Snowden: Oliver Stone Discusses his Risky Film and Cast, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley

snowden_posterOliver Stone’s eagerly awaited biopic thriller Snowden plays at the Toronto Film Fest next week, before opening theatrically Sep. 16.

Edward Snowden is a character unlike any of those Oliver Stone has brought to the screen before. “Oliver generally deals in operatic, manly characters,” says producer Fitzgerald. “But Edward is soft-spoken, methodical and quite un-dramatic.”

The director readily concedes that writing a movie about a computer programmer is a departure for him. To understand Snowden’s decision meant understanding his unique relationship with Lindsay Mills.

Politically Sharp

To play the pair, Stone turned to two acclaimed young actors working today. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was always Stone’s first choice to play Edward Snowden. “I’d read some of Joe’s blogs and thought he was very sharp politically. Don Jon showed me he had guts as an actor and director,” the director says. “He expressed genuine interest and I took him to Moscow to meet Snowden. Joe, Kieran and Ed are all the same generation and the three of them became very close. Joe deeply admires Ed and he carried that into his performance.”


The two men have a similar quality in Stone’s opinion. “Joe even looks a bit like him,” observes the director. “He comes across very quiet and very bright, like a guy who would   spend hours writing code. He’s not given to much expression. I think it works well and is crucial for the story.”

Playing Part in Our Democracy

Gordon-Levitt, who calls himself a long-time fan of Stone, was immediately interested in the project, even though he did not know a great deal about Snowden. “I find it exciting when a film can make me feel more inspired to play a part in our democracy,” the actor says. “Oliver’s films do that more than any other filmmaker of our time. In his body of work, Oliver has done a fantastic job of demonstrating what he loves about the United States of America. He cares so much. There isn’t really another filmmaker who’s done that so boldly and that’s really what this story needed.”

The actor threw himself into researching the role, reading as much about Snowden as he could and watching him on video to try and capture his quirks. “I began to really respect what he’s done,” says Gordon-Levitt. It’s a fascinating story and such an interesting character to play. There is a part of this story that’s so personal, about a human being coming to terms with his own beliefs and mustering the courage to do something that goes against the grain.” Gordon-Levitt has come to believe that the media have presented the public with an incomplete and ultimately inaccurate picture of Edward Snowden. “The news seems exactly like show business to me,” he says. “They’re trying to engage an audience; they’ve got their sponsor that they want to keep happy; they want to get their ratings. They also want to stay friendly with the folks who run Washington, so they can’t do anything too risky. If you look at the way that the American media has told the story of Edward Snowden, it really is one sided, whether you’re watching Fox or CNN or MSNBC.”


Stone agrees, pointing out that Snowden had been a successful NSA analyst for the better part of a decade. “He was far more respected than the way the media portrayed him. The impression has been created that he was just a junior intelligence gatherer in a gigantic department. That’s not the case. He had special accesses and privileges because he was so good at what he did. He built a program that was highly valued inside of the NSA.  Hopefully more of that will come out in time, hopefully through the Freedom of Information Act.”

Fuller Portrait

The film, Gordon-Levitt says, presents a different, fuller portrait of a man at war with his conscience. “We are trying to understand why he did what he did. You come away with a deeper understanding of Ed.”  The Snowden he discovered is devoted to his country, says the actor. “When he broke his legs in military training, he had to find a different way to serve. His intelligence career takes him all over the world in high-paying jobs, but he finds the tactics he sees disturbing. These intelligence agencies are breaking some of the most fundamental principles that he believes our country stands for. The government is violating the Constitution by trying to fight terrorism with mass surveillance systems. What’s going on is against his basic principles. He walks away from a very satisfying life in order to do what he thinks is right. I find that incredibly moving.”


The charges against Snowden carry a steep penalty, which the highly trained former intelligence analyst was keenly aware of. “He has risked his entire future,” Gordon-Levitt says. “If he were to come back to the United States right now, he would be charged under the Espionage Act, which means a secret trial, without a jury. He wouldn’t even get to state his case.”

