Film: What's the boy playing at?

Christian Bale was a Spielberg child star at 13. But he decided not to slide into the usual destructive spiral of drink, drugs and self- loathing. Interesting move

Drew Barrymore, River Phoenix, Macaulay Culkin: everyone knows what happens to child actors. Moppets grow up into monsters, with acne and weight problems. They drink and take drugs. They go through a painful, public puberty, then wind up on the video shelf. Or lying dead outside the Viper Room. So what happened to the archetypal "Brit-packer", Christian Bale?

By rights, the precociously talented 13-year-old star of Spielberg's Empire of the Sun should have slipped into obscurity years ago. Instead, with leading roles in a forthcoming adaptation of Julian Barnes's novel Metroland, and Todd Haynes's sumptuous glam rock extravaganza Velvet Goldmine, the actor - now 23 - shows no sign of burning out.

"Don't ask me about selling out," he grins. "The first thing I did, I sold out. It was a Lenor advert, when I was eight years old. I was one of those annoying kids who peek around the washing-machine with their dirty football boots." Young Bale pocketed pounds 80, bought "a pair of DMs and a Rubic Snake", and never looked back.

Of course, there have been a few flops along the way (the musicals Newsies and Swing Kids are best forgotten) but Bale's cinematic coming of age has been surprisingly smooth. Judicious supporting roles in Henry V, Little Women and Portrait of a Lady built his reputation as a serious actor while establishing him as the thinking girl's pin-up. He is inundated by "Baleheads"; the actor's website is one of the most popular on the Internet, rivalled only by that of Leonardo DiCaprio's.

Cyber-rivalry between the two ex-child stars recently erupted into the real world, when Bale found his lead role in a forthcoming adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho threatened by the Titanic star. Still waiting to discover which will get to shred their poster-boy image by playing the Wall Street serial killer Patrick Bateman, Bale must content himself with the more proscribed rebellions essayed in his upcoming releases.

In Metroland, Bale plays Chris, a sixth-form rebel who teams up with his best friend to bait bowler-hatted members of the bourgeoisie before settling back into suburban comfort with wife Emily Watson. Velvet Goldmine, meanwhile, sees his newspaper journalist Arthur researching a retrospective feature on glam rock and unearthing memories of his own teen flirtation with Seventies glitterball androgyny. Be-flared, and with some of the worst sideburns this side of Slade, Bale teeters precariously through the flashbacks on stacked soles, before enjoying a climactic post-concert night of passion with Ewan McGregor's American rock god.

Bale has never had much need to rail against conformity. As the son of an ex-airline pilot and a circus dancer, he says, the most rebellious thing could have done was to "stick on a shirt and tie and go to work in a bank". Perhaps that is why he is "perversely drawn" to suburbanites such as Chris and Arthur. "I'm attracted to characters who appear to be passive observers, who aren't obviously interesting."

Less boy-next-door than budding Bohemian-on-the-move, the teenage Bale may never have languished in suburban ennui but, he says, "there were times as a family when we ended up in very small places and there would be that fear of where the hell are you going to next, and what's going to happen? I suppose the difference was that it was never boredom. It was never a fear of nothing's going to happen."

Bale's relaxed upbringing has proved to be a good preparation for the vicissitudes of the acting profession, but it sometimes got him into trouble at school. "Basically, I'd turn up late every day. I remember the teacher saying, 'One day, Christian, you're going to an interview and they're going to ask to see your school registration, and when they see all your "lates" on it, they're going to think you're unreliable and you're not going to get the job'." Bale smirks at the memory, as well he might. It is certain that Spielberg did not ask to see his registration card before choosing him from 4,000 other boys to play the lead in Empire of the Sun.

For his part, Bale was singularly unawed by his director and co-star. "At that age you really don't give a shit. 'John Malkovich. Who? Spielberg, so what?' You're fearless, you know? So it was incredibly simple. There was no sense of competition, things which, as you get older, start creeping into your mind and making your performances worse."

Only after he returned home did Bale begin to feel the pressures of his new-found celebrity. "I was living in Bournemouth and suddenly everybody knew who I was. I remember sitting in this cafe with some friends and this girl came up, who obviously didn't recognise me, and started going on about how she was going out with Christian Bale. I'd go down the public toilets and see things written about me on the wall. Guys would start fights with me. The local paper took pictures of me getting back from school [he laughs, and mimes flinching from the paparazzi], then wrote features about how I wouldn't open a girls' school fete. I just felt a dick, you know? I was 14; I didn't want to stand there next to the mayor with a big pair of scissors, but they started saying I was big-headed, that I'd forgotten where I'd come from." He snorts. "I didn't come from there, anyway."

A decade later, Bale puts his survival down to the fact that he never traded on a cuddly persona. These days he lives in Los Angeles, where he avoids glitzy Hollywood parties and premieres, preferring to surf, or see friends. "You do meet some interesting people at those things, but if you go to too many you start losing sight of what you came here for."

In his personal life, Bale is currently enjoying being single. "I find it impossible to conceive of spending a whole day with somebody, let alone getting married" he says. "Between 15 and 21, I was with one girl. All my friends were running around, and then when we split up, some of my friends were getting married or moving in with each other, and I was like, 'yeah, but I've never done any of that other stuff'. So I need to get some of that out of my system."

Professionally, Bale has things to get out of his system too. "Getting shagged" by Ewan McGregor in Velvet Goldmine is certainly a step away from that boy-next-door image ("What can I say? He never writes, he never calls. It's quite upsetting.") but whether Bale will get the chance to make the definitive break with his schoolboy persona by playing an American Psycho remains to be seen.

'Velvet Goldmine' previews at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 16 August; 'Metroland' is released on 18 August

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