At the end of a warm spring day, as rays of amber sunlight flash off the ocean and the first early-evening drinkers begin to gather, Christian Bale arrives at a bar in Santa Monica. He's wearing a baggy blue shirt, untucked, khaki pants, and New Balance sneakers. A black baseball cap is pulled low over his eyes, and the beginnings of a beard bristle along his jaw. He attracts little attention.

Apparently, despite having recently starred in a series of successful movies including 3:10 to Yuma, The Prestige, and the lucratively resurrected Batman franchise (the second installment, The Dark Knight, comes out in July) Bale stills finds it easy to go unrecognized. The Welsh-born actor, 34, has had only a few days' formal training as an actor, in YMCA workshops as a child. But in the decades since he made his film debut in 1987, when, at 13, he starred in Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, he's developed an uncanny ability to disappear into roles.

Some of his transformations have been infamously extreme losing 60 pounds to play the guilt-racked skeletal protagonist in 2004's The Machinist, for example; others have been less demanding, like adopting an aggressive way of walking to play a Gulf War veteran in Harsh Times. His intensive approach hasn't changed, despite the birth of his daughter (Bale and his wife, the former producer Sibi Blazic, were married in 2000), whom, at six months, he took deep into the Thai jungle while he worked on Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn. And his presence at the center of a vastly profitable series of superhero pictures isn't indicative of a shift in attitude either. "I've never believed in being an 'indie' actor versus a 'studio movie' actor I've always liked the idea of doing all of it," he says. As the sun sets, he sips from a bottle of Japanese beer. "I've always had," he admits, "a slight sense of wanting to swim upstream."

Our exclusive video of Bale's cover shoot with photographer Steven Klein

What did you think when you first saw yourself in the Batsuit?
I was standing on the back lot where they were creating the suit, and I had a few minutes to myself, staring up close in the mirror, just thinking, "This isn't going to work. I'm claustrophobic, I can't breathe, I'm getting a headache already, and this is all going to go very badly."

What persuaded you otherwise?
I just said to myself, "Breathe deeply for a few minutes. Try this out. Don't run around yelling and making an ass of yourself trying to pull the whole thing off." I wasn't going to get it off by myself. It takes three people. I just had flashes of what an asshole I would feel like saying "Well, I wasn't able to play that character, because I panicked every time I got in the suit."