The man who brought down Robert Hanssen gives a very candid interview about the film and his work that brought about its creation
Breach tells the true story of renowned FBI operative Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) who was found guilty of treason against America. Over a period of more than two decades, Hanssen systematically and deliberately sold his country's key intelligence to the former Soviet Union. The FBI was aided in their investigation by Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), a young agent-in-training handpicked by the Bureau to help draw Hanssen from his cover. We recently had the chance to sit down with the real Eric O'Neill and discuss the film, working undercover and the complex person that is Robert Hanssen.
This film feels very real. Very by the book and I was wondering if when you watch the film if you are able to see yourself in it?
Eric O'Neill: Yeah, certainly. Working on the film has definitely brought me back there. When I was in that office with Hanssen, the battles I had with my wife... it resurfaced a lot of those feelings so it was an emotional rollar coaster ride for me. What also really surprised me, despite the fact that I spent so much time on set and the fact that I had read 100 drafts of the screenplay and helped write parts of it, I still felt myself drawn into the movie. That hour and forty five minutes passed very fast. I was just amazed at how much I liked the movie.
What was the most nervewracking aspect for you of bringing Robert Hanssen to justice in real life?
Eric O'Neill: You know the scene in the movie that is the most tense and we usually hear from the audience about is that palm pilot scene. The hardest part of that whole investigation for me was that moment where I had put his palm pilot back in his bag and I wasn't sure whether I had the right pocket. I never really was sure until he came back out of his office after checking his bag and didn't shoot me. That led me to believe that I had guessed right. There were a lot of things wrapped into that. I was thinking I'd just blown a multimillion dollar case. I'm an idiot. I'm probably going to get shot but that's okay because I probably deserve it. A lot of stuff was going on there.
I was just so tired at that point and so miserable from working this case that whatever happened, I was just gonna let happen.
Was there ever a point where you considered trying to get off the case?
Eric O'Neill: Yeah, there were certainly times like that. There was no getting out of it. Once you're a critical link in a humongous investigation, one of the most important the FBI's ever run, there's no option to leave. I couldn't have even said, "I'm quitting the FBI and never coming back." They would have said, "You're coming back and you're going to get in that office with him tomorrow because there's no one else. If you walk away it's going to look really suspicious and you will blow this case." I just couldn't do that.
When you're undercover like you were is it 24/7? Do you have any kind of a life?
Eric O'Neill: During that Hanssen case I had no life. I worked the case and it consumed everything. Every part of my time, all of my emotional energy and all my mental energy. I was at law school at the time and it was the worst semester I had at school. Mostly because I would leave the office, go to law school, I'd sit there in class and I'd be writing my notes from the day with Hanssen in the back of a legal pad. I wasn't really listening to what the professor was saying.
Having seen a big part of your life in a movie is there something you've discovered about the whole case that maybe you didn't realize before?
Eric O'Neill: I think just watching the way that those reactions work... I realize that there was a point in the case where I had to decide I wasn't going to just react to Hanssen anymore. Instead I was going to act and push back and make sure I was doing a job and actually try and get this thing done. During the time we were in Toronto and we were working the case, the original draft of the script before I went off to Toronto, my character was much weaker. Hanssen abused him a little bit more. He was a little bit more whiny. It was funny because my friends who had read the script before we started shooting were like, "Wow, you're kind of a whiny little b*tch." I was like, "Well, it's a movie what are you gonna do? It works for the character."
When Ryan met me and we went and grabbed a few beers we had plenty of time to talk up in Toronto. He went over to Bill (Billy Ray, the director) and he said, "Eric's not exactly like how you wrote him here. Maybe we can make him a little tougher and I think it will work better." They tried and the next thing we knew my role got rewritten a little bit. Ryan got to play a tougher guy which is what he wanted to do and the dynamic worked better with Chris Cooper.
My roundabout way of getting to this is that I realized that's exactly what worked for me with Robert Hanssen. Had I gone in there and just sort of played the sycophant and just was his Yes man, he would have never respected me, never trust me and we would have never learned what we needed to catch him. Because I got annoyed with him and I would get bothered by him and I'd push back at him, I'd tell him, "Hey man, just leave alone I'm having a bad day." The kind of things that a trained undercover person never would have considered, it worked for me.
Hanssen used to tell me in our mentoring sessions, "Eric, in order to handle any situation you need to very rapidly analyze all the information in front of you, and then you have to quickly think on your feet and then act to changing circumstances so you can do what you need to do to beat your target or win your case." I just took his advice and used it against him.
Ultimately, why do you think that Robert Hanssen committed treason?
Eric O'Neill: That's the humongous question. I think he began because he wanted money. This was a guy who was a brand new agent. Never wanted to be seen as a failure. Had a humongous ego. Had just married a very beautiful socialite who came from a much wealthier family. He was this broke, new, special agent making nothing. Unfortunately, assigned to the Manhattan office so he couldn't afford rent, obviously. Having children very fast because of his religious beliefs. That he couldn't afford to send to the schools that he had to send them to. He couldn't send his kids to public schools his church wouldn't allow it.
So he did what he had to do to make ends meet. He spied. He sold out. He volunteered to the Russians. Then, as time past and he made more money, and he didn't need to spy I think he realized, "Wow, this is what made me feel good about myself." "This is what makes me feel cool and sexy and like James Bond." So he didn't stop even when he could've.
How involved in the shooting of Breach were you?
Eric O'Neill: I was on the set for a good part of the shooting in Toronto. I obviously couldn't be there every day. I think it was 39 days in Toronto or something like that. I couldn't have just taken a whole month off of work, as much as I would have loved to. I was there for all the critical scenes. I was there for all the shooting in Washington, DC. While I was on set I functioned as a consultant. Everyone would ask me questions. From the props guys to he set designers to the actors, of course. I worked while I was out there but I had an enormous amount of fun doing it.
What are working on now?
Eric O'Neill: I'm still an attorney. I work for a private law firm in Washington, DC. Movie related, I've always had a great love of writing, particularly fiction. I'm still writing. I'm working on a screenplay right now and I've worked on two TV pilots. One of which got picked up by The CW. The other, which my brother and I are working on. So we'll see if anything really sticks.
Breach is available on DVD and HD-DVD June 12 from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.
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