INTERVIEW: Harrison Cheung - Author of "Christian Bale: The Inside Story of the Darkest Batman"
Real-life Alfred, Harrison Cheung, graciously gave CBM this exclusive interview that includes some never-before-heard tidbits--including his thoughts on Christian's trip to see the Aurora shooting victims. Read on, gentle reader!
How is your book doing?
The book is doing very well. I don't have any numbers to share but was told that we've practically sold out the first run in its first month in June. July is expected to be even better. Obviously timing was perfect to line-up with DARK KNIGHT RISES, since Christian only comes out to do publicity to support his films. I really had no idea what to expect from the book since Christian is not particularly high profile outside of Batman.
I noticed that your cover, and other publicity pics airbrushed out Christian's mole at the corner of his eye. Has that ever bothered Christian, and did he ever think of removing it?
Christian has a couple things about his face that he used to fret about. His main concerns about his appearance was what Hollywood casting agents called "his Englishness" - so for AMERICAN PSYCHO, he got his teeth fixed and stayed a long time on the tanning beds to get rid of his English complexion. I mentioned in my book that Christian has had some bad experiences in hospitals, so I think the idea of cosmetic surgery doesn't thrill him. He's not going to go anywhere near a hospital if he doesn't have to!
What is your relationship with Christian now? And if none, do you still maintain contact with his Mother or sisters?
Christian and I parted ways a couple years ago. He was going through a tough time with his terminally ill father, and I wanted to work with other clients once our plans to form a production company went south. I ended up working with a number of actors, including Jake Gyllenhaal (I did Internet marketing for DONNIE DARKO and BUBBLE BOY) as well as an indie project for Ryan Gosling.
Yes, I'm still very much good friends with much of Christian's family, including his mother and sister.
Have you learned what Christian thinks of your book about him?
All I've heard is from his family. His family has read the book and they enjoyed it. To quote his Mom--she said, "the book was written with clarity and diplomacy". The challenge with the book is, that since I am no longer working with Christian, I fully anticipated that some people would grumble and say it was written by a former employee--blah, blah, blah, but since the book has been out just over a month the reaction has been generally positive. There are some who say, well, this is not an "authorized" biography, and I've had to explain to them what the difference is. An authorized biography is where the celebrity hand-picks the writer, they limit the scope of what the writer can write about, and then the celebrity censors the final product. To me, that isn't really a biography, that's a self-serving piece of propaganda. When you're going to judge ANY biography, not just mine, you want to see if the author is writing from a point of authority because there are plenty of celebrity bios out there where the writers have never met their subject--they are simply writing based on research. And I'm not saying that those are all bad books, but I think mine has a unique angle given that I lived and worked with the guy for almost 10 years during the most formative period of his career, and also that I myself started out a fan, a big movie buff, a sci-fi buff, you know, to have met my favorite actor and to have been invited to help out his career, I think that is a pretty unique story.
Knowing his aversion to publicity, do you think Christian will EVER "authorize" a biography about himself?
It's hard for me to guess. Maybe in the future, he might look at the latter part of his career and decide to do a retrospective. The interesting thing about the years that I cover is that a lot of the details about his career, like the financial mismanagement, his immigration, the battle between his Dad and his agents (he went through quite a few agents!), all that type of stuff was not filtered down to Christian. Christian's Dad was like, "Don't worry son. I'll take care of everything", and Christian wouldn't realize what was going on behind the scenes. So, even from Christian's own point of view, he may not know things that happened around him. It's kind of like when parents get divorced, the kid doesn't always know what is going on behind closed doors.
Was your relationship with David Bale even closer than with Christian?
It was an interesting relationship because his Dad treated me like another son, but obviously not equal to Christian--more like an older son who is responsible for taking care of everything in the house. So, even though while Christian was "the talent," and the star of the show (and family), I was someone that his Dad confided in when there were huge problems, because his Dad never wanted Christian to worry.
Christian was so easily discouraged, especially when they first moved to the United States. You can imagine an actor's life is going on a lot of auditions, almost daily, and getting rejected. And when the common reason for Christian getting rejected was that he was not an American, you look too English, you've got English teeth, you've got that English (pale) physicality. It was very, very discouraging for Christian. So, I can see that a lot of what his Dad was trying to do, was to create an environment where Christian wasn't going to give up, pack his bags and go back to England. As I write in the book, his Mother was pulling on the other side. She was all about saying, "You know son, if it's too tough in America, come back home. You can always come home. Go back to school. Finish high school. Get into University." And this was because she saw the breakdown that he had when he was doing the press junket for EMPIRE OF THE SUN.
