Original-Cin Q&A: Christian Bale learns Cheyenne and life lessons on Hostiles

By Bonnie Laufer

A late addition to the Oscar race, the gritty western Hostiles, starring Christian Bale, is earning the actor fulsome critical praise and gives him a shot at his fourth nomination (he won for supporting actor for 2011's The Fighter).

The movie – which opens wide January 19 - reunites Bale with director Scott Cooper (Out Of The Furnace), and created buzz at last September’s Toronto international Film Festival.

Set in 1892, Hostiles centers on Joseph J.  Blocker (Bale), a decorated Army Captain, not kindly disposed to Natives, and reluctantly tasked with escorting home an imprisoned and dying Cheyenne war chief named Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family. En route, they suffer attacks from rogue non-Cheyenne bands and offer sort-of-safe passage to a traumatized widow (Rosamund Pike) whose family was recently murdered.

 Christian Bale and Wes Studi in Hostiles

Christian Bale and Wes Studi in Hostiles

The solid cast also includes Winnipegger Adam Beach, Ben Foster, Q'orianka Kilcher, Tanaya Beatty, Jonathan Majors, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Timothée Chalamet (seemingly in everything these days), Paul Anderson, Ryan Bingham, John Benjamin Hickey, Stephen Lang, and Bill Camp.

In a Los Angeles interview, Original Cin’s Bonnie Laufer spoke with Bale about working on this film, learning the Cheyenne language and what the experience meant to him.

ORIGINAL-CIN: What I loved most about this character is his transformation. He goes through quite a change. This must have been a huge draw for you as an actor.

CHRISTIAN BALE: “It absolutely was the draw, and what I liked most about it was that (director) Scott Cooper didn't want to have some sort of huge ‘movie moment’ epiphany where where he goes, ‘My life will change forever!’ I mean, I don't know about you but in my life that doesn't really happen. You get married and your children being born are of course  huge moments. But that's not exactly what is happening with Captain Blocker. So there's this gradual transformation, this enormous arc of change because he's having to go from decades of hatred and fighting and being an exemplary soldier to having to learn how to turn off that hatred and return to humanity.”

OC: Was that a challenge?

BALE: “Yes, it was a very difficult thing to do, but I loved the subtlety that Scott managed to present that. It was so gradual and poignant and made so much sense to me. I had worked with Scott on Out of The Furnace, and I had a very good experience with him on that picture. So, I was confident that working with him on Hostiles was going to be rewarding and I was right.”

OC: Even though it’s taking place in the late 1800s, the film still seems relevant today, in terms of what it’s dealing with.

BALE: “Oh, I completely agree and that was another reason why I wanted to be a part of it. To be honest, we didn't even really realize how impactful it was while we were making it. We felt it was a really gripping story and we saw some relevance.

“But sadly, in many ways it's become more relevant. As we were filming Scott and I would look at each other and go, 'Are you kidding me? This is actually happening right now?' Since the filming, the divisions in America, the hatred, the ease and comfort with which people are expressing their hatred - and seeing that we've been here before. It's not the way to go. There's no good ending with this amount of division that we are seeing in the United States. Even though this story is particularly American, I think that there are parallels globally. Every single country has their story.”

OC: It looks like you had a lot on your plate with this film - not just being out in the dessert and riding horses, but learning the Cheyenne dialect.

BALE: “Scott and I both enjoyed the challenges on this film. We shot in New Mexico in the most intense heat wearing real woolen uniforms.

“Learning the language was a real pleasure, actually, because I got to meet and spend time with Chief Phillip (Phillip Whiteman Jr.), who is the Chief of the Northern Cheyenne. I remember our first meeting. He wouldn't look me in the eyes. He'd just look right past me. I thought I was going to learn the language by repetition, but he refused to teach me any of the language until I knew all about the culture and it was a great way of doing it.

“Then we started to learn the language and I have full scenes, primarily with Wes Studi ( and a few others) where I not only had to speak the dialect but understand what was being said to me. It's a beautiful, very poetic rhythmic language and I was stunned that I actually was able to achieve what I did and be accurate with it.

“I would often look over at the Chief at the end of each take and he would give me the thumbs up. It's not only historically accurate but it's respectful and it shows how it would have been. Plus, it also shows that while Blocker had this intense hatred that he also recognizes that he exists only because of his enemy. He has a respect with that hatred. It's complex, but he knows that if he were Yellow Hawk he'd behave exactly the same way. He's defending his culture while Blocker is enacting Genocide.”

OC: It sounds like having Chief Phillip with you made a huge impact on your life.

BALE: “No doubt about that. Chief Phillip was absolutely essential in helping me understand - not just to be able to speak the Cheyenne language but in understanding and knowing that there is a very different way of doing this. It informed me so much and informed Scott. We shot chronologically and we were able to adjust because of that, I just loved listening to the Chief, and he was so helpful and so instrumental in this film.”

OC: Do you remember any of the language?

BALE:  “’Veho,’ is Chief. ‘Asta- Waza-Wats,’ is a greeting and a goodbye.  I don't want to venture any further than that because I am a little rusty. Sadly, there are very few people who still speak Cheyenne. I could probably say an awful lot that is complete nonsense and the Chief would come and give me a smack on the head. Just kidding, he wouldn't because he's a very peaceful man. But would look at me very disapprovingly.

“I think it's tragic that it is a dying language and it's happening with some many languages around the world and it's a great tragedy that we are losing them and what can we do to prevent that.”

Click HERE to watch Bonnie’s interview with Hostiles Director Scott Cooper and stars Wes Studi and Q'orianka Kilcher.