Losing himself in the role

Special to The Times

Christian Bale is known for making bold acting choices in movies such as "Empire of the Sun" and "American Psycho," but his latest move takes the cake -- or leaves it, rather. He lost 63 pounds, or about one-third of his body mass, for the role of Trevor Reznik in "The Machinist." Though Bale is the latest in a long line of actors who have starved or binged their way to a role, he was surprised by how thoroughly his ensuing physical and mental state informed his performance.

In the film, Reznik has been unable to sleep for a year. Haunted by fear and paranoia, the machinist lurches through the waking nightmare of his life, trying to find the source of his agony but invariably making matters worse as he goes. The psychological thriller, due Friday from Paramount Classics, is a film full of creepy images, none more horrifying than Reznik himself.

"I recognize a lot of people would just say, 'What was the point? It's just a movie.' Which I can't really disagree with," Bale said. Speaking on the phone from Virginia, where he's shooting the Terrence Malick film "The New World," the 30-year-old actor added that he never would have lost the weight had he not had complete faith in the material. "But I decided that it was one that I wanted to do this for."

Through a combination of grueling runs and an ever-diminishing diet, Bale dropped from 184 to 121 pounds in four months to play Reznik, described in the script as "a walking skeleton." He had no doctor monitoring him, but he did consult a nutritionist before he started.

What weight goal did she think was safe? "One hundred forty-five," Bale replied, laughing heartily. But he believed the role demanded more. "Trevor would not have been the same if he were a little bit on the skinny side. That wouldn't have done it. The guy had to look like he was seriously damaged, like there was something very wrong with him."

Like Reznik, Bale immediately began to isolate himself, because being social meant being around food. And with the weight loss, Bale found himself needing only two hours of sleep a night, giving him a feel for his character's insomnia. The normal rollercoaster of daily emotions and thoughts fell away; he was able to focus his mind in a singular manner for hours on end.

His weight loss affected the film in other ways. When Bale showed up for the shoot in Barcelona, director Brad Anderson was at first shocked, then thrilled by the transformation.

"I would never have asked him to lose that much weight," Anderson said. "I always assumed he'd lose 20 pounds or something -- we'd put him in baggy clothes and fake it. He had to do it the real way, and I think it was the right thing to do. Because without seeing this character's physical torment, it's harder to understand what's going on in his head."

Anderson said an added bonus was that, although it was a difficult shoot, nobody on the set complained, "because they would all look to Christian and see the sacrifice that he was making for this project, and they really quieted down."

Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bale's co-star, has gone through dramatic weight losses for roles as an anorexic teen in the 1981 television movie "The Best Little Girl in the World" and as a junkie in the 1995 film "Georgia." Yet on the "Machinist" set, she had to constantly remind herself "that this was a choice Christian had made, that he wasn't actually sick and dying." Her concern worked well for her character, who cares for Reznik and worries about his health.

Losing or gaining weight for a role almost always makes news. Matt Damon drew notice for his small role in the 1996 film "Courage Under Fire," for which he lost 40 pounds. Renee Zellweger has probably received more attention for her weight gain in the "Bridget Jones" movies than for her performance in them. Morgan Spurlock, star of "Super Size Me," gained weight on camera, to his body's great dismay. Adrien Brody, Toni Collette, Minnie Driver and, of course, the godfather of them all, Robert De Niro, changed their bodies significantly for roles, and became topics for discussion as a result.

For Bale, the attention he's receiving for his efforts is appreciated, but, he said, "I don't want it in any way to feel like some kind of gimmick."

The weight loss "makes you feel like you're getting inside the role in a way that's easy to see, because you look in the mirror and see it," Leigh said. Diving into a character is difficult work, she said. "That's why you've got to give everybody a break on what they do -- as long as they're not truly hurting themselves.

"An actor has his body," she added. "Gain it, lose it -- that's about all you can do."

Well, that and obsess about it. Bale said he was constantly thinking and talking about food during the shoot, asking everyone what they'd eaten at meals, compiling lists of restaurants in the city that he wanted to visit. He hounded his wife, Sibi, to finish everything on her plate. She was incredibly supportive during his ordeal, but she couldn't always hide her concern.

"A couple of times I'd be lying asleep and wake up and she'd be quickly withdrawing her hand from in front of my mouth," Bale said. "She'd be checking that my breath was still coming out."

When it came time to start eating again, Leigh warned Bale to be careful. Her first meal after "Best Little Girl" nearly landed her in the hospital. (After "Courage Under Fire," Damon became so ill when he started eating again that he needed medication for two years.)

Bale ignored all warnings and went straight for the doughnuts. "I was amazed by how much I could eat," he recalled. "I thought I'd be able to eat a couple mouthfuls, but I was a bottomless pit." Bale admitted that he felt a little ill eating that way at first, but he suffered no serious consequences. He regained all his weight and then some, for his next role -- the lead in "Batman Begins."

Bale said he feels no regret about the experience, although he was quick to add that he wouldn't do it again. He saw it as a test of his discipline, and he's happy with the results, on camera and off. "I like to know that I would go to those lengths if I felt they were necessary."

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