One of America’s most respected stage actors, Texas-born Chris Cooper has been quietly rising through the Hollywood ranks ever since his screen debut in John Sayles‘ Matewan. His breakthrough came when he played Kevin Spacey‘s militaristic neighbour in American Beauty and, alongside Meryl Streep and Nicolas Cage, an orchid thief in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation.
His latest, Breach, directed by Billy Ray, sees him play Robert Hanssen, a real-life FBI computer expert who was arrested in February 2001 following an investigation by agent Eric O’Neill (played by Ryan Phillippe). During his 22-year career, Hanssen divulged countless secrets to the Soviet Union — the worst security breach in US history.
You were attached to Breach from very early on I understand…
Chris Cooper: I was very fortunate from the get-go. People I work with and people who work with me, I don’t know the particulars of it, but they got the script that little bit early – maybe a week before it went out to the general talent. With one read-through I realised that this was quite a good script. It was a bit unusual – there’s protocol in these situations but I really wanted to go after this one so I sent word back to see if Billy would be interested in working with me and he was.
How did you sell yourself convincingly to persuade them you were the man for this role?
CC: Well, I didn’t have to do much convincing. It was as simple as my agent getting hold of Billy and telling him of my interest and Billy knew my work and right off the bat said, “I’d be happy to work with Chris”. I did something I don’t usually do, too – I phoned the head of Universal and told her that the bigger names are going to be sniffing around and I understand if you’d feel more comfortable with these bigger name actors but she said, “No, we’ll support you – we’ll stay with you.”
Whether a role’s big or small, do you approach it the same way? Do you feel a bigger responsibility if you’re in the lead?
CC: Hmmm. I think I get the gist of what you’re saying. But, talking in terms of ‘carrying the film’, I don’t think in those terms. If I’m interested in a role, I want to get that script as early as possible to do whatever work I can. When I work on a script, I work on it every day.
What did you do to research Hanssen? Were you able to meet him at all?
CC: No. It’s impossible. Billy tried to but all he was allowed to do was submit some questions. He submitted 13 to the FBI and they struck one of the questions – one that asked Hanssen something like, “If you were in charge of the Bureau, how would it run differently?”. But, as it turned out, Hanssen decided not to reply to any of them.
Ryan Phillippe had complete access to Eric O’Neill whereas you had the opposite situation. What choices did you make when constructing Hanssen for the movie?
CC: Well, I had as much access to Eric as Ryan. Eric was a great source of information and I had a thousand and one questions for him. Some very peculiar questions at times, that took him a little off balance. Also, shortly after Hanssen’s apprehension, there were a number of books that came out about him. They were great studies and some had interviews with some Hanssen’s grade school acquaintances and relatives and colleagues in the FBI, so I had a great resource of material to develop this character.
He doesn’t come across as a committed communist. Obviously nobody knows, but why do you think he did what he did?
CC: We don’t know, but as an actor making choices about the character I did do a sort of linear take on his 25-year career and why he did what he did. And his colleagues in the FBI have come to similar conclusions as to why he did it. But I made very strong choices, just for me. They were that, early in his career, being newly married, paying the mortgage and him being very, very intelligent – he was one of the early computer geeks – I supposed he did it for the money. And during the course of that career, I know he expected to rise in rank higher than he did.
But also at this time, computers were getting more and more… Forgive me, because I’m completely computer illiterate… But there were improvements if that’s the right word, in computers and he knew how vulnerable the FBI was with its antiquated technology. Combine that with his trying to inform the FBI about this, plus not rising in the ranks of the FBI. I decided that Hanssen developed the notion of getting revenge against the Bureau.
In one of Hanssen’s last drops to the Kremlin, which was one of his last letters, he said something very curious. He described himself as being ‘insanely loyal’ to his country to the point where he would give the Soviets information to show the US how vulnerable it is. He said that he thought of America as being like a child that was ‘powerfully built but retarded’.
Do you think he wanted to be caught?
CC: No. I really don’t, because I think he adored his wife although he did some very strange things involving her – like he hooked up a monitor in the guest bedroom so a friend of his visiting could watch him making love to his wife – and he loved his kids. I think he had a great fear of failure so I can’t believe he wanted to be caught.
Up to the point of his capture he was sending goodbye letters to the Kremlin, he was about to retire, he was suspicious that the FBI suspected him. I only think it’s because the FBI sent word out to the Kremlin – they sent out a reward because they were on the wrong track. And so a Soviet agent sent one of Hanssen’s drops back and it had an audiotape of Hanssen and also his fingerprints on the package. But when the Bureau listened to the audiotape they immediately recognised it was Robert Hanssen.
The film had the complete blessing of the FBI — this was the first film ever to be allowed to shoot inside the FBI building. What is it about the story that made them so cooperative? I mean, they did capture Hanssen, but only after 22 years of letting him get away with it. The line where Laura Linney‘s character outlines the damage Hanssen’s done – “For the last 22 years we might as well all have stayed home” – pretty much sums it up.
CC: It was curious to me. It was of great embarrassment to the FBI that this went on for so long. Why they were so supportive of the film, I don’t know. But they were.
Having studied him so closely, do you have any sympathy for the man?
CC: No, none at all. But what I do strongly believe was that he was a religious man. Plus, when he was apprehended he underwent over 30 hours of psychiatric questioning and analysis and the psychiatrists did indeed say that Hanssen had some great psychological demons that stemmed from childhood. But my thought was – and I don’t think it’s so unusual – that he was a man who could compartmentalise his life and justify on one hand being this rabid anti-communist and on the other giving information to the Soviets that cost lives, not to mention around $28 billion of US tax-payers money.
What about Hanssen’s sexual predilections? They’re only really hinted at in the movie because we see the story unfold from Eric’s point of view but how did the fact he got up to some crazy stuff affect the way you played him?
CC: I asked Eric about that and his take was that Hanssen was strongly heterosexual but he liked to push people’s buttons and he’d often invade the usual boundary of two people together. Eric said Hanssen would often come and stand behind him at his desk and put his hands on his shoulders and things like that would just drive Eric up the wall.
Did he really have a thing for Catherine Zeta-Jones?
CC: Yeah, he did.
I understand the sets were completely accurate reconstructions of the FBI headquarters — how did those sets, and the scenes you shot in real locations in Washington, add to the acting experience?
CC: It’s really hard to describe but when you go to that neighbourhood where he was apprehended and you park your car at the location and we’re working there throughout the day and there is this woman living in the house who actually saw his arrest — it just adds something to the intensity of the work.