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The Challenge of Playing a Real Person: A Conversation with Tom Hanks

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.

A back-to-back Academy Award winner for Best Actor, Tom Hanks once again excels in Cold War thriller Bridge Of Spies under the masterful direction of Steven Spielberg. Hanks is James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer and family man, who following his defence of Russian spy Rudolf Abel on trial for treason, is catapulted onto the world stage of international espionage, negotiating a dangerous spy-swap behind the Iron Curtain. Played with Hanks’ trademark dignity, decency and moral fibre, Donovan is the latest in the actor’s gallery of ordinary men under extraordinary duress including Jim Lovell (Apollo 13), John Miller (Saving Private Ryan) and Chuck Noland (Cast Away).

In this interview, Hanks talks exclusively about his love of history, spy movies and the challenge of playing real life figures…




Bridge of Spies is perhaps the greatest cold war story never told. How much did you know about James B. Donovan going into the movie?

I had never heard of James Donovan and I didn’t know anything about these negotiations. I just saw how powerfully authentic it was. The actual exchange itself was only six days out of everybody’s life but my God what a six days it was. I actually thought impossible things had happened in the screenplay and said ‘No way!’ but found out he did actually do these things.


The pressure that Donovan was under for representing a Russian spy was immense.

The background to the Cold War scare was misplaced paranoia. Any concept of defending a spy was going to be, ‘Why are you helping these people kill us?”’ Donovan got a lot of hate mail and somebody did shoot at his house. Cops had to come in and protect them. He did take a lot of heat for defending a guy who had sworn to bring down the United States of America.


How did you create the magical chemistry you share with Mark Rylance playing Abel?

Donovan and Abel developed quite an affection for each other. With The Boss’ (Steven’s) permission, I called Mark up and said, ‘Hey we’re in this movie together, let’s get together and run the lines if nothing else’. So he and I got together in New York. He’s an artist without compare.


Donovan feels like the quintessential Tom Hanks hero. Does it feel different playing a real life figure to a fictional character?

There are two versions of it. One is in which the people are still alive. That’s tricky. In the case of James Donovan, he’s passed away so we are not going to screw up his life by talking about it too much. There was enough footage of him that I could determine a number of things. One, I look absolutely nothing like him. It’s hilarious. That’s no big deal. But there’s the other aspect of how he addressed his mission as an insurance lawyer and how that impacted the movie. My first job was to maintain that degree of integrity.




Were you into spy movies and spying a kid?

At the height of the James Bond thing, I had Agent 0M Spy briefcase made by Mattel. It was a plastic briefcase and on the inside of it had this gun with a silencer you could assemble but it also had this cheap camera that actually worked. You put film in it, close the briefcase with this little button sticking up. You could put the briefcase on the table, you could lean on it and it would take a picture. It was the coolest thing in the world.


How would you describe the film’s view of spying?

When I read (the script), what I was impressed with was that it didn’t take spycraft and elevate it into something more important than “Burn this telephone number after you’ve memorised it.” That’s all he had to do. But the rest of it was a very cinematic version of very dramatic moments of waiting to get through a long line of passport control or waiting for a car to show up at the other end of the bridge. That’s just great stuff and it seemed to me to be an awful lot about what spying really is: you’re just sitting around waiting for something to happen or for information to come.


The climax of the film is a classic set piece of Spielbergian suspense based around a phone call. How is that to play as an actor?

Those scenes were a blast to shoot. Often times actors just want to talk and talk and talk and talk and talk because, if they are talking, then they know camera will be on them. When you get to be in one of the key moments in a movie and there’s no dialogue and all you get to do is play looks and moments, it’s just delicious.


Saving Private Ryan, Band Of Brothers, Catch Me If You Can and now Bridge Of Spies have all found fresh relevant takes on history. How do Steven and yourself immerse yourself in such stories?

We read about it for pleasure. I get into bed and I’m reading some 1400 page tome and Rita (Wilson, Hanks’ wife) says ‘What’s that about?’ and I’ll say, ‘It’s about some arcane thing in the 14th century’ and Rita says, “Will you ever just read a novel?” And I say, “I’ve tried, baby, I’ve tried. But that stuff is just made up!”




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