Listen: Christian Bale and Sam Rockwell on Early Acting Days and Reuniting for ‘Vice’

PLAYBACK is a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films. New episodes air every Thursday.

Oscar-winning actors Christian Bale and Sam Rockwell first met 20 years ago on the Italy-set production of Michael Hoffman’s Shakespeare adaptation “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” With the business in their blood (Bale’s mother was a circus performer, Rockwell’s an improvisation actress), they separately began their careers on stage at a young age. All these years later they appear together once again in Adam McKay’s “Vice,” a sort of Shakespearean epic in its own right centered on former chief executives Dick Cheney and George W. Bush.

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Bale, famously by now, packed on the pounds to play Cheney. It became another in a line of trademark transformations for the actor, but he admits he’s winding down on doing that to his body.

“I talked to Gary [Oldman] about all of that. We had very different approaches to it,” Bale says. “I had said, ‘I don’t know how to do this except I’ve got to gain the weight myself.’ I was in the middle of doing that. I was a large toddler. I called up Gary and I said, ‘How much weight did you gain for the role [of Winston Churchill]?’ And he said, ‘I didn’t gain anything.’ I went, ‘What?’ I was already well down the track. I felt like such an idiot! I didn’t understand that [movie makeup] had come such a long way!”

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Echoing sentiments Bale offered in a previous episode of “Playback,” Rockwell says it was important to avoid caricature when portraying real-life characters like Bush and Cheney. There’s a great tradition of impressions — you can see them every Saturday night on NBC — but if the audience is going to buy into a movie, particularly one as incendiary and satirical as “Vice,” tapping into the essence of the person is key.

“It’s got to be real,” Rockwell says. “The impression has to take a backseat to the acting, to the reality, always. I don’t think we want to see Daniel Day-Lewis do an impression of Abe Lincoln. I think we’re seeing some of Daniel Day-Lewis’ attributes that he imagines Lincoln would have, the sensitivity, the intelligence, etc. You’re not going to give a shit if you don’t see that actor’s heart and soul coming through.”

Both also speak about understanding the characters’ perspective while shelving any personal political opinions they might have. Bale says it’s important to him that he strip away any distractions an audience might have when viewing his work. It’s a big part of why he’s so fiercely protective of his privacy. He’s very aware of how that baggage can ruin the magic trick.

“There’s no interest to me in making a film where my opinions are in there,” Bale says. “Adam [McKay] is the storyteller and we agreed early on, let me counter his points of view. Let me advocate for Cheney. Let me try to convince him, because I do believe Cheney is a very strong-minded individual. The nature of ‘What does it mean to be a patriot?’ That’s a real amorphous word. It’s like ‘obsession.’ It can be a healthy thing, it can be incredibly unhealthy as well, but he certainly believes that what he did was right and correct and patriotic and good for the American people, whereas you will get other people who will say he is absolutely unpatriotic and say he’s a war criminal. But for me to truly try to understand where he was coming from, to try to see the motivations, how somebody can come to believe that these are American values and believe in American exceptionalism in a way that is so vastly different from the way that other people view American exceptionalism — it was a fascinating exploration.”

For more, including extensive talk of how Bale and Shepard got their starts in the business and separate remembrances of late legend Sam Shepard and, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link below.


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Sam Rockwell photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback Podcast.
Dan Doperalski for Variety
Christian Bale photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback Podcast.
Dan Doperalski for Variety
Sam Rockwell and Christian Bale photographed exclusively for the Variety playback podcast.
Dan Doperalski for Variety

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