HFPA President: Julian Assange Interview Coup Begins a New Era

4:11 PM PST 10/13/2013 by Alex Ben Block
Oli Scarff/Getty Images
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

Theo Kingma of the foreign press group tells THR how he worked for 14 months to make the interview with the WikiLeaks founder happen and that it fell apart three times before it finally took place on Saturday.

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association rightly bills its interview Saturday with fugitive journalist Julian Assange as a world exclusive, but it also represents an effort by the HFPA's latest president, photojournalist Theo Kingma of the Netherlands, to upgrade the quality of interviews the group of international journalists does and improve the often maligned group's image.

For years, the HFPA has conducted interviews with stars and filmmakers, but this "get" rose to the level of international news because Assange, a 42-year-old Australian, has taken asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He is sought on charges in Sweden and wanted by U.S. authorities for publishing numerous top-secret U.S. government documents on the Web.

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The interview almost never happened, but when it did, HFPA members got to hear from Assange and ask questions via a Skype link with their headquarters in West Hollywood.

An account posted on the HFPA's website summarizes what he had to say: "Assange slammed the movie about him, The Fifth Estate, as 'opportunistic and hostile,' talked of his work, warned of the dangers posed by the American security complex and revealed that his family had received death threats."

As much as it is a coup for the HFPA, which has just under 100 members, it would not have happened without Kingma, who began working on the concept even before he was elected in June.

"Before I even ran for president," Kingma tells The Hollywood Reporter, he and another member, John Hiscock, began to work on the idea for a "roundtable interview series." He recalls that they wanted to "think outside the box" about whom to interview, "but still have it connected to movies."

That was nearly two years ago. When he failed to get elected president a year ago, the idea was tabled. When he was elected this time, it was one of the first ideas he pushed.

Fourteen months ago, the HFPA had a letter dropped off for Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy, and a conversation began with his pro bono attorneys.

"Twice it was a go, and it did not happen," recalls Kingma. "The third time it was close to happening, but then the Manning trial started, and somebody told him, 'No, don't talk to the Hollywood Foreign Press.' "

Two weeks ago, when Kingma was in London, he made a personal visit to the embassy to see if they could make it happen.

"You had people saying, 'Oh well, he'll promise us these things and it's all nonsense," says Kingma. "Now, finally, there was a screen, and I know the moment I would say 'Julian Assange,' he would be [there]. I didn't even sleep the night before. We had dry runs. For me it was so very important."

What makes it so important, says Kingma, is that it heralds a new era for the HFPA when they can command global newsmakers to talk to their journalists who file stories around the world. It helps put behind the image of the small group being mostly known for a very big awards show, the Golden Globes.

STORY: 'Fifth Estate' Screening: Benedict Cumberbatch Talks Challenges of Communicating With Julian Assange

The interview comes on the heels of Assange exchanging letters with Benedict Cumberbach, who portrays him in The Fifth Estate. Assange has called the movie based on former WikiLeaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg's 2011 book, Inside WikiLeaks, a "wretched" work of fiction "based on a deceitful book by someone who has a vendetta against me and my organization."

On Friday, Cumberbach wrote during a Reddit AMA to say he was concerned when the man he was to play was so against him doing the project. However, he wrote, "It galvanized me into addressing why I was doing this movie. He accuses me of being a 'hired gun,' as if I am an easily bought cipher for right-wing propaganda. Not only do I NOT operate in a moral vacuum, but this was not a pay day for me at all. I've worked far less hard for more financial reward. This project was important to me because of the integrity I wanted to bring to provocative difficult but ultimately timely and a truly important figure of our modern times."

Alex Gibney's documentary, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, premiered in May and The Fifth Estate opens in U.S. theaters on Oct. 18.

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