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Bale and Jackman play competing magicians in 'The Prestige'

Jeff Strickler
Star Tribune
Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman star in "The Prestige," from Touchstone Pictures.

Batman vs. Wolverine. It sounds like a drive-in movie. And someday, joked the actors who play those roles, it just might be.

But when Christian Bale (who played the title character in "Batman Begins") and Hugh Jackman (Wolverine in the "X-Men" series) square off this week in the drama "The Prestige," it will have nothing to do with superpowers.

"At one point we did talk about that," Jackman said in a phone interview. "There's a scene early on in which something bad happens while both Christian's character and my character are watching, but we're pathetic because we can't do anything about it. I turned to him and said, `You know, for a couple of superheroes, we're not worth much here, are we?'"

They play competing magicians whose rivalry turns increasingly personal and exponentially nasty. The story takes place in the early 1900s, which raises the stakes for their confrontation.

Magicians were the rock stars of that era, Jackman said. "Many people believed that the magicians were doing what they claimed. Now, when David Copperfield makes the Statue of Liberty disappear, we admire his craft but we don't actually think that he made it vanish. But in those days, they thought it was genuine. And that made the magicians huge stars. To be the No. 1 magician in the world, the stakes were very high. There was a lot of money involved."

And very few scruples. Stealing tricks from other magicians was considered part of the job, he added. Everyone did it.

In the film, Bale comes up with an over-the-top feat that awes the public and frustrates Jackman, who becomes obsessed with learning the secret of how it's done, no matter what it costs financially or emotionally.

That leads Jackman's character "on a descent into his dark side that I found quite interesting to play, he said. "I think it's really fascinating what goes on. They mask their ambition quite well, but it still ends up overtaking them."

Both stars approached director Christopher Nolan ("Memento") about the project.

"There are few people in this profession who express their passion for things like that," Bale said. "I think that's one reason he went with us."

It can be a blow to an actor's ego - not to mention his image - if word gets out that he ardently pursued a role that ended up going to someone else. But if you don't make your interests known, he reasoned, you also risk missing out on the part because the filmmakers won't think of you. Or they'll think of you in the wrong way. Both Nolan and Jackman faced that problem.

"A lot of people think of you in terms of your characters," Bale said. "Even people who make movies make that mistake. My main concern was that Chris (Nolan) was going to see me as Batman."

Both actors pride themselves on their versatility. Bale's roles range from a man going crazy in "American Psycho" to a jilted lover in "Captain Corelli's Mandolin," while Jackman was nominated for a Tony Award for the Broadway musical "The Boy From Oz" and later this year will provide one of the voices (and sing) in the animated comedy "Happy Feet." He's done so many things that Bale didn't even make the Wolverine connection at first.

"I know that might sound daft," he confessed. "But someone else had to bring it up to me."

When Nolan sent them the script, he didn't designate which character he wanted them to focus on. As it turns out, Jackman said, each gravitated toward the role that felt natural.

"I would have played either one," he said. "But I think Christian and I ended up in the roles for which we are best suited. Christian's character is technically the better magician, while my character is the better showman. He's more internal; I'm a bit more flamboyant."

The characters have much in common beyond their profession.

"Their lives are all about secrets," Bale said. "There are the secrets behind the tricks, of course, but it's more than that. Borden's (his character) secrets are not just a cerebral device to improve his magic act. They are an emotional necessity. He needs them to survive, even if, in the end, they could bring disaster to him and others."

The code of secrecy still rules magicians. Both stars got extensive training in magic from pros Ricky Jay and Michael Weber - but only to a point.

"They refused to show us how a trick actually was done," Bale said. "Ricky and Michael were the consummate magicians in that regard. "

Jackman agreed. Any hopes that he might pick up a trick or two to amaze his friends at cocktail parties were quickly forgotten.

"I can do the setup (for a trick) and I can do the big flourish at the end," he said. "Just don't ask me to do the whole trick. Chris (Nolan) said not to worry about it because we'd do it (the magic) through editing. But still ..."

He does perform one sleight of hand on camera. He palms a steel ball in a scene in which his character is perfecting a trick in which he claims to catch the ball as it is shot out of a gun.

"It's the scene in which I'm standing in front of a mirror," he said. "Of course, everyone is going to think that we did it with editing, but that doesn't matter. The movie isn't really about the magic. The plot is written like a magic trick. There's a setup, misdirection and then the payoff."

Both Bale and Jackman expect to revisit their superhero personae in 2008. Scripts are in the works for "The Dark Knight," in which Heath Ledger is penciled in to play Batman's nemesis, the Joker, and "Wolverine," a prequel to the "X-men" trilogy. In the meantime, both actors intend to keep busy tackling other types of roles.

"We're fortunate in that it's easy for us to disappear inside our characters," Bale said.

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