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Film + TV

HollywoodThe Remarkable Transformation of Christian Bale into Dick Cheney

Words by Rob Chilton

Christian Bale’s remarkable physical transformation to play controversial former US Vice President Dick Cheney has Hollywood talking about his body once again.

For most actors, gaining 20kg, bleaching your eyebrows and shaving your head every day would signal a major commitment to a role. But for Christian Bale, well, it’s just another day at the office.

The English-American actor, renowned for physical transformations on screen, has drastically altered his appearance yet again to play US politician Dick Cheney in the talked-about new movie Vice. He even did specific exercises to fatten his neck.

Asked how he put on the weight to play President George W. Bush’s ruthless right hand man, Bale smirked, “Eating lots of pies.”

The 44-year-old Bale plays Cheney, who was Vice President under Bush from 2001 to 2009, at different times in his life. In changing his appearance, Bale says he was trying to create “a blank canvas through which these incredible [hair and make-up] artists could create the various ages of Cheney. They would shave my head every day, bleach and pluck eyebrows. It’s helpful not to look like yourself. If I look in the mirror and go, ‘Ah, that doesn’t look like me’ – that’s helpful.”

Bale has famously altered his physique before, bulking up for American Psycho, Batman Begins and American Hustle, but also losing 30kg for The Machinist in 2004 by eating a can of tuna and an apple each day, and dropping 13kg to play an ex-boxer in The Fighter.

Initially reluctant to put his body through more turmoil, Bale was persuaded by Vice’s writer and director Adam McKay, who won an Oscar for The Big Short, which also starred Bale. “I kept on saying I can’t do that again,” explains Bale, “but Adam McKay wrote a really good script. I kept on trying to find reasons about how to say no and he always had an answer for me. I eventually went, ‘He’s right. I’ve got to do it’.”

Shea Whigham, who plays the father of Cheney’s wife Lynne, in the movie, said of Bale, “He’s so committed to the process. You’ll see when you see him as Dick Cheney – he is incredible.” Other actors in the film include Sam Rockwell (George W Bush), Steve Carell (Donald Rumsfeld), Tyler Perry (Colin Powell) and Amy Adams (Lynne Cheney).

McKay says he was intrigued by Cheney’s role in shaping US and global politics during his time in the White House. “A lot of crazy stuff happened during those eight years, and this is a vital puzzle piece in what got us to this moment with Donald Trump, with the world, as it is now, and Dick Cheney is at the centre of it,” he says. “He was one of the most powerful leaders in American history, and quietly had a bigger effect on global events and the shape of the current world than just about anyone around.”

He adds, “America didn’t get to the delightful place we’re at today by accident. Someone had to crack the safe first. Someone who understood power and how to manipulate it. Someone no one would notice. An ultimate insider who knew every trick in the book.”

McKay undertook deep research to write the script. “Cheney is a very secretive guy, so one of the big things with this script has been to read every single thing that’s out there. It’s like detective work. We know a lot about him, but there’s a lot most people don’t know, and it’s pretty jaw-dropping. Once we started digging, I was astounded at how much he had shaped modern America’s place in the world and how shocking the methods were by which he gained his power.”

As well as the physical work required, Bale also worked his brain hard to play Cheney. “It’s taken as much research as I’ve ever had to do for any other film,” he reveals. “When you’re playing Mr. Cheney, you need to not only speak in the vernacular that he would speak in, but all the policies that he would be aware of and instances of them, the abbreviations for all of them, and be able to just go with it. So it was fascinating for me.”

His work impressed McKay. “What Christian Bale really does is he psychologically breaks someone apart and puts them back together again. I’ve never seen someone work so hard at it, and it is hard on him, but really amazing to watch.”

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Inevitably, any performance by Christian Bale causes Oscars chatter and Vice is no different. Previously a winner for The Fighter as Best Supporting Actor, Bale has also been nominated twice, for Best Actor in American Hustle and Best Supporting Actor again in The Big Short.

Now 44, he remains one of Hollywood’s most enigmatic actors, who despises the celebrity meat market. “I always want to confuse people in terms of any kind of image and be unpredictable in any kind of movie I make,” says Bale. “Being misunderstood is not a bad thing as an actor. I don’t want to know about the lives of other actors and I don’t want people to know too much about me. If we don’t know about the private lives of actors, that leaves us as clean slates when it comes to playing characters. I think that’s the way to longevity in the film business – keep everybody guessing.”

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