Two days after attending the 88th Academy Awards, Christian Bale is beaming.
Bridge of Spies’ Mark Rylance may have won Best Supporting Actor, but Bale, who earned his third Oscar nomination for playing finance whiz Michael Burry in The Big Short, got to sit up front at the Dolby Theater and sneak a few of Matt Damon’s Girl Scout Cookies.
Bale, 42, already has an Oscar at home from the year he won for The Fighter. These awards shows are still surreal affairs, he admits as we sit down for a talk about Knight of Cups, the abstract Terrence Malick film he shot four years ago. But first, he quickly recaps his “strange” Oscars weekend with a bemused smile.
“They’re very novel experiences,” he begins. “I always tend to sit there and stare at the ceiling. I find the ceilings to be the most interesting things. They’re incredible! And I had a very nice view of the orchestra, so I ended up watching them.”
Think it’s the apex of glamour to attend Hollywood’s glitziest party? Well, sure it is. The Welsh-born Bale is well aware he’s living a charmed life. But as his soul-searching character in Malick’s Knight of Cups experiences in a very, very different way, there are always unexpected downsides to the privilege of outrageous fortune.
For example: Where they stick you at the Oscars.
“When I got the tickets I looked and I went, ‘Oh, fuck. A1? That sounds like that’s the front row!’” he laughs. “The first time I went I was way in the back, and that was great. Then I went for American Hustle and I was sort of at the front. But they don’t have [cameramen] who come and kneel in front of you—they have these automatic cameras that film you. All. Night. Long. They’re behind darkened glass so that you don’t get the impression that they’re there, but they’re there, zooming in… but, you know, it’s nice to be at such a strange event as that.”
At least Bale had a good seat for the most politicized Oscars in years, with host Chris Rock tackling the #OscarsSoWhite diversity issue in his opening monologue, anti-racist jokes, inadvertently racist jokes, and filmed sketches throughout the night. Bale’s review?
“I loved Chris Rock,” he says. “In my mind he’s one of the smartest, funniest people around. And we’re better for it, to have the whole [diversity] conversation. I loved that he kept on going with it. I’ve heard a lot of people going, ‘Oh, he went too far.’ No! He could have gone further! I loved it. And it gave it a point: It wasn’t just self-aggrandizing. Well, it was, but it wasn’t just that. I thought he was great.”
Still—“it’s very nice to have these very strange, unusual events that confound you and you’re not quite sure how you ended up there. You’re looking around and wonder if anyone else is feeling the same way. I enjoy that. It’s an out-of-body experience.”
Bale relates another surreal experience: Finally watching himself in Knight of Cups, which he and Malick filmed in 2012, often guerrilla-style, all over Los Angeles. Bale plays Rick, a hotshot screenwriter who’s lost his mojo amid days spent crawling the studio backlots with his party-obsessed agents and hitting ridiculously elaborate parties, like the extravagant celebrity dog soiree hosted by Antonio Banderas in a mansion sequence filled with champagne, cameos, scenesters, and models.
Rick sleepwalks through success, suffering from an emptiness he can’t seem to fill. He revisits his relationships with six women who’ve each drawn out some part of his soul, searching for catharsis and meaning in the memories.
“What I like about [Knight of Cups] is that I kind of view it more like a piece of music than a film,” says Bale. “I love making films, but for what I do I don’t feel like I have to watch any films, ever—I think directors have to watch films, and actors have to watch people. But I’ve always been more affected by music and by literature. When I look back on my life, those are the things that meant most to me, the reason being regardless of what they mean to the musician or the writer, what becomes important is what it means to me.”
Meditative and philosophical, Knight of Cups will be a deeply personal cinematic experience for each viewer, Bale promises. Before this week’s premiere, he will have only seen it solo. “I kind of feel like it’s when you’ve got your headphones in and you’re listening to a song which just is everything to you—and if somebody interrupts you, you want to just go, ‘Don’t you know what I was just going through, where I’ve just gone to?’” he says. “And I feel like if I was watching it with other people I’d just go, ‘Can you get out? Because I’m having a moment here with this film.’”
The famously press-shy Malick doesn’t do interviews. In an era when public image is currency for celebrities and civilians alike, few people could pick the Oscar-nominated auteur out of a lineup. So Bale, who first worked with Malick a decade ago on The New World, tends to fill in the gaps of the Malick mystique to those curious enough to ask.
“Despite the fact that I think Terry could absolutely annihilate filming in a traditional sense with a script and with set scenes, it just doesn’t interest him right now,” he explains. “It may come to, at some point. But he wishes to make something that is, through a very different method, aiming to be far more personally affecting than he finds other films to be right now.”
“He’s a real joy of a man,” Bale adds. “Have you met him? He’s a real joy, real wonderful company.”
Bale remembers shooting The New World with Malick, when “we had a script, but he would throw it away most of the time. He just went, ‘Let’s not even bother having a script. We don’t need that.’”
For Knight of Cups, Malick surrounded himself again with collaborators like production designer Jack Fisk and three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. “But he likes to have absolute first-timers around, too. He likes that enthusiasm, that naiveté, that complete lack of technique. I think technique is what Terry despises most. I shouldn’t talk on his behalf. That’s the impression that I get. He wants there to be a sense of, We don’t quite know what we’re going to do, but we want to do something wonderful here today—let’s see what happens.”
