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Dark Secrets

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Christian Bale has always been a stickler when it comes to researching his roles. This February the 34-year-old actor visited the small town of Florence, S.C., to meet Alston Purvis, the son of 1930s FBI agent Melvin Purvis, whom Bale plays in the upcoming crime drama Public Enemies.

But over dinner with Purvis, Bale had someone else on his mind: his daughter, whose 3rd-birthday party was the next day back in L.A. In fact he woke up at 4 a.m. for the 100-mile drive to catch an early flight home. “He’s a terribly proud dad and he was determined to get back to this birthday party,” says Purvis. “He spoke of his family with the greatest love.”

So friends of the Batman actor were stunned by events that recently rocked his global press tour for The Dark Knight. On July 22—the day after he walked the red carpet with his wife, Sibi, at the film’s London premiere—Bale was questioned by cops over allegations that he assaulted his mother, Jenny, 61, and sister Sharon, 41, during a dispute in his Dorchester Hotel suite. Bale denies any wrongdoing and has not been charged with a crime. But details of the July 20 incident remain sketchy (under English law, a “common assault” can be defined as a verbal or physical attack). Still, the drama highlights his complex relationship with his family—and celebrity. Indeed, Bale is so reluctant to discuss his private life that he has never publicly disclosed his daughter’s name. Says director McG, who is now working with Bale on Terminator Salvation: “You’ve never met a guy less interested in money, less interested in fame.”

On-set the Welsh-born Bale is famous for being a shy, serious and sometimes prickly star. Filming Terminator earlier this month, he reportedly got into a screaming match with a cinematographer. “Christian and I are passionate,” says McG. Adds Enemies director Michael Mann: “He has the intensity a director looks for. It’s rational and professional.”

Friends say at heart Bale is an introvert, shaped by what he’s termed an “eccentric” childhood moving around England with his father, David, an environmentalist, his mother, Jenny, a former circus dancer, and his sisters. After getting the lead in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun at 13, Bale was bullied in school and hated the spotlight so much he began avoiding the media. “I hated doing the press,” he said in 1998. “It can be too much responsibility for someone of a young age.” After Bale’s parents divorced, he moved to L.A. with his father. The pair remained close after David wed feminist Gloria Steinem in 2000—the same year Christian married Sibi Blazic, a former assistant to his Little Women costar Winona Ryder. He was at David’s side when he died of brain lymphoma in ’03. “He nursed his father with gentleness and patience,” Steinem recalls.

Bale’s relationship with his mother is more complex. The pair rarely see each other (a source says he made no effort to meet Jenny when she visited L.A. in ’06), and although she and Sharon were invited to The Dark Knight‘s U.K. premiere, the reunion ended with the fight. What happened? British tabloids reported that Bale was angered when Sharon asked for money. But sources tell PEOPLE that Sibi was insulted during the dispute and that Bale defended her.

That, say friends, is the essence of Bale: a man with a complicated past, fiercely dedicated to protecting those he loves most. “He’s a real family man. He’s dedicated to his wife and his child,” says Mann. “Everything relates to them.”