hatred for it means, yeah, you aren't just sort of reveling in the glory of acting in a way that drama school students are sort of, "Acting is the thing!" I'm always like, "No it's not. It's not at all. People are the thing." Sometimes it's nothing but acting to get in the way of portraying people. But yeah, it's a healthy thing. It's a healthy thing in life. You know, love or love and hate or hate. It's a good place to film.

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The Big Short opens in limited release on December 11th.