Interview: Joseph Gordon-Levitt on playing Edward Snowden

Joseph Gordon-Levitt sighs wearily. It's ten days after the American election and the star of Inception and The Dark Knight Rises is talking to me down the line from London, trying to figure out if the meaning of his new film about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has changed since Donald Trump became president elect.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden

“I’ve had several conversations with people who have said to me that while they enjoyed the film before, and agreed that mass surveillance was maybe a problem, they weren’t all that concerned about it. But now, when they picture these tools in the hands of the president elect, they’re terrified. I gotta say, I share their sentiments. The truth is, this president elect has said quite a few things that seem to make it clear that he doesn’t care what the Constitution says unless it benefits him. And that’s scary.”

Like a lot of people, Gordon-Levitt watched the election results with surprise and disbelief, though he’s the first to admit that he might live in something of a bubble. “I think a lot of us do – on both sides of the political spectrum. If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that maybe it’s a bit of a wake-up call and all of us would do well to try to expose ourselves more to people with perspectives other than our own.”

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That last sentiment could be one value of Snowden. As much as the Oliver Stone-directed film could be accused of preaching to the converted – and it certainly fits in with past Stone films like Born of the Forth of July and JFK in its efforts to shine a light on the sometimes-savage realities underpinning America’s idealised vision of itself – it also seeks to present a portrait of Snowden that gets beyond the traitorous prism through which his detractors view him. Tracking the nine-year period in which the National Security Agency contractor went from being a patriotic soldier determined to serve his country, to someone prepared to sacrifice his own comfortable existence for something he believed in, the film presents Snowden (uncannily played by Gordon-Levitt) as a spotlight-shunning, Ayn Rand-referencing conservative who nevertheless became disenchanted with his government’s willingness to harvest the private data of ordinary citizens – a directive that came from the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11, but was intensified under President Obama.

When he leaked thousands of classified documents to filmmaker Laura Poitras and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, the resulting story caused a media firestorm in 2013 and forced Snowden into exile in Russia, where he continues to live and work. He now faces the prospect of a new president stepping up efforts to extradite him back to the United States to be prosecuted under the Espionage Act. Nevertheless “he’s been very encouraging,” says Gordon-Levitt of Snowden’s personal response to the Trump victory, which the actor heard first-hand at a recent event for the American Civil Liberties Union (Snowden was present via webcam). “Basically what he said was: let’s use this as a catalyst to keep fighting. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Gordon-Levitt himself had a lot of work to do before accepting the part. When Stone first approached him, he only knew the broad strokes of the story and needed to sift through all the contradictory opinions to figure out his own feelings on the subject. More than any of the profiles or ad hominem attacks on Snowden, he says two key pieces of evidence ultimately compelled him to do the film: James Clapper, the outgoing director of National Security, lying under oath about the NSA’s collection of private data [Clapper says he “made a mistake, but did not lie”] and a post-Snowden government report negating the national security value of mass surveillance. “They make me really grateful Snowden did what he did.”

When it came to playing Snowden, Gordon-Levitt watched Laura Poitras’s documentary Citizen Four a lot, pulling audio from her astonishing, as-it-happened account of the Snowden leaks (parts of which are dramatised in Stone’s film) and walking around all day with Snowden’s voice in his earphones. He also flew to Russia to meet him. Did Snowden insist on a lot of security measures?

“Er, it was fairly normal,” laughs Gordon-Levitt. “I didn’t bring my phone into the room. I left my phone outside and took notes with a pen and paper instead of a computer. But we just sat and talked. The thing is, he’s always trying to take the attention off him personally and put the attention on the causes he fights for, which I think is admirable. But I’m an actor so I was focusing on him personally and was really trying to soak up those little details of how he walks or talks or sits or stands, or how he shook my hand. These kinds of nuances help when playing a character.”

Snowden has been generally supportive of the film, despite being a little uncomfortable about having his life dramatised on screen. “He’s just happy to be stimulating the conversation,” insists the actor. “He’ll be happy you and I are talking right now about this.”

One of the larger, more abstract issues the film brings to the fore is the degree to which privacy is becoming a precious commodity. As a movie star who’s been in the public eye since he was a child (he began acting professionally when he was eight and was in the hit sitcom Third Rock from the Sun for most of his teens), does he think the steps he’s had to consciously take to carve out a private space for himself are things we’re all going to have to start reckoning with as we increasingly live our lives in public via social media?

“It’s a good question. Some people like to be very forthcoming about their personal lives. For me, I like to have a bit of a dividing line. It’s fine however you want to be, it’s just important that we have a choice.”

*Snowden is in cinemas from Friday