Christian Bale is dedicated to disappearing into his characters. He tells Susan Griffin about his latest role as a Jewish conman in American Hustle.[divider]

Most people might feel a little self-conscious if they’re carrying extra weight.

Christian Bale

Christian Bale with co-star Bradley Cooper in American Hustle

Not Christian Bale, who spends the first five minutes of his latest film with his paunch and ‘moobs’ proudly on display while his character, Jewish conman Irving Rosenfeld, stands in front of the mirror tending to his combover.

It’s quite a transformation for the actor who has played Batman on three occasions, but it’s not the first time he’s dramatically changed his body for a role. Back in 2004, he became emaciated to portray an insomniac in The Machinist, and then lost weight again to play a drug addict in David O Russell’s The Fighter in 2010.

The actor has now reunited with Russell – whose father is Jewish – for his waist-expanding role in American Hustle. “I’m always interested in what David’s making. I always know it’s going to be really fascinating and will hopefully become very, very memorable for many years to come,” says a (now) trim-looking and bearded Bale, who will be seen again later this year as Moses in Ridley Scott’s biblical epic, Exodus.

Bale, along with Melissa Leo, won an Oscar for The Fighter, while co-star Amy Adams received a nomination. Russell then led Jennifer Lawrence to Oscar glory in Silver Linings Playbook, while her fellow actors Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver all got nods (the first time in more than 30 years that a single film had seen actors nominated in all categories).

Award success looks set to continue, with Bale, Lawrence, Adams and Cooper already recipients of Golden Globe nominations for American Hustle, a fictional take on the Abscam scandal of the Seventies.

Bale couldn’t wait to immerse himself “in such a wonderfully, exuberant era”, he reveals, and that’s despite the questionable fashion. “It was like Halloween for a decade; the colours were garish. The style was just phenomenal for us to look back on, but the people themselves were no different to now,” he says.

Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a character based on the real-life Melvin “Mel” Weinberg, a Bronx-bred conman, who committed insurance fraud and became a key player in the Abscam scandal.

At the heart of the movie is a powerful love story between Irving and his seductive partner, Sydney Prosser (Adams), who are forced to work for a wild FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (a permed Cooper) when they’re caught in a con. DiMaso sets up a sting to capture corrupt government officials, starting with Carmine Polito, a volatile political operator played by Jeremy Renner, while Irving’s unpredictable wife Rosalyn (Lawrence) proves to be the loose canon whose emotional ties could bring them all down.

As different as they might first appear, all of the characters are trying to change their lives through reinvention, explains the British actor. “Everyone’s performing in a certain way, and then at some point, it’s about stripping away that mask and seeing what’s really beneath,” he says in a transatlantic accent, the by-product of living in LA for the last two decades.

“That’s what happens, in some ways, to each one of the characters. It’s an attempt to reinvent themselves, and a need to move on and find something else in their lives.”

These themes were explored in Russell’s two previous movies. “David’s very interested in who the true person is, what their heart is, and their soul, emotion and feeling,” notes Bale, a married father- of-one. “The characters in this are really colourful, shiny and an awful lot of fun to play. But we were shooting this film for 42 days, so you’ve got to find much more in order to get up and still be fascinated. You’ve got to go beyond colourful shininess.”

The actor, who turns 40 in January, doesn’t like to define what it is he loves about Irving. “Or what I really love about the film,” he adds. “I do that intentionally because then you [the audience] are discovering the character, discovering the piece as you go.”

Bale is known for being intense, particularly on set, as one unfortunate crew member on Terminator Salvation discovered when the actor reportedly accused him of being a distraction and launched a foul-mouthed tirade.

Although he apologised for the incident, Bale makes no apologies about taking his craft very seriously. “Everybody dreams at night. They tend to go a little insane and that’s acceptable. To me, acting’s like dreaming in a waking state, as you get to study people, go a little insane and be obsessive about something, and it’s expected. I find that very addictive,” says the actor who, aged 13, landed a starring role in Steven Spielberg’s Empire Of The Sun, after the director spotted him in
a TV mini-series called Anastasia: The Mystery Of Anna.

Much like method actor Daniel Day-Lewis, his ability to ‘disappear’ into the character is one of Bale’s hallmarks. As Richard Suckle, one of the producers of American Hustle says: “Christian brought an amazing authenticity; it was like he stepped out of the Seventies. The way he looked, his mannerisms, the whole Bronx quality. He embodied the character as written on the page.”

The movie itself defies description, veering between comedy and drama and, like all Russell films, boasts an operatic quality, which was perhaps another draw for Bale? “The only thing I would say is I’m no fan of opera whatsoever. An operatic nature is usually something I’d laugh at,” he says. “But you do get occasional moments when some sort of tragedy in your life and deep emotions can be whirled very quickly.

“Usually that would seem like melodrama, but there are times [like in this film] when it makes absolute sense. Is that a reasonable answer?” It would take a brave person to say that it wasn’t.

• American Hustle (12A) is now on general release