Grand Master Flash Point
How Christian Bale transformed himself into the most Yili˽ed Yeep in modern American history—and sayed his directoršs life
christian bale thought the filmmaker had lost his mind. It was early 2017, and Adam Mckay was asking him to portray Dick Cheney. This bewildering news had reached Bale one piece at a time. First, he heard that Mckay was working on a script about George W. Bush’s vice president. Then, that the filmmaker, who had cast Bale as a nerdy hedge fund manager in 2015’s The Big Short, wanted to work with him again. “I supposed it was about some supporting role,” says the actor.
But no, Mckay visited
Bale at his home and informed him that the actor was his first pick to play one of the most loathed vice presidents in American history.
The only pick, really—mckay has said he envisioned only Bale when he wrote the script. “When a character is described as one of the least charismatic leaders, and somebody says, ‘You’ll be perfect for it,’ it is not a flattering idea,” Bale says with a chuckle. “It took incredible imagination to think I could achieve it.”
Yet Bale wasn’t convinced until he read the script for Vice, Mckay’s Big Short follow-up, which made satirical mincemeat out of another Bush-era calamity: the subprime mortgage crisis. The new film—which lampoons Cheney’s rise from hard-drinking Wyoming nobody to a position of power (and then more power, and still more power)—is like watching a conventional Washington biopic through a fun-house mirror. Mckay incorporates surrealist elements, joke endings and one particularly divisive sequence in which Cheney and his wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), launch into impassioned Shakespearean dialect.
“That playfulness is what gave me the confidence to say yes,” Bale says. “There’s nothing new about tragedy and comedy going together. Adam embraced that in a different way.”
Mckay’s cleverest trick uses Cheney’s furtiveness as an opening rather than an obstacle. For instance, Vice shows his clandestine meetings with oil executives in the White House with the dialogue bleeped out. (The content of these real-life meetings has never been disclosed.) It was Cheney’s predilection for secrecy, the film suggests, that enabled him to become arguably the most powerful American vice president ever, exploiting the aftershocks of 9/11 and planning the Iraq War behind closed doors.
Those who expected Mckay to play it straight have not paid attention to his work. He made his name with raunchy comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers, both in collaboration with Will Ferrell (whose famous Bush impression seems to have influenced Sam Rockwell’s approach to Dubya in Vice). But even The Big Short, his first drama (for which Mckay won an Oscar for screenplay), subverted genre conventions—like actor Margot Robbie explaining mortgage-backed securities in a bubble bath.
The Big Short also introduced Mckay’s professional interest in making Bale, once ranked among the sexiest men alive, look as unsexy as possible. Double that for Vice. Cheney is exactly 33 years older than the 44-year-old actor (weirdly, they share a birthday) and a whole lot balder.
But for an actor noted for his willingness to submit to physical and psychological extremes, what are wrinkles and a bald cap? To play a Wall Street sociopath in 2000’s American Psycho, Bale stayed in character between takes. He shed more than 60 pounds to play the emaciated lead in 2004’s The `chinist (subsisting on little more than coffee and apples), gained over 100 pounds back for the title role in 2005’s Batman Begins and lost most of it again to portray boxer Dicky Eklund in 2010’s The Fighter (for which he won the best supporting actor Oscar).
Does Bale enjoy subjecting himself to these extremes? “No, no,” he says. “It’s miserable and certainly not healthy. I keep saying, ‘Never again,’” but the scripts keep drawing him in.
This time, he gained 45 pounds, in part by gorging on pies, and spent months working with a makeup artist. (One producer saw Bale on set and mistook him for a fishing instructor.) But that was mere window dressing. “We weren’t going for an impersonation,” says Bale. “It’s about getting the essence of the man.” The actor
went down a rabbit hole of Cheney interviews—“my phone is still jampacked with videos of him”—to master his mannerisms, grunts and Darth Vader grumble until they became muscle memory.
Each physical tic had a psychological underpinning. “We had a two-hour conversation about the tightening of the jaw,” Mckay said at a November press screening. “Our theory was that if Cheney hadn’t met his wife, he would have been a lineman in Wyoming who had crazy drinking nights and got into fistfights. And he couldn’t do that. So it was all in his jaw—that’s where he held it.”
Bale’s precondition for accepting the part was that he must be able to understand—even defend—cheney’s most catastrophic decisions. “The pact I made with Adam was that I would attempt to be an advocate,” Bale says. He became particularly fascinated by Cheney’s marriage. He read the veep’s In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir and found it fascinating. Mckay, on the other hand, thought it read “like a court deposition.” (Lynne, as portrayed by Adams—in her third role opposite Bale—is the motivating influence behind the young Cheney making something of himself. By 35, he was White House chief of staff under Gerald Ford.)
Bale refuses to share his views on Cheney and Bush: “I would like it if people just saw Cheney on screen and not me.” Mckay, by contrast, has been outspoken; he recently told The Hollywood Reporter he would gladly choose Donald Trump over Bush and his more calculating “grand master.” The actor playing Cheney might be attempting some sort of advocacy off screen, but the film is not a tribute; its lefty bent has already provoked backlash from the National Review.
The real Cheney has kept quiet. The man is 77 and has survived five heart attacks. Those are depicted on screen; one of Vice’s most unusual narrative devices involves Cheney’s 2012 heart transplant. Bale met with a cardiologist to understand the symptoms of a heart attack, and he brought this information to Mckay and asked which ones to act out. When, in January, Mckay had a real heart attack of his own, “he remembered me having done that research, immediately downed aspirin and got to the hospital,” says Bale. “Thank God that happened!” (Mckay had a stent inserted and has recovered fully.)
Medical advice is not a service actors typically provide. “I like to tell Adam, it wasn’t me who saved his life; it was the cardiologist,” says Bale. “And I was only at the cardiologist because of Dick Cheney. So, truly, Dick Cheney saved Adam’s life.”
“If Cheney hadn’t met his wife, he would have been a lineman in Wyoming who had crazy drinking nights and got into ˽st˽ghts.”
INHERENT VICE In a galaxy far, far away from Batman, Bale, left, gained 45 pounds and wore a bald cap to play Cheney. He also studied hours of video to perfect the former veep’s Darth Vader grumble.