There’s an urban legend about Christian Bale. The story goes that on the set of American Psycho, Bale was able to sweat on command. The moment the director said “action!” beads of perspiration would immediately start to form on his face.
The truth is slightly less impressive.
“I didn't plan on doing that,” Bale tells Inverse. “[American Psycho author] Bret Easton Ellis actually described it in this scene as his breathing sort of getting stopped. And so in doing that, I just found that beads of sweat kept breaking out on my forehead. But that wasn't actually planned. It was just a result of what I was doing with my breathing.”
Bale has taken on plenty of physically demanding roles throughout his acting career, and his latest is no exception. In David O. Russell’s Amersterdam, Bale plays Burt Berendsen, an injured and traumatized World War I veteran who wears a glass eye and a painful back brace. Along with his friends Harold Woodsman (John David Washington) and Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), Burt gets caught up in a deadly conspiracy that goes all the way to the top of 1930s high society.
While the movie may feel particularly timely in its portrayal of obscene wealth and the fragility of democracy, Burt and Amsterdam are both six years in the making.
“We built this up over many many years,” Bale says, adding that he’d check in with Russell between various films to see how the research and writing were going.
Bale was doing plenty of research too, just a different kind. The character was influenced by everything from the actor’s son to the 1970s detective show Columbo, but the best inspiration came when least expected.
“It sounds a bit weird,” Bale says, “but I would spot people in the street and follow them and watch them and observe them. And then I’d call David and go, ‘Oh, I just saw a dude walking by and he's got the voice and the way he walks. He's a total Burt!”
Burt’s glass eye plays a prominent role throughout Amsterdam. Behind the scenes, it was a bit of an ordeal, mostly due to a commitment to practical effects.
“I had a lens in the whole time,” Bale says. “I couldn't see out of that eye at all.”
“There was a lens technician, Bob, who was great. He was always looking out for my eye. If we left it in too long, he’d come and look and go, ‘Oh God, we got to take it out.’ He would say the eye is literally growing around the lens. It's like egg whites and the protein starts to grow because it starts to say, You've had this lens in for so long, we're gonna make it a part of your eyeball.”
While the character of Burt (along with the rest of the cast) are original creations, the plot of Amsterdam is rooted in reality. I won’t spoil the movie’s many twists and turns, but the conspiracy at the heart of this story is surprisingly accurate historical fiction. You may be perturbed by the history you read after watching the film.
For both Bale and Russell, this also came as a shock.
“David read up on a lot of history that he was unaware of,” Bale says. “He’d call me up and go, ‘Dude, come meet me. I've just found out some amazing stuff that you got to learn about.’ It was a real eye-opener to us. We're nerdy in that way. So we really loved reading up on all the history of it.”
But ultimately, Amsterdam isn’t about history or politics for Bale, it’s about the three characters at the heart of the movie and the relationship that carries them from World War I all the way through this conspiracy thriller.
“Burt is someone who is very wounded and considered to be a broken man but someone who’s so joyous that he becomes victorious and considers himself to be fixed rather than broken,” Bale says.
“And that’s what we love so much about him.”
Amsterdam premieres in theaters on October 7, 2022.