When Eric O’Neill joined the elite group of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he had no idea he was going to be involved in taking down our country’s most notorious spy, Robert Hanssen, a 25-year veteran of the FBI. O’Neill was just 26-years-old when he was assigned as Hanssen’s assistant. He didn’t know at the time that his new boss was under investigation for treason. During his time working with Hanssen, he was informed that he had been selling key information to the former Soviet Union and that it was crucial that O’Neill gain his trust and help get evidence against him. O’Neill succeeded and in 2001, Hanssen was arrested for one of the most serious treason crimes the FBI has ever seen.
Now Universal Pictures’ has brought O’Neill’s story to the big screen. Breach tells the tale of how the young FBI agent in training helped reveal one of the most infamous spies in the history of the United States. Ryan Phillippe plays O’Neill in the film and ComingSoon.net talked to both the actor and O’Neill himself about the events that took place during his time at the FBI.
ComingSoon.net: 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 [Eric is chuckling under his breath]. 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 [Eric] 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.
CS: Chris was saying that this wasn’t’ the kind of role where you bond on the set. He just tried to keep the line between the two of you. How was that process. Did it help you in your performance?
Phillippe: Yeah, it certainly did. 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 and 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’Neilll wouldn’t smoke’.
Eric O’Neilll It’s true.
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. [laughing] 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?”
CS: Eric, was there any hesitation to do a story about your life and was there any information that you couldn’t give up to Ryan and the filmmakers?
O’Neilll 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” and 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 “okay, now can we make the movie?” And so that’s how that all started. And 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. Moreso with Billy I think than Ryan with his character, because Ryan, like he said, he never approached it like a mimic and 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 and what I’d do is once Billy started talking to the FBI I said, “okay, go talk to the FBI and then call me” and I’d debrief him. “Okay, 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.
CS: You were in “Crash,” a movie that talks about police corruption and “Flags of Our Fathers” was about government manipulation and now, in this movie you are an FBI guy who is a hero. Are you trying to balance things out with what’s going on in the country?
Phillippe: Well, wait until you see the next one. The next one’s going to be really politically provocative, the Kim Peirce movie [“Stop-Loss”]. Listen, I only want to make movies I want to see and I only want to tell stories that haven’t been told. I’m a serious guy, I think, sometimes, to a fault. I like serious subject matter. If I’m going to devote months of energy and time and take that time away from my kids, the story has got to resonate with me. I can’t do the fluff. I can watch it. I can appreciate it. It’s not what I want to spend my time working on. There has to be some kernel of some idea that holds my interest that I feel like people haven’t seen that could maybe, in some way, effect some change. A movie like “Crash” can do that potentially. There are other examples. That’s where my interests lie. I do like to play both sides. “Flags of Our Fathers” was a great opportunity to honor my grandfathers who both fought in World War II; to tell that story about a war that needed to be fought for the betterment of the free world and this next Kim Peirce movie, I play a soldier back from Iraq who has served two tours and completed a five year contract and they stop loss him and try to send him back and he fights the system and doesn’t want to go; doesn’t believe in this war anymore. So, I mean, I like the idea that life is not black and white and there are these gray areas and I think that’s where the most interesting stories are found.
CS: How did you get the role and how are you handling this time in your life with all your movies being released and your personal problems?
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” and 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 kind of actually helped me in some ways when you are playing this part. The process wasn’t that rigorous. I screen tested and then they chose me. It’s a really strange time in my life too. I acknowledge the successes and the opportunities I’ve had recently that have been the best of my career. I’ve got to say it’s the last thing on my mind right now, considering what I’m going through in my personal life, but I definitely appreciate the opportunities. You know, I’ve made almost thirty movies and I’m 32-years-old and I feel like the last three or four have been the best of my career.
CS: What amazes me about people in the FBI is you have to anticipate what the other person is thinking. How do you guys do that?
O’Neilll: Well, at least, in the Hanssen case, one question I get that is a little bit related is what did you learn from the Hanssen case? 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.”
CS: Ryan, at the end of this movie, the character makes a decision to leave the FBI to devote time to his family. Is that something that ever goes through your mind?
Phillippe: Yes, definitely. I think it’s cumulative, the celebrity aspect of it and the living in the fishbowl thing can get to be a grind and, also, I feel like you don’t have to do the same thing for the rest of your life and you do have an option. If it gets to be too much and I don’t like it anymore, I’ll find something else to do. That’s something I would still consider doing. If you aren’t happy living a certain way then I think you should make changes, especially when you have children. Kids need happy parents.
CS: Given what you just said, how passionate are you about your job. Is it still a passion in your life and, if you did choose something else, what would it be. How do you balance your career and personal life?
Phillippe: Immediately, the career takes a back seat. I did three movies in the last year and a half and I’m going to take a good long break and be a dad. So, that’s number one on my mind right now. And what would I do? I always thought I’d be a teacher. I like the idea of teaching. That’s something I would like to do in some capacity at some point. There’s organizations I’d like to devote more time to like The Children’s Defense Fund, organizations I believe in that can really help and effect change. Those kind of things interest me and I want to direct. I’ve written a couple of scripts and, probably within the next year I’m going to make my first small film. I am passionate about acting but I do feel like there are other things in life, certainly.
CS: Eric, what was the scariest moment during this whole thing and, the scene in the forest apparently didn’t happen. Doesn’t it bother you that it isn’t exactly as it happened?
O’Neilll The way that I went into this, when you find out that Hollywood is going to make a movie about you, okay, 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 fun on set and say ‘cut, cut, cut! You’re doing it wrong?” Like I’m some kind of tyrant.
Phillippe: That’s so weird. I don’t know how we would have reacted to that.
O’Neilll 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 who is hiding in this room right now, 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.
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.
O’Neilll 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 like 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 [laughter].
CS: Was that the scariest moment for you?
O’Neilll That was probably the scariest moment for me to come back to your question, 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.” [laughter].
CS: How well do you think Chris Cooper nailed the Hanssen part?
O’Neilll 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’ or ‘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 “okay, 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 “okay, read this part of the script in Hanssen’s voice” and I was like “I don’t think I can do it,” he’s like “just try and keep trying.” Then he was like “okay 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.
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’s this amazing actor and 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 on Friday, February 16.