Christian went through a string of "bombs" early in his career, which added to his discouragement. You make the point in your book that Christian's pick for his most hated film, NEWSIES, was actually the most instrumental in his future stardom.
Yes! Without NEWSIES, I don't know how Christian's current success could've happened, because NEWSIES ended up being a hit on video. In those days Blockbuster video store used to have a newsletter, and I was on great terms with the newsletter editor. The very first big article that we got in the newsletter was "Christian Bale: The One to Watch." Back then, you walk through a video store and the movies were organized by genre, but I got Blockbuster to do Christian Bale movie displays across the country--which was the very first time they highlighted movies by actor. They displayed EMPIRE OF THE SUN, TREASURE ISLAND, NEWSIES, SWING KIDS, etc., and it was a nice collection of videos of "movies you might've missed" to make people aware of an up and coming actor. And this was before there was an IMDB, and before any of those websites where you could check up on an actor.
NEWSIES became a weird second chance for a lot of people. The director of NEWSIES went on to direct HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL. So, that relaunched musicals to the teen audience, and so the way I marketed NEWSIES on video was to the MTV crowd saying, "Hey, look at this choreography". We're talking about the era of 1992 around the time that choreographed, synchronized boy bands were catching on, and suddenly we're waving around NEWSIES saying, "Look at these bunch of guys singing and dancing". It was really interesting to see how High School audiences came to love NEWSIES and they were all singing the songs and doing stage productions from that movie. Even now, so many years later, it is currently a Broadway show.
So, the movie that Christian was dragged into kicking and screaming, that is considered one of Disney's biggest bombs, the one he is most embarrassed by and left off his resume, was the most important as far as marketing himself to fans--which in turn gave him the Internet clout that has been so important in his career and future roles.
It's funny how supposed "bombs" become big deals later on.
Movie studios have a very, very short battle plan. Everything in their marketing plan is for opening weekend. And they have the best bean-counters in the world that will tell you, "We expect this movie to open #1. We expect it to open by THIS much, and then we expect it to drop off the following weekend by only THIS percent". Even right now, I've been reading about how "The Aurora Effect" on THE DARK KNIGHT RISES crippled opening weekend, and I'm like LOOK, it opened number one on opening weekend! It's kind of like stock market speculation to say it didn't open as BIG as it could've and we're going to blame it on the Aurora effect.
What did you think about Christian's visit to the Aurora shooting victims?
The Aurora shootings were a terrible tragedy, and you know it's a dark cloud over DKR much like Heath Ledger's death is associated with THE DARK KNIGHT. Immediately after the shooting, the press noticed the huge Facebook and Twitter campaign to get Christian to go visit the victims, dressed as Batman. The Facebook and Twitter accounts for my book were swamped with posts and petitions from around the world all addressed to Christian to get him to go. One of the main threads of my book is the influence of fan power throughout Christian's career - particularly through the Internet. I frankly was really impressed that his fans would mobilize so quickly to ask him to go.
I'm sure Christian felt terribly for the victims. I was reminded of the conflict he had after he filmed AMERICAN PSYCHO. There were some people warning him that the movie could influence people on the edge. There've been a couple killers who've pointed to the book and the film as their inspiration. But should an actor feel responsible for a crazy person's reaction? Should the director? The screenwriter? The author? This question goes all the way back to TAXI DRIVER and John Hinckley Jr! I think Christian was in a tough position. If he didn't go to Aurora, he'd look aloof, especially after such a widespread Internet petition. Christian went without the Batman costume, which I think made a lot of sense!
Do you think that Hollywood has finally embraced the Internet as an essential element in promoting stars and movies?
I think Hollywood treats the Internet like a legitimate medium now - like TV, radio, print. So no surprise, there are web sites for every film - indie or studio - today. Some of those sites are marketed very well. Some of them are just extensions of a movie trailer to cross-merchandise a lame online game or burger tie-ins.
But we still have the same the problem. Right after a movie's opening day, the web site is practically abandoned until the video release day. The thinking is always short-termed. Obviously a lot of actors have taken to twitter - either directly or through a hired tweeter. Hollywood doesn't promote actors individually. If you're an up and coming actor, a good web presence will still do wonders to empower your fan base for the long term and to differentiate yourself from your competition. If you're an established actor, a good web site lets your fans know what charities you support, your politics - it's like your personal TV channel. Could someone like Ezra Miller benefit from a web site? Absolutely. Could Tom Hanks? He doesn't need one.
