Christian Bale courts controversy with his ‘barbaric’ Moses
THE door opens and Christian Bale stoops as he pushes a hotel dining trolley from his room. It’s not how you imagine meeting the man behind the intimidating “Dark Knight”, Batman, and who will next be seen on screen as Moses, although I’m enthused to see a half bottle of red wine sitting on the table, empty.
Bale’s reputation as being tempestuous and intense precedes him. Now, he’s either going to be those things, or be fun.
As it happens, he’s expansive, thoughtful and provocative, an English-via-Wales version of Russell Crowe. Like Crowe, Bale is a fine, Academy Award-winning actor, and like Crowe in
Gladiator, he is about to anchor a historical epic made by the avuncular Brit Ridley Scott.
And Bale, like Crowe, is an actor who doesn’t take on characters lightly. He notoriously shed 28kg to play the skeletal lead in The Machinist, and more recently captivated in the opening moments of American Hustle with his methodical sculpting of a 70s comb over. He cares deeply about his characters, researches them, muses on them and develops a world that goes far beyond the confines of the particular film.
In his most famous performances, as Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series, Bale’s broader world brought a heft to Batman that added something more to Nolan’s already dense take on the complex superhero.
In Exodus: Gods and Kings, Bale leads an expedition into the tale of Moses: the prophet’s rebellion against the Egyptian Pharoah Ramses and subsequent quest to lead his people to the Promised Land. This is a story with layers and intrigues that Bale was willing to explore and more than capable of expounding on and, if need be, defend.
Scott’s film is not a hagiography of Moses. Nor does it approach the Charlton Heston-like heroism of previous renderings. And particularly not Heston’s tan. Bale laughingly dismisses criticism that a Brit is playing the Egyptian prophet: “Of course I wouldn’t last 40 minutes in the Sinai [desert]! I’d be one big f..king blister. I was born in Wales, I’m not used to the sun.”
Although one should take with a grain of Red Sea salt Bale’s admission he began his research into the role by watching Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Mel Brooks’s History of the World, Part 1.
That he did, but it doesn’t inculcate the film. This is a big, messy sand and swords epic full of conflict, vengeance, violence and intense performances from Bale and Australia’s Joel Edgerton as Ramses (although another Australian, Ben Mendelsohn, injects some Frank Thringlike camp as the viceroy Hegep).
Los Angeles-based Bale (his family moved from Wales to England when he was young before he moved to LA with his father when he was 17) and Scott both have a provocative take on the Egyptian prince and prophet.
“Is it going to be controversial?” Bale asks, having already caused controversy by describing Moses as “barbaric”. “It’s not going to be controversial to people who don’t give a shit,” he says. “To me there’s two audiences here. There’s the audience who just go, why? That’s not going to be controversial. It’s going to be controversial to people who are akin to Shake- speare lovers who sit in the first few rows and go: ‘Ooh, why didn’t they include that?’ ’’
But Exodus is a 2 ½ -hour film, he notes, when it would have to be a 10-hour one if it wanted to cover the rollicking tale of Moses leading the Israelites from slavery, and all its tangents, or explore the veracity of the “exodus” legend.
Scott wanted to explore a more humanistic angle focusing on the two ‘‘brothers’’ Moses and Ramses (the director prefers to call their relationship as being more like cousins).
“We always talked about how we would view Moses if he turned up today,” Bale recalls.
And this is where it becomes interesting. Bale, 40, read deeply on the subject, reading the Torah, the Koran and Jonathan Kirsch’s Moses: A Life, among other works. He has firm views, or questions, about his character, without being disrespectful. After all, dismissing the Moses legend has its consequences.
So much hangs on the veracity of the story, Bale says, “particularly the Jewish religion but all the Abrahamistic religions, Islam and Christianity as well, who treat Moses as one of the most important prophets”.
“So what happens when people say it didn’t happen, which is the pretty dominant belief?” he asks rhetorically.
Certainly the Exodus tale is hotly contested by scholars, particularly among archeologists who know the Egyptians were phenomenal historians yet have no record of the plagues or exodus. Has it been confused with the Babylonian exodus?
“What does that mean? Does that make it defunct?” Bale questions. “Irrelevant? Surely not among the people who believe, who are religious. To me, if you base too much emphasis on anything but the symbolic, you risk threat-
I LEFT RELIGION, BUT I FIND IT ETERNALLY FASCINATING CHRISTIAN BALE
ening the major religions of the world. So the symbolism, surely, that must be what’s the important thing. And symbolically, holy crap! Yeah, he’s an intriguing human figure with just multiple contradictions.”
Bale describes Moses as having passions that are understandable in some cases but adds he also acted in reprehensible, even “barbaric” ways. “Now we don’t get to all that in the film but to me, when I look at a character I don’t think I’m just doing what’s in the film. I go what’s beyond the film, because that’s what gives a life outside of it.”
The “barbaric” term has already caused Bale some grief but that’s the least of it. He describes Moses’s slaughter of 3000 of his own people, some by pouring down their throats the melted gold from the golden calf, as “sadistic in the extreme”. Then he killed prisoners of war but kept virgin girls so they could be used by his soldiers, Bale continues.
“Right, I’m putting him in the International Criminal Court straight away, right?” he notes. “If he hasn’t been taken out by drone strikes immediately.”
Bale is on a roll. His character’s backstory still pinballing around in his head. He asks how would we react if Moses came into our hotel suite, sat down opposite and said he’d just spoken to God.
“He says ‘Yeah, I hear him all the time. And I see him actually. I’m the only person ever. Only person, ever, who’s seen him.’ What are you going to think?” Another rhetorical question.
