|» 17 Aug 2010
Salt: interview with Angelina Jolie's spy advisor - exclusive
The former CIA spook Melissa Mahle talks to Helena de Bertodano about disguises, adopting multiple personae, hiding the truth even from her own mother – and advising Angelina Jolie on her role in the new spy thriller 'Salt'
I am waiting to meet former CIA spy Melissa Boyle Mahle at a French brasserie in Washington DC. As people walk in and out of the café, I suddenly realise that I have no idea what she will actually look like.
I have read that she uses a number of different disguises – wigs and spectacles, even latex masks that transform her face. On occasion she has dressed as a man.
So I scrutinise everyone – first an elderly fat woman, then a tall African-American man, even a child. Surely she couldn't pull that one off? When she does arrive – 20 minutes late – she is, disappointingly, unmistakable.
Tall with cropped blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, she is brisk and businesslike. 'Melissa Boyle Mahle,' she says, extending her hand. 'And that is my real name.'
We go to a secluded dark table at the back of the restaurant. She chooses a chair with its back to the room near an emergency exit, so no one except me can see her face.
Old habits, it seems, die hard. For Mahle – who spent 14 years undercover – is a spy no longer.
Ousted from the organisation, due to an 'operational mistake', she now works as a foreign policy adviser (she won't say to whom), and recently acted as a consultant on the forthcoming spy film Salt, which stars Angelina Jolie as the CIA agent Evelyn Salt.
Jolie's role is based, loosely, on the experiences of Mahle and other spies.
'I was very impressed when I met Angelina,' says Mahle. 'She was very intent upon understanding not only what a real CIA officer was like but also the motivations behind our actions.
She wanted to know exactly what I would or wouldn't know and do.'
In the film Jolie is actually a Russian spy who has infiltrated the CIA. 'Which I obviously wasn't!' says Mahle, who worked mostly in the Middle East.
'She has a secret identity beyond all of that. But as an intelligence officer that's what I did my whole career – I took on secret identities, I lived that on a daily basis.'
She worked on making the script more authentic. 'Initially, it was not very realistic. The big concepts were good: the idea of Russian sleeper agents is very real, as we find out again…'
She is referring to the recent news of the Russian spy ring in America – fortuitous timing for the release of the film. 'I'm impressed by the power of Hollywood to arrange this,' jokes Mahle.
'It shows how real the Salt story is, in that you could have somebody – like Anna Chapman or whoever she really is – come to the US and integrate completely into our society.
Chapman looked like a New Yorker, acted like a New Yorker, she blended very well into her environment – obviously not well enough, as the FBI was able to get a thread.
But I'm chuckling at people's shock that, "Gee, the Russians are spying on us." Of course the Russians are spying on us and of course we're spying on the Russians!'
Salt captures the breathtakingly dangerous life of the secret-service agent: shoot-outs, car chases, death lurking around every corner. Was Mahle's life really like that?
'I was scared a lot of times,' she admits. 'Just because you don't get caught doesn't mean they're not watching you. Sometimes things can move in ways that are very dangerous for you. It's a survival game.'
Did she ever think it was just not worth it? She shakes her head: 'You have an objective, you have a mission to accomplish and you want to make sure you accomplish that mission.'
In one scene Jolie is peeling off a latex face mask. 'I can't reveal whether I used face masks,' says Mahle. 'But I did use disguise a lot. It could be small things – just wearing a pair of eyeglasses to change the shape of your face.
Or it could be more transformative – wearing wigs, changing into local clothing, transforming your face so no one could recognise you. Stuff out of Hollywood.
Actually the CIA learnt a lot from Hollywood; they were schooled by experts in make-up. And often I would pose as a man, if I wanted to move through a situation.'