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Being Mary Donovan: A Conversation with Amy Ryan

Bridge of Spies

A dramatic thriller set against the backdrop of a series of historic events, “Bridge of Spies” tells the story of James Donovan (Hanks), a Brooklyn lawyer who finds himself thrust into the center of the Cold War when the CIA sends him on the near-impossible task to negotiate the release of a captured American U-2 pilot.

Screenwriters Matt Charman and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen have woven this remarkable experience in Donovan’s life into a story inspired by true events that captures the essence of a man who risked everything and vividly brings his personal journey to life.

In this interview, Amy tells us about working with Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance and legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg as well as the research she did for the role and what attracted her to get involved with the film…




What originally attracted you to the project?

I was hooked from the first page of the script…the dialogue just jumped right into the story. Most screenplays take 10 or 15 pages before you get a sense of who the characters really are, but we find out that James Donovan is a fast-talking lawyer in the first few pages. At that time I didn’t know who James Donovan was, and while I don’t necessarily like to use film in lieu of a history lesson, there was something so powerful about the story that made me want to research and learn more. Plus, I liked the fact that this woman, Mary Donovan, wasn’t just a “Yes dear, of course dear,” kind of wife. She had things of substance to say and really good, strong, smart opinions about the world in which her husband was stepping foot into, and I found that genuinely appealing.


Tell us what the film is about…

The film takes place during the Cold War when there was a palpable fear of the Russians and communism in America, and is the story of James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, who was an insurance lawyer. He takes on a case representing Rudolf Abel, a captured spy here in America, which was a case no one wanted because it meant defending the enemy. He had the incredible foresight that, should America ever be in a similar situation, the Russians would remember that we treated one of their citizens fairly and, hopefully, do the same with one of ours in return. So when the plane of Francis Gary Powers, an American U-2 pilot, is shot down over Russia, Donovan ends up negotiating an exchange between Abel and Powers, as well as Frederick Pryor, an American student arrested in East Berlin at the same time. While everyone was telling him to just focus on Abel and Powers, he decides that, regardless of how stressful it may be, he won’t go home unless it is with both men.


Tell us who you play in the film and how you went about researching the role…

I play Mary Donovan, the wife to James Donovan. I had an opportunity to meet Mary’s granddaughter before filming began, who gave me some background on the real Mary, which made everything all the more real. We had lengthy phone conversations where I found out that Mary was born in Bay Ridge, raised in a strong Irish Catholic family, graduated from Marymount College and eventually settled down in Park Slope.

I saw her family’s wedding albums and vacation photos and heard first-hand stories of her grandfather, who apparently loved what he did, worked constantly, and was old fashioned in the sense that he was a firm believer in truth and justice. While Mary was proud of what her husband was doing, it also made her quite nervous as she didn’t like the attention it drew to her family and didn’t want their children to be in any danger. Back then, people were very much of the mindset that we should not be defending our enemy and should just lock them up because they were guilty, but Mary realizes that our judicial system stems from the belief that everyone deserves a fair trial. Her husband was not allowed to tell her about his involvement with the CIA and the mission in Berlin, so he told her he was on a fishing trip, which Mary knew wasn’t true. She was proud of him, but just wanted to hear that he wasn’t going to be in any danger.




Can you talk about the look of your character and of the film itself?

There was a great deal of freedom in creating the look of our characters, because we weren’t playing iconic people anyone would recognise. The head of our hair department, Kay Georgiou, and I decided I should wear a wig, and I also wore glasses similar to ones I’d seen on her in photos, as a small tribute. As for her clothes, the costume designer, Kasia Walicka-Miamone, created these beautiful looks for the time period, and even though my costumes were more casual in style, each was more beautiful than the next. The undergarments were far more constricting than what I’m used to wearing, which, believe it or not, helped me get into character since I had to move differently. I’ve always loved New York history, so it felt like I was a bit of a time traveler when I was on set. When I walked on the street or moved throughout the house, it just felt like the home of a perfect nuclear family, which in so many ways characterises the Donovans.


How was it working with Steven Spielberg?

I grew up on his films, many of which I still enjoy today as an adult, so Steven has had quite an impact on my life. I mean, I got disqualified from my first race with the Holy Family swim team for refusing to let go of the side of the pool, as I was convinced I had seen a shark.

Steven is so enthusiastic about what he does that it’s infectious. There were times when I was observing him at work and all of a sudden his eyes would get big as saucers, almost as if he was this 12-year-old boy making films in his backyard. And he’s the same with his actors. He gets very excited and wants you to try new things and bring in the behaviors of your character, and there’s incredible freedom with that. But in addition to being this amazingly-proficient filmmaker, he allows every other department to be at their best, at all times. He trusts them, and you don’t always see that on films. There was a sense of calmness on the set because every person on the crew has the confidence to do what they do so well, so no one is second guessing their choices. They’ve been given that freedom by Steven.


Tell us about working with Tom Hanks…

Tom Hanks is generous, both in spirit and energy. I was very impressed with the amount of enthusiasm he was able to bring to each scene, and he’s had so much experience as an actor that I tried to listen and observe as much as I could. In addition to all the technical sides of knowing where the camera is going to be and where the lights are, he is still able to inhabit the scene so fully and truthfully…that is an amazing skill. In the story, the love between James and Mary is really apparent, and in those scenes, especially, where you could see that his character’s heart was breaking because he couldn’t tell his wife and his family what he was doing, his performance was just so powerful.


Tell us about the casting of Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel…

I have seen Mark perform on stage numerous times, and he is a phenomenal actor, a phenomenal performer, and is truly, a chameleon. When I first met him in the makeup trailer, he had this beautiful, joyous smile on his face and was so soft spoken, and I said, “Mark, it’s very nice to meet you, and obviously I don’t know you, but I have to confess, I’m seeing flashes of you in ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Twelfth Night,’ and those characters are just over your shoulder, and it’s kind of tripping me out,” to which he laughed. He has this way of instilling a sense of calm in everything his character does, which was amazing to witness.




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