So how did you specifically market Christian for the role of Batman?
When we did the pitch for him to get an audition for Batman, we put together a showreel with AMERICAN PSYCHO so we could show he was buff, and could wear a tuxedo, and EQUILIBRIUM--which was a stepping stone for Christian into action movies because he had to show that he looked good doing fight scenes.
I was surprised to find out (from your book) that Christian really had some problems with that movie (EQUILIBRIUM) and was glad when he was done with it.
He absolutely didn't get along with that director, they were shooting in Germany where it was cold and miserable, they ran out of money for the production, and as I recount in the book, he was extremely disappointed with the end scene. There was supposed to be this big final gun (Gun-Kata) battle where Christian and the bad guy would be shooting at each other, and the bullets would be bouncing off each other in matrix-style bullet time. And instead you had them slapping each other around with the guns. As Christian put it, it looked like they were bitch-slapping each other.
Who do you think should be picked as the next Batman?
Yikes, whoever directs and stars next will have a tough act to follow. Jake Gyllenhaal, was up for Batman against Christian for BATMAN BEGINS, and Jake actually scored second in a lot of Internet polling, but was considered to be too young. I think he'd make an interesting Bruce Wayne. I've also heard rumors about Channing Tatum but I don't think he'd be good fit. The hottest buzz I heard the week I was in LA was Taylor Kitsch. He would be an inspired choice. I hope they go with a less known actor so that he can still have the opportunity to surprise.
What was Christian like when he wasn't acting? What kinds of things would he do in his spare time? You mentioned some, frankly, strange "experiments" with his body fluids in your book. Does he have other equally interesting hobbies you can enlighten us about? For instance, it sounds like he was a big reader.
He loves to read. He has very esoteric taste in books. I'll give you an example. When he was preparing for AMERICAN PSYCHO he wanted to read about serial killers. And specifically he wanted to read about serial killers that happened to have been influenced by the book AMERICAN PSYCHO. So, I got him the biographies of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka who were a husband and wife serial killer team in Canada. When they caught them, they had a copy of AMERICAN PSYCHO on their nightstand.
He seemed to like history books, and he had some strange tastes for very obscure novels. Because he dropped out of high school, this was also a way in which he educated himself. So, half his bedroom was a library. He stays up in his room and plays guitar. He's actually quite musical, and if you've seen NEWSIES you know he can sing and dance. But yeah, I think because of the work environment of being an actor, he's used to hundreds of people being around him all the time, and now that he's a recognizable star, he likes his alone time. He likes being in a secluded place and playing guitar or reading an art book.
As for his experiments, as far as I know he continues them to this day. I went out to dinner with him and his wife just a couple years ago and I teased him about "Remember those weird things you used to do on your window sill?" and his wife immediately said, "Used to do?! He still does!!!" He has this fascination with decay, and he wanted to know which things would decay faster sitting out on his window sill. I think it started off as, you know, like everybody remembers in science class the mold experiment--where you get a slice of bread and you see how fast mold spores would grow. And he took that to an extreme where he wanted to see various things decay. I don't know when it started, but I first saw that he did that when he moved to L.A. at 17, and right up until a couple years ago.
Do you think being married is having a positive effect on his volatile personality?
That's not an easy question to answer. He had a reputation for a temper before he was married. And the incidents about allegedly assaulting his mother, the rant on the set of TERMINATOR SALVATION, and the clash he had in China earlier this year - they all took place while he was married. I know his wife very well and think she's a saint to put up with him.
Can you tell us more about the intensity with which Christian approaches his roles?
You know, "intense" is an interesting word. In the 1990s that was the big compliment, "Oh, he's so intense," but christian used to grimace about that as an adjective because he thought it was overused--and it was generally used to mean someone angry, who didn't mind hitting the table and knocking over dishes in a scene. I remember watching a Sean Penn movie with Christian, and he turns to me and says, "I'll bet you $10 dollars that everything on that table is going to be smashed". And literally, within minutes later, everything on the table was smashed--and we had a good laugh. What Christian is, is SERIOUS. He's serious to the point of being humorless in his craft. There is a wonderful quote from Harrison Ford where someone asks him if he's a method actor and he says, "No. I like to pretend" and that is how he does it. Now Harrison Ford is an easy going type of actor, but you have others (like Christian) that really like to live and breathe and incorporate the role. And I think that comes in part because he's English, and has always had to work at keeping up (or losing) an accent for a different character from role to role. It's a lot like asking someone to do a southern accent for three weeks. You have to stay in it, otherwise you are going to slip out of it.
