Bale on Body. (And soul.)

Back when presentational acting was still a thing – before Chekhov and Stanislavski and The Group and The Method – the actor’s work was performed from outside–>in. The physical expression was all: gesture gave form and form gave feeling. (That’s roughly the idea.) As a focus on the psychological and emotional life of the character gained traction (inside–>out), a nonsensical debate arose that acting technique is essentially binary. It’s either outside–>in or inside–>out. And never the twain shall meet.

When I was a young actor, I often heard this binary choice framed as the difference between British and American training. The Brits start with fake noses and the right pair of shoes; Yanks start with “remember the day your dog died.”

I thought about this false choice earlier this month when I read an interview with Christian Bale in The Guardian. The English actor spoke a little about his approach to characterization. He was out promoting Hostiles, in which he plays a bigoted US Army Captain working (terrorizing) the western frontier of the late 1800s.

He arrived for The Guardian interview in a very different body than that of the soldier he portrays. Apparently, he was also unrecognizable as Christian Bale. The interviewer describes sitting down with an “imposter” with “a shaved head [and] heavy paunch.” The body belonged to former Vice President Dick Cheney. Sorta. It was the body Bale grew himself into to play Cheney in Backseat, the film he’s now shooting.

Bale is known for the physical transformations he undergoes in pursuit of character, starving himself to emaciation to play The Machinist, then muscling up to play Batman in the The Dark Knight:

The actor rivals Robert De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis for diving deep – physically and psychologically. He doesn’t do it for fun. “There is a much easier way, but I can’t do it. I don’t know if it’s because I don’t have any training. I see actors who can just be themselves and then switch and give these really incredible performances, and then switch back to being themselves. I find I start laughing because I’m too aware that it’s still me. So I try to get as distant as possible. Otherwise, I can’t do it.’

People who cling to the binary would argue Bale’s approach is to create character from outside–>in. He manipulates his body in order to find the man. But as Bale talked, he revealed his process isn’t exclusive:

In playing Cheney, Bale sought “pathways to understanding” George W Bush’s vice-president. “What you discover when you start investigating any person is nobody is singularly bad or singularly good. He’s a wonderful family man, by all accounts. He didn’t hesitate for a second when his daughter Mary announced that she was a lesbian despite the fact that was complete anathema to his party at that time.’

Bale alters his physicality not so much to fool the audience as to fool himself. But to fully inhabit that new body, to give that body its soul, he has to understand his character’s emotional life. This suggests an interiority of process that draws on Bale’s own emotional life.

Outside–>in or inside–>out? The question informed how many of us thought about technique for too long. Most actors draw on elements of both, crafting their own idiosyncratic ways into character.

Different roles can require different tools, different ways of working. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to limit ourselves, thinking there’s only one way in.