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Bale force

Ever since his first starring role at the age of 13 in Steven Spielberg's epic Empire of the Sun, Christian Bale has had a reputation for being difficult.

A publicist's nightmare, the British-born actor made it plain early in his career that he hated giving interviews and often sat through entire sessions without answering any questions. Although he later softened his stance, his behaviour both on and off the set has attracted unfavourable attention.

Just after the second of his Batman films, The Dark Knight, was released, he was arrested in London for allegedly assaulting his mother and sister. The charges were dropped, but soon afterwards he launched a profanity-laced tirade at a cinematographer on the set of Terminator Salvation for allegedly crossing his line of sight during a scene. After a recording of the rant was released online, he issued a public apology.

The Christian Bale who strolls into a Beverly Hills hotel suite to talk about his latest movie, The Fighter, for which he has just won a Golden Globe and been nominated for an Oscar, is neither difficult nor badly behaved. He is, however, completely unrecognisable with shoulder-length hair and a full beard.

"You're looking at unemployment," he laughs. "Lately, I've been getting called Jesus Christ or Charles Manson."

Bale, 36, is reasonably affable but makes it plain he is uncomfortable talking about himself. "I want to talk, but I try not to show too much of myself. I'm not a rock star; I'm an actor. I'm somebody who's meant to be other people, and I'm not meant to be here representing myself. I like the focus to be on the character."

This time the character is Dicky Ecklund, real-life ex-boxer, ex-crack addict, former jailbird and the pride of Lowell, a bluecollar town outside Boston.

Ecklund, who once went the distance with Sugar Ray Leonard, losing a points decision, is the older brother of "Irish" Micky Ward, a battling boxer who, despite several severe beatings in the ring, went on to win the world junior welterweight title under Ecklund's tutelage.

The Fighter, directed by David O Russell, also stars Mark Wahlberg as Ward. It tells the story of the two brothers, Ward, the quiet, straight-as-an-arrow prison guard, and Ecklund, charismatic and funny but caught up in a violent life of drug addiction and robbery that led to a 10-15 year jail sentence.

Bale, who is known for the intensity with which he inhabits his roles, spent a lot of time hanging out with Ecklund on the streets of Lowell. "He's larger than life," says Bale. "He took me around to the crack houses he used to use and the jail he spent time in. Wherever he goes, he's like the mayor of the streets. He is one of the funniest guys I've ever come across. He's got his own language he calls Dickinese where he has different words for everything. I learned the whole thing so that we could communicate. It was great because Dicky and I could talk on the set, and nobody would have any idea what we were saying.

"You hang out with Dicky and the most crazy stuff becomes normal. He's someone who's gone way over the edge, he's come back laughing, and there's a real kind of buoyancy about him all the time.

"He had extreme ups and extreme downs and was so naturally gifted that he was able to go drinking all night and then jump in the ring in the morning. But that catches up to you after a while, and it was hard for him to fulfill his potential."

Ecklund's drug addiction and personal problems forced him to retire from boxing in 1985 after a 10-year career and a record of 19 wins and 10 losses. When he came out of jail, he became his brother's trainer and helped guide him to the world junior welterweight title.

Bale had once more to transform his physical appearance, dropping more than two stone in weight and using make-up and prosthetics to age himself (he is in fact three years younger than Wahlberg). Then he not only had to learn how to box, but how to box like Dicky Ecklund.

"Dicky has a very squirrelly way of fighting, and that came to me through really hard-core boxing training," he says.

Born in south Wales, Bale grew up in Portugal and various towns around England before settling in Bournemouth. He was introduced to the entertainment business almost from the start: one of his grandfathers was a stand-up comedian, the other was a stand-in for John Wayne; his mother was a dancer and circus performer, and his father was an entrepreneur, conservationist and animal rights activist.

Bale began his career as a nine-year-old in television commercials and made the transition to stage and film, performing alongside Rowan Atkinson in a West End production of The Nerd when he was 10. Then Steven Spielberg chose him from 4,000 hopefuls to star in Empire of the Sun.

For a while after that he lost his desire to act and it was Kenneth Branagh who lured him back by persuading him to take a minor role in his Henry V. As an adult, he appeared in the musicals Newsies and Swing Kids and found himself labelled a heart-throb through his appearance in Little Women. But it was not until he portrayed serial killer Patrick Bateman in dark satire American Psycho (2000) that he made his breakthrough in the US.

He lost 80lb for his role in the psychological thriller The Machinist and regained it all and more when he was cast in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. His spell of unemployment is due to end in April when filming begins on the third Batman adventure, The Dark Knight Rises.

"I'm incredibly fortunate that I've got that little Batman movie coming up," he says. "It's a wonderful thing to fall back on, and not many actors get given that kind of backbone."

The Fighter opens on February 4

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