“Edward Snowden is not your typical Oliver Stone protagonist…” hmv.com talks to Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Oliver Stone directs Joseph Gordon-Levitt in this gritty biopic of Edward Snowden, a former soldier who became an intelligence officer with the National Security Agency and made the decision to leak thousands of classified documents to The Guardian in June 2013.
Starring alongside Gordon-Levitt are Shailene Woodley, Nicholas Cage, Zachary Quinto, Timothy Olyphant and Rhys Ifans.
As the movies hits DVD shelves (you can purchase it on the right-hand side of the page), we sat down with Gordon-Levitt to find out what it was like to bring the character to life...
What was it like to portray the human side of Edward Snowden?
“That’s the difference between watching this film and a documentary or work of journalism. This movie is less about information. It’s more about emotion. It’s not necessarily a story that’s about technologies or policies. It’s about a human being. That was the focus of it for me especially. Is it a political film? Yes. Will it be controversial? Yes. But my job was to ensure Snowden came across as a human being.”
You had to serve two masters: the participants in the story, who are factual, and the audience seeking entertainment. Can you talk about balancing that dynamic?
“It’s interesting. Oliver Stone tends to focus on really fiery characters, extroverts. I mean, Natural Born Killers and the guy in Talk Radio? Edward Snowden is not your typical Oliver Stone protagonist. He is a very ever-keeled guy. So to find that balance, we went back and forth a lot. We obviously wanted to be dramatic but also to stay faithful to who Ed is. I mean, his life is incredibly dramatic.
“He’s a guy who enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2004 when the war in Iraq was most dangerous. He wanted to fight for what he thought was right. And over the course of nine years, he really changed in his view that everything his country was doing was right. He became more quizzical and sceptical. Every drama hinges on a character that goes through change and Edward Snowden’s life went through incredible change.”
How did your perception of Edward Snowden change from start to finish?
“When I got over the excitement of being offered a role by Oliver Stone, I found myself saying, ‘Edward Snowden… which one is he again?’ And I realised I didn’t really know. So I went from basically not knowing anything about him to learning everything I could about him. His is not a simple story. It’s complicated. But we live in a culture where everyone is trying to simplify things into a headline or a tweet. I really enjoyed diving deep and getting at the nuances of this story.”
Snowden’s story is still evolving. How did that impact your preparation?
“Although we don’t know what’s going to happen to him, this movie tells a complete story. It’s those nine years of his life from enlisting in the Army to blowing the whistle. And that actually has a classic narrative arc. This movie doesn’t make any claims about what’s going to happen next because the story is still evolving. And the fact that Snowden is a real person gave me a lot to go on as an actor. With fictional characters, you have to invent a back story unless the writer has some specific ideas. Here, I could ask the real guy.”
The Citizenfour documentary notwithstanding, it seems likely this movie will shape the American public’s perception of Edward Snowden. Do you agree and is that OK?
“I love Citizenfour. I watched it over and over and listened to it to help capture Snowden’s voice. But for better or worse, most Americans don’t watch documentaries. They did a test screening of this movie in suburban America and asked questions afterwards. And no one in that test screening had seen Citizenfour.
“That’s not to say that doc didn’t make an impact on the culture of people who watch documentaries. Obviously, this movie is aimed at people who go to multiplex theatres. But my hope here is that people who are like me – had heard the name Edward Snowden but didn’t really know any of the details – will get to know his story. I really think people will like this movie. And that it will spark conversations.”