“Always, the motto on the film was, ‘Let’s start before we’re ready.’ Because half the time I would turn up in my pickup, listening to music…”
Yes, indeed: Christian Bale, Oscar-winning A-lister, gravel-voiced Batman to a generation of Chris Nolanites, still drives his beloved pickup truck all over L.A.
“I love motorcycles so I put them in the back of the truck,” he smiles. “It’s practical and all my friends need it for moving stuff! Once you have a pickup truck, you don’t go back to anything else. And also I don’t give a crap if it gets scratched, no one wants to steal it, no one thinks there’s anything of value in it. I bought it second-hand and I’ve had it for 13 years!”
So, Bale would roll up to the Knight of Cups set in his pickup truck. Per Malick’s vision, there was no makeup, no script, no set plan. The cameras would start rolling immediately as Bale threw himself into each day in neighborhoods across the city that any Angeleno will recognize—the Hollywood hills, the beaches of Santa Monica and the west side, the sidewalks of Los Feliz, the concrete sprawl of downtown L.A.
Other actors would come in for a day or two and make a beeline for Bale, seeking advice on how to make sense of Malick’s unusual methods. “I’d go, ‘It’s OK, it doesn’t matter! Make as many mistakes as you like—Terry’s going to love it the more accidents that happen. Don’t worry about it!’”
Bale roars with laughter hearing of actor Thomas Lennon’s experience coming to set to take part in the mansion party scene—with no idea what character to play, how to do it, what to say, or how long he’d be there.
“We’re all standing there and Malick hands out these pieces of paper to all of us,” Lennon told Business Insider. “And the one he gave me said, ‘There’s no such thing as a fireproof wall.’ And I ask, ‘Is this something I’m supposed to say in the scene?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know.’”
“And then he was told, ‘Go do it!’” Bale shouts, delighted by Lennon’s befuddlement. “It’s perfect! I mean, sometimes the image was as abstract as that. Sometimes it was rather more concrete. And I’m playing a man, a screenwriter, who’s a man of words but has lost all use and love of words, so primarily I am there to listen and observe. Occasionally I’d just go, ‘I can’t just be silent anymore!’ and start yakking with people, and Terry would let me yak for a while. Then, ‘Okay—you’ve got that out of your system.’”
Oftentimes Malick would send his cast into the world without a crew, armed with GoPros to film themselves. “He’d just say, ‘You’re going to go driving with another actor—if you guys feel like it, talk about this. If not, film whatever.’ So I would just film the sky, film the streets, film the other person. Maybe have a conversation, maybe not. Maybe go into the ocean… We had people trying to climb in the car as we were driving along. I’d just improvise and go with it.”
Somewhere out there, some intrepid and lucky fan might happen upon some Malickian treasure.
“I lost a GoPro in the ocean,” Bale sheepishly admits, laughing at himself. “I forgot to put the wrist strap on! And I went around for hours looking for it. I doubt it would have survived, but I just imagine someone coming up with hours of Malick footage on this GoPro.”
If they did find that bizarre real world artifact of Malick’s unusual film, they’d find evidence of a mirror life Bale could have had. He relates, as many will, to the existential conundrum of living in such a strange city as L.A., where dream lives and nightmare realities co-exist in intimate proximity.
“You know, I hated L.A. when I first came out here. It was the only place where I could get any work, but I hated it and I would leave as soon as I could,” Bale says. “Gradually I came to realize that I absolutely adore it. And obviously for me, I’ve got family now and my children were born here and I’ve got deep roots here. But aside from that, there’s a real ugliness to it and an absolute beauty to it as well, and I see this film as a real love story for L.A.”
“When I first came out, parties for us were like hanging under a freeway smoking joints and smashing beer bottles,” he continues. “And then suddenly I found myself on a beach in Malibu with these houses, the likes of which I never even knew existed, and with people with faces that I didn’t really know existed. I was just amazed at the environment I was in. It didn’t last long, because the novelty wears off and you go, ‘It’s not for me.’ For Rick, it has lasted longer. But he still has that thing where he’s reaching a peak of success; he’s known every vice and every beauty that L.A. has to offer. He’s had what to anybody would be an extraordinary life, with these incredibly hedonistic and pleasurable moments.”
As abstract an experience as Knight of Cups can be, Malick’s film brings this duality into sharp focus. And as Rick’s journey takes him from one end of the city to the other—with a detour to Las Vegas, the only place fueled by even more garish stimuli—his internal searching leads to true clarity.
Bale considers the struggle his mostly silent character only verbalizes in flashes of voice-over, from remembered conversations with lovers and loved ones. “He’s rubbing shoulders with whomever he wishes to rub shoulders with,” he offers. “But he’s looking over the peak of the mountain going, ‘I’m still the same person. This hasn’t happened, the utopia I thought was going to occur—the perfect man I thought I was going to become. I’m still exactly the same.’ So I kind of see it as coming full circle back around to, who the hell was he in the first place? He feels that he’s lost something that he knew at one time, and he’s trying to rediscover it but, this time, actually comprehend and understand what the hell that is.”
“The only research book Terry gave me was The Moviegoer,” he adds, referring to Walker Percy’s 1961 novel about a cinephile searching for meaning and spiritual salvation as he wanders New Orleans, reflecting on his life and relationships. It’s a book Malick intended to adapt in the decades after Days of Heaven, but eventually abandoned. “That character talks about the journey, and that was the one thing Terry said to me in terms of literature: ‘Look at that—that’s what I’m talking about.’”