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On the morning of June 3, 2017, a 25-year-old former Air Force linguist improbably named Reality Winner was surprised by the FBI at her home in Augusta, Georgia. Over the next few hours, Winner would be interrogated and eventually charged with leaking evidence of Russian interference in the U.S. election of Donald Trump to the online whistle-blower site The Intercept. In court, she was sentenced to five years and three months in prison, the longest federal sentence ever ordered for the unauthorized release of government information to the media. Reality Winner served four years of her sentence behind bars, before being released to a transitional facility in June 2021.
Those bare facts are well-known and have been exhaustively discussed, dissected and debated.
But in Reality, director Tina Satter, adapting her own 2021 Broadway play Is This A Room?, digs into the subtext of the Reality Winner case. Using the verbatim recording of that FBI interrogation as its shooting script — complete with stutters and awkward pauses, odd non-sequiturs and apparent banalities — the film has a quasi-documentary feel, a sense broken only with sudden flash edits to indicate redacted sections of the transcript.
Euphoria and The White Lotus actress Sydney Sweeney plays Winner. Josh Hamilton [Eighth Grade] and Marchánt Davis [The Day Shall Come] are FBI agents Garrick and Taylor. Over a tense 83 minutes, Sweeney and Satter present a complex and contradictory image of Reality Winner: not as a lefty firebrand or a noble whistle-blower, but as a squirmy, self-deprecating over-achiever [she speaks Farsi, Dari and Pashto who competes in powerlifting competitions, has top-secret clearance for her job at a local military contractor] and becomes so fed up with the lawlessness of her own government that she decided to break the law herself.
Sweeney spoke to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the world premiere of Reality at the Berlin Film Festival on bulking up, emotionally and physically, and getting to know the real Reality behind the headlines.
How much did you know about Reality Winner before starting this project? Did you follow the case when it happened?
No, I actually had not known about it. The first time I learned about it was when I got the audition and I started doing my research and saw that Tina had done this Broadway play called Is This A Room? that drew from the FBI transcript. I was completely struck by how it was based on a real person’s life and a real incident that had actually happened.
What did your research entail?
I tried to get my hands on as many live interviews with Reality as possible, so that I could see her mannerisms, the way she talked and moved and thought. Then I had the privilege to be able to actually speak with Reality over Zoom and text her as well. We had regular contact, and I talked to her about the incident, but also about her life, the people she knew, her home, just about everything I could learn about her that I could draw from as an actor. I’d have her speak for hours, and I would just start mimicking what she would say. It was really amazing having Reality and her family support the film as we were making it, because she was able to consult with the wardrobe department and the art department at every stage, so that all the details in the film are exactly as they were in real life.
What was your impression of her?
She loves traveling. She loves her pets. We shared our love of pets quite a bit. But she’s also very funny. She has quite a sense of humor about herself. That’s something that took me by surprise: her sense of humor.
That comes out in the transcript of the interrogation. She’s often trying to make jokes with the agents, like when she says her dog and cat, both female, “don’t like men” and adds, “I’m starting to see a trend here.”
Once I met her and started talking with her, I reread the transcripts, and I saw those moments where she was trying to make herself comfortable, to be funny. Before talking to Reality, I probably wouldn’t have picked that up.
Mentioning pets, the transcripts are full of talk about her animals.
I know it’s crazy. There are pages and pages of that transcript about the dog and the cat.
What was the most challenging, physically or emotionally challenging, aspect of recreating Reality Winner for the screen?
Well, there were two parts. One, the fact that she didn’t ask for a lawyer. I found it so hard going through all of that transcript and being like: “Reality, why don’t you ask for a lawyer?!?” The second was the physical training. I tried to gain as much weight, to bulk up as much as I could. I started working out with a trainer and lifting weights. I did a lot of the exercises that Reality would post on her Instagram. I was trying to go through her routine. She was also a yoga instructor, so I would do yoga. I tried to physically become Reality as much as possible.
The film itself is just that hour and a half of the interrogation. How difficult was it for you to fill out the role with what you learned of Reality’s background?
Well, I definitely felt the weight of the importance of every word and every moment that was shared between these characters, because Reality had lived a life before this. We show this very incredible snapshot of a moment and from my conversations with Reality I filled it in. With all my characters, I create these books, I create a timeline of their entire life that led them to this moment in time. I fill it with memories between people, with Reality she has her cat, her dogs, the people in school, her relationships. So when you meet this character on screen, you meet Reality. You just meet her for this one day in her life, but you can get a sense of who she is, where she came from, what’s going on in her mind is she’s trying to figure out what to say to these FBI agents.
Your performance is so restrained, because Reality is holding back until almost the end. Did you shoot the film in sequence?
We shot the entire movie in about 16 days. We filmed all the exterior stuff first, and then we moved into the room for basically the last 9-10 days. We were all in that room and we filmed that in order. I’d never had that experience before, because usually everything is done out of order. I really enjoyed it, because I felt I was able to feel those real-time calculations going on inside of Reality’s mind in those moments.
Did the experience of making the film and meeting Reality Winner change how you thought about the politics of that era or how she was treated?
I think it’s hard to say, because when I look at Reality, I see I see a typical 20-something-year-old girl. From my conversations with her, I don’t see the person that people depicted in the headlines or in these articles.
I guess what I’m trying to get at is the gendered component of the case, how she was treated compared to male whistleblowers, like Edward Snowden or Julian Assange. It is something that sticks out in the film, because there are so many scenes where she’s just surrounded by men.
Well, that was the case, there were only male FBI agents in the room. That’s what happened. I remember at the end of filming one day, I was like: I cannot believe that there was not a single female FBI agent that walked in at one point. I can only imagine the weight that Reality had to have felt in that moment of what was going to happen to her.
How do you hope the film will contribute to our understanding of what happened in the Reality Winner case?
I think that the film has such a unique approach by telling Reality’s story in such an emotional and human way, and I hope that instead of reducing her to just a headline, or interpreting the case through a partisan lens, that this movie can offer a window into what this woman went through on that day, and what she had to endure for her own decisions.
This interview was edited for space and comprehension.
Correction: An earlier version of this interview contained a reference to unsubstantiated allegations regarding The Intercept’s handling of Reality Winner’s leaked documents.
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