The investigation leading to the arrest of FBI agent Robert Hanssen
It was a quiet February afternoon in 2001, I had just come into work in Springfield, Virginia. My assignment for the day was a small investigation on a home invasion by the FBI. In the 20 minutes it took me to take off my coat, turn on my computer, and go over a few notes on the story, Robert Hanssen became one of the biggest stories Washington DC had seen.
He was an agent at the FBI, who was convicted of spying for the Russians. That investigation is now played on the big screen in the new film, Breach. Chris Cooper is Hanssen, while Ryan Phillippe plays Eric O'Neill, a junior agent doubling as Hanssen's assistant. Based on Eric following Robert, the film follows the inside of the biggest breach in US history.
Ryan Phillippe and Eric O'Neill sat down to talk about working on this film. Here's what they had to say:
Ryan, what was the most valuable thing you learned from Eric?
Ryan Phillippe: It was less about what I learned from him and more what happened to my idea of how to play the part once I got to know Eric. His personality, man, he's a great guy; he's got this indomitable spirit, this confidence that let me know how he could get through a situation like this. I wanted some of that life in the guy; to me, one of the funniest things, once I'd met Eric and I'd hear him tell stories about Hanssen, he'd talk about how much Hanssen annoyed him. That's something so funny to me; the idea about he's not only the boss from Hell and one of the worst spies in U.S. history, but the guy would get on your nerves and he would get on Hanssen's nerves and I like the idea of like the married couple in the car on a long road trip bickering. To find those sort of human, idiosyncratic aspects of what is an enormous story, was what was really appealing to me.
How was the relationship between you and Chris?
Ryan Phillippe: Chris Cooper is, if not the, then one of the best actors working today; for me it was a privilege to have what I thought was a master class in acting on a daily basis. We do work similarly in our approach; he's definitely a little bit method and I can be prone to that as well. One of my favorite things about being an actor is that we get to make believe. I like staying in the part and I like pretending to be someone else, and when the other actor is doing it as well, it feeds the energy of every scene. One of the most difficult things though about working with Chris was that Billy Ray asked me to quit smoking for the movie; he said, 'Eric O'Neill wouldn't smoke.'
Eric O'Neill: It's true.
Ryan Phillippe: And so I did; that's one of the craziest sacrifices I think you could make in preparation for a part, but I did it anyway. But Chris Cooper's a chain smoker and I'd be doing these scenes in the car with him; I'd just quit smoking and everything, the tension, the anxiety that goes along with quitting, it all fed some of those scenes. I'm like, 'Why is he smoking? I had to quit?'
Eric, was there any hesitation to do a story about your life?
Eric O'Neill: The movie is my fault; I came up with it with my brother David so it's not like I got approached and they said, 'Hey we want to make a movie of your life.' Nobody knew about me, so I, with my brother, went out and worked with two other guys Adam Mazer and Bill Rotko and we formed a sort of partnership and came up with the movie idea which was really David's more than mine. I was telling him the story, brother to brother, after the case broke and he said, 'We've gotta make a Hollywood movie!' I said, 'You're nuts, there's no way; I'm in the FBI, buddy. We can't just go makin' movies about stuff.' He's like, 'No, no, it's a great movie.' And shortly thereafter, I left the FBI and then he was like, 'Ok, now can we make the movie?' And so that's how that all started.
Was there any information that you couldn't give up to Ryan and the filmmakers?
Eric O'Neill: Yes, there was plenty of stuff that was classified; the way I approached that was I worked very closely with Billy on the screenplay. He would ask me stuff, more so with Billy I think than Ryan with his character, because Ryan never approached it like a mimic. That would have rang very false to me too because I wouldn't have wanted him to do that; he more approached it like, 'Who's Eric and what kind of person is he?' And then he went with it. But, with the classified information, I couldn't tell them a lot of stuff; what I'd do is once Billy started talking to the FBI I said, 'Ok, go talk to the FBI and then call me,' and I'd debrief him. 'Ok, tell me everything they said and walk through; you missed something. There's something you're missing, what was it?' 'Oh, there was a camera in the room.' 'Good, I can talk about it now,' because Billy put it all in the public; once it's in the public, I'm allowed to talk about it. It's no longer classified; the FBI de-classified things for the movie.
How did get involved in this movie?
Ryan Phillippe: Well, I met with Billy Ray and, obviously, read the script and started doing a little bit of research in hope of getting the part and it came right up to where I had gotten the job for Flags of Our Fathers - that was the biggest job I'd ever gotten and I was so excited and for this to happen the way it did. I was really nervous screen testing with Chris Cooper because I idolize the guy; I think that actually helped me in some ways when you are playing this part. The process wasn't that rigorous; I screen tested and then they choose me.
