Christian Bale on Dick Cheney, ‘Vice’ and taking on Donald Trump

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Fans of Christian Bale know that the actor isn’t afraid of changing his look dramatically for a role as the image panel shows below. After seeing him lose an alarming 62 pounds for the brilliant film “The Machinist” and then bulking up the following year to take on Batman, we’ve grown accustomed to Bale’s dedication as an actor.

His latest transformation is for the role of Dick Cheney which renders him barely recognizable with a shaved head and the most weight he’s had to put on for a role. Yes, even more than for “American Hustle” where you could still recognize the sexy beast.

“I’ve just been eating a lot of pies,” Bale says smirking about his latest incarnation and how he achieved it.

The not so flattering biopic about former Republican vice president Dick Cheney hit theaters over the holidays. It’s been nominated for six Golden Globe awards and is a likely candidate to be an Oscar contender. It’s unknown if Cheney and his allies will be pushing for a win though.

christian bales changing body in movies
Christian Bale’s everchanging body for movie roles

Christian Bale had a choice to make. He’d been hemming and hawing about Adam McKay’s very unconventional proposition that he play Dick Cheney in a biopic about the former vice president of the United States, and his deadline to decide was coming up.

“I thought it was going to be impossible. I also didn’t want to do that much work,” Bale said recently in Beverly Hills. “I just thought, ‘this is going to be a lot of work!’ Like, ‘Do you realize how difficult this is going to be? I don’t really want to do that.’”

But he started researching Cheney and doing some early makeup tests and realized he’d become obsessed. Suddenly seeing his name next to Cheney’s didn’t seem “so completely crazy.” He had to say yes.

Besides, he laughed, “There’s always attraction, I feel like, in ending a career in one go.”

So Bale and, eventually, his frequent co-star Amy Adams (“The Fighter,” ″American Hustle”), decided to do the impossible and become the enigmatic Dick and Lynne Cheney for McKay’s “Vice.” The charged polemic, which arrives in theaters Christmas day, follows the Cheneys from their inauspicious origins to Washington D.C., where Dick Cheney would become one of the most powerful and influential figures in the country.

To Bale, Cheney was someone who thrived on serving someone, whether it be Donald Rumsfeld or George W. Bush, but that his first loyalty was to his wife. The film posits a Shakespearean power dynamic where Lynne is pulling strings behind the scenes.

“Lynne was the ambition and the driving force,” Bale said. “Times being as they were Lynne was not able to achieve all these goals that she wished she could achieve herself. She needed a man to do that, and so Dick became that vessel through which she achieved her own ambitions.”

Adams too became fascinated by her character’s initiative and intelligence, and realized she needed to stop thinking of her as merely “Dick Cheney’s wife.”

“My daughter asked me what I was going to play, and I said, ’I’m playing Dick Cheney’s wife. And she was like, ‘Why are you always playing a wife and a girlfriend?’ And I realized even I had assigned her a position that was in relationship to Dick Cheney and it changed the way that I view her,” Adams said. “I was like you know what, ‘No I’m playing Lynne Cheney. She’s married to Dick Cheney. She is his wife, but she has her own identity.’”

Neither met their real-life subject, who they would be portraying over the course of four decades. Bale wanted to but was “warned away from trying to do that.”

“It’s one of those deals where they say if you bump into somebody, well good, chat all you want, but if you reach out to somebody, it’s a different legal thing that happens with that,” he said.

But they had a lot of resources to help, including first-hand accounts from people who knew them, and the internet. Bale’s phone is still full of videos and photos of Cheney, right alongside those of his wife and kids.

“I haven’t been able to get rid of it yet,” said Bale, laughing that he’s become fond of the memories.

Of course, learning about Dick and Lynne Cheney is one thing, but Bale and Adams would also have to look like them as well for “Vice” to work. For Bale, that meant yet another significant physical transformation that involved wearing fake teeth, gaining some 40 pounds, adding “a couple of inches” to his neck and spending about four hours in the makeup chair every day.

“It helps me get into character, but it doesn’t help me live a long life. Really. I’ve really got to stop doing it at some point,” Bale said.

