Christian Bale has a serious addiction. “I’m always at war with myself, ” he confesses. “I’m like, ‘I’m quitting, I’m never going to do it again’ and then I’m like ‘Oh my God, I love it, I can’t wait to go back.’” He’s toyed with giving up acting for good. “It’s the highs and lows of it, the disappointments that come hand-in-hand with something you are passionate about.
“I don’t always enjoy it but I am addicted and sometimes you need to get away.” But what would he do instead? “I don’t really know. Spend time with the kids and just be with my family. That’s what I love to do when I’m not working.”
He knows, though, that it won’t happen. He’s hooked and he’ll keep going back for more as long as there are scripts like The Promise, an epic love story set against the backdrop of the Armenian genocide.
“I am embarrassed to say – but I suspect that it’s the same for many people – that I had not heard of the Armenian genocide,” he admits. “It’s tragic that so many were killed and people don’t know. I hope in some way this film will change that.”
He first read the screenplay in 2014 and was struck by how contemporary it felt. At the time, he reflects, “the Yazidis were trapped on the mountains in Iraq with IS surrounding them. The correlation was remarkable.”
By the time they had started filming last year, the terrible events in Syria were dominating the news. “We were seeing the so-called deportations, which were really death marches, on TV. It’s terribly sad to say that the film couldn’t be more relevant now with the refugee crisis.”
Back in 1915, the then Ottoman government systematically forced ethnic Armenians from their homes and into the Syrian desert. More than one and a half million Armenians were killed but modern-day Turkey has refused to acknowledge the genocide and over a number of years has successfully stopped several attempts by Hollywood to depict the events.
In the 30s MGM scrapped plans to adapt The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a bestseller about the genocide, when the Turks threatened a campaign against it. In 2006, Sylvester Stallone’s film of the novel was also abandoned after a campaign by a genocide-denying group.
In fact, The Promise had to be made outside of the studio system. US billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, the son of Armenian immigrants and a former head of MGM, bankrolled the $100 million budget. He died in 2015 before the film was made.
And already The Promise has been targeted. It premiered in Toronto last September where only a few hundred saw it. But within weeks, tens of thousands of negative reviews had been posted on the IMDb website. Also, last month a film called The Ottoman Lieutenant, about the same period in Turkish history and starring Ben Kingsley, came out in the US. In response, Terry George who co-wrote and directed The Promise said: “It’s an Erdogan propaganda film released as a feature in America, remarkably just ahead of us.”
Ben Kingsley in The Ottoman Lieutenant
“I wasn’t surprised,” says Bale. “This story has been decades in the making and has been thwarted so many times. Kirk couldn’t make it at MGM – it couldn’t happen until he funded it himself.
“The conversation should be about why there is denial. I think with the end of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of Turkey, they didn’t want to admit that these atrocities happened. And reparations could also be a factor.
“But it’s a bit like the climate change argument… the facts don’t support the deniers and yet they refuse to accept it.”
In the film, Bale plays an American reporter who is living in Turkey with his Armenian girlfriend when war breaks out and they are caught up in the unfolding horrors. For Bale, it also highlights the importance of journalism. Since they made the film “that has also become more relevant”.
“We’re living in this ‘post-truth’ era with fake news, and a free press is essential to democracy. At that time, during the genocide, they tried to restrict reporting but a few brave men got the story out.
“There’s a line in the film where someone says, ‘It must be nice to come and report on other people’s pain and then go back to the comfort of your home.’ My character says, ‘Yes, but without reporters nobody would know anything about this.’”
Bale, 43, was born in Wales but now lives in California with his wife, Sandra Blazic, and their two children, Emmaline, 12, and two-year-old Joseph.
A few years back he had a reputation for being intense, but these days he’s affable and funny.
“Do I have a reputation for inhabiting a character?” he smiles, when we first meet on set in Spain (filming in Turkey was never an option). “I thought that’s what actors are supposed to do.”
Then when we caught up on the phone last week, he quips, “How are things in Brexit-land?” Rather surreal, I say. “Yeah, Trump-land is a funny place, too.”
He is arguably Britain’s most successful actor, with a stellar career stretching back three decades to Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. Since then, there have been Oscar nominations for American Hustle, The Big Short and The Fighter (he won best supporting actor) and a well-received turn as Batman for Christopher Nolan.
He walked away from the franchise at the right time, he feels. “Yeah, absolutely. People thought we were crazy but Chris always said, ‘If we’re fortunate enough to make three, that’s it.’ It was Chris’s choice but I was in total agreement.”
Would he take on another franchise? “I don’t think so,” he says pensively, “but you never say never.” So there’s no point in Barbara Broccoli giving him a call to see if he’s interested in James Bond? “I’m not sure,” he laughs. “How would you reinvent that?” If anyone could, it’s Bale.
The Promise is released in cinemas today, Friday 28 April