In the new movie Beirut, a former CIA operative (Jon Hamm) who fled Lebanon after a violent attack, is drawn back nearly a decade later when a complicated diplomatic situation that only he can solve threatens to engulf the entire region in violence. And while he returns to the Middle East to encounter a cast of characters—American and otherwise—who might not be the most trustworthy, there’s little doubt that the flinty intelligent officer Sandy Crowder (Rosamund Pike) is one person he can rely on.
Whether the two of them are going to be able to pull off a seemingly impossible negotiation, however, is the question that keeps the movie tense, twitchy, and exciting. Here, Pike tells T&C about the appeal of spy movies, her real-life visit to Lebanon, and the thrill of filming her own stunts.
So, you’re talking to me about a movie called Beirut, but you’re someplace entirely different.
I’m in Budapest, where I’m filming Radioactive, which is a very extraordinary script about Marie Curie.
You’re getting to go to all the most exciting places lately.
I was in Jordan last year making a film about Marie Colvin, so my Middle East knowledge is soaring at the moment. I’ve now been to Lebanon, but sadly hadn’t been when we made this film, but I got so interested in visiting from making this picture that I found a way of going.
That’s fantastic. Did you find that inhabiting the mind of a person who worked there made it a different experience?
No, I wasn’t really a tourist, I went to see the work of an extraordinary landmine charity, Mag, which is helping to de-mine the colossal area of Lebanon that is contaminated. So, I was able to have a long charged journey as we went to the different roads with Lebanese people of all faiths, and dispositions, and beliefs. And the only thing you can do when you’re visiting somewhere like that is to admit how little you know and listen.
I did feel good that the Beirut we conveyed in the film did mirror something of the Beirut that I saw in its texture, in the fascinating nature of it, in the seductiveness of it—there’s an allure there, there’s a sense of people living hard, playing hard, there’s something of a very intoxicating atmosphere about it that I think has very brilliantly captured that in the film.
Jon Hamm’s character in the movie leaves Beirut after a terrible loss and is sort of pulled back in 10 years later, where he encounters your CIA agent character. It’s a complicated movie about a complicated place. What was the appeal to you of being part of it?
My lack of knowledge made me want to know more. Also, I was interested in playing this woman from the CIA in the 1980s. It was a different world for women then, and I like her lone-wolfishness. Here’s this woman who’s the handler of Jon Hamm’s character, and the expectation is that she’d be all aflutter when someone as handsome as Jon walks into her life, but he’s just a pain in the ass as far as she’s concerned. I just found her to be a very appealing character.
How do you research someone like that? Are there memoirs or sort of people you research to get the meat of what it was like to be in that position in that point in time?
I talked to a woman who’d been an ambassador at that time, one of very few female ambassadors in foreign postings then, and I talked to a woman who was in the CIA. Last year, I played an FBI agent in a contemporary film and I spent a lot of time with female agents and had an insight that was just invaluable for this film.
So, you’ve played an FBI agent, you’re playing Sandy in this film, you’re working on a movie about one of the great war correspondents. What about this kind of person keeps you coming back?
It’s a desire to live with a sort of intensity that I relate to, and it’s sort of similar to why I do the job that I do—living a slightly heightened reality all the time. That’s something I certainly identify with. But courage, too—courage is probably the human character that I admire above all else, and an ability to see the truth or speak the truth or live the truth. I think these women are doing that.
Beirut has explosions and car chases and shootouts. Is there something for you that’s the most exciting to do as an actor in a movie like this?
We had a great cinematographer who was a very shoot-from-the-hip kind of guy, and he was ready for anything. For instance, there’s a scene where we’re driving on dusty roads around bends and hills in this car that was just so old, and it was a manual car, and I just relished that. I had to drive fast, and it was really fun—they’d cleared the route for me and I had practiced, but we just went for it: we drove fast, we drove recklessly.