There's an added burden of responsibility for an actor who portrays a real-life figure - especially a real-life figure still alive and kicking. If you don't get it right, you're likely to hear about it.
And if you're Christian Bale and you're playing Dicky Eklund, the voluble pugilist who famously went the distance against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1985 and infamously went into a career nosedive when he started using crack cocaine, the actor knows he's going to hear about it.
But in The Fighter, the rollicking, gritty chronicle of Eklund and the intense personal and professional ties to his half-brother, the welterweight champ "Irish" Micky Ward, Bale seems to have gained his subject's confidence. In fact, on the phone from New York the other day, the actor kept slipping into the scratchy, mill-town Massachusetts accent that he used in the film. Clearly, it's hard to shake this guy.
"Meeting Dicky is kind of like having a wave crash over you," Bale says, chuckling, recalling the first time he and Mark Wahlberg - who stars as Micky - met their real-world counterparts at a Doubletree outside Lowell, Mass. The Fighter opened in theaters Friday.
"There was the assessment, as there would be," Bale recalls. "I didn't know if Dicky was going to be thinking 'Who is this guy? Why do they got an English actor playing me?'
"And we chatted for a little while, and he seemed to take to me, he seemed to be all right. And then the next night we hung out together and had something to eat and went out on the streets in Lowell and then had a drink together and then it really got kicking off.
"I think he thought 'OK, this guy seems to be wanting to do it seriously.' And I was happy for that, because, obviously, that meant I could ask him to be around, and that's what we did. He took me around all his haunts in Lowell. We went to bars, and he took me around to the old crack houses and the gyms and the places he lived in.
"And then he came out to L.A. and we spent three or four weeks just hanging out. He trained me. And it was great. . . ."
In a "nice kind of full circle," Bale was just back in the working-class Boston suburb for the local premiere of the film. Ward and Eklund, their friends and family, were all there to see director David O. Russell's take on their lives.
"I was sitting on one side of the theater with Dicky," says Bale, "the sisters were on the other side. I didn't hear any disruptions. . . . So that was a good sign.
"And Dicky was patting me on the shoulder and talking about stuff and laughing. . . . That's a good feeling, because I like Dicky a lot, and also, it's tough for anybody, I would imagine - well, I guess, speaking for myself, I know it would be bloody tough to watch a movie about yourself, especially when you're seeing the lowest part of your life put up there.
"Of course, anyone would love it if you had all of your dream moments and your golden moments up there, but that's not what makes a good story."
Bale lost serious poundage to play Eklund in his crazed, crackhead phase - although not quite as much weight as the actor shed for 2004's The Machinist, in which he was literally skin and bones. Google the guy and "Christian Bale weight loss" comes up in the search field just below "Christian Bale rant" and above "Christian Bale freak-out." His ballistic diatribe on the set of Terminator Salvation, captured on audiotape, went viral two years ago. He's still living it down.
There were no such tantrums thrown on the set of The Fighter. "It was actually one of the best times I've had on any movie," he says.
Next up for Bale, in all probability, is The Dark Knight Rises, the third in the Batman iterations from director Christopher Nolan. That's set to shoot in 2011. In the meantime, Bale is "happily enjoying unemployment." He's also certain to be striding up to a lot of awards-show podiums in the coming months: Already, Bale has received Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations for his affectionately wacky and avidly accurate portrait of the "Pride of Lowell." A supporting-actor Oscar nod for his work in The Fighter seems a good bet, too.
And as for his observation that it would be "bloody tough" to watch a movie about yourself, what would Bale not want to see in a Christian Bale biopic?
"Look, first off, in your own life, you want to see it all in context, don't you?" he says, measuring the question. "I'd think that the briefest version would have to be about a hundred hours before you'd be happy, before you can say, 'Well, now you truly understand, now you get it, you understand why that thing happened.' Because two hours, forget about it, there's no way that you can condense it enough to totally understand.
"But that's why I like to play other people," he adds, "and thank God there won't ever be a movie made about me."