There is no denying that two of the biggest icons in Hollywood are Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks and when they team up it usually means something special. For every movie that they come together to make, it obviously requires a lot of other talented actors to step up to help bring these stories to life. In their latest, Bridge of Spies they take on the true story of facilitating of the exchange of an American U2 spy plane pilot with a Soviet Spy. Actor Austin Stowell stepped into the role to bring pilot Francis Gary Powers and I got to sit down with him and talk about working on this piece of history and how he brought this American hero to life on the big screen and working with two legends in the industry.
Bobby: How did you get involved with Bridge of Spies?
Austin: I originally got involved because I was doing Steve Spielberg’s show called Public Morals and after seeing me on the show, I never actually read for Powers, he pulled me right off the show and gave me the part.
Bobby: Everyone has their own approach to creating characters in films, but in this case you are playing someone that was real. How much studying and research do you have to do to become this character?
Austin: I was very fortunate to have Gary Powers Jr. contact me early on and he was able to get me audio tapes of his father being questioned by the fellow that wrote his memoirs called Operation Overflight. So the combination of the book and all of the audio tapes I had so much information to pull from. I could hear the man’s voice that I was portraying and I think that is a great advantage to not being fake and trying to emulate his actions, but it allows me to let his character shine through of who he was as a man and how he went about his day to day life after going through the crash, imprisonment and of course the release.
Bobby: There are a lot of emotional levels that this character goes through, what is your process to bring all those to the role?
Austin: I am trying to do justice to the man that actually went through these experiences. Of course there is no way I will ever know what it is like to spend almost 3 years inside a Soviet prison cell, but I do know what it is like to be alone. I know what it is like to be lonely and I think that is your job as an actor to harness those memories that you have and to allow them to play through in order for them to convey the emotion. You can dial it up or down depending on what the scene calls for.
Bobby: You have been in the industry for a while, but when you step onto a set working with icons like Spielberg and Hanks does it affect you at all or are you used to it enough where you can just look at it like just another job?
Austin: I approach it like I did when I was an athlete. I was a pitcher and you used to scout other teams for the guy on the other team to see who the best player was so you were prepared when the time came to face that player from the preparation you had done before hand. Whether it’s getting in the zone, in the gym or strengthening your arm. As an actor it’s your job, whether you need to memorize a line or go to an Air Force base and talk to a pilot you want to come with as many weapons as possible so that you are ready to face those players. While you are all on the same team on a film set, you still come with that same mentality ready to play in the big game.
Bobby: When shooting a lot of the flying sequences I am assuming you did a lot of blue screen work for that.
Austin: Yeah. Actually we are here at Beale Air Force today and we go to see a lot of the behind the scenes features you will see on the Blu-ray and you will be able to see exactly how we did that. It was a big blue screen that was set up at Tempelhof Airport in one of the hangers and I was on wires hanging from the ceiling being pulled back by four stunt guys and being whipped with rain and lights circling around me. It was an incredible operation. The special effects team did a wonderful job creating that entire sequence. There is an inside look where they are showing me with the blue screen in the background and they slowly fades in what you see in the movie so you can see where they had to go in and paint every little pixel. You just have to tip your hat to the crew that put that special effects team together.
Bobby: Does it make it harder as an actor when you have the blue screen as opposed to the actual location to get your performance out?
Austin: It definitely wasn’t in this scenario. When they put me in the harness it felt like I was in a tail spin and falling and I think that is just a testament to the special effects crew that we had. They made it seem very realistic for me so when it came time for me to get in there, aside from the physical struggle I was going through, there wasn’t much effort needed on my part for the acting. My only objective was to get back to the plane and hit the self-destruct signal. So in this scene all I have to do is climb back in the cock pit and hit the self-destruct button and it was extremely difficult to do it, nearly impossible. With all the takes we did and we shot this for three days, I think I only got to the button three times.
Bobby: With a period film often times there are mannerisms that you might have had then, but don’t have now. Was there a challenge to learn to carry yourself more like they did then?
Austin: I was raised partly by my grandfather and he was a military guy who served in World War II and all the instructions he would give to my brothers and I growing up was basically what I was trying to act. Shoulders back, chest out, chin up, saying please and thank you and being very proper and well mannered. Coming from a military background this man would have been extremely aware of ranking and particularly when he is being offered his job with the CIA that is something he would take on with great honor, but also knows the dangers that come with that. It was really more of a reminder of what my childhood was like a little bit more than anything else, but I didn’t go back and study mannerisms of the time or anything.
Bobby: I know there weren’t a lot of action sequences, but did you have to do any training in regards to the piloting aspects at all for the role?
Austin: No there wasn’t any specific training. I would say that the only thing we worked on specifically beforehand would be the accent I used. I met with Steven several times to perfect what level of that Southern drawl he was looking for, but other than that not much.
Bobby: I really enjoyed the movie and thought you did a great job and appreciate you taking the time to speak with me today.
Austin: Thanks, I appreciate it.
Check out Austin alongside Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies available now on Blu-ray and DVD from Dreamworks.