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Lords of Illusions
Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman Battle for Supremacy as World-Class Magicians in "The Prestige"
It's Batman vs. Wolverine, and they're using magic! Actually, it's Christian Bale vs. Hugh Jackman and they're using illusions -- but in some ways that's even cooler. Though Bale and Jackman are playing rival 19th-century magicians, Jackman says the pairing of two actors known best for their superhero alter-egos led to some humorous scenarios: "[In one scene], somebody is in great peril onstage, and there's Wolverine and Batman, just standing back and doing nothing," he laughs. "I don't know! Here's our true colors." As for the inevitable who-would-kick-whose-butt musing, Jackman claims, "Christian didn't bring it up, because if Wolverine and Batman really did have a fight, there could only be one winner, right? Wolverine! Wolverine, come on!"
Jackman was the new kid on the set of "The Prestige," an adaptation of Christopher Priest's book by writer/director Christopher Nolan and much of his "Batman Begins" cast and crew. Nolan's Dark Knight Bale wouldn't have had it any other way, threatening bodily injury to anyone else who might have been vying for his coveted role.
"I had been dying to have a sudden meteoric rise in the quality of scripts that I was reading, and I was really searching for something," says Bale. "And, bang, the one that really stood out was 'The Prestige.' I couldn't put it down. Stunning, original -- just exactly the kind of movie that I love, and that I wanted to make. A script about magicians that is written like a magic trick itself.
"I said to [Nolan], 'Look, this is f---ing great! This is such a bloody good script. This character is one that I can nail.' And, look, I'm not your usual oversensitive actor who can't take somebody being honest with them. I said, 'Just bloody tell me no. If it ain't right, just tell me no, but I've got to tell you -- I'll put myself on the line -- I want to do this part. This is fantastic, and I'm going to really want to break the legs of any actor who would get to play it other than myself.'"
As it turned out, no thespians' limbs were hurt in the casting of this film. Joining the two leads is "a plenty good cast," according to Bale, including Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, Andy Serkis, and none other than David Bowie as the renowned and mystical inventor Nikola Tesla. ("Fantastic!" says Bale of Bowie's casting. "'The Man Who Fell to Earth' -- that's like Tesla, isn't it? He's an almost alien creature because he's so ahead of his time.")
But the key relationship is between Alfred Borden (Bale) and Robert Angier (Jackman), two renowned magicians in Victorian London who will go to any length to top each other. "Magicians were the rock stars of the day," says Jackman. "The pressure and the competition at the top of that game was so high that the risks and sacrifices that were made in order to be the number one magician were enormous. And magic was at a really critical point in that the whole world was really getting into spiritualism. People were looking for answers; [they wanted to know if] there's life after death; they wanted to contact lost people. So it was a really fascinating time. And many of the magicians really played it to the hilt. I mean, if you go and see a magic act now, there's always a bit of a wink in the eye, like, 'We know this is an illusion, but see if you can work it out.' But back then, it was, 'We're gonna conjure up ghosts!' And many people were completely freaked out by it. So it was a really amazing time where audiences were still a little innocent and fully bought into the whole act."
Says Jackman of his character, "Robert Angier is a very natural performer. Very charismatic onstage. He knows how to get his way around the world; he knows how to put on a good show; he knows how to traverse the ladders of showbiz. And to him, the end justifies the means. He's a very ambitious character, and he definitely wants to be the best magician in the world. He's a very good magician, but I think it's fair to say that Christian's character is a better magician." (When told that Bale had also said his character was the better magician, Jackman exclaims with a laugh, "He did? Well, I'm not going to be so magnanimous anymore.")
Bale feels that the crux of Alfred Borden is secrecy. "That is his life; that is the life of a magician. Without that mystery, they're nothing. His only value is as a magician. He comes from a dark and very underprivileged background. He's been in the workhouse. He's had a tough life. And he's reinventing himself. And so his life is an absolute mystery, even to the people closest to him. He lives for his magic. He's brilliant. He's a magician's magician, and therefore he despises showmanship. He feels like people should be able to recognize the brilliance of what he's doing. But unfortunately, only other magicians can. The public -- they're not aware enough of what quite he's doing to be able to appreciate it. It's like an incredible musician. Other musicians may be able to see, 'Oh my god, look at what he's doing! That is stunning!' But to the untrained eye, to the novice -- they've got no idea just how brilliant this artist is. And he comes into a rivalry with Angier, Hugh's character, who is not as good of a magician, but he's an incredible showman. And so it kills him, because Angier gets all of the fame, all of the attention. And Borden is performing in pubs, and he knows he's the better one. And so begins this rivalry between the two men, about proving whose style is a better one, whose approach. And ultimately, how far will you push it? Whoever is prepared to go to the most excessive limits is going to be the winner. And the two of them will not stop, because it's the only thing that they have in their lives."
Real-life magicians Ricky Jay and Michael Weber appear in the film, and also trained Bale and Jackman to perform illusions. However, true to the magician's code, they were very close to the vest with their secrets. "They only taught me a trick if I absolutely needed to know for the movie," says Bale. "And the movie is not about seeing how the actual tricks are done. The movie is about the men who create those tricks, and what they will do for it. And so it was very rare that I actually did need to learn a complete trick. So I'm very good at knowing half a trick," he laughs. "I'm very good at knowing the flourish. But I have no idea how to get there.
"But I didn't mind it at all. It's their livelihood. They do not reveal how it's done. Like we say in the movie, the second you do reveal how a trick is done, you mean nothing to anybody anymore."
Jay and Weber won't have too much to fear from Jackman's extra-curricular attempts at prestidigitation, either. "I used to do clowning at kids' parties when I was in drama school. And, funnily enough, I remember having just the worst tricks. I had one really bad trick, and I made the mistake of trying to pull that one out at a six-year-olds' party. I'd only done it with four-year-olds. This little kid gets up and says, 'That's not magic; that's not even a trick! This clown's terrible!' That was sort of the end of my magic career. That was my very last clowning that I did.
"But I've come away [from "The Prestige"] with a few things. I always [try a trick out with] my son first. The first time I did the disappearing flower trick, he said, 'Well, the flower's in your other hand behind your back, Dad.' I was like, 'Oh no. I've got a lot more work to do!'"
"The Prestige." Starring Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson and David Bowie. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan. Produced by Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas and Aaron Ryder. A Buena Vista release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for violence and disturbing images. Opens October 20.