Toronto: Joseph Gordon-Levitt on Edward Snowden: "I Consider Him the Most Extreme of Patriots" (Q&A)

Joseph Gordon Levitt - Getty - H 2016
Getty Images

Joseph Gordon Levitt - Getty - H 2016

Under the guidance of Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone, the actor plays the NSA whistleblower in 'Snowden'

At this year's Comic-Con, a private screening was held of Oliver Stone's newest movie Snowden, which details the story of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Following the screening a Q&A was held with Stone, stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley, as well as Snowden himself, who was beamed onto theater screen via Google hangout from Moscow, where he currently resides under asylum.

The first question posed by the moderator was directed at Snowden, asking him whether or not he thought Gordon-Levitt did a good Edward Snowden impression.

In the small San Diego theater, Gordon-Levitt gave an awkward, nervous laugh (as did many members of the small audience) while everyone waited for the response from real-life Snowden, who towered on the movie screen about the actor like a scene out of 1984. 

Following an awkward pause created by a lag in the video feed that is to be expected from trans-continental communication, Snowden gave a laugh of his own and then offered his approval of the performance. 

"To ask him, directly in front of me, whether or not he approved of my portrayal of him, was so embarrassing," the actor later admitted. "He said that his family members who had seen the trailer called him and said I sounded like him. That was very vindicating."

Snowden will have its world premiere today at the Toronto Film Festival, before hitting theaters nationwide on Sept 16. Ahead of the film's release, Gordon-Levitt sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about playing one of the most controversial characters in recent American history, while being directed by one of the most controversial filmmakers in modern American cinema. 

How did Oliver Stone approach you with the project? Was there an audition process?
He just offered me the job, which was really, really flattering. He and I had met a few years prior. I think this was in 2010 and we just talked about various things. Also I remember — and I wonder how much this has to do with it — when his series The Untold History of The United States came to the U.S., I was watching it and I tweeted about it. And I feel like that might have mattered. He was telling history from a point of view that is different than a lot of the conventional history you’ll learn in high school. And I think the fact that I appreciated what he was doing with that — that was meaningful to him. 

Why did you feel Stone could tell Snowden's story?
I think he’s the only filmmaker that could’ve done it, to be honest, because there isn’t really another American filmmaker making big-scale movies for broad audiences who has been willing to stand up and say, “Hey I love my country, but this thing that the government is doing is not right and we should take a look at it." No one, I don’t think, can do that as pointedly and as courageously as Oliver Stone. So if you’re going to tell Edward Snowden’s story, I think he’s really the only guy to do it.

Did you have a particularly memorable moment on set? 
I do remember that the very first thing we did was the military basic training stuff. And we woke up before dawn, are were getting into the military uniform, ready to go out and like do military drills with Oliver — the guy that made Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. I remember being like “F— man, this is no joke."

Over the course of making Snowden, was there anything that surprised you about Stone's process?
His rigorous research. He’s obsessive about details, about the way the story works. He’s a dramatist — and he’s the first one to call himself a dramatist — but also he’s obsessed with history. I remember the first time I went to his house one of the first things I noticed was he’s got a ton of books — he's a very well read individual — and a lot of his books are about film history. If you’re a movie fan he’s fascinating to talk to. He’ll definitely turn you on to a hundred different films you haven’t seen before. But way more than the film books, he has the history books. He has so many history books in his house. And I think that’s really telling. I think he approaches, at least he did with this project, he approached it as history. Now, obviously he’s making a drama, he’s not making an academic history paper, but he really approaches it with that kind of rigor. And I find that inspiring.

Edward Snowden's story has been told through documentaries, news specials and long-form journalistic pieces, what do you think a Snowden will bring that audiences haven't seen before?
It’s a drama. And drama is an emotional medium. The documentaries have been great — I think Citizen Four was a wonderful movie and there’s a lot of information in it and you can learn a lot. But I think the truth about many human beings, if not all human beings, is that we don’t really operate on reason and fact. We operate on emotion, for better or for worse. We make our decisions emotionally first and then our intellect catches up and finds reasons for how we ultimately feel about a thing. So telling this story on an emotional level is something really worth doing. 

What people connect to emotionally is not policies, is not even technology, what people connect to emotionally is people. This is not a story about a political decision or about any kind of algorithms or government institutions. It’s a story about a guy. A great drama is the story of a person who changes. And Edward Snowden in 2004, this is something I didn’t know before getting involved in the project, he enlisted in the U.S. army. He wanted to fight in Iraq. And in 2004, that was the most dangerous part of that war. He wanted to go risk his life and fight for his country. So nine years later to see him blowing the whistle that way, that’s an incredible change. And to watch the evolution of a person and how you can go from one end to the other that way, that’s exactly the material that a good drama is built out of.

A lot has been said about your voice work in Snowden, why was it so important to you to nail down Edward Snowden's voice?
Because we’ve all seen him and heard him. It’s different than when I played Robert Lincoln in Lincoln. There is no video footage of Robert Lincoln, no one knows what his voice sounds like so I could kind of just guess. Edward Snowden, there is tons of video footage of Edward Snowden, everyone knows what his voice sounds like. I think it would be odd if you watched a movie about Edward Snowden and the actor playing him didn’t sound anything like him. 

What did you want to make sure came across in your portrayal of Snowden?
Probably the most important thing for me is how much he really loves the United States of America. I think that people describe him as harmful to the country or as betraying the country, but he doesn’t see it that way. And I personally don’t either. I think there’s two different kinds of patriotism and, you know, we were talking a second ago about how a drama shows an evolution of somebody. One kind of patriot just believes that everything their country does is right, no matter what, without asking any questions. But there is another kind of patriot which can only exist in a free country like the United States of America who holds the government accountable and who will ask questions. And this is what Edward Snowden has done in the most extreme of ways. 

Not everybody in the world does have that privilege and that’s what democracy is and that’s what our founders were protecting when they wrote the Bill of Rights. This is why they gave us the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. So we could hold the government accountable. I think [Snowden] put his life at risk in order to hold the government accountable and to say this thing the government is doing is important. So I consider him, the most extreme of patriots and that was something that I wanted to incorporate into the character that I played.

What was you personal preparation like?
First of all, I really wanted to understand why he did what he did. And it’s complicated, there’s a lot of reasons. For example, many people ask the question — and it’s a very good question: Why did he have to go to journalists? Why couldn’t he have voiced these concerns within the system? And you know mostly when you hear that question in an article, no one provides an answer and then they call him a traitor and that’s the end of it. But there are lots of reasons why.

One of the reasons I found the most fascinating was a couple of months before Snowden made his disclosures there was a hearing before Congress and the director of national intelligence, this guy James Clapper, was asked by a senator, “Is the NSA collecting millions of records on American citizens?” And he said “No." Which was an outright lie. It is scary to see a high-ranking government official lying under oath. It stops feeling like a democracy to me. But also it answers that question that I was after as to what was Snowden’s motivation. 

Do you think you could have played Snowden if you did not agree with what he did?
I don’t always agree with the people that I play. I made a movie called Don Jon where I was playing a guy who was very, very different from me and held very opinions than I do. I did movie called Kill Shot where I played a sociopathic murderer. It certainly helps to personally identify with the character, but that is the job as an actor is to try to find empathy for anybody.