The magicians of “The Prestige”
Having turned him from a semi-successful but mostly struggling British artiste – none of his films, bar his debut “Empire of the Sun” (1987) were tried-and-true hits – into a bonafide A-list superstar, Christian Bale didn’t need to be threatened with a Chinese burn to rejoin his “Batman Begins” director Christopher Nolan for another film.
“Chris didn’t actually come to me with this”, admits Bale, who before “Batman Begins” (2005) was probably best known as the psychotic power player Patrick Bateman in 2000’s “American Psycho”. “I actually read the script and I called him up and said ‘I want in. I like Borden. I can really nail this character.’
“The question was ‘Could he see me as anything other than Bruce Wayne?’ He said ‘yeah go for it.’ I do think he’s one of the best around and I think you’re in bloody good hands. It’s nice to work with someone a number of times. You do get a nice little short hand between you and you can really hit the ground running much quicker. It’s nice to also see that Chris was doing a ship shaping kind of thing in terms of his directing styles between the two movies.
So why did Bale think he could nail the role of master magician Alfred Borden? After all – he’s about as close to Bruce Wayne as Roseanne is to Tom.
“He [Borden] just was one the I was fascinated with throughout. The fact that this relies upon secrecy not only for his livelihood, but his for his very life and the fact that he was somebody who saw this as being so vital and such value for his life and pretty much the only thing he’s valued for by anybody. That it came first. It was his first love regardless of other relationships, the secrecy was paramount and his obsession is absolutely necessary to achieve the level of skill that he does. There were so many mysteries surrounding this one character that he was immediately the one I wanted to play”.
Nolan has said in previous interviews that he didn’t ask Bale and co-star Hugh Jackman to learn a heck of a lot of magic tricks because, as Bale agrees, “this movie, as you know, is not a movie about showing magic tricks”.
“I think Chris felt that with editing you can do anything you know?” says Bale. “It’s really not so impressive to watch magic tricks being performed on film. It’s centered on the one particular trick that my character develops that just infuriates the hell out of my rival who cannot understand how it’s done. As for the rest of it, we needed to show some of their performances, but it was more of finishing up on tricks or starting on tricks. Just giving the impressions of the magicians of this day being the top entertainers. Being the top pull. I like this very much. It’s kind of a take on the story that Chris changed somewhat from the book The Prestige [by Christopher Priest]. This great kind of fascination and so much mystery about science itself. Obviously nowadays we know everybody understands it, but at that time the likes of [magician, Nikola] Tesla appeared liked wizards. How is this done? People did not know exactly what he was doing and how he managed it at all. So there was that ability to confuse audience members as a magician. Perhaps some people did posses some kind of power beyond which the rest of us are able to call on. So they truly were magnificent performers of the time. That’s an era that can never be regained you know. We’ve gotten beyond it now. You can’t strip that knowledge away.”
An underlying theme of the movie is keeping secrets from the one you love – something that Bale says he just couldn’t do in real life.
“Not secrets in the way that he has secrets”, the actor, married for six years to Sibi Blasic, says. “His particular circumstances really meant that he had to hold onto those secrets [though]. I agree with not giving everything away and keeping something for yourself, but you shouldn’t keep secrets from your family”.
Bale says he does have one thing in common with his character though, and that’s how obsessive he is about his work.
The actor, who dropped a staggering 63 pounds to play the lead role in “The Machinist” in 2004, says “I think that you know I get obsessive, but over shorter terms you know”, adding “Obviously a movie lasts a few months and then you’re done with it. With him [Borden] it’s life long of this single obsession. This one particular trick that he knows will make him immortal. So I have an obsession, but it’s a different kind of obsession. It’s more kind of short-term obsessions.
“One of the best things to me about this job is the level of commitment that you have to put into it”, says Bale, reasoning his obsessive reputation. “It ain’t going to work at all otherwise. I enjoy the obsession. My family, my wife and my little girl get that. They understand it, and enjoy it too”
Next up, Bale will return to the Cave to play Bruce Wayne/Batman again. He’s locked in for a couple of films there; but says he isn’t afraid of being typecast as the Caped Crusader.
