Getting Into Character Is A Punishing Process For Christian Bale

The art form of acting is pretending to be someone you aren't. For Christian Bale, that process goes far beyond mental preparation. Bale punishes his own body to literally transform into the characters he portrays on screen.

There are a lot of ways actors prepare for roles. To immerse themselves completely in a role, actors often use what is known as method acting, often referred to as "The Method." The style was created by Russian actor Konstantin Stanislavski and requires actors to connect emotionally with a character to deliver an authentic performance.

Through the years, "The Method" has become somewhat of a misunderstood art form that some actors think is often used pejoratively or as an excuse for some really odd antics. In the case of Bale, it's part of a larger, exhaustive process he undergoes to prepare for each film. Bale combines "The Method" with a grueling physical process that helps bring his characters to life on screen, and the reason might surprise you.

He has no formal acting training

Christian Bale is one of today's most versatile actors, with leading roles across multiple genres. His first big role came in Steven Spielberg's 1987 film "Empire of the Sun," but his breakout performance was as serial killer Patrick Bateman in the 2000 dark comedy "American Psycho." Bale would become a megastar just a few years later playing Bruce Wayne/Batman in Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" trilogy.

To prepare for the role of Patrick Bateman, Bale had to do something he'd never done before according to People — go to the gym. Even after briefly losing the role to Leonardo DiCaprio, Bale worked out for hours, six days a week, to transform his body for the role. The work paid off, as Bale would reclaim the role and make his physical transformation part of his regular acting process.

Bale told The Guardian that the physical changes are partly because of a lack of formal training and help him get into character. Bale said:

"I try to get as distant as possible. Otherwise, I can't do it. It's helpful not to look like yourself. If I look in the mirror and go, 'Ah, that doesn't look like me,' that's helpful."

It's a grueling process that Bale has undergone multiple times, sometimes making him almost unrecognizable.

From sickly to chiseled superhero

"American Psycho" was just the first of many physical transformations done by Bale in the name of art. But of all of Bale's transformations, the one done for 2004's "The Machinist" was by far the most drastic — and disturbing. For the role of Trevor Reznik, an insomniac factory worker, Bale dropped a reported 63 pounds to a sickly 110 pounds.

Over four months, Bale lived on a diet of black coffee, one apple and a can of tuna per day. Despite his disturbing appearance in the film, Bale described the experience as Zen-like. "Two hours sleep, reading a book for 10 hours straight without stopping, unbelievable," Bale said. "You couldn't rile me up. No rollercoaster of emotions."

How do you go from a languid 110-pound insomniac to a superhero in a matter of months? That's what Bale had to sort out to become Batman in the first of Nolan's trilogy, "Batman Begins." After "The Machinist" Bale immediately reversed course, and for six months the actor trained with weights and gorged on food. "I was ignoring advice about taking it slowly because my stomach had shrunk, and I should just go with soups," Bale joked. "I was straight into pizza and ice cream, eating five meals in a sitting."

"Batman Begins" was a massive hit, grossing more than $373 million worldwide according to Box Office Mojo. But Bale would soon see payoffs for his physical transformations that extended beyond the box office.

The fight to lose weight pays off

"The Machinist" wasn't the only time Bale shed some serious weight to become another person. In between the second and third "Batman" movies, Bale again had to lose a large amount of weight to play a heroin-addicted boxer in 2010's "The Fighter."

The movie was based on the HBO documentary "High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lovell" which follows once-promising boxer Dicky Ecklund and his struggles with addiction. According to the New York Daily News, Bale starved himself to look like an emaciated drug addict and took supplements and exercised to maintain lean muscle, dropping to 122 pounds. The role earned Bale an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, his only Academy Award.

For other films, Bale had to tip the scale in the other direction. For the role of 1970's conman Irving Rosenfeld in the 2013 crime drama "American Hustle," Bale topped out at 228 lbs. and even shaved his head. In 2018's "Vice" Bale put on 40 pounds to play former Vice President Dick Cheney. "I ate lots of doughnuts, a whole lot of cheeseburgers, and whatever I could get my hands on," Bale told People of his weight gain plan. "I literally ate anything that came my way." Both roles garnered Bale Best Actor Oscar nominations.

As impressive as Bale's transitions have been through the years, it's something that might come to an end. Men's Health examined the impact of all of Bale's transformations and why it likely won't continue. The actor is aware how punishing the process has been on his body. Bale said:

"I've become a little bit more boring now because I'm older and I feel like if I keep doing what I've done in the past I'm going to die. So, I'd prefer not to die. I can't keep doing it. I really can't. My mortality is staring me in the face."