In case you forgot, here’s a refresher on Edward Snowden. While working for contractor Booz Allen for the NSA, Snowden began copying top-secret NSA documents, building a dossier on practices that he found invasive and disturbing. The documents contained vast information on the NSA’s domestic surveillance practices. After he had compiled a large store of documents, Snowden told his NSA supervisor that he needed a leave of absence for medical reasons, stating he had been diagnosed with epilepsy. On May 20, 2013, Snowden took a flight to Hong Kong, China, where he remained as he orchestrated a clandestine meeting with journalists from the U.K. publication The Guardian as well as filmmaker Laura Poitras.
On June 5, The Guardian released secret documents obtained from Snowden. In these documents, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court implemented an order that required Verizon to release information to the NSA on an “ongoing, daily basis” culled from its American customers’ phone activities. The following day, The Guardian and The Washington Post released Snowden’s leaked information on PRISM, an NSA program that allows real-time information collection electronically. A flood of information followed, and both domestic and international debate ensued.
In director and co-writer Oliver Stone’s latest film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the title character. From child actor in 3rd Rock from the Sun to one of Christopher Nolan’s muses in films like Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, he’s grown up on screen in front of our eyes. Gordon-Levitt recently sat down to discuss his latest project which co-stars Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Schnetzer, LaKeith Lee Stanfield, Rhys Ifans and Nicolas Cage.
According to Stone, Gordon-Levitt was the first choice to play Edward Snowden. And like most of us, he was thrilled to hear from one of the most iconic directors working today.
“When I first got the job offer from Oliver Stone, I was just excited to be hearing from him. I’m such a fan. The next thought I had was, ‘I don’t know if I really know that much about Edward Snowden.’ If I asked myself, ‘what exactly did he do and why did he do it?’ I couldn’t really answer those questions. I knew I had some learning to do. There were some people in my professional life who cautioned me, telling me he’s such a polarizing figure. He’s actually not a polarizing figure in other parts of the world. In this country, he’s polarizing. There were conversations that this might have an impact on the commercial strength of my career if you alienate people who dislike Edward Snowden. I don’t make decisions based on the commercial viability of my career.”
Like many of us, Gordon-Levitt was aware of Edward Snowden. And also like many of us, he didn’t know many of the details about the man and the controversy. After he accepted the role, he had a lot of homework to do.
“The first thing I did was Google him. When you Google Edward Snowden, you obviously see a wide variety of different perspectives. There are some people who feel very negatively towards him and there are some people who feel very positively towards him. You find yourself in a conundrum. Who do I believe and why? It’s funny how nowadays, we all have a tendency to scroll through things and check out things for a little bit of time. Rarely, do we really dive into one thing for a lot of time. What happens there when things are complicated, you never get to the bottom of it. And most things are usually very complicated. Those quick articles or headlines or Tweets you see aren’t complicated because they have to be so brief. They’re a sort of simplistic version of reality. You’re ultimately taking someone’s word for it instead of finding out for yourself.
As I dove further into it and spent hours and hours and days and days trying to form my own opinion, I realized that everybody is oversimplifying. I hope that seeing this movie would encourage everybody – whether it’s about the Edward Snowden story or something else – to spend a little more time on one thing instead of scrolling through and spending little bits of time on a lot of things. You have to take it upon yourself to kind of go on a quest and read lots of things including opposing views. Then you have to look at everyone’s incentives. What is this person’s job? Who’s paying them? The Internet allows us to do our own investigating. On the other hand, the Internet seduces us to look at these bite sized things more than ever before. We have to rally our attention spans and focus.”
After doing his due diligence, the next step was to meet his real life counterpart. His experience meeting with Snowden proved invaluable in affecting his portrayal.
“It was a few months before shooting. I went to Moscow and got to spend about four hours with him and his girlfriend Lindsay Mills, who’s played in the movie by Shailene Woodley. He’s always trying to take the attention off of himself and deflect the attention to the issues that he’s raising. I’m an actor, so I’m going to focus on him personally. I want to get a sense of him as a human being – how he talks, how he sits, how he shakes your hand, how he eats. All those little details are really valuable to me. I was quietly observing him while we talked about other things. We talked plenty about the Internet. We both have a real love for the Internet.
I think a lot of people assume he has negative feelings towards technology because he shined some light on some dark things that were happening with technology, but I think what motivated him was this love of technology and his belief that technology should be a positive force in our lives. We also talked about movies. We talked about music. We talked about the difference between an artist’s mentality versus an engineer’s mentality. His girlfriend Lindsay is an artist so they have this dynamic of back and forth all the time. I’m more of an artist than an engineer for sure, but I was about to play an engineer. I was trying to build a bridge between those two mentalities. The very first thing he asked was about [my website] HitRecord. I thought, ‘how cool is that that he knows about that?’”
Oliver Stone is one of the few directors today who can outcelebrity the actors in his films. Though Stone has a larger than life persona, Gordon-Levitt walked away with a newfound understanding and respect for the filmmaker.
“Oliver’s really the only one who could make this movie. In American cinema – and I mean mainstream, big scale, Hollywood movies that are for a broad audience – he’s really the only one in that league who’s willing to stand up and say, ‘I love my country, but this thing the government is doing is going against the principles of what this country is about. I want to shine a light on that.’ No one else has done that so courageously as Oliver. If you’re going to make the Edward Snowden story, I think he’s really the only guy to do it.
One thing you notice about Oliver when you go to his house is that he has a ton and ton of books. He’s a very well read person. He has a lot of books about movies. He knows a lot about movies – old movies, new movies. He’s not your typical filmmaker in that way. Most of his books are about history. I think he approached most of his projects as an historian. He’s also the first to admit that he doesn’t make academic movies, he makes dramas. It’s about finding that balance between history and drama.”
We’ve all heard about the child actor curse. After starring in 131 episodes of 3rd Rock from the Sun, no one would have been surprised if he became a tabloid fixture. Instead, he starred in some very good low-budget indie films like Brick, The Lookout and (500) Days of Summer. This would prove to be a springboard to starring roles in big budget features like Looper and the aforementioned Christopher Nolan films. Was it luck or choice?
“Probably a little bit of both. I would definitely say that I’ve been lucky for sure. I’ve been lucky in more than one way. I was lucky enough to have made enough money from 3rd Rock from the Sun so I didn’t have to choose my jobs based on money. I could do some of those movies that you were talking about that don’t pay much money. For anyone who achieves a certain amount of success, it’s always tempting to say, ‘it was all me! I’m so great and I deserve everything I have.’ There are some figures out there who like to say that. I always find that a little naïve to be honest. For me and my success, I couldn’t possibly say, ‘it was all me.’ There were so many people, intentionally and unintentionally, who were helpful in my success. I think that’s how pretty much how the world works universally.”
Snowden opens in theaters September 16th.
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