Snowden TIFF 2016

Joseph Gordon-Levitt on Humanizing Edward Snowden, Oliver Stone, and That Voice

Traitor or hero? Genius or ideologue? Edward Snowden’s contribution to the release of secret data regarding US espionage continues to be at the forefront of the conversation regarding the right to privacy versus the need to secure the nation. This complex figure has already been the subject of the Oscar winning doc Citizen Four, as well as a myriad of other reports and documentaries, and now thanks to Oliver Stone a feature film version of Snowden’s remarkable story is being brought to the big screen.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt brings the computer security expert to life, mimicking both his voice and posture. With such a complex story the performance has to be clear and concise, and Levitt manages to portray the reticent, laconic nature of Snowden while still managing to be compelling on screen.

The film saw a splashy premiere at TIFF ahead of its wide release this weekend, and JGL was on hand to talk about his latest work.

One thing that this film has to do is provide the human side of Snowden to a general audience

JGL: Yeah, that’s the difference between watching this drama versus any work of journalism or documentary. [These things] are all great, especially Citizen Four – it completely deserved to win an Oscar and it’s a fantastic movie. There’s another great documentary you can watch on the PBS Frontline website that I thought was really informative. There’s endless amounts of great journalism about this subject.

Yet this movie’s less about information, it’s about emotion. It’s not a story that’s about policies or technology, it’s a story about a human being and that was the focus of it. Is it a political film? Yeah. Will it be controversial? Yeah. But for me, my job is to make sure Snowden feels like a human being.

You then have to serve both masters – you have to serve the truth, and at the same time provide an entertainment factor. Are there moments in the film where you’re like this may be what he really did, but I have to do this because this has to serve the story?

JGL: It’s an interesting dynamic because Oliver Stone tends to focus on really fiery characters, really extroverted characters, whether it’s Mickey and Mallory in Natural Born Killers, or it’s the guy on Talk Radio or whatever. Edward Snowden is not your typical Oliver Stone protagonist. He’s a very even keeled guy, and that was a back and forth that we were always having. Is trying to find that balance between making, bringing the kind of intensity and drama that Oliver puts into his movies and being faithful to who Ed is. The truth is, though, his real life story is incredibly dramatic. This is a guy who enlisted in the US army in 2004, right when the war in Iraq was the most dangerous. He wanted to go fight for what he believed to be right. And over the course of 9 years, really changed, as far as believing that everything his country was doing was right, and he kind of grew to become more inquisitive, more questioning, more skeptical, and when I say skeptical, I don’t mean necessarily negative. Skeptical just means asking questions. So every drama hinges on a character who goes through a change and the real life story of Edward Snowden is an incredible change over the course of 9 years of his life.

How did your perception of Edward Snowden once you were attached to the project?

JGL: When first offered me the job, after getting over the excitement of being offered a job by Oliver Stone, I asked myself, ok, wait, Edward Snowden, wait, I know that name, which one is he again? What exactly did he do?

If you Google “Edward Snowden” you get all of these different opinions and perspectives, both positive and negative, that I think are overly simplistic. The truth is, it’s not a simple story. It’s very complicated. But we live in a culture where everyone is trying to simplify things into a headline or a tweet.

I really enjoyed taking the time to dive deep enough to really get the nuances and the complexities of this story.

Snowden TIFF 2016

Snowden’s story isn’t finished yet, it’s still evolving. How do you work with that when you’re building a character?

JGL: Well, certainly there’s a continuing story in that we don’t know what’s going to happen to him. But this movie tells a complete story, it’s those nine years of his life from enlisting in the army to blowing the whistle. That actually has a very classic shape of a drama.

This movie doesn’t really make any claims about what’s going to happen next because, you’re right, it’s still happening. But I do think that that nine year span of his life is a fascinating story.

Often people’s perceptions of history are shaped more by fiction films than the documentaries. Did that add even more pressure to get things right?

JGL: Again, I loved Citizen Four – I watched it over and over again. I even ripped the audio off of that documentary and put it in my headphones and listened to it while I slept. I think that Laura Poitras deserved the Oscar and it’s a brilliant film.

Yet for better or for worse most Americans don’t watch documentaries. They did a test screening of this movie and they asked ask people to fill out cards with questions: “Had you ever heard of Edward Snowden?” No one had seen Citizen Four. That’s not to say that movie didn’t make a great impact. I think it did, amongst a certain culture of people who are in to watching documentaries. Obviously, this movie is aimed at an audience of people who go to multiplex theatres.

I grew up in the San Fernando valley, a suburb, where the movie theatres weren’t playing documentaries. My hope here is that folks who were honestly like me, who maybe have heard of him, but maybe haven’t heard any of the specifics, might enjoy seeing this story and it might spark some conversations.

One of your most noticeable actorly affects in this film is the use of his vocal cadence. How challenging was it to get that right without being mimicry?

JGL: I played Robert Lincoln in the movie Lincoln, who is a real life person, but there’s no footage of him and no one alive’s ever heard him talk. Because everyone has heard Edward Snowden speak, or at least so many people have, I thought it would be odd to have a movie where the actor playing him didn’t at least seem like him a bit. People’s voices, they way that they hold their posture, the way that they use their voice, these are more than just superficial details. It’s indicative of people’s personalities.

Snowden is now playing.