June 07, 1999 12:00 PM

>Christian Bale

A decade ago, Christian Bale wanted to bail out of stardom. In 1987, at the age of 12, the Welsh-born wildlife conservationist’s son was handpicked by Steven Spielberg out of 4,000 auditioners to star in Empire of the Sun. The resulting media attention was “horrific,” he says. “I was almost crying in interviews and running away during press conferences, pretending I was going to the toilet and just disappearing.”

Now 25, the actor—who plays Demetrius, Calista Flockhart’s obsession in A Midsummer Night’s Dream—has happily readjusted to fame, a process that began in 1994 when he starred as Winona Ryder’s love interest in Little Women. “He swept everyone away,” says Ryder. Recently, he has carved out a niche in low-budget fare such as ’98’s Velvet Goldmine and this year’s Metroland.

His next major role, as a serial killer in American Psycho, may have some fans heading for the exits. But the actor, who lives in L.A. with three cats and two dogs, hopes at least a few will stand by him. “Who wouldn’t like having girls you don’t even know compliment you?” he says. “It’s a great ego boost.”

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