Christian Bale is meditating on stage.

Or at least it looks like he's meditating - body completely still, eyes closed serenely against the press corps camped out in the Beverly Hilton ballroom in front of him. Had he not been answering questions and talking (sometimes at length) about his final turn as the Caped Crusader at the "Dark Knight Rises" press conference we'd all gathered there for, one could even be forgiven for thinking he'd nodded off. He sat like that on and off throughout the Q&A, breaking the placid mask only sporadically. I like to think he was envisioning himself in the Batman suit one last time.

"I'm looking at this panel, and I'm just realizing [we have] all these Oscar nominees, and Oscar winners," declared the moderator at one point, excessively complimentary as per his job description. "I'm just kinda floored. Christian, since 'The Dark Knight' came out in 2008, you've become an Oscar winner for 'The Fighter.'" And then, turning to the audience expectantly: "Let's hear it."

That was our cue to clap, and most of us did. Call it conditioned adulation.

"So correct me if I'm wrong," the moderator went on, "but that makes you the very first Oscar winner to play a comic-book costumed superhero."

First Oscar winner to play a comic-book costumed superhero.


"Does it?" responded Bale, clearly unaware of the distinction.

Pressing on blindly, the moderator continued: "Have you thought about that?"

"Clearly not," Bale replied, a hint of amusement gliding across his thick Welsh accent.

Yes, it's good to be Christian Bale, who hit megastar status after playing Batman in the first two entries of Christopher Nolan's hugely-successful "Dark Knight" trilogy and has presumably ever since been surrounded by people who feel it's their duty to dig up excessively-qualified career milestones that probably don't make much of a difference to him one way or the other.

And yet Bale doesn't immediately strike one as a conventional leading man, a quality that actually makes him a perfect fit for Nolan's more cerebral brand of superhero film. Like his director, there's a thoughtful quality about him, a sense that he really does believe in the potential of these blockbuster action flicks to function equally well as social commentary. In fact, Bale sees the roots of that in Batman creator Bob Kane's original conception of the character.

"Correct me if I'm wrong, my understanding is that Bob Kane created this character in 1939, which being from England, right, that's the beginning of WWII," said Bale, his muted way of speaking making it occasionally difficult to understand him. "And it was an answer to the uselessness that individuals felt against this humongous tragedy, and what could you do? So it was topical in its inception, that's how Batman began...it began as a very topical character, and I think Chris returned it to that."

To Bale, even the action sequences in "The Dark Knight Rises" are infused with deeper meaning, apparent from his response to a question about what it was like to film the fight sequences between Batman and his formidable adversary Bane (played by Tom Hardy).

"The thing I liked so much about the fight sequences with [Bane] is they're never just knock-down fight sequences," he began, having earlier referenced the villain as "the first adversary of Batman's that you know could probably whip his butt." "You learn something more about each character throughout each fight, which is the mark of a good fight. ...You learn about what Batman has had to go through from the beginning of the movie to the end in order to be able to defeat this man. And you're learning about Bane as well, and the changes that have come over him. And that's always essential in any fight. That's really what you're looking for.. We've seen so many people punching each other non-stop, who cares? You're looking for 'what are the changes? What are the weaknesses? What are the strengths of each character that are going to allow them to dominate one or the other?'"

Bale is the fourth actor to don the famous cape since the release of Tim Burton's franchise-reinvigorating "Batman" starring Michael Keaton in 1989, a lucrative distinction that the majority of Hollywood actors probably would've killed for. Still, his first experience donning the cowl made it tough to fully appreciate his turn of good fortune.

"The first time I ever put on the [cowl] I thought, 'Chris has to [re-do] the cast,'" recounted Bale. "Because the claustrophobia was just unbelievable. I stood there and I thought, 'I can't breathe, I can't think, this is too tight, this is squeezing my head, I'm gonna panic, I'm about to have a nervous breakdown, a panic attack right this second!'"

After suffering this bout of momentary alarm, Bale asked for 20 minutes of privacy to pull himself back to his senses.

"I just stood there and I thought, 'I'd really like to make this movie. I'd like to be able to get through this," he said. "So I just stood for 20 minutes by myself and then called [everyone] back in and said, 'ok....just talk very calmly please, and maybe i can get through this.'"

Of course he did get through it, partially thanks to the costume department ("In the same way Bruce Wayne improves the suit, we improved the suit for ourselves," he told us), and came out the other side with two highly-regarded blockbusters and one likely blockbuster under his belt. On his last day of filming on "Rises," he took 20 minutes for himself once again - only instead of panic this time, the feeling was one of deep satisfaction and accomplishment.

"We wrapped, and we were doing a scene, [I was playing] Batman, it was with Anne as Catwoman on a roof in Manhattan," he began. "And I just went down and sat in a room and i realized this is it. I'm not gonna be taking this cowl off again. So again, i said 'can you please leave me alone for 20 minutes?' and sat with that moment. It was the realization...of real pride of having achieved what we had set out to. It was a very important moment for me, it's been a very important character...and the movies themselves have changed my life and changed my career. So I wanted to just appreciate that."

"The Dark Knight Rises" hits theaters on July 20.