Big wasn't beautiful when Christian Bale began his quest to become the lastest Batman. He tells Steve Pratt about his incredible weight gain having dropped to 120lbs to star in The Machinist. But, according to superstar Michael Caine, there's little chance of him turning superhero.

IT wasn't so much Batman as Fatman when actor Christian Bale arrived on the set of the new $180 million movie about the comic strip superhero. He'd been desperately trying to put on weight after dropping 60lbs, down to an emaciated 120lbs, to play the leading role in the indie movie The Machinist before making Batman Begins. Then he won the role of millionaire Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, in the new movie about the Dark Knight. So he started eating again. And eating. And eating. And eating. He put on fat and then had to go into training to turn it to muscle to play the superheo.

"I went way too big," he admits. "Yes, certainly there were some Fatman comments made when I first arrived on the set. It was a great deal of weight that I did have to put on, but it was something necessary for the character. He has no superpowers whatsoever so you have to really believe that he's capable of it. I kind of knew that I'd be able to do it. Probably Chris (Nolan, the director) was worryed far more than me.

"I spoke to him on the telephone while we were doing The Machinist and he said to me, 'how you looking these days?' and it was frankly pathetic. I was 121 lbs and couldn't do a single push-up. But we had enough time, it was a pretty arduous journey to get there."

He had time to prepare for The Machinist because of the difficulty in getting the movie financed. "It's not very interesting really, how somebody diets,. You just don't eat very much," he says. "When I did another movie called Velvet Goldmine, in which we had to lose a certain amount of weight and I was running a lot and doing that, my mom looked at me and said, 'this was the glam rock era, wasn't it, how do you think they lost weight? They weren't out running, they were just doing a lot of drugs. Why don't you do it that way instead?'.

"But how far would I be willing to go for a movie? I have to say that I look back on The Machinist and I'm very proud of it. I very much like the movie. It's absolutely one of my favourites. I can look back now and see that I was crazy, but I certainly didn't feel that at the time. With each and every project, you become obsessive about it. However, obviously nothing is worth doing permanent damage to yourself, although the idea can sometimes be kind of tempting."

As for the Batsuit, he reckons he had the easiest time of any actor who's played him - apart from Adam West in the camp TV series. "That looked like a pretty flimsy outfit he had there," he says. "The designers came up with the lightest weight Batsuit so far and with the most mobility as well. I don't know if people noticed but our Batman was actually able to turn his head which has never been done before. Everyone's always been very robotic.

"And, yeah, it's hot and sweaty and gives you a headache and everything like that. But I didn't complain about it; I'm getting to play Batman, you know."

Bale, who first made his name as a child actor starring in Steven Spielberg's Empire Of The Sun, wasn't a comic book fan before being approached to put on Batman's cape and cowl. He'd never realised from seeing previous Batman movies - starring Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney - just how interesting the character was because he'd always been so fascinated by the villains.

The central story remains Bruce Wayne taking on the guise of Batman to help him avenge the murder of his parents. He's angry at the hand life has dealt him. Bale rejects the notion of drawing on his own anger to play the role, dismissing reports that he used his own experiences of being bullied at school to shape the character. "I've no idea what that's about," he says. "Having a nomadic childhood certainly helps with doing this job, living in a different place for every single job. I liked that and I kind of need that because that's a normal for me.."

Batman Begins sets up a sequel, which will surely happen provided the new movie clicks at the box-office. Bale is signed up to don the Batsuit again. "Whether anybody else is going to be back for it is a different matter and that's what I keep asking them," he laughs.

"But it's certainly something that I'm more than happy to do if people embrace this movie and, and enjoy the style, the vein in which Chris has made it. If they enjoy my portrayal of Batman, then very much I'd like to reprise the character. It's kind of limitless with this superhero, unlike others, because he is so contradictory, so complex, has so many demons and issues.

"There are, that there are many things that can be done further. It would make any sense to suddenly return to what we've seen in the past where suddenly Batman is sidelined and the villains are the interesting ones again. We've established that Batman is just as interesting and, in my mind, a more interesting character than the majority of villains. I would hope that would continue."

TWO-time Oscar winner Michael Caine jokes that he used to get the girl, now he gets the part. The British actor, born Maurice Micklewhite 72 years ago, is one of the most in-demand actors on both sides of the Atlantic. But there was a time when the star of Get Carter, The Italian Job and Alfie couldn't get work for love nor money.

So he's not about to moan about his heavy schedule or his latest role, as the caped crusader's faithful butler Alfred in Batman Begins. "It's great because I spent 30 years of my life in film, not being wanted at all. So I'm over double that now and I'm ahead. So I like it. I love being wanted for films, but I haven't worked since November so I'm getting a bit scared now," he says in his familiar cockney tones.

He did have some childhood experiences he could use for his butler's role. "My mother used to be a cook and during the war we were evacuated to rich houses, so there were many, many butlers that we worked with," he recalls.

"But I was only a little boy, and they were always rather scary figures. In Alfred's backstory, I made him a soldier as well. The two main things about Alfred is that he's tough and loyal. The voice is the voice of my first sergeant in the army. I made him an infantry soldier who, by nature, are tough and loyal."

His childhood hero was his father rather than a comic book hero. "When I was six my father was a soldier and went away to war, so he was my big hero. I thought he was the greatest thing," he says. "And because, in the war there was no paper, we never had comics. We never knew any of these until they came on to television much later."

Experienced interviewee that he is, Caine also looks on in amusement as younger co-stars Christian Bale and Katie Holme enthuse about working with older actors like Caine and Morgan Freeman in Batman Begins. "These young actors are marvellous and it's great because my own reaction is, if I work with a bad actor, I immediately become worse than he is because I can't do it, you know. Christian and Katie are both wonderful at what they do and they are both extremely experienced as well, and, in actual fact, it was a privilege to work with both of them too," he says.

Caine would be happy to return as Alfred in another Batman movie. He even has a few ideas on how the character could develop. "Yesterday a guy told me that in one of the comics Bruce Wayne dresses up Alfred as Batman to act as a decoy. I think Alfred dressed as Batman will be one of the funniest things ever," he says.

The idea of playing a superhero himself doesn't appear to appeal. Or at least all that costume and getting done up. "I remember Christian talking about the suit and how it was baking hot. I was happy with my wardrobe. I hate even having to wear a wig - it means you have to get up an hour earlier," he explains.

* Batman Begins is showing at cinemas now.

Published: 16/6/2005