Bryan Cranston on Learning to Think Like a Spy

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Photo: David Lee/Broad Green Pictures

In the 1980s, Robert Mazur, a former U.S. Customs and Drug Enforcement Agent did the seemingly impossible: Using the alias “Bob Musella,” he went undercover as a money launderer to infiltrate some of the world’s largest drug cartels, including Pablo Escobar’s.

His story, based on his memoir, has been turned into a film starring Bryan Cranston, The Infiltrator, which had its New York premiere on Monday. The film takes on Mazur’s fascinating story of duplicity and deception in the service of a greater good.

As Science of Us has noted, there’s not a lot of research out there about what going undercover does to the psyche, partly because spy agencies like to keep that information classified, and partly because there just aren’t many undercover officers willing to submit themselves for study. We do know, though — both from former agents and from the limited research that does exist — that the work is full of highs and lows: the excitement, the adrenaline rush, the stress of keeping such a huge secret, the emotional gymnastics of befriending people only to later betray them. Science of Us spoke to the cast and screenwriter of Infiltrator about how they prepared themselves to understand, and accurately portray, the complicated psychology of undercover work.

Spying: Like acting, only with higher stakes

It was the duplicity, Cranston says, that initially attracted him to the role of Mazur: “What really got me was how that man, Bob Musella, the tough-guy money launderer for the Medellin cartel and the mob, goes home every day and becomes Bob Mazur — dad, husband, helps the kids with the homework, and takes out the trash.”

As he prepared for the role, Cranston tells Science of Us, he came to realize that on one level, undercover work was a more extreme version of something we do every day: compartmentalizing, tailoring different personas to different situations. “When you visit someone, like a relative … you have to play a part, in essence,” he says. “You know your mother wants you to be a certain way. She wants you to look nice when you visit her. You play a part when you visit different people.”

Now just imagine that in an occupational setting,” says Cranston, “That’s what Bob was able to do.”

We do it all the time,” agrees screenwriter Ellen Brown Furman. “We just don’t do it when your life’s at stake. Even if you’re a good actor, when you’re undercover, one slip and you’re done. So you have to always measure your words but sound very authentic at the same time so that you’re believable. You’re really the consummate actor.”

Certainly, for a professional actor, pretending to be someone else may not be much of a stretch. But Diane Kruger — who portrayed Kathy Ertz, the agent who went undercover with Mazur as his faux fiancée — found it difficult at times to relate to the psychological demands of her character’s job. Unlike actors, who shed their assumed identity as soon as a movie wraps, undercover officers have to keep up the facade for much longer, she notes. And they have to do it while keeping much of their work hidden from even their loved ones. “I don’t know how you do that,” she says. “[Ertz] had a real-life husband and two children. And they couldn’t really talk about what she was doing, so how do you deal with that? ‘Have a nice day at work, honey?’”

Going undercover requires charm, quick thinking …

The FBI does its best to make sure undercover officers are mentally prepared: At the agency’s undercover school (yes, there’s such a thing), they learn how to behave and how to cover up their mistakes, and undergo constant psychological testing to make sure they’re up to the task. “But no one can actually prepare you for the actual [moment] when you’re on the spot, because there’s nothing to protect you,” says Brown Furman.

At critical moments, the ability to read people — and charm them — can be critical. “If you met Bob, he’s extremely glib and charming when he wants to be,” Brown Furman says, a trait that helped him gain the friendship and trust of the drug cartel members. “That’s the gift of these undercover people, they just turn it on. It’s the ultimate acting. Undercover agents are good at making friends, and saying to people what they want to hear when they need to hear it.”

… and a love of danger.

The work tends to attract a rare breed: people who are capable of remaining calm under extreme pressure, who can skillfully work a social situation to their advantage, and, perhaps most importantly, who thrive on taking risks. “You can see that they fall in love with adrenaline rush, they fall in love with the personas and the aliases that they create,” says John Leguizamo, who plays Mazur’s partner, Emir Abreu.

In some way, there’s a secret thrill for them,” Brown Furman adds. “They may be doing it for the right reasons, but there is still something in their personalities that sparks them to do it, to not only say, ‘I think I’ll take the risk,’ but ‘You know what, I think I like it.’”

And sometimes, the thrill can be a difficult thing to give up. Undercover officers “have a really hard time coming back to their normal life,” Leguizamo says, “because normal life gets boring for them.”

Bob says he’s able to do it, but in my assessment, reading under the surface, I don’t think they are really able” to fully let go of their undercover personas, even once the work is done, Brown Furman says. “When you become as obsessed as Robert Mazur with getting this many people and putting them away, and getting this information on the higher level of the drug cartel — when you get so meshed in that, I don’t think you can put that character away.”

Bryan Cranston on Learning to Think Like a Spy