With regard to accents, if you look at any movie Christian did before AMERICAN PSYCHO, he primarily did British accents. In AMERICAN PSYCHO he had to stay in character during all that in order to keep his accent. So when we talk about his intensity, seriousness and dedication for the craft ... He'd call me, and he wouldn't say, "It's Christian," he'd say (in a creepy American accent), "Hi Harrison, it's Patrick". And I'd say, "Patrick who?", and he'd say, "Bateman". It took me a minute to figure it out, but yeah, all his emails and faxes during that time were signed Patrick Bateman. And so, he'd stay in character and I didn't want to break his concentration, so I would go, "What can I do for you Mr. Bateman?" Another time, when he did the movie CAPTAIN CORELLI'S MANDOLIN, he was preparing to do a Greek peasant's accent. We went to Greek restaurants like crazy in L.A. because he wanted to hear people speak with a Greek accent. And then that was his regular speaking voice until the end of filming--talking like Zorba.
Can you give us more detail into Christian's infamous Terminator rant, and the incident with his Mother and sister where he was accused of assault? What REALLY went on there?
Whoever released the TERMINATOR: SALVATION audio on the Internet was definitely trying to hurt Christian, because the timing of the leak was intentional. As I mentioned in the book, it was released on his birthday. Actually TMZ reported the rant a couple months earlier but it didn't take hold. It's actually kind of an interesting story, TMZ was covering the battle Christian was having with his Mother at THE DARK KNIGHT premiere in London, and they must've gotten a tip about the rant on the set of TERMINATOR: SALVATION at that time, but it didn't catch fire until it was actually leaked later. It was very interesting that they leaked it on his birthday, and yeah, that sort of speaks volumes about how things were on the set.
Do you REALLY believe he is the type that would "assault" his Mother and sister? The charges were dropped by them after all.
Yeah, let's put this into perspective. THE DARK KNIGHT. London premiere. Christian ALLEGEDLY "assaults" his Mother and sister. His Mom was immediately branded by the fans as a gold digger, which is sort of sad that people immediately took sides against her, and Christian has to continue the press junket but reporters aren't allowed to bring it up, so he won't talk about it and it gets blown up. What happened during the incident at the Dorchester hotel was that he had a problem with his Mom and sister and got upset, and I think that what REALLY upset his Mom was that this happened in front of his three little nieces--all under the age of 10. So, when that happened, you can imagine that they were very upset. And obviously Christian's temper was over-the-top, so they reported him thinking that they could have an officer "talk him down," but I think what happened was that whoever got the report, looks at the name and says, ah, Christian Bale, and then they make a bigger deal out of it. Because if you remember, Christian was never charged, he was only questioned. But of course, when the press picked it up it became, "Christian Bale Arrested for Assaulting his Mother". So it really got blown out of proportion. But if that had been the sole incident, he wouldn't have this reputation of having a temper. Right after that the TERMINATOR SALVATION audio leaked out, earlier this year the China incident, Billy Crystal made fun of him at the Oscars, and its now become part of popular culture that he's got this temper. Now, look at actors like Alec Baldwin, who have tempers and "incidents" in their past, but who can somehow dismiss it, or they know how to spin it, or make a joke out of it with self-deprecating humor. But that is something Christian doesn't have.
Christian hasn't spoken to his Mom since that event. Why do you think Christian burns bridges?
Why does Christian burn bridges? I'm not sure. He has not talked to anyone in his family for the past four years. The British press noticed that for the London premiere of DARK KNIGHT RISES, Christian only spent 3 hours in the country to avoid bumping into any family members. I've heard a couple sides of that family tragedy. On one hand, I think Christian was mortified that his mother, in effect, aired their grievances in public by going to the police after he had allegedly assaulted them at the premiere of THE DARK KNIGHT. And I think his mother would desperately like Christian to communicate with his family. Christian's mum is a very nice lady, but she's also naive, so I don't think she realized the type of attacks she'd get from his fans siding with Christian no matter what. And the thing you have to realize about Christian's Mom is that she wants to get her side of the story out.
