Christian Bale Talks About Rescue Dawn

Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn. © MGM

Once again critically acclaimed actor Christian Bale put himself through hell for yet another physically punishing role. Bale stars as Lt Dieter Dengler, the only American to ever break out of a POW camp in the jungles of Laos, in the dramatic film Rescue Dawn, based on a true story. Directed by Werner Herzog and co-starring Steve Zahn as a fellow POW, the film follows Dengler's struggle to survive in the jungle before being captured by Pathet Lao troops and after he makes a daring escape from the prison camp.

Getting Into Character: Bale has an interesting take on the real Dieter Dengler who passed away of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) in February, 2001. “I think he's a peculiar cat in the first place just because of the fact that he's bombed by American bomber planes, his streets are strafed by the fighter pilots, and he looks at that and he says, ‘I want to be that.’ That's not a normal reaction to people who are actually destroying your home. So he has this great, romantic notion of the US and this great dream, idealism, of what it means to be a US citizen, and what it means to be a pilot as well.

I truly think that he was just absolutely obsessed with the romanticism of the whole thing, and thankful on a personal level at what America had done for him. And that didn't really mix with the missions that he was going on. He still maintained that romanticism and, remember, this was his first mission.

The poor bastard got shot down his first mission. So I really think that had a very unique outlook where he didn't see them as the enemy. He saw them as just other people, which is why he seems such an unlikely military man, let alone somebody who actually is considered a hero. And so with those things, he was curious.

He's tied up, he's been dragged along, he's been beaten but he's still interested in, ‘I wonder what they're cooking over there? Oh, she looks nice. She's pretty, isn't she? He looks like a nice guy. I could probably have a good conversation with him.’ It's just the most bizarre outlook on life, the absolute optimism and curiosity and interest that kept him going and, I think, which disarmed so many people. Even with the guards because they're torturing him and he's still looking at them as people, not as monsters. He's still smiling at them. It must be the most disarming thing in the world to have that happen, and annoying as hell at times because he's not behaving the way that you're meant to behave. He's not being scared when he's meant to be scared. He's not being depressed and giving up hope when he's meant to be doing that. But he just was wired very differently.”

Building a Character: Bale says he’s not really sure what his process is. “You have time and you just sort of sit and think about it, put it in the back of your head to think over and things certainly come to you,” explained Bale. “With this, I had a lot of material that I could read and look at, and people to speak to as well.

I really don't feel like I've learned any more than the first time I ever did a movie. I don’t feel like I've got a technique now where I can kind of do a short cut or anything on it. It's just thinking about it from as many angles as possible and knowing you'll get there on the day, and just probably throw everything out the window because it's not going to work at that point. I really don't have any consistent style and technique whatsoever. But I'm pretty happy with it that way.”

Putting Himself Through Hell for a Movie: Bale’s explanation is a simple one when it comes to why he chooses roles that will challenge him to the limits both physically and emotionally. “Because I like going to hell and back,” explained Bale. “I knew that Werner would be a good guy to take us there. How many times in life do you get to do this kind of crazy s**t?

It's something that I was going to take advantage of. That was the big appeal to me of doing it. I like that, just testing yourself and seeing how far you can go.”

Christian Bale Doesn’t Need to Look for Thrills: Acting in movies such as Rescue Dawn provide enough daredevil moments. “Even though the finished movie is not real life, when you are actually swimming in the snake infested rivers, you're not acting swimming in snake infested rivers. You are swimming in a snake infested river. And it's important to realize that difference. When you are wrestling with a snake, it's not a pretend snake. You are wrestling with a wild snake. So to me, that is real life. That is what has become my real life. I really did do that. Sure, once it's into the movie, yeah, it's the character. But these are not things that haven't happened to me. They have. I'm not talking about obviously the acting side of it. POW Camp, etc., of course none of that is real life, but it's always true that in any movie, the physical aspect of it is always real. Unless it's a stunt guy doing it or something, special effects, the acting is always fake but what you physically do, that's for real. You're out there.”