“If it turns out that I’m doing just different variations of Bruce Wayne for the rest of my life then who’d want to hire me for anything?”, says Bale, who won the much coveted-role of Batman over the likes of. “Because we were referring many of the graphic novels [rather than the TV series or earlier films], he [Batman] is less of a character here. I watch it and believe that he’s a real character in this sort-of ridiculous animated personality. Because of that, I think I was able to stay under the radar a little more”.
Bale hasn’t seen the script for the sequel, “The Dark Knight”, yet but says he’s confident Nolan has something just as amazing as the first film in store.
“I’ve spoken to Chris about it. I haven’t read anything yet. I trust him completely. I’m sure he’s been coming up with something improved upon our first one. We also have the knowledge that everyone has the confidence in what we’re trying to do now because the first one worked. People embraced it. Beyond that, Chris is just a real solid foundation. You don’t worry too much if he’s going to come up with the goods. He is. He’s one of the best around. I’ve got totally trust in him and I have no problem reading the script a week before we start. I’m actually pretty confident. I mean look, of course, I’d love to be able to talk with you more and we will about the actual character and where we can take that and where we want to take him. But, beyond that I enjoy this kind of air of secrecy about it and I don’t mind not being in right there in the inner circle until Chris decides ok you need to be there now”.
Of course playing Batman again means Bale’s going to have to hit the gym again soon.
“Oh man, don’t remind me of that”, he smirks.
Having worked pretty much non-stop for the last few years, Australian superstar Hugh Jackman thought he’d be a prime poster-boy for the workhorse recruitment campaign – until he read the breakdown for the character Chris Nolan wanted him to play in the new film, “The Prestige”.
In the film, Jackman and Christian Bale play workaholic magicians, Rupert and Alfred, who are constantly trying to one-up each other in the magic stakes.
Jackman, hot off his role in FOX’s fruitful “X-Men: The Last Stand”, was excited about working with director Christopher Nolan (“Batman Begins”, “Memento”) – who he says was one of the top 5 directors that he wanted to work with – but more so, playing a character that’s the chalk to his cheese.
“My wife [actress Debra Lee-Furness] sometimes jokes that she thinks I’m a little bit of a workaholic, but my definition of a workaholic is someone who can’t switch it off”, explains the versatile actor. “I can easily switch it off. When I get into the car after work, I don’t think about it. I work hard and I really enjoy it — I’ve always loved acting — but I can switch it off”.
His character in “The Prestige”, on the other hand, that of the ambitious Rupert, can’t switch off.
“Magicians then were like movie stars or rock stars of the day”, says Jackman, who cut his teeth on stage in Australia before finding film fame in the states. “The pressure on them to be at the top was so intense. They would do almost anything to stay there”.
The one thing the 38-year-old actor does share in common with his character – and his character’s trade – is their ability to assertively Mann a stage.
“My character elevates himself as a magician by his natural ability on stage, and I’ve had a lot of experience on stage, so that’s something that comes easily to me”.
In the film, Jackman’s character is the go-getting but sanguine magician, while co-star Christian Bale gives life to the master – someone with seemingly a couple more tricks up his sleeve than his adversary.
“The character, at the beginning of the film, is fairly optimistic. He’s ambitious, yes, but also optimistic. He enjoys his life and is excited by the possibilities. There’s a tragedy that happens early on, in his personal life, and then, somehow, he’s fueled by this ambition and the anger over what happened, and it turns him into being much darker, more intense and, ultimately, very dangerous person. I wouldn’t say that’s me, but I think the transformation was a lot of fun for me to play. In terms of the character at the beginning of the film, it’s fairly similar to me, I think”.
Jackman says a film like this (one which he says, he read the script of “just loved it. I was kind of shocked at how amazingly close the original script I read was to the film that ended up being made”) needs an actor’s out-and-out everything to work – so he did quite a bit of research into the role before pulling his first rabbit out of a hat.