What did you learn from Hanssen?
Eric O'Neill: I think it's a sense of confidence; that game that you're talking about, 'I'm saying this and you're thinking this, but I'm really trying to get you to think this because I want you to say this,' which is what I was doing and what Hanssen was doing. Somewhere in there I beat him; it gives you a lot of confidence because, in order to do that, you really have to believe that you're doing it right. That level of confidence is something you can take with you into real life, into being a lawyer, into being whatever you're doing. Beating Hanssen was a lot about telling myself, in the back of my mind, 'you're gonna do it right; relax a little bit and don't show him that you're afraid.'
Ryan Phillippe: He was, essentially, an actor and it was a chess game between he and Hanssen and he won.
Eric, some of the scenes are not exactly how it actually happened; can you talk about that?
Eric O'Neill: The way that I went into this, when you find out the Hollywood is going to make a movie about you - ok, when I found out because I don't think this happens to a lot of people, you have to really think hard and conceptualize how you're going to deal with it. For some reason, I always get the question, 'Did you ever run on set and say 'cut, cut, cut! You're doing it wrong,' like I'm some kind of tyrant.
Ryan Phillippe: That's so weird; I don't know how we would have reacted to that.
Eric O'Neill: Yeah, you would have thrown me off set. 'We'll have you back for the premiere; it was great seeing you, bye.' I had to come to sort of an intellectual decision about how I was going to approach the fact that they are making a movie about my life. And, that was to step back and say, 'This is going to be an incredible process and it will be a lot of fun and we'll just see what happens' and not worry about that. That scene in the woods never happened and it's always tough when I get the question 'what about that scene, did that happen?' 'No, but there were tensions like that and so many of the tensions I went through while I was in that case and while I was in my personal life with that case and the battles I was having with my wife - it's hard to portray in a movie like that. It's very personal and you don't need to have Ryan being Eric narrating to the audience, 'Oh, by the way, this is really hard to show.' That gun scene is an explosive element that certainly could have happened, but didn't.
Ryan Phillippe: Your aim with any movie is to tell a great story; you have a finite amount of time to do it. This case was years and years of manpower and work behind it and then you have two hours to tell the story so you do have to take some kind of license but the core of it and the core moments throughout the movie, are pretty accurate but it's a movie.
Eric O'Neill: The pivotal scene with that palm pilot, by the way, is a play-by-play of what really happened; I watch that scene and I see Ryan sitting at the desk at the end, dealing with it and sitting at the desk with Hanssen going in and checking and it brings me right back there. I remember sitting at that desk and thinking to myself, 'He's run into his office, he's slammed the door; I can hear his bag unzipping and I know he's looking for that palm pilot. He made the pivotal mistake of not having it in his pocket for once in that whole case; we were trying to get that damn thing the whole time. And I know that, if it's wrong, I had to make a decision - get up and leave and blow the case or sit there and take what's coming to me because I made a stupid mistake. And I just had to figure, maybe I had a ten percent chance of getting it right but it's my fault; if I'm right and I'm still here, we win but, if I'm wrong and I'm still here, he'll probably shoot me.
Was that the scariest moment for you?
Eric O'Neill: That was probably the scariest moment for me, sitting there thinking, 'Wow, I'm probably going to get shot right now. Oh well, at least I won't be tired anymore; I get to sleep now.'
How well do you think Chris Cooper nailed the Hanssen part?
Eric O'Neill: I think he got him very well; Chris talked to me in the beginning and he said, 'I would really like to get this character in a way that people in the FBI will see the movie and say 'yeah, that's him' or 'I remember that', or 'yeah, he does do that, that's funny.' I remember we were walking down the hall one day and I got pushed into the wall and it was really annoying; those kind of things are what Chris wanted, and I said 'Ok, I'm here and I'm going to think back' because it was some time later. Chris is so talented that he just went through my mind and sort of dipped in there and found what he needed; he had me walk with Ryan down the hall and push Ryan into the wall and Ryan got to see what that was like. He asked me some of his quirks and went, 'Ok, read this part of the script in Hanssen's voice.' I was like, 'I don't think I can do it,' he's like 'Just try and keep trying.' Then he was like, 'Ok forget it, you can't; let me try it and you just tell me when I'm close,' and we did it that way and he nailed it.
Ryan Phillippe: It was great to watch that process too; it was great to watch Chris meticulously craft this character and get frustrated with himself for things he felt like he was doing. The guy, this amazing actor, after certain takes he'd be cursing himself; you don't even understand why. You're like, 'You're about the best out there,' but watching he and Eric develop this character together in the room was just fascinating.
Breach opens in theaters February 16th; it's rated PG-13. Laura Linney and Dennis Haysbert also star as the heads of the FBI leading the investigation on Hanssen.