Robert Hanssen was a prominent and distinguished agent for the FBI for almost 25 years. He was celebrated by many of his colleagues for being loyal and honoring the law with the utmost and highest respect. However, that wasn’t really the case. Not only did Hanssen betray the Bureau, but the entire United States. For over two decades, he sold sensitive and significant information to the former Soviet Union. He was found guilty of treason in 2001 and is currently serving a life sentence. In Universal Pictures’ new thriller Breach, Chris Cooper portrays Hanssen and ComingSoon.net talked to actor about his new role and what it was like playing a real person.
ComingSoon.net: What was the first thing you did when you got this role and how much research did you do?
Chris Cooper: As a rule it usually takes 3 or 4 readings for me to be interested in a script, and if I’m interested I’ll read it 3 or 4 times before I make a strong decision. This was unusual, it took one reading. Fortunately, the people I work with at the Paradigm agency – the script came to me a little bit earlier than it usually does the acting the community. So we talked with Billy Ray [the director] and asked if he was interested in my coming aboard, and I believe Billy than approached Universal and asked them if this sounded like an okay thing with them. And they backed him and supported me, and the great thing was that 4 to 6 weeks later, once it got around that we had a god script there were names knocking at Universal’s doors to try to knock me out of that position, but Billy and Universal stood by me. I feel very fortunate. The first step was certainly to find if there was any research material and there was a lot. I looked around the house; I needed to refresh my memory because I knew this was coming up, and I found at least five of the books I had used and they are pretty in-depth studies about Hanssen from his childhood all the way to his capture. They were very helpful and of course we had the true Eric O’Neilll who made himself available about a week before we started shooting to both Ryan and I and we would spend anywhere from 10 to 12 hours a day peppering him with all sorts of questions, any bits of information about Robert Hanssen and their relationship. He was shadowing Hanssen so there was a lot to draw from.
CS: Did you feel intimidated to play a real person versus a fictional character?
Cooper: The intimidation was that even though there were some embarrassing and treasonous acts committed, I still felt responsible and respectable of primarily his family. No doubt this is terrible embarrassment for the country and his wife Bonnie and the children. I think the script handled some of those aspects very tastefully. But intimated? No.
CS: Was there ever a question of you visiting Hanssen in jail?
Cooper: That would be impossible, NO! He’s in a super-max prison, and I believe to this day he’s caused so much trouble over the amount of material he gave the Soviets over a 15-year period that from time to time, he may well still be interrogated on occasion.
CS: Will he see this film?
Cooper: I don’t know. I saw a documentary on the prison where I believe he is, and I don’t know if they are granted reading material or televisions, but who knows. He may make some friends with the guards there and see it someday.
CS: Was the Catherine Zeta-Jones stuff in the movie true?
CS: What about the religious aspect – was that only part of whom he was, and second, after making the film do you have any theories about why he did it?
Cooper: When he was captured they certainly did a psychological evaluation of him and if memory serves me, I think we played on probably four possibilities touching on why he did this and I remember some of the psychiatrist quotes suggesting that the roots of this may well have begun concerning the relationship with his father. It started at an early age; this book that he read, he claims at 14, but was actually at 24. Another motivating factor that I tried to justify to use as a possibility, I believed him to be truly a very committed, dedicated and religious person. And in that study they suggested that he had very strong psychological demons that he was dealing with. He was terrified of failure, of not looking good in the eyes of his wife and his children. He expected to rise higher than he did in the FBI. He did rise but only to a certain level, and because of his intelligence and early working knowledge of computers of that time he was placed in the position where he ended up not being the guy, guy of the FBI, and sitting in front of a monitor and reading reports, and I think that may have been real discouraging to him and probably very irritating and probably angered him quite a bit.
CS: Did you have a discussion with the director about religion and why Hanssen was the way he was about it?
Cooper: Billy and I touched on that, but it was more my responsibility how far I went. I’m not Catholic, my wife is, and Patty Clarkson, another actor friend, because we’re going to be working with her, gave the house a call and Marianne picked up the phone, and it was a Saturday night, and Patty said, “What are you guys doing tonight?” Marianne said, “I’m teaching Chris the rosary.” And I had no idea how lengthy a rosary could be and how involved it was. The religious aspect was all my responsibility how serious and what religious fervor he held for Opus Dei and the Catholic religion.
CS: Can you talk about working with Ryan Phillippe?
Cooper: I came to Los Angeles and we’re looking at working with six actors throughout the day, and we found a little sound stage with a garage door, because we were working inside and outside on some scenes, and the six talents that they chose, you all would recognize them, you all would know who they were, but it just came out that Ryan was the better performance of all of them and that was Billy’s choice. The working relationship was just terrific in that we had some very strong, serious scenes every day to do. So what I appreciated in Ryan, I think the day of our introduction was the nicest I was to Ryan, and I preferred to keep it that way. And that’s the same method I used to work with Jake Gyllenhaal in “October Sky.” It didn’t call for a chummy atmosphere on the set and that was fine for Ryan and necessary for me. I think Ryan and I work in similar ways and in many respects and at the moment of performance we’re intuitive, there’s a lot of pacing for both Ryan and me between scenes, that’s a memory of mine. He’d be at one corner and I’d be at the other corner. But the atmosphere was appropriate, and it wasn’t the most joyous or chummy, but it was what we needed to do the work.
CS: How valuable was it shooting at real locations?
Cooper: In a subtle way, but it was an extra big layer. You’re in this neighborhood and you’re retracing the steps of this guy. If you saw the film where the car is parked and I’m about to get in the car and drive off, that house behind the car, I can’t remember her name, but she was such a cute lady about 70 or so, and she had t-shirts printed up – “Hanssen was captured here.” She was very accommodating to the cast and crew. It really gave you a sense of re-doing, of re-walking history.
CS: Were there any specific antidotes that Eric gave you about Robert Hanssen?
Cooper: We did incorporate it in the film, and some people had different interpretations of it. But the scene where I’m walking and talking with O’Neill down the hall and I sort of drive him into furniture or the wall or whatever, and Eric never knew, was this intentional, is this another intimidating tactic, and I just didn’t go that way. I went with – this guy is involved, his gyro gets off, his physical sense just goes an odd way. Eric would tell us of all the mind games Hanssen would play and Hanssen never kept that proper social distance. He’d always come around the table where Eric was working and just hang around and touch him. It was very creepy for Eric. And those instances, those close calls when it was so close that Hanssen might have discovered that Eric was a set up to shadow Hanssen.
Breach opens in theaters on Friday, February 16.