“I met a lot of magicians. I saw a lot of acts. I read a lot. I was actually reading about Houdini, just coincidentally, when the script came. I was interested in that era. It’s a fascinating time, where magic was believed. In America, at that time, spiritualism was a greater religion than Christianity, so magicians who could do séances and things were beyond just tricksters. They were, somehow, medians with the other world. They held this fascination for adults. I don’t think that exists anymore. Maybe the mind-reading stuff that some magicians do still amazes people, but more people know it’s a trick and they just can’t work it out. But, that era is fascinating.”
Jackman remains tight-lipped on the film’s big twist, but does say that his character has dual identities.
“Let’s just say my character has a number of disguises”, the actor, who recently completed work on the sci-fi thriller “The Fountain”, says. “I’m playing the double, which you can’t really talk about. That was great fun. Creating that character was fun. But, the most challenging scene is the ending. Every actor wants a death scene. The joke is always that the actors want it to be as long as possible. When I read it, I was like, “I’m dying over five pages. I’m dying with five pages of dialogue, and a big monologue at the end of it.” You should be careful what you wish for.”
Released almost concurrently with “The Prestige” is Dreamwork’s “Flushed Away”, which has seen Jackman live out his dream of working on an Aardman Animation (“Wallace & Gromit”) film.
“I was in drama school in 1994, I turned on SBS — which is a television station in Australia, and not a highly watched one — and I saw the last seven minutes of ‘The Wrong Trousers,’ and my brother and I were laughing so hard that we thought, “We’ve got to find this.” So, we tracked it down and got a video. We used to give it as presents. It was our standard present to anyone. I thought we’d discovered them. I think they’d won an Academy Award at that point, but when I was in Perth, I thought we’d somehow discovered them. So, when I got a call from that group, I was totally in. I think it’s fair to say it was selfish reasons first, and then I thought of my son afterwards”, he laughs.
In “Flushed Away”, Jackman lends his voice to the role of an uptown rat that gets flushed down the toilet from his penthouse apartment, ending in the sewers of London, where he has to learn a whole new and different way of life.
“ At the beginning, he was more upper class, almost royal — that aristocratic attitude. He had two hamsters that were his servants. So, the whole thing, going down into the sewer, was more, “Oh, you people.” It was a little bit removed and snobbish, which actually made him not very likable. And so, we changed it from being that to being more sheltered, basically. He lives in this pampered life. He doesn’t think of himself as a mouse, he thinks of himself as a James Bond character. He’s having the time of his life. And, he sings occasionally.”
Not content with merely having two films at the box office this Summer, Jackman has a third – and the second this year in which he sings – George Miller’s anticipated family feast, “Happy Feet”.
“Nicole [Kidman] and I worked for a couple of days together [on it]. We play mom and dad of the lead character. It was fantastic. It was great”, but “I’m very excited about doing this Baz Luhrmann film with her – To not be penguins will be nice”.
The Bazz Luhrmann film, set to film in Australia next year, is a sweeping romantic epic that is being likened to some of cinema’s great romantic epics.
“I’d say ‘Out of Africa,’ ‘Gone with the Wind,’ ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ — that kind of world”, he says of the film, which was originally set to go with Russell Crowe in the lead.
After Jackman shoots the untitled romantic drama, he puts the claws back on to play the long-suffering mutant Wolverine in an “X-Men” spin-off.
“We’ve now signed off on the script”, he says of ‘Wolverine’. “If you know about the history of ‘X-Men’ movies, that’s a revolution for us. We’re a year away from shooting the film and we have the script. And, by the way, it is unbelievable. It’s a David Benioff script. He’s probably the hottest writer going around town, and he was beating down our door to write this movie. It was the most amazing thing. So, we have this fantastic script. I’ve got a couple of movies coming out in the next month, and I might be able to tell you who the director is by then. We’re seriously into talking about it now.”
Jackman says that because he’s now producing a lot of these films he’s working on (including an upcoming film called “The Tourist” with Ewan McGregor, which he says is “a suspense thriller written by Patrick Marber, and it’s very smart and sexy.) he can now control “where we shoot, when we shoot and what we shoot, and that’s something that is important to us. I’m very lucky, as you know. I’ve got a wife who, so far, has been happy to travel with me”.
- Robert Sanchez & Clint Morris