In the past few years, Austin Stowell has transitioned from the heartthrob teen actor on The Secret Life of the American Teenager and in Dolphin Tale and its sequel to one hand-picked by Steven Spielberg to star in his Cold War drama Bridge of Spies. In the film, out Friday, Stowell plays Francis Gary Powers, a real-life American spy pilot who was shot down and captured by the Soviets. It’s an intense role that Spielberg offered the actor after working with on the Edward Burns-created TV series Public Morals, which is also set in the 1960s. We spoke with Stowell about what it was like to work with Spielberg, whose signature directing marks scatter through Bridge of Spies, as well as his co-star Tom Hanks.

Did you first interact with Steven Spielberg on Public Morals or Bridge of Spies?

Public Morals. We shot the pilot for Public Morals almost two years back. It was a while ago – while I was doing Dolphin Tale 2 I had auditioned for it. He came onset during the pilot. We were shooting one of the scenes and Steven was just to the left of the camera watching us. He wasn’t directing but he was giving ideas for shots.

Was that nerve-wracking?

Of course! It was nerve-wracking but great at the same time. If I had known he was coming the night before I would have stewed about it all night long. We had already been doing the scene for a few takes before he showed up so I feel like we had already greased the wheels and the train was running.

When you work with a director like Spielberg, how do you get past any feeling of being star-struck?

I approach it like I did when I was playing sports. You enjoy getting to face people who are better than you. I’m somebody who thrives on the challenge. I want to be the best. Not that I’m trying to beat Steven Spielberg, but getting to collaborate with him I feel like it helps you step up your game and it elevates the work. So I look forward to working with people with that kind of magnitude and that kind of career and clout.

Did Bridge of Spies feel like a challenge for you?

It was. I was going back and forth between New York and Berlin, so physically it was a lot. And to play Sean O’Bannon [on Public Morals] and Francis Gary Powers [in Bridge of Spies] at the same time, going back forth between accents and different frames of mind, was hard. But at the end of the day these are two pretty righteous guys and I think that’s why Steven did choose me for that – he saw parts of Powers in Sean. He pulled me out of Public Morals to be part of Bridge of Spies.

Were you required to do any period research?

I’ve always been a fan of ‘60s music and music can really tell you a lot about a time period and put you in that world. There was a lot of peace and love, and there was also a lot of war going on during the ‘60s. It was a really tumultuous time. It was a melting pot of ideas and when you have a melting pot like that it’s going to boil over. There was a lot happening at that time for both of these characters. But I use music to help me shape my characters – I do it a lot. I’m almost always listening to music onset.

What sorts of songs did you listen to during Bridge of Spies?

It’s something I keep private. It’s the one thing that’s mine. I do keep all of my playlists. So if you can crack my Spotify account you can see them all. They’re labeled like “Sean” or “Powers.”

You have one for every character you’ve ever played?

Yep. I just did these couple of movies with James Franco [2016’s In Dubious Battle and 2017’s The Long Home] and they’re in the ‘40s. Having to listen to music from the ‘40s for a couple months was not as fun. It’s a lot of jazz. It was great, don’t get me wrong, but it was very different. I like the ‘60s a lot better.

Was there a scene in Bridge of Spies where you felt like Spielberg guided to you a place you couldn’t have gotten to on your own?

Yeah. The courtroom scene, which people might be surprised by because I don’t say anything. It’s not to say that he guided me, but he helped get me through that day in more ways than one. He was really there for me. It was one of the most gratifying I’ve ever had as an actor. At the end of a day like that you collapse on your bed. You’re so tired. I had a headache – that’s what I remember – at the end of day. As I usually do when they dismiss me for the day, I walked over and said thank you and I was pretty short about it. I said thank you and walked away and my head was just pounding. He was a big part of me getting through that day.

Are there any other directors you aspire to work with?

I’m up for working with anybody. Anybody who’s passionate. That’s the one word I would use to describe Steven is passionate. He’s still so in love with telling stories and telling them to the world. That’s a spoonful of medicine we can all take. That’s our job as actors, as directors, as artist who use this medium to display their art to the world. Anyone who can come anywhere near that kind of passion I’m excited to work with. He wants you to enjoy it. He really does. And he wants you to come along for the ride that’s in his head. Next time you see a Spielberg film you can buckle up and take a little drive through the synapses of his brain.

You don’t have a lot of scenes with Tom Hanks in the film, but did you get a sense of him as an actor?

He’s a great guy. Everybody says the same thing. Before I worked with him everybody said, “Oh, you’re going to love him. He’s the best.” And he walks in a room and he takes over. He gets it. He knows the levity that comes with his presence. When he walks in a room it’s just a record scratch. You hear the voice, you see his face and because you know him as so many characters when you see him in real life you’re like “Oh my God, that’s the guy who is responsible for so many of my movie experiences and my life experiences.” You want to call him “Forrest.”

Did you?

No! I certainly did not. But he’s an amazing guy. He’s open and welcoming and he’s wonderful about making you feel as big as he is.

What’s next for you?

I’m leaving this week for a film in Vancouver, but I can’t say much more than that. I can’t say.

You have a lot of secrets.

It’s Bridge of Spies! I take it with me.

Did you leave the experience of shooting Bridge of Spies and Public Morals simultaneously with new information about yourself as an actor?

Yeah. I want to be an actor that makes people walk away either from their television set or from the movie theater thinking about what they just saw and having that reflect on their lives. Not even that day, but a week later or a month later. Letting them process it. If one life decision from that movie happens in their life – if a movie can help them make any kind of decision or just helps them get through a certain situation – then it’s a job well-done and accomplished.