Grand Mas­ter Flash Point

How Chris­tian Bale trans­formed him­self into the most Yili˽ed Yeep in modern Amer­i­can his­tory—and sayed his di­rec­toršs life

Newsweek - - Culture - BY ZACH SCHONFELD @zzzza­aaac­c­c­chhh

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.

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