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.”