In the con-artist comedy, which is set in the 1970s and inspired by real events, Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a small-time hustler juggling his loose-cannon wife Rosalyn [played by Jennifer Lawrence] and glamorous girlfriend Sydney [played by Amy Adams] when he gets arrested by ambitious FBI agent Richie DeMaso [played by Bradley Cooper] and is forced to help catch other criminals in New York and New Jersey. Plunged into a world of gangsters and corrupt politicians, the likable misfits quickly discover they need to work together if they're going to make it out of their predicaments alive.
"I'm always interested in what David is making," Bale told reporters in New York recently about how he got involved in the project.
"I always know it's going to be something that will be really fascinating and something that, hopefully, will be very, very memorable for many years to come," the 39-year-old actor said. "He has always got an interesting take on things and his approach to working with each and every actor is always a very different and dynamic one. And, then, just when I saw the pictures of the real Mel Weinberg [upon whom the character of Irving is based], he was not what I expected at all and I just saw such incredible possibilities of what we could achieve together and then learning of all this incredible cast."
The handsome star of "Out of the Furnace," "Public Enemies," "Terminator Salvation," "Rescue Dawn," "I'm Not There," "American Psycho," "The Machinist" and the most recent "Batman" trilogy is nearly unrecognizable as Irving, a loudly dressed man with a beer belly and an elaborate comb-over. His co-stars also appear on-screen as they have never been seen before -- clad in 1970s disco-fabulous frocks.
Although Bale admitted the cast members' new looks were initially fun to adopt, he emphasized it was the complexity of the characters that kept him and his co-stars going through the long days on set.
"They really were all colorful and shiny and fun to play, but we were shooting this film for 42 days and so you've got to find much more than that to get yourself up at the hours we get up in the morning and still be fascinated. It's got to go beyond the colorful shininess," Bale noted. "[The characters] attempt to reinvent themselves and need to move on and find something else in their lives.
"That ultimately becomes what is fascinating because I never like to actually define what exactly it is that I love about the character and what I really love about the film, but I do that intentionally because then you get a sense you're still discovering the character and still discovering the piece as you keep going."
Bale said he thinks the fashion of the era is "over the top" only in retrospect and people, in general, haven't changed much since the 1970s.
Calling the time period "a wonderfully exuberant era," he admitted it was "like it was Halloween for a decade."
"The colors were garish and the styles were just phenomenal for us to look back on, but the people themselves were no different," he observed.
So, what was it like to share the screen with Robert De Niro as the crime boss who nearly thwarts Irving's whole operation?
"It was absolutely delightful to work with Bob," Bale recalled. "He's such an iconic actor. But, very quickly, he's one of the guys. He's ridiculously easy to work with and just superb in every manner. And, for Irv, in those scenes, he's very much out of his depth. This is something that has become way too serious. He's used to being in absolute control and this is something he wants nothing to do with, but he is forced into this situation, so there is this sort of blank terror of being at the table with this man."
Asked if the lure of acting has anything to do with having the chance to reinvent himself with every role, Bale replied, "For me, it's studying people.
"It's nice. Everybody at nighttime, they dream and go a little insane and that's socially acceptable because we're dreaming," he said. "It's a little bit, for me, it's dreaming in a waking state because you get to study people and you get to go a little insane and you get to be obsessive about something and it's expected. The more that you are, the better it is. I find that very addictive."
Co-starring Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Michael Pena, Jack Huston and Alessandro Nivola, "American Hustle" is in select theaters now and opens nationwide Dec. 20. The film was nominated for the Best Musical or Comedy Film Golden Globe Award Thursday, while Bale, Adams, Cooper and Lawrence each earned individual Globe nods for their performances.