What do you do when you get assigned seven minutes to interview one of the most versatile actors of his generation? Someone whose work has been widely admired, whether as the masked Batman or the extremely thin and insomniac Trevor in The Machinist (2004) or as the pot-bellied Irving Rosenfeld in American Hustle (2013)? Or when he simply mesmerised in The Prestige (2006) and The Big Short (2015)? In fact, Bale impressed in his very first movie – as the young Jim interned in a World War II prisoner of war camp in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987). He was just 13 then.
What do you do when you are later informed that the seven minutes have shrunk to five? You grumble a little, but not much, and dive straight into the interview with the Academy Award winner (for best supporting actor for The Fighter, 2010).
This is Bale’s second visit to India. His first visit was in 2011, to shoot a few scenes of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises in Jodhpur. This time, the Bale family travelled to Delhi, Agra and Jaipur – including visiting the step-well that was shown in the Batman movie – before coming to Mumbai for Netflix’s world premiere of Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle on Sunday. The latest adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book blends voicework, performance capture and live action to bring the creatures of the jungle alive. Director Andy Serkis has focussed on Mowgli’s search for identity. Serkis also plays Baloo the bear, while 44-year-old Bale plays the black panther Bagheera.
Other cast members include Rohan Chand as Mowgli, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Freida Pinto. Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle will be premiered on Netflix on December 7. The film has also been dubbed in Hindi, with the voices of Abhishek Bachchan, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Anil Kapoor, Madhuri Dixit and Jackie Shroff.
The British-born and US-based Bale has often been named in lists of the sexiest movie stars or the most influential people in the world – lists he shrugged off just as casually as he bit into a samosa at the Mumbai hotel where the Mowgli event was held. Bale was dressed in a blue shirt that hung a little loose because he has rapidly dropped the extra pounds gained for his next film Vice, in which he’s almost unrecognisable as former American vice president Dick Cheney.
Contrary to rumours, Bale is affable and relaxed. He even shares a memory of the time he pre-tested the voice of Batman. “I went home and played the clip to my wife who said, ‘You blew that didn’t you!’” The rest, as they say, is history.
You watched Monty Python’s religious satire ‘The Life of Brian’ to prepare for the part of Moses in ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’. What preparation did you do for the role of Bagheera?
I also read the five books of Moses. It takes a little bit longer than just watching The Life of Brian, you know. But The Life of Brian was very enjoyable research to do. Unfortunately, Monty Python did not make The Jungle Book.
But I had seen, and greatly enjoyed, the Disney animation. I had read the book in school, but I was never a good student, so I went back and reread it. It’s a wonderful story that opens itself to many interpretations. Some people have asked me which one should we like – the recent Disney interpretation or this one? Well, I say, like both because the wonderful thing is to see how the same source material ends up so different.
What stands apart in the 2018 version?
The commonality is that there is fantasy to both of them. There is the musical aspect to the Disney versions, and here you’ve got the fantasy aspect, the wild side in all of us that wants to be able to run with wolves and howl at the moon and live that kind of life. The film embraces this.
Andy has stayed closer to the original text and his script recognises the power – the almost god-like power – we have as people to actually control the destiny of the jungle, and Mowgli also recognises that. It is an example of how Kipling’s story can be reinterpreted for different eras. This version also has performance capture technology.
How was it playing a panther using the techniques of performance capture?
Well, I had the master of performance capture, Andy Serkis, to guide me. I have known Andy since I was about 19 years old. He is an incredible actor and he has become phenomenally adept at performance capture. Not everyone understands that performance capture is not just the voice; you are actually creating the physicality.
Andy had me study panthers too. Any of the positions you see Bagheera in are actually the positions I was in. Plus I interacted with Rohan [Chand] and Andy, so your performance is not just standing in front of a mike. It has limitless potential and it can transform an actor into anything.
Your features were merged with the characteristics of a panther to create Bagheera. When you watch the film, do you see glimpses of yourself on screen?
At moments, yes, but I don’t really consider that as I am watching. In India, it is intriguing to see Abhishek [Bachchan] doing Bagheera’s voice in Hindi, so I am watching, but I am not hearing myself at all. Most people in India won’t even know that’s me as Bagheera. So what am I doing here?
You were 13 when you acted in ‘Empire of the Sun’. Rohan Chand is now 14. Did you have any advice for him, based on your own experiences as a child actor?
I think your advice is useless in many ways. What is incredibly vital is that Rohan has tonnes of interests outside of this. He is an incredibly intelligent young man who is capable in many different arenas. He seems to have a healthy family that isn’t just pushing him in this one direction.
That’s when it can become a daunting prospect, which is something we all recognise and can verge on abuse with child actors. He doesn’t seem to have any element of that at all. I think the devastating thing, at that age, is to have just one object, one goal in your life.
From your rich filmography, extending over 30-odd years, what would you pick as go-to films?
That’s tricky. What are they? There are so many that you intend in a particular way, but they come out as something else. I am incredibly proud of Andy and what he has managed with this. This film has taken a long time. We started this right after my son was born, and he’s four-and-a-half years old now.
I very much liked working with Adam McKay [The Big Short]. We have recently made a film called Vice, which is coming out next month. I am terribly fond of the films with David O Russell [The Fighter, American Hustle], Chris Nolan [the Batman trilogy], Terry Malick [Knight of Cups], Todd Haynes [Velvet Goldmine] as well.
There are tonnes, and there will be many that I will be missing out on. I have been fortunate to work with some incredible people. You don’t always get it right, with films, but you always have an interesting time trying. It is a director’s medium and as an actor, you serve the director. You try to serve their vision as best as possible, but they get to cut and slice. You get to see it at the end and go, ah, they didn’t even include that scene, or they used a take which I didn’t think was so good.
That’s just the way it is. You must surrender all that control.