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When American spy Francis Gary Powers was captured and imprisoned in Russia back during the Cold War, the United States sprang into action to try and find a way to get him home – but the seized CIA agent didn’t actually know that. Stuck in a Russian prison and regularly interrogated, he had no contact with the outside world, and therefore had no idea what steps – if any - were being taken to have him released. This was an element that actor Austin Stowell took very seriously when portraying Powers in the Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, and actually went as far as to ignore most parts of the film’s script in order to try and achieve a more authentic performance.
I had the great chance to sit down one-on-one with Stowell yesterday in Los Angeles, and it was during our conversation that I asked him about his personal approach towards reading the Bridge of Spies screenplay (written by the Coen brothers and Matt Charman). The film very much plays up the distance between Powers’ story and the efforts being made to free him (led by Tom Hanks’ character, James Donovan), and as a result I was curious how much attention Stowell paid towards the scenes in which he wasn’t featured. It turns out that he really made efforts to avoid them, explaining,
I didn’t want to know anything about Donovan. I wanted to learn about Powers. I did read the script through one time when I first got it, and then I purposefully did leave it. If the rewrites didn’t have to do with me, I would only look at my pages.
It’s an understandable and logical approach for the actor, and it also resulted in an interesting side effect. Because Stowell didn’t pay much attention to the parts of the script that center on James Donovan and his diplomatic struggles, he had a unique perspective when it came to actually getting to watch the finished film on the big screen. Discussing the experience of his first chance to see Bridge of Spies, Stowell said,
It was just amazing – in the things that had changed, and things that were the same. And also to see how my vision of what it would look like and Steven’s vision lined up. They were very similar! [laughs] He’s on a whole new level, man. The shots that he creates! He does an amazing job, and this is a testament to Tom in his performance as well, that these extremely long scenes of legalese – talk that goes right over my head – not only did it move, but I understood everything. And that’s very difficult. So the combination of Coen brothers, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks is just great.
On some level, you actually have to give Austin Stowell a lot of credit for his ability to resist temptation. As a film fan, he surely must have had a hard time abstaining from reading both the newest Steven Spielberg project and the latest script from Joel and Ethan Coen. But it surely only made his performance that much better.
Bridge of Spies will be in theaters on October 16th.