No script for ‘Knight of Cups’? No problem for Christian Bale

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Brian Dennehy (left) and Christian Bale in “Knight of Cups” |Broad Green Pictures Photo

As is often the case with Terrence Malick’s films, Christian Bale says “Knight of Cups” (opening Friday) will affect “every person who watches it in very different ways. … I’d be willing to bet if you spoke to people coming out of the theater, you’d get a different interpretation of what they had just seen from each one of them.”

Actually working with Malick “isn’t going to be for everybody either,” the Oscar winner noted. “It’s got to be for actors who enjoy the process, as opposed to those who simply want to play a character in a piece. Often, Terry won’t even have a camera on you, when in other films that might be the pivotal moment of your character. That’s simply how he works and how he shot this film.”

With “Knight of Cups” (the title refers to a specific Tarot card), Bale teams up with Malick for a second time, having first starred as John Rolfe in the filmmaker’s “The New World”  a decade earlier.

“Of course, this was a very different film,” said Bale. “We had kept in touch since ‘The New World’ and talked about different projects. Then he came to me for this and asked, ‘What do you feel about doing a film where we just say, ‘Forget the script.’ There will be no script at all. I’m going to give you a character description, then we’ll go film and see what happens.'”

Bale made it clear that there are very few other directors he would trust with such an ambitious project — a feeling obviously shared by his co-stars in “Knight of Cups,” including Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Teresa Palmer, Antonio Banderas, Brian Dennehy and Wes Bentley.

For Bale, shooting this film — in which he plays a successful Hollywood screenwriter trying to figure out his life — “it was akin to more of a piece of music or a piece of literature than a film.”

For him that was a compliment to Malick, because “in my life, music and literature have had far more of an effect on me than film ever has.

“I love making films, but for me as an actor I don’t think you have to watch films to be in films. You have to watch films to be aware of the history of films if you’re a director. For an actor you just have to be there and do the work. But as for inspiration, music and literature have just resonated more. That’s what I said to Terry when I finally saw the finished film.”

As for Bale’s character of Rick, he described him as “a man of words, but a person who has lost his means of expression. He’s somebody who has had a dream, and a fellow who has a wonderful ability with words, but who has lost all use or love of them. He’s had all the beauties and indulgences and vices of Los Angeles thrown at him. He’s enjoyed every single one of them. But now he’s reached this sort of mountaintop in his life. He’s looking over the peak, but now he’s trying to figure out why this does not feel the way he thought it always would.”

Bale said he personally could relate somewhat to what his character in the film was going through. “There’s a lot to hate about L.A., and an awful lot to love about it. I hated it when I first came out here, but for the first few years it was the only place I was getting any work, so I kept coming back. But as soon as I’d be done with the work, I’d head back to London — a walking city — where I’d feel more comfortable. Gradually, I developed deep roots here, because my children were born here in L.A. and my wife grew up here and all that. I also gradually realized the beauty of the city and started to love it.

For Brian Dennehy, the chance to have his first experience working with Malick was an opportunity he simply could not turn down. In the absence of a script, “you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, but the magic words are Terrence Malick.”

Dennehy did not regret taking the chance to make what he called “a Freudian home movie.” In the film he plays the father of Bale and Wes Bentley — a very complicated relationship, shaped by the tragedy of having lost a third son.

Dennehy said he turned to his own family for inspiration to find his strong-willed Joseph in “Knight of Cups.”

“Some of it was generational. My character was not unlike my own father, though he was not nearly as much of a thug as this character is. My father was a guy who expected to be listened to and obeyed. Yet I miss him like crazy. He had an enormous effect upon me. Fortunately, he got to see me make it as an actor before he passed away, which was good, because it was always a very confusing thing for him, that I would try to become an actor. He was always asking me why.”

Yet even more than his father, Dennehy noted, “my grandfather was really one of these guys, like Joseph. He was a tough Irishman. He was self-made, a hard-working factory worker. He expected the world to be a difficult place, and probably made it a lot more difficult than he had to. Stubbornness was at the core of his being.”

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