hide captionChris Cooper, as Robert Hanssen, is found out and eventually caught by Ryan Phillippe, playing the FBI agent Eric O'Neill
Oscar-winner Chris Cooper played an orchid thief in Adaptation and a tormented Marine in American Beauty. Cooper seized the opportunity for another complex role, this time as a tormented spy in director Billy Ray's Breach. Cooper speaks with Steve Inskeep.
Chris Cooper is modest enough to suggest he only got the part because he saw the script first.
Several weeks later, when the word got out amongst the Hollywood community how good a script this was then the big names that we all we recognize were knocking on Universal's door to see if there was a chance that they could take Hanssen.
But you got there first.
Why did you want to play this reprehensible person?
Because I knew it was going to be a very big challenge. I guess the outstanding idea was a man of such contradiction — a very devout Catholic — put himself out there as a rabid anti-communist, considering at the same time he unfortunately used his wife as a sort of a voyeuristic sex object, videotaping he and his wife at home for a particular friend of his. And then, for a period of 20 years, giving our top secrets to the Soviets. There were these strange contradictions. It seems as if [he was] able to compartmentalize his life and, for different reasons, justify all of it.
When you try to play an unusual character like this where do you even begin trying to figure out what drives that?
You begin with the research. There were a number of books that came out shortly after his capture. I had five that I worked with. There were pretty good studies going back to his interview [with] his elementary school classmates. Observations in these interviews with relatives and colleagues give you bits of information that you start compiling, and you get a rough view of the guy. Then you start using your imagination.
Did the classmates or the relatives, their words, give you anything specific that you were able to work with?
Yes. They said that Hanssen was a person that just sort of blended in. He wasn't a standout, he was not charismatic. Added to this, there was a psychological study of Hanssen after his capture. [The interviewer] spent 30 hours with Hanssen and suggested that Hanssen had some strong psychological demons that he was dealing with going back to his relationship with his father which was a very oppressive and negative relationship. His father went to great lengths to keep him down. There's one little scene where I mentioned to Eric O'Neill, played by Ryan Philippe, that when I was trying to get my driver's license [my] father told the instructor to fail me, that I'll get a big head.
You mentioned that Robert Hanssen fades into the background. Do you find yourself fading into your character in a way?
It's kind of hard to explain but yes, yes. When I feel like I'm doing my best work, there is a bit of a freedom, a bit of flight that you're not so much losing yourself but you're sort of in the zone.
There's a scene where your character confronts the Ryan Philippe character, the young FBI employee. You're out in Rock Creek Park, it's dark. [Scene plays, with gunfire and shouting.] How did you gear yourself up to be that intense and that upset on camera?
Well, all I can say is thank goodness I had 15 years of theater before ever I did film roles. You build technique that you can rely on.
What's the technique?
The technique is time and experience.
You know this character by then?
I don't. I've don't know [that] I've even scratched the surface of the character. If I was talking to Robert Hanssen, I'd be interested in knowing how close I came. But I had the script for four or five months, working on it every night and then it's time to perform and you rely on — for lack of a better word — your talent.
Can I ask you about one sentence that is said in that same scene? Ryan Phillippe has shouted to your character, "You don't matter that much." You come back with three words. You say, "I ... matter ... plenty," and the last word is inflected up in the way that you get this sudden creepy sense that you're looking at somebody who has a split personality, and he's turned on and turned off his anger in an instant.
(Laughing) Well, I'm glad you saw it that way.
Is that what you were going for? Did you think about that line?
I can't remember for that particular take what I was thinking. But I think for that particular line, there was a lot of subtext to that.
So you don't feel that you got to know Robert Hanssen that well in the end.
Well the big intriguing question is, "Why did he do it?" And nobody knows, because he hasn't ever been that forthcoming.
On Feb. 18, 2001, the FBI's Robert Hanssen was arrested for selling government secrets to Russia. His betrayal has been called the "worst breach of U.S. intelligence in the history of the FBI."
Hanssen's treachery took place in banal spots like Foxstone Park, a suburban Washington green space. Hanssen used it as a place to exchange information with his Russian handlers, as Spy Museum historian Thomas Boghardt explained during a recent trip there.
In a little over a week, the Hanssen case will be re-told on the silver screen in a new film called Breach. It stars Chris Cooper as Hanssen and and Ryan Philippe as FBI rookie Eric O'Neill, who helped bring Hanssen in.
The real O'Neill and the film's director, Billy Ray, spoke with Rebecca Roberts. O'Neill said that he didn't set out to turn his time at the FBI into a movie script.
This story was produced for Weekend Edition Sunday by Jesse Baker.