He used to laugh at people who would just opt for an easy fat suit, instead of doing the work, until he realized that Gary Oldman had done just that for his Oscar-winning Winston Churchill transformation for “Darkest Hour.” But at that point he had already gained 25 pounds and decided he might as well just keep going. Adams, too gained some weight.

“I found it helpful for just the gravitas that Lynne had,” Adams said. “She felt very earthy to me.”

One thing Adams struggled with was the long hours in the makeup chair.

“One day I was so tired, I felt like I was on a boat and I was sitting there and we were working late into the night and I said, ‘I don’t know how you do it, Christian, I really have so much admiration for you,’ and he was just like, ‘I don’t think about it,’” she said. “It’s exactly what I needed to hear in that moment.”

Although the film itself may be political, both Bale and Adams would rather stay out of commenting on or making judgments about their characters and their politics.

“I didn’t approach this with my own opinions. I don’t typically head into any character I approach by judging them,” Adams said. “That kind of shuts me down in creating the character.”

Bale added: “If you’re watching us on the screen and you know Amy’s political stance on what Lynne was saying and my opinion and how much I disagree or agree with…it really kind of ruins the whole point.”

And perhaps the story is more complicated than party lines. Bale said, when you remove the “enormously horrific things,” like the Iraq War and enhanced interrogation, you are, “Kind of left with a love story.”

“You get this incredibly devoted man who recognizes that he would not have been the person he became were it not for his wife. You get a man who contrary to the times and what was popular with his party, without any hesitation, embraced his daughter Mary when she came out. He didn’t give a damn what anybody else thought. But I think also that is largely a part of what makes this story, and any story interesting,” Bale said. “There is this desire so often to make everyone into superheroes, to be all villain or all hero and nobody is … So it’s trying to find that balance but hopefully not putting anything of myself into it.”

“Does that make sense?” Bale added, “Or does it sound REALLY pretentious?”

christian bale with adam mckey on vice movie
Christian Bale with Adam McKay

Director Adam McKay sat down with Christan Bale for a few questions.

Dick Cheney is generally a secretive guy who has tried to avoid the spotlight and isn’t exactly famous for radiating a huge amount of personal charisma. What gave you the confidence that he would be a compelling character to base a film around?

Adam McKay: I think it’s precisely because we didn’t have brimming confidence that we were excited about it. I mean, that’s always the place you’re looking for, where you’re like, “I think we can do this.”

It certainly felt like a story that needed to be told. This is a guy who had an outsized influence on American history and world history. He’s clearly not a charismatic guy. He’s clearly a guy who lived in the shadows. So you pick the best people you can pick, and that was Christian, Amy Adams, my [cinematographer] Greig Fraser, my editor Hank Corwin — we all just kind of dove in and said, “Can we figure this guy out?”

Christian Bale: I’d worked with Adam on “The Big Short,” and that was something that many people said, “How on earth can you ever make this into a film?” He seems to love the challenge of taking something that is not apparently cinematic and making an absolutely stunning film out of it. And I love those challenges as well, where you’re walking a fine line between just absolute miserable failure and a wonderful surprise success.

I was just flattered that when Adam thought, ‘Who is the most uncharismatic person I can think of?” he came to me. [laughs]

Well, I’m sure you’ve been told many times you look just like Dick Cheney.

Bale: [drylyUncanny resemblance. We do have the same birthday, though. That is true. That was the real reason for Adam: with the lack of charisma and the same birthday, who else could he go to? It was written in the stars.

This movie doesn’t just depict Cheney as a one-dimensional villain — among other things, we also see his love for his family. But the fact is, he seems to have an understanding of how he’s seen by many people. He has embraced the Darth Vader meme about him.

Bale: He has a sense of humor about that. He used to dress his dog as the Lord of the Sith.

McKay: No one is born evil or good or a hero or a villain. Life is incredibly complicated and we’re all doing the best we can, even the worst of the worst among us. Dick and Lynne came through the era of the Reagan Revolution that changed everything and they saw that country under attack. And he used the tools and the beliefs that he had learned, which was executive authority and power, and you hit back. And when America needs to, we can get dark.

Now I don’t agree with that personally but we felt like it’s not ours to judge. We just have to show this story, this portrait of power. And first and foremost, I think that’s what the movie is: it’s a portrait and a love story.

