Bale Gets Dirty for His 'Harsh' Role

To the chagrin of all those “Newsies” fans out there, Christian Bale has grown up.

In “Harsh Times,” a 2005 independent film getting its first wide release this Friday, Bale plays the role of Jim Davis, an ex-Army Ranger discharged back to civilian life in the gritty streets of South Central Los Angeles.

In between long drives with his favorite homie and long make-out scenes with his Mexican girlfriend, Davis fires guns—lots of them.

But at a roundtable interview this Monday, the British actor said he sees the film as more than just a shoot-em-up thriller.

“I certainly have no interest in showing violence for the sake of violence. However, I see no point in ignoring it either,” he said. “Every child is taught, ‘don’t solve a problem with violence.’ But it can be a huge dilemma in life, because you see that whole nations, they solve many problems with violence.”

That institutionalized brutality is at the core of the film, in his mind. “Violence is the thing that my character is valued for, and the thing his country values him for, and he’s not valued for anything else,” he said. “After having turned every ethical law that society abides by—turned all of that on its head—some people, not all, find it very difficult to turn that off again.”

“Who wants to give up what your valued for? But when it conflicts with other loyalties that you have, you’re in trouble,” Bale said. “Jim’s in that situation.”

Bale gained attention for his intense training in recent roles. Before 2004’s “The Machinist,” he lost over 65 pounds, and in preparation for his starring role in last year’s blockbuster “Batman Begins,” he gained it all back in muscle weight.

But “Harsh Times” demanded a more subtle approach. As Bale put it, “the mental preparation dictated the physical result.”

“It really had to do with body language that just followed on from mental preparation, immersing myself in the Chicano culture in L.A,” he recalled. “[Director] David [Ayer] called in friends and buddies…we went on drives, we sat and drank together, and I familiarized myself with it all.

“You begin to become part of the group,” Bale said. And that inclusion became critical for his development. “Despite the fact that Jim is kind of a foster child of the Chicano culture, he can never be entirely accepted.”

Bale also said he spoke with “a variety” of veterans in order to get a feel for his character’s military background. “Some of them let me in on very personal stories,” he says, “which I would not and have not repeated to anyone one. Some of [them] denied any of those feelings whatsoever.”

According to Bale, one of the strengths of the film is how it shows the unique contradictions of modern-day soldiers. “America’s at war, but does it really feel like that? None of us are actually threatened by the war in Iraq or Afghanistan immediately,” he said. “It’s a strange kind of distant war for all of us. But obviously, for the people who serve in it, it’s not distant.”

But filming in South Central was more than just a chance to explore a different culture. For the English actor, it highlighted the vast differences in social classes in the United States.

“This was a great opportunity to find out about people, and you have a great excuse to ask people questions where usually they’d look at you and say, ‘Shut the fuck up, why you bein’ so nosy?’” he said.

“The U.S., it’s such a melting pot. But apparently some people refuse to accept it as a melting pot, and you have some people failing to understand that’s the whole fucking basis for the United States of America,” he said, eyes deep with conviction.

“That’s what everybody around the rest of the world admires the U.S. for, not just across the Mexican border, but all around the world,” he said. “The whole appeal of America, the appeal of the American dream, is what makes America so special. And to lose that would be a bloody awful thing.”

—Staff writer Lindsay A. Maizel can be reached at lmaizel@fas.harvard.edu.