Great Sacrifice

But it was walking away from his relationship with longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills that was one of Snowden’s greatest sacrifices, according to Gordon-Levitt. “It’s not simply a love story. She plays an important role in his progression. She has a different outlook on life. She’s the artist and he’s the engineer. Her instinct is to question authority. She turns him on to a way of thinking that is curious. He becomes someone willing to ask hard questions because of his relationship with her.”

Shailene Woodley

As Mills, Stone cast Shailene Woodley, star of the blockbuster Divergent franchise and the acclaimed romantic drama The Fault in our Stars. She first came to public attention in Alexander Payne’s film The Descendants, opposite George Clooney.


Humanity to the Role

Woodley impressed the director by writing him a letter telling him how important the film was to her and detailing her admiration for Snowden. “Shailene was a surprise,” says Stone. “Her connection to the story was really moving. Her schedule made things difficult because she had to leave to work on another film, but she was well worth the extra effort. She brought humanity to the role. Joe plays Ed as a hardworking, impersonal guy and that’s the way he seems when you meet him. She was the life of the party and he was the dullest guy in the room.”

Gordon-Levitt has nothing but praise for his co-star. “I’m so happy Shailene did this role,” he says. “She is such a great actress and such a smart, warm person. That’s a crucial part of this story. She brings a kind of rebellious spirit that comes from a place of love and positivity.”


Not a Bimbo

In Stone and Fitzgerald’s original outline for the script, Mills’ role was more peripheral, but they later came to understand how important she was to Snowden’s evolution. “The media have portrayed her as a bimbo, pole dancer-type,” says Stone. “She was very much a young woman who wanted to see the world. She was a good photographer and was working on a career. As all of this was going on, she was always on social media. Ed makes her aware that by being so public, she’s making herself vulnerable.”

Fearless Filmmaker

Woodley was already quite familiar with the Snowden saga. “When I found out that Oliver Stone was making a project about him, I got very excited,” she says. “Edward Snowden’s actions deeply affected me. I spent hours reading about it. From my perspective, Oliver Stone is the only person who could do this story justice. He is a fearless filmmaker who is always keen on telling the other side of any story. I don’t know that there are many filmmakers out there who would be as brave as he has been.”

Access to Mills Twitter Account

While Woodley didn’t meet her real-life counterpart before making the movie, she was able to learn a lot about her through the Mills’ Twitter account. “It went back many years,” she says. “I read every single post to get a feeling of her personality. It’s the first time I’ve ever played a real person. Oliver wanted me to be very specific about certain details in Lindsay’s life. To have a director who knew this woman, inside and out, and was so eager to properly represent her was invaluable.”  The free-spirited Mills and her reserved boyfriend first met when they were both 20 years old. “I bring some laughter into this story,” says the actress. “Lindsay is a glass-half-full kind of a person. She brings air and lightness to his life and he brings her down to earth. That could be why their relationship flourished.” Because she wants to see the world, Mills tags along with Snowden on all his postings. “She also watches his professional life slowly deteriorate,” says Woodley. “He’s not there for her as much as she might need or want. When they get to Hawaii, she begins to recognize that he’s holding onto a lot of secrets.”


New Dimension to Public Discourse?

If successful, the film may add a new dimension to the public conversation about Snowden’s acts, she believes. “We don’t take a stance on whether Edward Snowden was a hero or not, but regardless of whether you agree with what he did, you walk away with the knowledge that, if your laptop screen is open, somebody can watch you. Isn’t that incentive enough to at least fight for your own privacy?”  Snowden tells a sweeping international story with as many outsized characters, unexpected twists and fascinating insights into intelligence culture as a John le Carré thriller.

Stone packed the cast with acclaimed actors including Zachary Quinto as reporter Glenn Greenwald, Oscar-winner Melissa Leo as documentarian Laura Poitras, Oscar-nominee Tom Wilkinson as journalist Ewen MacAskill, Emmy-nominee Timothy Olyphant as an unscrupulous CIA agent and Rhys Ifans as a senior intelligence operative.

Oscar-winner Nicolas Cage plays a sidelined computer expert at the NSA, inspired by real life whistleblowers like Thomas Drake and William Binney.

Olyphant speaks for the entire cast when he says, “Working with Oliver Stone, there is never a dull moment. He has terrific unpredictable energy that is always surprising and inspiring.”