It’s worth it sitting down with self-obsessed starlets and dimwitted action directors to finally get a chance to talk to someone like Eric O’Neill. Eric isn’t a movie star, and he’s not a screenwriter, and he’s only been involved with one movie – the true story of how he helped crack America’s largest spy case. Eric was at the FBI, trying to make agent, when his superiors told him they wanted him to work a sting operation; they had a senior agent who was a pervert and who could bring shame on the Bureau. But it turned out that it wasn’t the porn the FBI cared about (although that was there too) – it was the secrets the agent was selling to the Russians for decades. Secrets that had compromised American security and gotten people killed.
Billy Ray, the director of Shattered Glass, brings Eric’s story to the screen in Breach, with Ryan Phillipe playing him and Chris Cooper playing traitorous – and yet oddly patriotic and devoutly Catholic – Robert Hanssen. Eric is doing the publicity rounds for the movie, which he feels accurately tells his story. We got on the phone last weekend to talk about it, and he told me as much as national security would allow. Seriously.
It’s got to be a strange thing seeing yourself in a movie played by somebody. What’s it like the first time you see the film cut together?
It’s absolutely bizarre. The first time I saw the film, I was just out in LA for something else and I called Billy and he said I had to come see the film. It wasn’t done yet – the sound wasn’t really in there – but it was pretty much final, and I saw it with Chris Cooper. It was his first time too, and it was a lot of him glancing over at me, like, ‘Did I get it right?’
I was watching it critically at first, and watching Ryan hard, thinking, ‘My God, this guy is playing me, and this is now my face to the world. He’s Eric O’Neill. I hope he got it right.’ But 20 minutes in that was all in the back of my head because I was so engaged in the movie. The acting was of a very high caliber, and I thought Ryan did a great job of capturing the essence of me.
How involved were you with Billy in the early stages of writing the script?
Ten to fifteen emails a day and a couple of calls. Very, very involved. Billy was very interested in making sure things were accurate, and I was his focal point for that. He would come to me with questions throughout the day and I would pause and answer. He and I talked at the beginning and he asked me what was critical to me about this movie, and I said, ‘Look, you’ve got to get the FBI culture right. Don’t make it look silly.’ So many people in the business watch all these “FBI” movies, and they’re ridiculous. They’re laughable. There’s no way to be engaged in a movie when the terminology is wrong, the technology is wrong, the means that the FBI conducts an investigation is wrong. I said, let’s make a movie where people from the FBI can watch it with their parents and say, ‘Mom, you know how I can’t talk about what I do? Well, that’s it.’ That’s what we aimed for and I think he absolutely succeeded.
Is the FBI a gun culture, like is said in the film?
There’s a lot of that. That’s very true – there are parts of it that are very much that gun culture, old school FBI versus new school FBI. There’s a clash there, and I think it happens in every culture. It was important in the movie, and I think it really fit.
When you’re working with Billy are there elements that remained classified that you couldn’t talk about?
Certainly. Any number of things. And the way we worked was, I said, ‘Bill, if there’s something we’re getting close to that I start feeling is sticky, we’re not going to talk about it. Our rule going forward is you’re not going to push.’ He absolutely respected that. It was even worse with Bill Rotko and Adam Mazer, when we were writing the first draft, The 11th Hour. Then I could talk about even less, but what happened is that Outlaw and Billy Ray got permission to speak with the FBI, and those guys spilled the beans on so many things I never thought they would talk about. Billy would speak with the FBI and come back and we would get on the phone and I would say, ‘Tell me everything they said, every word.’ And I would go through a mental checklist in my head – I can talk about this now, I can talk about this now. That was how I vetted my protection of confidential information.
Some actors don’t want to meet the person they’re playing in a movie while some want to get the mannerisms down. How did Ryan work?
Ryan did want to meet me, and I would have felt very uncomfortable if he didn’t. If Ryan was the kind of person who didn’t want to meet me and create his own character from the script, I would have felt very uncomfortable and probably would have complained to Billy about that. On the other hand I never thought I would be justified or correct in trying to prep Ryan in any way or explain to Ryan in any way how he should play me. I think we both approached it from the same direction, which was very fortunate and lucky. It was more of let’s get together and have a talk instead of Ryan sitting down across from me in some hotel room that Universal set up, asking, ‘So, how do you feel about this?’ or those kinds of things. We actually went out to a dinner one night when I was out there, and was on one side of the table and I was on the other. At the end of the dinner I went up to him and said, ‘Hey man, you’re playing me in a movie and I’ve said five words to you all day,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, that sucks.’ I said, ‘We don’t really have to be anywhere until one o’clock tomorrow, so let’s go out.’ And that’s what we did – we walked around Toronto, found a quiet bar, had a couple of beers and talked for a number of hours. Not about movies or acting or Hanssen, but like two guys in a bar looking for commonalities.
It’s interesting that you didn’t talk about acting, because undercover work is very much acting-based. You’re creating a persona and living inside of it all day. Have you thought about doing acting – are you in the film?
