Oscar-nominated 'Vice': Why penning the story of Dick Cheney was 'horrifyingly difficult'
'Vice' director Adam McKay on Christian Bale’s weight gain and why he never consulted the Cheneys
“It was horrifyingly difficult,” laughs writer-director Adam McKay, referring to scripting his new film, Vice.
Following the rise to power of Dick Cheney, the former vice president to George W Bush, the film is an exhilarating ride through American politics back to the Nixon era, when Cheney first arrived in Washington. It’s also now an Oscar favourite, picking up three nominations on Tuesday for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, while Amy Adams, Christian Bale and Sam Rockwell are all up for acting gongs for their roles.
No wonder penning such an ambitious tale, one that is not only a portrait of Cheney, but also “harmonises with the story of America” in the past five decades, was tricky. “Some would call it foolhardy,” he says.
McKay's comedy roots
McKay, who served as head writer on American sketch show Saturday Night Live for two seasons, is still best known for directing comedies with Will Ferrell, including Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers. But 2015’s The Big Short changed all that. A comedy-drama that examined the global financial crash, starring Christian Bale and Steve Carell, it won Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay for him and his co-writer Charles Randolph.
Vice is very much a companion piece, McKay says. “They are definitely cousins of each other.” Both films contain McKay’s black humour and satirical world view on major events – in this case, the way Cheney pushed the United States towards the war in Iraq after the terror attacks of 9/11. “The tone varies a lot more in Vice,” he says. “There are times when it’s really dark and tragic, there are times where it’s very dramatic, and there are times where it gets very ridiculous, and I think those gear shifts were much more dramatic than in The Big Short, because that financial culture tended to lend itself to a certain amount of comedy even in the dialogue.”
'Bale disappears into the role'
Certainly, McKay is drawing from the same acting pool as his earlier film, with Bale, in remarkable form, as Cheney and Carell playing Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defence under George W Bush and Gerald Ford. He also reunites with his Talladega Nights star Amy Adams, who wows as Lynne Cheney, the Lady Macbeth-like spouse to the film’s Machiavellian protagonist. The role has earned her a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Other impressive performers include recent Oscar-winner Sam Rockwell as Bush (a role that also earned him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor) and Tyler Perry, who swaps his Madea persona for Colin Powell, the former secretary of state under Bush. “I was spoiled on this movie when it came to the quality of actors,” McKay says.
None more so than Bale. Already the winner of the Golden Globe for Best Actor in the Comedy / Musical category, he is now up for the fourth Oscar of his career for Best Actor (he has already won once for The Fighter).
The famously detailed Bale disappears into the role, with a physical transformation that saw him gain more than 20 kilograms in body weight. Even more extreme than some of his earlier turns in films such as The Machinist, American Psycho and American Hustle, Bale also had his eyebrows shaved and plucked, his head shaved daily and fake teeth fitted to “become” Cheney.
“Honestly, in this case, with his transformation, it was one of the most incredible things I’ve seen in all the years I’ve been doing this kind of thing,” McKay says. “It made the hairs stand up on my arm the first time all of his physical work, and the make-up and his character work, all lined up.”
The director remembers the moment it all coalesced, when Bale came strolling down the corridor in full make-up. “He told me: ‘Look, I’ve been working on the Cheney walk.’ I actually said, half-jokingly, he’s not playing Dick Cheney, he’s summoned him. Dick Cheney is now in the room. It was remarkable. It truly, truly was.”
With Bale now 44, McKay persuaded his star to consult a doctor before piling on the pounds that were required to look like Cheney. The actor says he did so by eating lots of pie. “It’s dangerous to put on large amounts of weight and it’s dangerous to lose large amounts of weight,” McKay says. “Because of that, he was actually able to target where he was gaining the weight and do it in an almost scientific way, and at the same time, his vitals were very healthy – his blood pressure, everything – and in some cases got better. So I hope – because I love Christian – he continues to use a doctor.”
'The idea Cheney would co-operate seemed very unlikely'
Understandably, McKay didn’t consult the Cheney family, perhaps concerned they might try to delay the film. “It’s a tricky thing when you reach out to people like this,” McKay considers. “It puts them in a position where they’re collaborating on the movie and you just want to be careful with that.
“The Cheneys – and especially Dick – have spent decades being very careful, very secretive, about every bit of information he lets out. The idea that he would wholeheartedly co-operate with this would seem like a very unlikely scenario.”
Yet while he clearly is not a Republican like Cheney, McKay is evidently full of respect for the way he climbed the Washington ladder. “I think he’s genius. I’ll just call it genius. He saw this thing with W Bush, he saw the potential of the vice presidency.”
Traditionally a figurehead role, Cheney’s stint as vice president saw him grasp at the levers of power, operating in the shadows behind Bush. “I think only Dick Cheney would’ve seen that opportunity and regardless of your feelings about the man and what he did, you have to give it up. It’s a pretty brilliant move,” McKay says.
It’s markedly different from the way the current Trump administration operates, with so much blasted out on social media and exposed in the press.
Given that the White House often hosts movie screenings, does McKay think that Vice might get a private showing for Trump? “You can never predict anything with the Trump White House,” McKay says, “but who knows with that administration?”
Would he ever consider a Trump movie? “Oh my goodness, where would you even start? You’d have to do it as an animated movie … Wait a minute, it’s not a bad idea … maybe you’ve just given me my next movie.”
Vice opens in the UAE on January 24th.
Updated: January 23, 2019 05:11 PM