And Speaking of the Snake: Was it venomous and was there a snake wrangler just in case something happened? “The snake wranglers were the local kids,” replied Bale. “No, the snake was not venomous. He had some pretty good fangs on him and I got them in the shoulder. But no, he wasn't venomous because these snakes, the local kids are actually - it was nothing to them. They would go, they would see one of those and they would run straight after it, grab it by the tail, whip it around, smash its head and they would cook it and eat it. This is ultimately what they would have for dinner. And like everyone says, it tastes like chicken. That's what they said. They would actually call it ‘chicken snake’. So one of the local kids caught the snake, put it in position and the snake started going and I just kind of ran in on it and grappled with it.

It didn't end up as dinner. We did let that one head off.”

Page 2: Maggots, Getting Thin, and Working with Steve Zahn

Page 2

Equally as Important – What About the Maggots?: Rescue Dawn isn’t for the faint of heart or the weak stomached. Not only does Christian Bale snack on a snake, he also munches down on some maggots. “Oh yeah, those were real maggots. No, but listen, I didn't mind eating the maggots,” said Bale. “I just wanted to make sure about where the maggots were coming from. Where did they find those maggots?”

All of the This Begs the Question – What Wouldn’t He Do?: “Well, look, you put yourself in my position. You're in Thailand, you got these crazy ass Thai chopper pilots who were willing to do anything. They all set up with the stunt guy. ‘Hold on, what the hell are you doing?’ They said, ‘Well, a helicopter's going to come in and he's got to stumble out in the rapids. You'll be falling over, going in there. You've got to grab a rope, you've got to hold on whilst they winch you up. You've got to hold on the railing, they're going to go off at a clip because they're really low over the trees. You want to be doing that?’ I was like, "F**k yes, I want to be doing that! I'm not letting anybody else do that.’"

Asked if he has any limits, Bale answered, “No. Look, I've done other things where people have had to be set on fire and jump three stories. I ain't doing that. No, I've got limits. But I'll tell you, it was fantastic dealing with the Thai Air Force guys.

We would take off and they would take out half a tree with them. These weren't guys who were all about the safety code, you know? They just kind of plowed their way through the jungle. I doubt I'm going to get a chance to do that again, so I'm glad that I did.”

Bale didn’t tell his agent what he was doing.

“We don't even tell the producers most of the time. They're not on the set; they don't need to know. Insurance certainly, they don't want to know.”

Loosing Weight for Roles: Bale looks rail-thin in Rescue Dawn although not to the point of emaciation like he did in The Machinist. But Bale says despite how it looks, he didn’t have to slim down much for this film. “No, I really actually didn’t lose a whole lot of weight for this one. I [was thin] but there’s a lot of good make-up and I just wanted to do enough to give kind of an indication of time and everything for it, but it really wasn’t anything on the scale of The Machinist. I wouldn’t do that again. I’ve kind of conquered that in my mind and don’t need to prove that to myself again.”

Going Ape Over Bananas: Bale’s co-star Steve Zahn mentioned Bale developed a real appreciation for bananas during filming. But that wasn’t the only item of food Bale grew to love. “There were some, I forget what it was, there was a local fruit as well, these kind of grape sized things that grew on trees. They were fantastic, too. We just kind of would sit there in rapture over different fruit, just talking about it. We would sit for five minutes just staring at a banana talking about how beautiful it was.”

Working with Steve Zahn: The two actors kept each other pretty entertained on the set and Zahn says Bale kept making him laugh. “He was cracking me up on the set as well. You're two guys going insane in rice paddy fields, barefoot, your ass hanging out because you've got these ripped up clothes, getting ecstatic over bananas, working with Werner Herzog, not knowing how you're getting home because the crew just quit and there's no vans to get you back. There ain't nothing to do but look at each other and just start cracking up. We did have a great time. Steve is a very funny guy. We did have a lot of fun, and you have to. But it's that thing, in the most trying times, you start cracking up. It's hilarious. It's all that you can do. It's that or strangle somebody.”