The reason why he spent so little time in London is because his Mom had planned to ambush him at the premiere with a camera crew, and she'd said that if she couldn't get to him in London she would follow him to Paris (the next press event). So Christian flew in, did the red carpet, didn't sit through the movie and took off to avoid his Mom. So, the British press reports, WOW, Christian Bale only spends 3 hours in home country to avoid his Mom. And so he jets over to Paris to do the Paris one, and the Paparazzi is ready to bring his Mom to Paris to confront him again, but that one gets cancelled because of Aurora.
So what do you see in the future for Christian? Will he ever make another mega-movie again like Batman or is it just indies from here on out?
Unless there is a financial need, I doubt it, not after three Dark Knight movies. He's set. I don't see him doing anything you would call a mainstream movie. I certainly don't see him doing another big franchise, or an Adam Sandler movie (laughs). He no longer needs to audition. He's on the A-list now after Batman, and can pick and choose. The other thing is that he scored an Oscar for THE FIGHTER, something that every actor wants. So from his perspective, he can concentrate on projects that he wants to do as they come in. Did you see Flowers of War? That to me is more indicative of the types of movies Christian likes to do.
You can respect him for at least knowing what he wants, and maintaining his privacy, huh?
Yeah, I think it's his way of providing some distance, and sort of saying look, when I'm an actor and I'm on set, the only one that can command me is the director, but when I'm off set, then I do what I want. A perfect example is that Christian has one daughter, and he's given the press a fake name of Emmeline. That's not her name. It's just sort of funny. Why be so secretive about it? There is a general protocol in Hollywood if you've got an underage kid, they're not supposed to take a picture. Like TMZ will blur out the face for safety. Well, Christian took it to another level by giving fake names. And I think that is how he defends his inner circle, because if you are interviewing him, and ask "how is Emmeline?" then he knows you aren't part of the inner circle. So its an interesting way that he manages his (mixing metaphors here) his Fortress of Solitude.
Is EMPIRE OF THE SUN still your favorite movie?
EMPIRE OF THE SUN remains my favorite Christian Bale movie. I think Spielberg did an incredible job telling a gritty story through the eyes of a boy. And Christian's performance in that movie, in my opinion, has not been surpassed by any child actor in depth and breadth.
...a quick anecdote about child actors. I was at a Disney function, because Christian had a three picture deal we were invited to Disney functions all the time--premieres, parties, at disneyland, etc, and so we were at this dinner and as is typical with all starving young actors, everyone goes to the buffet table, and there was this large woman cornering this very famous agent while talking up her son. "My son can sing, my son can dance, he's gonna be big one day, blah, blah, please, I'd love you to represent him." And this agent, he had his plate and glass of wine, and he was trying to get around her, but she was determined to stay in his face. Now, she had her son beside her who was this little kind with curly brown hair, by her side just listening to his Mom push, push, push. So finally, the agent just puts down his plate, points his finger at the Mother's chest and says, "Look, you know what? I'm really sorry but your son is UGLY. He will never be a star. He will always be someone's geeky best friend. That's the best he can hope for. He has no potential of being A-list, so GO AWAY Mrs. LaBeouf!"
I couldn't tell from your writing that you held any bitterness towards Christian. Do you? And, would you have worked for him (unpaid) as long as you did if you knew what you know now?
First of all, I'm glad you didn't detect any bitterness in the book. I wrote the book as a biography that happens to be told from a unique point of view - someone who worked with him for a long time, and as a movie buff who got to connect with his favorite actor. You don't get that kind of story in Hollywood where a fan gets to work on an actor's career. I've been thrilled at how many people - Christian's fans, Batman fans, movie buffs - have loved the book. There've been a couple haters who automatically dismiss anything that portrays Christian as a real human being. I mean, look at the death threats a couple film critics got for dissing DARK KNIGHT RISES! But the book is a straightforward biography as well as a history of Internet marketing in Hollywood - read it, you'll like it. :)
Let me quote a line from one of my fave flicks LEGEND: "The dreams of youth are the regrets of maturity." I'd definitely advise any other fan who tries to do what I did to make sure you get a contract in place first! I had a fun time working in the entertainment industry, and of course, things could have been very different. But then again, in a parallel universe, I could still be sitting in a cubicle in Toronto, and Christian might have given up acting after NEWSIES!
- Read CBM's review of Harrison's book HERE.
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