Bale doesn’t come to the show necessarily as an antagonist, let alone agnostic. He recalls some early faith when knocking on doors as a Jehovah’s Witness as a child.
“One of them helped my father when he was ill, so we said we owe him a debt, therefore we owe him to believe enough to say we will assist him,” Bale recalls.
‘‘But ultimately, no, I don’t believe in it. And I left it but I find it eternally fascinating.”
Scott says he had no interest in his rendering of the contretemps between pharaohs to have any modern parallels with anything, particularly the Middle East, other than pointing out “we repeat the same things over and over”.
But one of Bale’s ways into the character was by musing about his own historical parallels. He found empathy for Moses’s freeing of the Hebrews from the slavery of Egypt. And the Egyptian use of slave labour itself, Bale adds, was a means of “genocide, not unlike the Nazis”.
Bale could go on. And he does. He’s clearly bashed this thinking around for some time, if only to reconcile the big performance with his own religious inquiry.
He settles. “That having been said, I’m talking about this” — he extends his arms — “and the film covers this,” he says as he pinches his fingers.
“Because what we all succumb to at that point is we’re making a studio film where they’ve spent an awful lot of money and when I described this to the various studio bosses they went white and hoped we’d never get to the places I was talking about,” he smiles.
I can imagine. Only an hour ago, Scott told me Moses was “a dynamo, a generator, fundamentally of freedom. He felt it had to change. In essence, he was a fundamentalist”.
“In today’s world, he’d be pursued by missiles and jets and creamed. Or not. He was very clever, a very good leader.”
There was not a chance Scott and Bale’s Moses would join the cynical films now plotting ways to capture a potent religious audience. Since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, less volatile Christian films have hit middle America with some success but the recent big bet, Noah, with Crowe in the title role, didn’t — if only because it was a Darren Aronofsky film.
Scott or Bale are not the types to pander to
commercial demands. Scott craves authenticity and Bale must believe in his story and surroundings to perform.
So much so, he was grateful for the guidance of co-star Edgerton. Bale admits he doesn’t work well in studios, and Exodus began its insanely short — for this type of movie — 77-day shoot at England’s Pinewood Studios.
Bale hates studio shoots because they make him feel like he’s making a film. “And for me, if I’m making a film, I don’t want to feel like I’m making a film. I want to have all of the hardships of being in a real location.” He did feel that later as the grand external scenes were shot in the sands of Spain.
“It just feels more natural,” Bale says. “In a studio, everything’s perfect, the sound’s great every time, the visuals are great every time and I go, this is not like life, this is not like it at all.”
He saw Edgerton embrace the film in the early scenes as he himself remained “reticent, still standing there going ‘Hmm, I’m not believing this yet.’ ”
The admission of a fear of studios is a bold one from an actor who has become so part of studio filmmaking, primarily through his decade-long era as Batman in the Dark Knight series.
However Bale says it is no great admission because he questions his ability before every film. He’s not alone among actors who wig out in doubt in the days before beginning a shoot, I note.
“I don’t talk to other actors about it but it’s certainly true for me. I don’t know if it comes more from actors who have not been trained, because I have not been trained,” he adds.
In this writer’s experience, yes, the actors who have admitted their pre-shoot doubts tend to be not formally trained.
“So you sort of go, all right I’ve got to break this down and build it back up again, and how do I do that. And especially with such a part that I know means so much to so many people.”
Bale says he gave his director “the fanatical and ... the more humane and we’ll see what he chooses.”
Scott, for his part, is rapt with his Moses and Ramses.
“Christian is a bit of a force of nature in the sense he has the physicality and he’s really come into his own in the last five years just as a very fine actor,” the director says, highlighting his recent performance in American Hustle. And Scott teases Edgerton that he has a little Richard Burton about him when he says g’day.
“Then he’ll say ‘F..k off’, and I say ‘ Oh, no, Albert Finney that time!” he grins. “But there is a little bit of Burton in there.”
Exodus: Gods and Kings is unlikely to be Scott’s Cleopatra though. Already it appears the film will be marketed like the Gladiator sequel that didn’t happen in the hope a cinema audience that has been largely starved of interesting kinetic blockbusters this year will lap it up. And beyond his sci-fi classics Alien and Blade Runner, Scott has made his name in visually splendid and performance-driven historical interpretations from The Duellists to Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster and Robin Hood. “If I see one more dragon I’m going to shoot myself, f..k me!” he screams of today’s propensity for fantasy. “Stop the dragons.”
“I’m almost always real and I uphold that,” he continues. “I think that’s the essence of doing anything period.”
Scott enjoys his history, enthusing about the absence of a great film about Napoleon Bonaparte.
“I love creating the universe of the story,” he says, before admitting to some liberties with Moses. “You have to. But did Moses exist? Of course he must have. He’s too powerful in context of what was passed down and passed down verbally and finally written down.”
But, as Bale notes, it is a story passed down through eons until it becomes a pure acting job: a non-religious actor playing a religious beacon.
“Well, except if I had been religious I would be putting a slant on it instead of just seeing it at face value,” he says.
When you read the Koran or the Torah, you’re reading an interpretation, Bale adds. And after all his musing and provocation about Moses, the actor distils and softens.
“It’s a translation and if you’re translating, you interpret,” he says. “So I can do no better than that. I can’t.”
Exodus: Gods and Kings opens on December 4.
above, meticulously researched his role
as Moses, left
Bale as Moses with Joel Edgerton as Ramses in Exodus, above; for his role in
The Machinist, left, Bale, ever the perfectionist, shed 28kg to portray the skeletal lead