LOS ANGELES - Leave it to fringe actor Christian Bale to play a superhero on the fringe.
Bale - who shot to child stardom in Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun" then moved on to a grown-up career filled with menace and foreboding in such films as "American Psycho" and "The Machinist" - now re-creates the comic-book dark knight with "Batman Begins."
He's no newcomer to big-budget movies - breakout roles do not get much bigger than playing the lead in a Spielberg flick at 13. And Bale's credits include the apocalyptic dragon tale "Reign of Fire" and a role as a contemptuous killer in the update of "Shaft."
Yet Bale's general choices and his dislike of the spotlight have left him a cult figure who, at 31, finally is the central player in a behemoth Hollywood production.
"I never had a desire to be well known," Bale told The Associated Press. "There was never enormous ambition, so I think I managed to stay under the radar for most people in the public eye. And consequently, I find myself for many people being, 'Oh, he's this new guy in "Batman."' I mean, I've been around for 20 years doing this."
For much of that time, Bale has focused on smaller, offbeat movies such as "Velvet Goldmine," "Metroland" and "Laurel Canyon."
In "American Psycho," Bale was a remorseless yuppie serial killer. In "The Machinist," he was a gaunt scarecrow suffering through a yearlong bout of insomnia.
Even his higher-profile films - the musical "Newsies," the World War II dance tale "Swing Kids," the period dramas "Little Women" and "The Portrait of a Lady" - clearly show Bale's tastes run somewhere south of mainstream.
"If I think a movie is going to make money, it's a surefire way that it's going to do nothing at the box office, and vice versa," Bale said. "I just don't quite get what people see in so many of the big blockbuster movies. They seem so simplistic, they seem so dumbed-down, that I can't see why I would want to pay nine bucks or whatever it is now for going to see that."
Born in Wales, Bale spent his early childhood globe-hopping with his family, living in California and Portugal for a time. He began his career in commercials, TV and stage roles in England before Spielberg cast him as a pampered British boy struggling to survive the Japanese occupation in China in "Empire of the Sun."
Though he worked regularly, following up with roles in Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V" and the lead in a TV version of "Treasure Island," Bale was not the typical child star.
"I hated the publicity I got from 'Empire of the Sun.' So I ran from it and I said, 'I like the acting, but I really don't want anything to do with the rest of it,'" Bale said. "To most people's eyes, I disappeared, but I pretty much worked once a year, even if it was on just a small role, because I did enjoy that."
He made a seamless transition to adult roles, avoiding the fate of so many child actors who wind up unable to find a place in show business after their youthful stardom waned.
"I was fortunate enough that I started off playing character roles. 'Empire of the Sun' is not your typical high school comedy. So I started off with nice adult roles," Bale said.
"Batman Begins" presents the early days of the DC Comics hero, offering a darker vision than the film series that began with Tim Burton's 1989 "Batman." Burton's two "Batman" movies and two other sequels restored much of the comic books' brooding tone to a character best known to many people as a comic figure from the 1960s TV show.
The new "Batman" presents billionaire Bruce Wayne torn between justice and vigilante vengeance years after witnessing his parents' murders. Bruce travels the globe to delve into the criminal mind and eventually finds a mentor (Liam Neeson) who hones the young man's mind and body for the task of fighting corruption.
Bruce returns to his native Gotham City, a cesspool of crime, where he becomes the phantomlike Batman, aided by his surrogate father, butler Alfred (Michael Caine), a childhood friend (Katie Holmes) now in the district attorney's office, a high-tech gadgetry whiz (Morgan Freeman), and a virtuous cop (Gary Oldman).
Aiming for gritty realism compared to the camp and style of earlier "Batman" incarnations, the filmmakers needed an actor who could credibly capture the fanaticism that would drive a man to cloak himself in a batsuit.
"What Christian has, he has this extreme level of self-discipline, of dedication and intensity, and you can see it in his eyes," director Christopher Nolan said. "It allows the audience to accept that this guy can transform himself into a superhero, which is a pretty extreme thing to ask an actor to convey."
Training for the role, Bale bulked up to 220 pounds. Only five months earlier, the 6-foot-2 Bale had weighed just 121 pounds after starving himself for "The Machinist," in which he played a man physically and mentally traumatized after a year without sleep.
He's now back in his usual range of 185 pounds, with no apparent health consequences.
"So far, I've felt absolutely nothing," Bale said. "When I was down there, obviously, I was very weak. I couldn't run or anything like that. Everything was very slow. I was in slow-mo. But I didn't actually feel bad. I felt very serene all the time. I felt very comfortable and calm.
"I felt bad when I was putting on weight for 'Batman.' That was a little too much strain on my heart, I believe. And that is the thing I will never repeat again, doing any of those extremes. If you're going to do it, take a bit more time about it. Don't rush those things, because your body just can't take that pressure."
After "Batman Begins," Bale filmed a supporting role in Colin Farrell's upcoming "The New World," director Terrence Malick's drama of 17th century colonial America. Bale also shot the low-budget crime tale "Harsh Times" and provides the voice of the title character in the English-language version of the Japanese animated adventure "Howl's Moving Castle," opening just days before "Batman Begins."
Bale counts on the luster of "Batman Begins" to give him clout on independent movies he wants to do.
"If I can kill two birds with one stone by having made this movie, which I believe is a very good movie, then get to go and make smaller movies because 'Christian Bale' may mean something now, whereas it never meant anything before, then great," Bale said.
"Before, it was always the directors wanted me, but the financiers were saying, 'No way are you touching that guy.' Maybe they'll say, 'Yeah, wait, we'll touch him this time. We'll use him.' If I can help to get those movies made, then I'll feel like this was really a double whammy of success."
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