fb-pixel Skip to main content

Christian Bale thinks ‘we need to find something to be obsessed about’

His obsession? The 14 or so different scripts director David O. Russell wrote for their new movie, ‘Amsterdam.’

Christian Bale attended the European premiere of "Amsterdam" Sept. 21 in London.Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures UK

Christian Bale’s got a face almost any movie fan could pick out of a crowd. But when he disappears into a role — whether it’s a serial killer with a six-pack in “American Psycho” (2000), a combed-over con man in “American Hustle” (2013), or an eyebrowless alien in “Thor: Love and Thunder” (2022), you’d be forgiven for not recognizing him.

Bale transforms again for his latest movie, “Amsterdam,” in theaters Friday. He plays one-eyed war veteran Burt Berendsen, a much funnier role than some of his others, but one he takes just as seriously. Burt was loosely inspired by the real military doctor George Franklin Shiels, who joined the predominantly Black regiment known as the Harlem Hellfighters during World War I.


To portray Burt, who has a glass eye and a number of injuries, Bale wore a contact lens for the entire movie and an “uncomfortable” back brace. “If I can avoid acting, I will,” he said and laughed in a phone interview Monday.

Bale’s new film follows three friends — Burt, Harold Woodman (John David Washington), and Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie) — who meet in France fighting on the front lines of World War I, then travel to Amsterdam and live there together. After returning to the United States, the trio is enlisted by bereaved daughter Liz Meekins (Taylor Swift) to help solve her father’s murder in this 1930s mystery-comedy from director David O. Russell.

“Amsterdam” is Bale’s third movie directed by Russell, following 2010′s “The Fighter” and later “American Hustle.” In a recent interview with the Globe, the Oscar-winning actor talked about working with Russell for five years to develop “Amsterdam,” taking notes on the “piles and piles of scripts” Russell wrote for the movie, and the humbling experience of singing with Taylor Swift.


Q. How did you prepare to play a more comedic character like Burt? Do you have favorite comedians who helped you hone his style of humor?

A. It was really all just the humor that comes from the characters.

Burt is someone who’s really been through the wringer and then come out making a very strong choice to still believe, not only in himself but in people. In my experience, people who have genuinely been through hell in ways that most of us who only use the expression haven’t, really, are often some of the most joyful, appreciative, funny people.

The people who inspired the character of Burt, and the characters David wanted to create . . . are devastatingly strong characters who have never forgotten the importance of being silly. They enjoy differences and eccentricities and delight in people in spite of their experiences. And that’s wonderfully inspiring.

Q. You’ve worked with Russell on three movies now. What draws you to him as a director?

A. It’s very nice when you have someone at the helm who you know that this is incredibly meaningful to. Who has real spirit, and a mettle and a life experience that makes them wonderful storytellers and makes you want to work these long, bloody hours and study other people obsessively.

I think we came up with something odd, and something very special here. It was a real moment that, despite my bad memory, I think I will remember forever.

Q. When did you hear about Dr. Shiels and this story, and what attracted you to the character?


A. Right after David and I made “American Hustle,” we were sitting in my backyard talking about a [real-life] character he had become interested in who had all the injuries to his face, and then that faded away. And then David called me up. He had discovered a part of history that astounded me, and he wanted to tell me about it. I hadn’t heard of it either. We sat in [a] diner and talked all about that, we read books about it, and we watched documentaries all about the era.

Q. You mentioned working on “piles and piles of scripts.” Are there any parts of Burt that were in your mind as you were playing him that didn’t make it into the movie, but are still an important part of his character?

A. Well, the entire deal. I believe it was about 14 scripts that I have now that David wrote, over the years, centered on Valerie [Robbie’s character].

The way it works is that we shoot the script, and then we move on, and we just see if we find other things spontaneously in the scene. It’s not traditionally conceived improvisation, but just an openness to seeing what happens and trading lines, literally, with another character and seeing what comes out. David’s tugging at my jacket telling me something else to try saying, talking to other people throughout the scene, and never stopping rolling.


And then there were times when I would just come up with lines that I felt were appropriate for Burt. Sometimes they were on the fly. But most of the time it was something that David would then say, “That was a good line.” And I would say to him, “Yeah, you wrote it. Probably about four years ago. You’ve forgotten, but I haven’t.”

From left: Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington in "Amsterdam."20th Century Studios

Q. It sounds like you have a better memory than you were letting on earlier.

A. I realized that as I said that. That’s making me highly unreliable, isn’t it? No, it’s actually that I would keep rereading [the scripts], I would keep scanning back through. And all of the lines that I enjoyed from before, I would make notes of, just on the chance that I got to bring them up again.

Q. Wow.

A. I think we need to find something to be obsessed about.

Q. How did you get physically ready to play a character who has so many injuries, including a glass eye and back brace?

A. I just kept the back brace on all day. It rubbed and made me uncomfortable and stuck out the back of the suit — and great, then I don’t have to think about that. It’s actually uncomfortable, so that’s easier for me.

With the eye, I couldn’t see out of that eye and had a lens on the entire time. So anybody could walk up on my right side and I’d be totally oblivious to them.


Q. There’s a scene in the movie where you get to sing with Taylor Swift. I was wondering what that was like, and whether you or your kids are fans of hers.

A. Look, of course we’re fans of hers — and it was a delight. She’s wonderful in the film, you know, she just came along and rolled up her sleeves and has the voice of an angel. I love to sing, but I’m crap at it. I experienced what it’s like to sing with someone who can actually sing and realized I should shut up more often.

Interview was edited and condensed.

Joy Ashford can be reached at joy.ashford@globe.com. Follow them on Twitter @joy_ashford.