Knight of Cups: Second Teaming of Terrence Malick and Christian Bale

Knight of Cups marks Christian Bale’s second collaboration with Terrence Malick, having portrayed the early American settler John Rolfe a decade ago in The New World.

Taking the role of Rick is Bale in an inward-focused departure from his acclaimed roles in such films as The Fighter, for which he won an Oscar Award, and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, in which he played Batman in a more complex and human form.

Bale says: “In Rick I find there is a sense of emptiness, a sense that he needs something, yet he doesn’t know what the hell that thing is, which I think an awful lot of people can relate to right now. That feeling of emptiness strikes both people who are successful and who are not successful, both those who feel like they’ve achieved their dreams and those who are nowhere near achieving their dreams. None of us knows where we will find the answers to fill this emptiness. Rick is drawn to the beauty in the world, but beauty can either be a wonderful guide or a terrible distraction.”

For producer Ken Kao, a reunion between the two was intriguing. “Christian obviously is an incredible actor – but also, since he and Terry have a long-standing, personal relationship, they started off with a comfort with each other.”

Bale’s intricate journey into uncovering Rick began via conversations with Malick. “Terry initially gave me a lot of his thoughts on the character and his relationship to the different people in his life, especially his family and the various women who influence him, so that I would have all that background in my head. But after that, he invited me to just see what happened,” Bale recalls.

This spontaneous form of film acting – the philosophical antithesis of line-reading – is something Malick has been exploring for some years. Explains Bale: “The philosophy behind it is that Terry wants you to jump in before you’re actually what an actor would consider ready in a conventional way – because Terry feels that by the time you feel ready, by definition you’re already trying too hard and it’s no longer authentic. So by contrast, he wants his actors to come to each scene with a lack of knowledge as to what might happen, and without a predetermined goal. That way you truly see what evolves naturally between the characters.”

Although he started with bits and pieces of Rick’s persona, over time, Bale began to get a richer and deeper view of Rick. He sees him as “a man of words, yet one who has lost his way with expression. Rick has achieved everything that he once imagined would make him feel fulfilled and successful, but in approaching that mountaintop of success, he wonders…what is beyond it?”

Bale elaborates: “Rick is asking himself the question: is this really who I am? I see him as a lost character trying to rediscover something perhaps he knew about himself when he was younger. He’s trying to figure out: Am I a good or a bad man? Could I have done things differently?”

Malick’s quaky, sun-baked Los Angeles, which both alienates and speaks to Rick, especially intrigued Bale. “Los Angeles is often portrayed as a vacuous, soulless town,” the actor observes. “There are elements of that in the film in the parties Rick goes to – but there is another Los Angeles you see where Rick rediscovers sincere, genuine people. You see how vast and full of different people the city is. I don’t take the film as a critique of L.A.; I see it as more a celebration of the city and its possibilities.”

Bale acknowledges that different people are likely to bring back quite different understandings of Knight of Cups and latch onto it in different places where it connects with their own trials and quests. That is also part of the beauty of it, he says. “Because Terry does not tell you how you should be feeling, that allows for a great deal of personal interpretation. To me it’s similar to a song that two people might sing the same way, yet it has two very different meanings to them. That’s how I see Knight of Cups; two people might sit next to each other in the same audience, but their experiences won’t be the same,” Bale concludes.

Production designer Jack Fisk echoes Bale’s comparison, likening Knight of Cups to the experience of viewing a resonant painting. “When you go to a gallery and see a painting, you bring your own thoughts and history to what you are seeing,” Fisk reflects. “If I see the same painting as another person, it affects me completely differently than that other person because you complete the painting with all that you bring to it. I think that’s the same way this movie works – you’re completing the film when you see it, and that’s the way I look at a lot of Terry’s work.”