Perhaps because we’re living in such wild political times now, it seems like a lot of people are looking back nostalgically at the Bush and Cheney years in a way they wouldn’t have just a few years ago. Does that surprise you?

McKay: That was a strange thing for me to see when people started saying, “I miss Bush because of Trump.” It’s like, “Really?” That has actually just made me sad. Really what it shows is there’s a portion of the country that just wants the presidency to appear like it’s functioning. Because all you’re missing is that Bush and Cheney made it look a little bit like it was normal. Because obviously what they did is so much more monstrous, with nearly a million people dead, a country invaded for no reason, torture brought back — these horrible, horrible things.

So I found that very disturbing and odd. But also I don’t want to get too judge-y, because I will say this: Trump is really disorienting. It’s really upsetting to have a guy just swinging his arms around like a gorgon, just smashing and destroying everything around him. So I understand that people have reactions to that. But no, if you look at what Bush and Cheney did, it’s absolutely monstrous.

Bale: I think it’s just the need for survival that we tend to remember the best. We’re taught as children to see the best in people and that becomes deeply instilled in good people. But at a certain point it becomes incredibly naïve and duplicitous because you’re willfully ignoring something that’s abhorrent because, “Hey, he did kiss the baby on the campaign trail and he does have that charming smile.”

Looking at Cheney, I found myself doing that. In finding the good — and there’s always something commendable in anybody — you started to really want the best. But what you’re wishing away is not just other people’s discomfort but death … And as you said and I believe Maureen Dowd, [with Trump], right, there’s still time — [sighs] oh God, what a horrible thought. But the body count doesn’t even begin to compare.

Adam, during the production of this movie, you had a heart attack. Did that in any way change the way you saw Cheney, who has a long history of heart problems? Did it somehow humanize him more for you?

McKay: It happened a couple of weeks after we wrapped, so yes and no. What it does is make you look at your life and what you’re doing and what things really matter. In that regard, it definitely had an impact.

The craziest part of the story was I’m on the [operating] table and there are people standing over you and I’m on these drugs they’re giving me while they’re putting the stent in the back part of my heart. And I was so high that I thought everyone needed to know that I just worked on a movie about Dick Cheney.

I’m like, “This is crazy. I just did a movie about Dick Cheney and here I am.” And there was this beat and I heard a voice to my right go, “Dick Cheney — great American.” I was like, “Well, it’s complicated.” [laughs] He goes, “What’s complicated about it?” I go, “Well, you know, Iraq didn’t turn out so good.” And he goes, “Better than Obama.”

Then there’s another beat and I go, “I don’t really want to argue with you. I think you just saved my life. I just want to thank you and thank everyone here.” And there was just silence and he was gone.

In today’s climate, everything is now being seen through a political lens. How confident are you that people who aren’t already left-leaning will open themselves up to this movie and not just dismiss it as a slanted movie from liberal Hollywood?

McKay: [deadpan] I’m 100% confident, without a doubt. Our next screening is live in Dallas Cowboy Stadium and it’s going to be for the entire NRA. [laughs]

You know, honest to God, the only way to really get it is you have to see it. When we test screened it, there were plenty of Republicans in the audience and in our test groups they would always go, “That’s fair. That happened.” We didn’t have responses of people going, “That’s a lie!”

There will be people who won’t see it just because Adam McKay supported something they don’t like — and we all know Christian Bale is a very public Satanist.

Bale: [pumping his fist and chanting] Baphomet! Baphomet!

McKay: But I dare anyone to turn away from his performance and Amy’s performance and Sam’s and Steve’s. I mean, it’s so compelling. And I’m excited to see what it does out there.

Has Cheney seen Vice yet?

McKay: Through a friend of a friend, I heard [Dick and his wife, Lynne Cheney] saw the trailer, though, and they both laughed quite a bit. Dick’s comment was apparently, ‘Well, if that movie about the fish guy [‘The Shape of Water’] can win, then maybe this one has a chance.’

So having now tackled Cheney, do you feel any compulsion to take on Trump?

McKay: Everyone keeps asking me about that. I do not want to sit in a room for eight months with that. I don’t want to make this guy dye his skin orange.

[pauses, then shakes his head] But I don’t know. I just realized, we’re probably going to … do it now.

Bale: [laughs] Yes, Adam just decided it. And off we go!