Whip thin after losing the more than 30 kilograms he put on to play former U.S. vice-president Dick Cheney in 2018’s vituperative black comedy Dick, Bale pitches his shoulders forward as Miles, with his head tilted so that he leads with his chin. The expressive body language is both inquisitive and pugnacious, which Bale attributes to his extensive research for the role as opposed to the summary decisions of a very famous actor.
I may soon be in a moment in time that I’ll look back on very fondly.
“It gives you evidence when the director goes, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ You can show them video clips or references from a friend and say, ‘That’s what I’m doing, because the guy actually did it,’ ” Bale says. “There are great eccentricities that are factual and not just from the potential worrisome ego of an actor. That’s actually quite liberating.”
Miles’ nickname was ‘Bulldog’ and, as a World War II veteran who commanded a tank in the liberation of Europe, he was subsequently unwilling to cut corners or tolerate fools. But as played by Bale, he’s alert to compromise but not aggressive. Instead of being an obsessive loner off the track, Miles takes sustenance from his wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and son Peter (Noah Jupe). Racing, like his family, is a transcendent experience.
“It was a real benefit that [Mangold] admires car racing – and I do believe he bought a Porsche after this – but he’s not obsessed with it. His love was for the characters rather than the opportunity to make, as he puts it, car porn,” Bale says. “That’s the saving grace of the film – you don’t have to know a damn thing about car racing to love this film. There’s no compromise. We come to this phenomenal backdrop because of the central theme.”
Bale is renowned for the intensity of his performances: there’s his tormented Batman in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy and numerous more going back two decades to his toned monster in American Psycho. But in recent years Bale has found cracks of vulnerability in his portrayals, notably a melancholic conman in American Hustle and his walled-off, contrarian investor in The Big Short. Ken Miles is an extension of how he’s quietly opening up driven men instead of sealing them off.
“When I finish a film I know that however happy I might be it’s always a surprise. I view films as a temporary art form – it’s just a moment when a director had to say stop, and then you walk away,” Bale says. “Because of all the hurdles that get thrown at you, they can either be absolutely sublime or frustrate you incredibly. And you never know. That’s the thing that keeps filmmaking endlessly interesting. It’s a new team, a new job, every single time.”
While the filmmaking technique in Ford v Ferrari, with its emphasis on shooting races without digital effects and getting as close as possible to Bale while he’s behind the wheel, makes for gripping sequences, there’s also considerable struggle off the track. Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby have to fight against the monolithic, interfering Ford – an analogy for the way directors and actors have to operate within the Hollywood system.
“Lots of correlations between the story in Ford vs Ferrari and the film world,” confirms Bale. “In that respect there has to be a healthy conflict: neither have anything without the other. Films cost a lot. Even the lowest-budget film I’ve ever made required the director to take out a second mortgage on his house. We are obliged to recognise that this mixture of creation and conflict actually results in very good things.”
Bale is intimately familiar with how the movie industry functions – and his place within it. He did his first promotional tour at the age of 14, a bright-faced boy who gave a remarkable lead performance in Steven Spielberg’s 1987 World War II drama Empire of the Sun. Since then the married father of two has worked ceaselessly and navigated some mid-career flare-ups, reaching a rarefied height without revealing a great deal of himself.
“I recognise that I’m in this unfathomable and fortunate place where I get to choose what I do with less and less necessity but more artistic choice. I also recognise that that may not last very long,” Bale says. “I may soon be in a moment in time that I’ll look back on very fondly. Of course the longer you do something there’s the dangers of cynicism, but also the frustration of continued disappointment in yourself – and that very much drives me.”
Ford v Ferrari is now in cinemas.
Craig Mathieson is a TV, film and music writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.