Bonding Wouldn’t Have Worked on the Set of Breach: Their relationship in the film is strained and so Chris Cooper never really wanted to get too close to Ryan Phillippe on the set. Phillippe feels that approach really helped him get into their characters’ relationship. “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.
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’Neill wouldn’t smoke,’ 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.’”
Chris Cooper as Robert Hanssen: O’Neill thinks Cooper did a great job as Hanssen. “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 kinds of things are what Chris wanted. 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.’ 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.’ We did it that way and he nailed it.”
Life Lessons Picked Up from His Experience with Hanssen: Asked what he learned from being in the FBI and working intimately on the Hanssen case, O’Neill replied, “I think it’s a sense of confidence. ‘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 going to do it right. Relax a little bit and don’t show him that you’re afraid.’”
Taking the Career Path Less Traveled: Crash involved a storyline about police corruption; Flags of Our Fathers showed how the American government manipulated service men in order to raise funds for the war effort. In Breach he plays a hero FBI agent. Phillippe’s really mixing things up and not playing it safe.
“Wait until you see the next one,” laughed Phillippe. “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, affect 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. This next Kim Peirce movie, I play a soldier back from Iraq who has served two tours and completed a five year contract. They ‘stop-loss’ him and try to send him back. 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. I think that’s where the most interesting stories are found.”