Movies

Red hot script got Tom Hanks into Cold War thriller

Tom Hanks shares why he wanted in on Cold War thriller Bridge Of Spies... and it's not just to work with Spielberg again

It would come as no surprise if Tom Hanks gets an Oscar nomination for his role in Bridge Of Spies. His performance as US lawyer-turned-negotiator James Donovan has been talked about with something approaching stellar regard.

Directed by Steven Spielberg, the dramatic thriller is set in the 1950s during the early stages of the Cold War where tensions are rife between the US and USSR.

So when the FBI arrests Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet agent living in New York, the fear and paranoia only escalate. Charged with sending coded messages back to Russia, Abel is detained in federal prison pending trial.

Donovan becomes Abel's reluctant defense lawyer. While Abel was found guilty, Donovan manages to prevent Abel from receiving the death penalty. 

Donovan soon finds himself thrust into the centre of the Cold War when the CIA enlists his services to negotiate the release of a captured American U-2 pilot. 

Here, Hanks — a five-time Oscar nominee and two-time winner — talks about the project and reuniting with Spielberg. 


What drew you to the project?

This subject matter has always fascinated me, because of the area and because of the time.

As a child, we were educated that there were bad guys on the other side of the world and that they put up an Iron Curtain to keep their people in and to keep us out. They were also hell-bent on destroying our way of life and making us live the same way they did.

So when I was growing up, it was part and parcel to our way of life that we had to live and be better human beings because there was this other anti-version of life, this anti-version of government and freedom which existed and which was trying to take us over.

I couldn’t figure out how things worked over there: they looked like us and they sort of dressed like us, but I wanted to know what was going on inside their heads, and as I grew up, I tried to educate myself into the differences between the West and what was on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

I love reading history and finding out something brand new — particularly about a subject that I think I'm well versed in — and when that happens, man, it's like the slot machine paying off. And one of the most exciting things to happen to an actor is when you read a red-hot piece of material and not only do they already want you for it, but Steven Spielberg already wants you for it.

Tom Hanks with director Steven Spielberg on the set of Bridge Of Spies. PHOTO: Twentieth Century Fox

How was it to work with Steven Spielberg again?

Steven thinks in cinematic terms. His ability to tell important story moments just by what he does with the camera is the reason he's Steven Spielberg.  He's done it again and again and again, and all you can do is stand back and watch.

Steven and I have a pretty good shorthand. I would come in with an enthusiastic idea for how to go about the scene and Steven would say, “That’s great, because what I want to do is play it all the way from back here, and if you’re moving around like that, that’s where the eye is going to go.”

When you show up on Steven’s set, it has already been built, not only physically, but deep inside his head. Your job is to do exactly what he wants you to do, but he also expects you to add in all the little things he expects you to come up with.

He has the film cut in his head long before we even get to the set. He reads the screenplay thousands and thousands of times, over and over and over again, so he knows what he's going to be doing, cinematically, five weeks from now.

Talking to Steven from day one, I could immediately see where the challenges for me as an actor were going to be: in the details of the defense, the details of so many of these very specific scenes, and then my job was going to be to fit into that so Steven can then go nuts with his instinctive cinematic talents — which are substantial.

What stuck with you from the film?

That we should not judge a book by its cover.

There will always be ignorance and prejudice, there will always be people who are going to jump to conclusions and there will always be people who try to label the motivations of others as either good or bad. 

Lots of people thought of James Donovan as a traitor, but he didn’t let it discourage him.

He thought they were idiots for thinking that, because he knew that by defending this man, he embodied the qualities of a true American. So for anyone looking for an introduction to the Cold War, Bridge Of Spies is it.

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