Actor says the NSA whistleblower has 'old-fashioned' manners
Credit: Jürgen Olczyk
  • Movie

When it came to bringing the story of Edward Snowden to life on the big screen for Snowden, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt and filmmaker Oliver Stone made sure to go straight to the source – even though Snowden now lives in political exile in Russia.

In their bid to capture the human motivations that drove the now-controversial intelligence agency insider – who in 2013 exposed the extent that the U.S. government was conducting what he considered overreaching, privacy-violating surveillance on a large percentage of its population, as well others around the world – the filmmaking team made under-the-radar trips to Moscow, where Snowden now resides in asylum after the American government charged him with violating the Espionage Act and stealing government property.

“A few months before shooting the movie, I did have a chance to sit with him in person,” Gordon-Levitt told reporters at the press day for the film. But the visits weren’t arranged like cloak-and-dagger operations out of a political thriller. “It was honestly not as crazy as you would imagine,” says the actor, whose visits were arranged by Snowden’s attorneys both in the U.S. and Russia. “I flew to Moscow and went and met him at an office.”

Gordon-Levitt spent about four hours with Snowden, joined by Snowden’s longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills, who now resides with him in Russia and is played in the film by Shailene Woodley. The actor says he welcomed the chance to get to study Snowden to create a deeper portrait of the controversial figure.

“One of the first things I noticed actually was, he’s got really good manners,” said Gordon-Levitt. “He’s sort of old-fashioned, in a way. You don’t necessarily expect that in today’s world, or when you think of someone who’s really good at computers. You don’t necessarily equate that with someone who’s got a lot of social grace.”

“But what can I say? He’s from North Carolina,” the actor added. “I think they put a lot more emphasis on good manners there than they do where I’m from in Southern California. I really noticed that. I wanted to incorporate it into my performance of him.”

Along with mastering Snowden’s body language and particular way of speaking, he listened – over and over – to audio of Snowden speaking in the Academy Award-winning documentary Citizenfour.

Initially reluctant to take on such a hotly debated storyline but intrigued enough by an offer to visit Snowden in Moscow, Stone, no stranger to controversial films with projects like Born on the Fourth of July and JFK, made the trip, ultimately signing on to write and direct the film. He would end up meeting with Snowden nine times throughout the process.

“What I understood more and more as I talked to Snowden, I began to realize how important this [issue] was,” said Stone. “It’s crucial, because not only of mass eavesdropping, which is horrifying to me, I never made a contract with the government for that, but it’s also the cyber warfare. It’s hugely important to all of us and I think it’s going to be the next war. Nobody will know where it started and how. That’s the problem.”

While the film provides a more personal glimpse into the forces that possibly drove Snowden, Gordon-Levitt said that he felt Snowden was primarily happy to address issues of privacy and national security being explored as a result.

“I know that he doesn’t want to live in Russia for the rest of his life,” said the actor. “I think, to be honest though, what he cares about more than his personal life is the issues that he’s bringing up. He cares about the basic principles of what our country is about. He cares that the people of the United States are able to have this conversation, able to have this debate, able to know what the government is doing with this technology, and are able to form their own opinion.”

He added: “But it’s good that we’re having that conversation. That’s what democracy is supposed to be.”

Snowden hits theaters Sept. 16.

  • Movie
  • 134 minutes
  • Oliver Stone