Christian Bale is on the phone to talk about “Ford v Ferrari” and his role as the legendary race car driver Ken Miles, and I start by noting he hasn’t played a character so adept behind the wheel of a high-octane driving machine since the Dark Knight was roaring down Lower Wacker Drive back in the day.
After a polite chuckle, Bale says that while the Ford GT40 driven by Miles in the 1960s “doesn’t have the ability to jump other cars or blow them out of the way, it’s actually [capable of reaching higher] speeds and it’s a little bit racier” than Batman’s mode of transportation.
Directed by James Mangold (“Walk the Line,” “The Wolverine,” “Logan”) and featuring powerful twin-engine lead performances from Bale and Matt Damon, “Ford v Ferrari” (opening Thursday in Chicago) is a classic sports-underdog tale, inspired by the true story of the Ford Motor Co. of the mid-1960s taking on the seemingly impossible task of unseating the Ferrari racing program’s dominance of the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Damon plays revered driver turned automotive designer Carroll Shelby, who is convinced the talented but underachieving journeyman Ken Miles can lead the way to a monumental upset, despite the misgivings of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and his executive team, who are (justly) concerned about Miles’ impatience with anyone who doesn’t share his ferocious level of commitment and passion, his unwillingness to be a team player and get on board with the PR game, or to ease off the accelerator for even a moment.
Given Bale’s similarly uncompromising, all-in approach to acting, it’s reasonable to assume that’s one of the reasons he was drawn to the role. Bale brushed off that notion — until he sorta kinda didn’t.
“I don’t think about similarities between me and a character I play. That’s for other people to decide and talk about.
“[Ken Miles] is certainly an intriguing character. He’s someone whose purity and vision is his saving grace when he gets in the car and it makes him absolutely formidable, but it’s his Achilles’ heel when he steps out of the car, because it makes him ‘trouble,’ especially when you’re dealing with car racing, which requires a lot of money and investment, and therefore you have money men whose [primary concern] is a return on their investment — oh, very similar to moviemaking! Aha, there you go.”
After Bale spent most of the last decade playing American characters in movies such as “The Fighter” and “American Hustle” and “The Big Short,” his acceptance speech last January after he won the Golden Globe for his portrayal of Dick Cheney in “Vice” apparently came as the quite the surprise for some who didn’t know or had forgotten about Bale’s Welsh origins.
“What was the Deal with Christian Bale’s Accent at the Golden Globes?” was the headline on a CNN story.
“2019 Golden Globes: Everyone Forgot Christian Bale is British,” said Newsfeed.
Harper’s Bazaar took it a step further, proclaiming: “Christian Bale’s Accent Surprises the World.”
When “Ford v Ferrari” played at the Toronto film festival, one headline proclaimed, “Finally, a Movie With Christian Bale Talking in His Real Voice,” but while Ken Miles was from Birmingham, England, and Bale gets to deliver decidedly Brit lines such as, “I don’t bloody think so!,” he told me there’s a huge difference between his natural inflection and the very different regional British accent he employed to portray the late Ken Miles.
“I keep hearing, ‘Oh, it must have been nice just to be speaking in your own voice,’ and I understand how it’s tricky to hear the difference, but to a Brit, it’s like you’re saying to someone from the Bronx who’s using a Texas accent, ‘Oh, it must have been nice just to be speaking in your own voice.’ ”
Over the last 15 years, Bale’s weight has fluctuated radically to suit various roles. He lost 60 pounds for “The Machinist” (2004). He packed on the muscle for “The Fighter” (2010) and the Dark Knight trilogy. He gained 43 pounds of soft weight to portray a doughy con man in “American Hustle,” and he added at least that much poundage to play former vice-president Dick Cheney in “Vice.”
Which led to Bale losing some 70 pounds for his next role.
“I’d been playing Dick Cheney, and Dick Cheney would not be your ideal race car driver,” quipped Bale.
“The lighter the racer, the faster the horsepower. So yes, I had to [lose weight for this part], but I needed to do that anyway.”
[Sidebar: Bale says he’s now done with the insanely drastic yo-yo weight gains and losses. Good decision.]
Of course, there was more to Bale’s pursuit of verisimilitude than achieving plausible physicality. He took a weeklong course at the Bondurant High Performance Driving School and spent time with the school’s namesake founder, 86-year-old Bob Bondurant, who knew Ken Miles and actually raced for the Shelby American AND Ferrari race teams.
“I was not only learning how to drive these cars, though obviously not anywhere near the level of the pros, but I was also having these long lunches with Bob and hearing all these great yarns,” said Bale. “Really good times.”
The buddy-movie dynamic between Damon’s Carroll Shelby and Miles makes for some of the most touching moments in the film — and provides some comedic relief, e.g., when tensions between Shelby and Miles escalate to the point of an actual and quite ridiculous fight. Suffice to say it’s not exactly Jason Bourne v Batman.
“It was a lot fun,” said Bale. “Matt is used to doing fight sequences, and I am too. We’re accustomed to having to rehearse those scenes day after day after day — but for this one, we got in the usual room with a bunch of mats, and the stunt guys said, ‘Well we were thinking this,’ and within 20 minutes Matt and I looked at each other and said, ‘Got it, done.’
“Because in this case, it’s all about two guys who respect the hell out of each other, and in that moment need to vent, but they don’t really want to hurt each other seriously. It’s all encapsulated in [Carroll’s] choice to hit me not with a can but with a loaf of Wonder Bread.
“It’s also indicative of these enviable type of friendships, where you can have that level of differences and even come to blows, but you’re best mates the next day … and these guys, their obsession and love for what they do, they know that’s always going to unite them.”
Including “Ford v Ferrari,” Christian Bale has appeared in only 13 films in the last decade.
Four of those movies — “The Fighter,” “American Hustle,” “The Big Short” and “Vice” — received Academy Award nominations for best picture.
Bale’s work in each of the aforementioned movies also garnered Oscar nods. He was nominated for best actor for “American Hustle” and “Vice,” and best supporting actor for “The Fighter” and “The Big Short” — and he won for “The Fighter.”
Add to that Bale’s Golden Globe wins for “The Fighter” and “Vice,” not to mention his brilliant work in two great, under-the-radar films in “Out of the Furnace” (2013) and “Hostiles” (2017), and it’s clear Bale has an uncanny knack for picking the right projects.
“Come on, that’s not always true, you’ve seen enough of my work to know they don’t always pan out,” said Bale.
“I’ve been lucky, but it’s always a crapshoot. It’s the process I’ve got to look at — and then the wonderful gravy if a film actually comes out good in the end.
“There are so many elements that can conspire against a film turning out well. But wow, what a glorious moment when it actually does.”