Q&A: Spielberg, Hanks and Rylance talk about the Cold War, geopolitics and 'Bridge of Spies'

By Masaki Sugimoto

http://mctcampus.com/preview.php?id=201510120504MCT_____PHOTO____ENTER_MOVIE-BRIDGE-QA_LABy Rebecca Keegan

NEW YORK — Steven Spielberg’s latest film, the Cold War drama “Bridge of Spies,” which opens Oct. 16, unites him with his “Saving Private Ryan” star, Tom Hanks, and introduces a new actor to his stable. Englishman Mark Rylance, who is best known for his stage work and performance as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC miniseries “Wolf Hall,” will also star in Spielberg’s next film, “The BFG.”

In the true story, from a script by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen, Hanks plays Brooklyn insurance lawyer James Donovan, who was assigned the thankless task of defending Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Rylance) in the 1950s and became ensnared in a larger geopolitical plot. In some ways, this focus on lawyering and the art of deal-making feels like a companion piece to the director’s study of messy democracy in “Lincoln.”

During the New York Film Festival earlier this month, Spielberg, Hanks and Rylance spoke with The Times about the parallels between Cold War paranoia and contemporary fears, the shifting notions of heroism on screen and the impact of seismic changes to their business.

Q: What was your experience of the Cold War as a child?

Tom Hanks: Every day we studied it. Every day it was in the papers. There was this concept that World War III was inevitable and it was going to be us versus them. It was in “Twilight Zone” episodes, “Star Trek.” There was always this dark cloud that was slowly coming toward us.

Q: There was an earlier attempt to tell this story.

Steven Spielberg: In 1964 or ‘65, when it was better known and closer to the incident. Gregory Peck knew about this story and had approached MGM and asked them to finance a screenplay about the spy swap, and then Peck sent the script to Alec Guinness and got him to agree to play Abel. MGM decided not to go ahead and make the picture because of the tension.

Q: Mark, you’re playing a Soviet spy. Did you think of him as a good guy or a bad guy?

Mark Rylance: I try to avoid judging the characters I play, even an out-and-out bad guy like Richard III. I just try to figure out what they need and play that. I don’t know exactly what he was doing. I didn’t set out to make him charming. I think being charming was the last thing he’d be concerned about. I was struck that when he was a painter he didn’t just put up a front of being a painter, he tried to make himself a better painter. He had an interest in the craft and the art. He had a culture to him.

Q: You could have made a version of this film focused on the spy craft, but instead you chose to focus on an attorney. How come?

Spielberg: The core relationship between James Donovan and Rudolf Abel was for me the way into the story, not the events of the Cold War, not the spy craft of opening quarters and finding the parchment inside. That was fun to do in the one scene we actually shot. But for me it was a man standing on his principles to defend an enemy of everything we deemed sacred. He was being given a chance to demonstrate the American justice system at a time when anything associated with communism and the red menace was despicable to everyday Americans … Donovan wanted to show that everybody, even an alien caught breaking the law in this country, deserves the same defense an American would get.