I am not. Although it would be a lot of fun, and I would absolutely try it. I don’t want to say that it’s not a difficult thing, because I saw how Chris Cooper and Ryan do it, and that seems like a very grueling way of acting, take after take. But I understand conceptually what they’re doing because you’re entirely correct – what I was doing was acting. It was creating a face that Hanssen saw, making sure it was all he saw, and hiding way back in my mind all my insecurities and fears and making sure he never saw them. If I wasn’t a good actor in that sense, I would have absolutely failed. His entire job – his career for 25 years – was counter-intelligence. It was what he did.
Why do you think you were so successful? As you say, his whole job was sniffing out moles, but he didn’t sniff you out.
I don’t want to say I was lucky, because a lot of skill goes into that, but in that situation, all the way through while I was there, I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I had no formal training for what I was doing – I had no acting training, for example. And that’s probably what saved me; if I had been using the typical tells that a person trained in acting or a person trained in undercover had, he probably would have sniffed me out. But it turns out that I was very good at this, just naturally, and so it worked. I was able to keep pace with him and move ahead of him. The most critical thing I had to do in that case was to not let him know he was in a sting operation, and his job all day, every day, was to find out if he was, indeed, in a sting operation. He had to be suspecting. In the business you always suspect, but you never dive into the paranoia that you’re made until you have some hard facts to prove it – otherwise you can’t live your life, you’re always looking over your shoulder.
You didn’t have any experience with this before – what was it that your superiors saw in you that made them convinced you could pull it off?
I think the two most critical things were the fact that I was Catholic and the fact that in an agency where so few people know anything about computers, you need to be able to sell a division called Information Assurance. It would have been completely unbelievable if you had an agent who thought you started your computer by putting the mouse on the floor and stepping on it like a gad pedal in there with him. If you don’t know what Linux is, you can’t talk to Hanssen. This is a guy who programmed his own operating system. Computers have always been a hobby for me; I don’t have formal training and I don’t have a degree, but I always messed around with them so I could talk shop with Hanssen. The idea is that when you’ve got all these data points for communication, then you get the guy to talk, and that’s what we needed.
On the other side I was very effective in my field work at getting into places without having to show my badge. You have to use a lot of misdirection and deception and lying to do that, and I guess they figured that if I could do it on the street in a really high pressure situation when the bad guys just walked into an office complex and I have to figure out a way to get in there without showing my badge because you never know who is with the bad guy, then maybe I could sell it here, too.
And I think there was a little bit of desperation too – they didn’t have anybody else to put there. It shines favorably on the FBI because they were able, when the case was really hot, move past that ‘have to be an agent’ culture and see where all their resources are, and find the resource that can get it done.
There’s a scene at the end of the movie where Ryan runs into Chris Cooper in the elevator after he’s been arrested. Was there a comparable moment of closure for you?
I guess that scene in the movie is it! It never happened in real life. It would have been nice, and I would have liked to have been at the arrest just to get the closure, but that’s not how it went down. The last time I saw him was the Friday before he got arrested; he got arrested that Sunday.
The movie makes a point of saying it doesn’t matter why he did, it’s just that he did it. But why do you think he did it?
That’s the biggest question with the longest answer. I don’t know why he did it; that’s the short answer. But I have an opinion. I think he started spying because of where he was in life and where he thought he should be in life. This was a guy with a very immense ego, and he had married someone who was beautiful and from a very wealthy family and in this special sect of Catholicism where you have to tithe ten percent of your salary to the Church and your kids have to go to parochial school and you have to follow these special rules and he and Bonnie were having kid after kid after kid. At the same time he was sent to the Manhattan New York FBI office, which is the worst place to go if you’re a new agent, because nobody can afford it. He couldn’t afford to live in the style he felt he should be living, and he felt the FBI let him down and was ignoring him. It was two or three years before he began spying, so the FBI should have been ignoring him – he was a green agent. But his ego wouldn’t allow that. I think in the beginning he decided to punish the FBI for ignoring him and show them they were idiots and at the same time get the money that would allow him to live his life the way he thought he should live. So there was a bit of Eff You to the FBI and also a little bit of desperation. Which I’m not justifying at all, there are other ways to do things.
Once he started he couldn’t stop, or he wouldn’t stop. I see a distinction between someone who is addicted because they can’t kick that addiction and someone who is addicted and loves it and never even tries to kick it. I think the latter is worse, and I think that’s Hanssen. I think that he just loved spying and the Russians made him feel so good about himself, and the FBI didn’t.
But you don’t think it was ever ideological? You think he still actually believed in America and American values?
Yeah, I don’t think it was ideological. I don’t think the guy was a backer of the Soviet Union – I think he was a backer of the US. But you know, he was more interested in himself than his country and he sold out his country to make his own life better. In the business it’s worse when someone is an ideologue because it’s harder to catch them, especially if they’re not taking money because there’s no trail. Hanssen was a very strange animal in that this guy was difficult to catch because he was taking so little money for the secrets he was giving up. No one would have believed it – he could have taken a lot more money for the secrets he gave up, but you take more chances the more money you take. He was too smart to chance getting caught.