Chris Cooper, Filling the Key Role in 'Breach' Oscar-winner Chris Cooper has found one of his most intense roles yet as Robert Hanssen, who sold secrets to the Soviets while working at the FBI. Cooper talks about Breach and the techniques he used to portray Hanssen.

Chris Cooper, Filling the Key Role in 'Breach'

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(Soundbite of movie, "Breach")

Unidentified Man: Sunday, the FBI successfully concluded an investigation to end a very serious breach in the security of the United States.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Those words from a real-life news conference begin the movie "Breach." It's the story of Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent who sold secrets to Moscow for many years. In the new movie, the actor Chris Cooper plays the man who betrayed his country in private, though he was fiercely patriotic in public.

(Soundbite of movie, "Breach")

Mr. CHRIS COOPER (Actor): (As Robert Hanssen) You know why the Soviet empire collapsed? Good morning. I made a career studying them. They were smarter than us. More devious, more determined. Why did they fail? Godlessness, atheism.

MONTAGNE: Chris Cooper is the Oscar-winning actor who played an orchid thief in "Adaptation." He played a tormented Marine in "American Beauty." He told Steve Inskeep that he seized the chance to play a tormented spy.

STEVE INSKEEP: Chris Cooper is modest enough to suggest he only got the part because he saw the script first.

Mr. COOPER: Several weeks later, when word got out amongst the Hollywood community how good a script this was, then the big names that we all recognize were knocking on Universal's door to see if there was a chance that they could take Hanssen.

INSKEEP: But you got there first.

Mr. COOPER: I did, I did.

INSKEEP: Well, why did you want to play this reprehensible person?

Mr. COOPER: Because I knew it was going to be a very big challenge. I guess the outstanding idea was a man of such contradiction. You know, very devout Catholic, put himself out there as a rabid anti-communist. And considering it at the same time he unfortunately used his wife as sort of a voyeuristic sex object in videotaping he and his wife at home for a particular friend of his. And then for a period of 20 years giving our top, top secrets to the Soviets were these strange contradictions. It seems as if he were able to compartmentalize his life and for different reasons justify all of it.

INSKEEP: When you try to play an unusual character like this, where do you even begin trying to figure out what drives that man?

Mr. COOPER: You begin with the research, and there were a number of books that came out shortly after his capture. I had five that I worked with. They were pretty good studies going back to his, you know, interviewing his elementary school classmates. And those 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, and then you start using your imagination.

INSKEEP: Did the classmates of the relatives, their words, give you anything specific that you were able to work with?

Mr. COOPER: Yeah. They said that Hanssen was a person who 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. And I think that his name was Dr. Selarian(ph), 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 mention to Eric O'Neill, played by Ryan Phillippe, that when I was trying to get my drivers license, my father told the instructor to fail me, that I'd get a big head.

INSKEEP: You mentioned that Robert Hanssen fades into the background. Do you find yourself fading into your characters in a way?

Mr. COOPER: It's kind of hard to explain, but yes. When I feel like I'm doing my best work there is a bit of a freedom, there's a bit of flight that you're not so much losing yourself but you're sort of in the zone.

INSKEEP: I want to play a clip of a particularly intense scene. This is a scene where your character confronts Ryan Phillippe's character, the young FBI employee. And you're out in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., it's dark and your character has a gun.

(Soundbite of movie, "Breach")

(Soundbite of gunshot)

Mr. RYAN PHILLIPPE (Actor): (as Eric O'Neill) What are you doing?

Mr. COOPER: (as Robert Hanssen) Who was calling you in the car?

Mr. PHILLIPPE: (as Eric O'Neill): What?

Mr. COOPER: (as Robert Hanssen) I need to know if I can trust you.

Mr. PHILLIPPE: (as Eric O'Neill) Put the gun down.

Mr. COOPER: (as Robert Hanssen): I need to know if I can trust you.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

INSKEEP: How did you gear yourself up to be that intense and that upset on camera?

Mr. COOPER: Well, all I can say is that thank goodness I had 15 years of theatre before I ever did a film works. And with that, you build a technique that you can rely on.

INSKEEP: What's the technique?

Mr. COOPER: The technique is time and experience.

INSKEEP: Do you know this character by then?

Mr. COOPER: I don't. You know, I wouldn't say I don't know if I even scratched the surface of the character. If I was ever talking to Robert Hanssen, I'd be interested to know how close I came. But I mean I had this script for four or five months, working on it every night, and then it's time to perform. And you rely on your, for lack of better words, your talent.

INSKEEP: Can I ask you about one sentence that is said in that same scene? Ryan Phillippe has shouted at 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 this way that you get this sudden creepy sense that you're looking at somebody who's got a split personality and has turned on and turned off his anger and an instant.

Mr. COOPER: Well, I'm glad you saw it that way.

INSKEEP: Is that what you were going for? Did you think about that line?

Mr. COOPER: I can't remember for that particular take what I was thinking. But, I mean, I think that particular line, there was a lot of subtext to that.

INSKEEP: So you don't feel that you got to know Robert Hanssen that well in the end?

Mr. COOPER: Well, the big intriguing question is why did he do it, and nobody knows because he hasn't ever been that forthcoming.

INSKEEP: Well, Chris Cooper, thanks very much.

Mr. COOPER: All right, sir. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: "Breach," starring Chris Cooper, opens in theatres tomorrow. See scenes from the film and hear interviews with former FBI agent Eric O'Neill and "Breach" director Billy Ray at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. With Steve Inskeep, I'm Renee Montagne.

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