One of the most stressful scenarios to be in as an actor is to portray a real, living character. Just ask Joseph Gordon Levitt, who will make his box office debut as Edward Snowden on September 16. To get in character for the role, the actor and HitRecord founder flew to Russia alongside Snowden director, Oliver Stone to meet with the film’s subject. “Edward Snowden kept trying to take the attention off of himself and put it on the issues he brings up,” Gordon-Levitt joked, during the film’s recent press day in Los Angeles. “But I’m an actor who is going to play him so obviously I am going to focus on what he’s like!”
To capture Snowden’s idiosyncrasies, Levitt read everything that he could about his subject. He also lifted the audio from the Snowden-inspired documentary, Citizenfour, and listened to it extensively on repeat. He made it his mission to nail the part and did his best to ignore the pressure involved with bringing the renowned computer professional and former CIA operative to life. “That’s the other side of playing someone that is still alive,” he tells Screen Rant. “That they are going to see the movie!” In the end, Gordon-Levitt was relieved to hear that Snowden praised his performance. “He told me that members of his family were calling because they had seen the trailer and they were telling him that I sounded like him,” Gordon-Levitt reveals. “That was the ultimate victory as far as I was concerned!”
We caught up with Gordon-Levitt to discuss what surprised him most about meeting Snowden, his preparation for the role, and how the film has made him re-evaluate whether technology is a friend or foe.
SR: So you actually got to fly to Russia to meet with the real Edward Snowden in preparation for the film. What was that like?
JGL: It was really illuminating for me, you know to play him as an actor. You can only learn so much by watching someone in interviews or documentaries. It’s funny, Edward Snowden is always trying to take the attention off himself, personally, and put the attention on the issues that he brings up, but I’m an actor, I was going to play him, so obviously I’m going to focus on him personally, what he’s like as a human being.
SR: Was he as you thought he would be? Was there anything surprising about him?
JGL: One thing that was surprising, right off the bat was, he’s got really good manners. It’s just funny. You wouldn’t necessarily expect that from a computer-type of guy but I think where he’s from in North Carolina they put more emphasis on good manners, than where I’m from in Southern California.
SR: What was the process of finding the character like for you? You really nailed the accent, the demeanor…
JGL: Thank you. You know, just a lot of research. When you’re playing someone who is a real person and still alive, there’s a lot to go on, so I just immersed myself. I watched everything of his I could find, read everything I could find. I ripped the audio off the Citizenfour documentary and just put it in my headphones on repeat and listen over and over and over again. Just by virtue of repetition hoped it would seep in.
SR: Can you say something for us in your “Snowden” voice?
JGL: *laughs* No.
SR: Does this change the way you look at your own security and privacy? You’re and actor. You have paparazzi following you. You have fans. There must be some parallels there?
JGL: I guess in a way. I think it does make me think more about a lot of things, about the way technology works today. Look, I’m an optimist and sort of a fan of the new technology. I love the internet. I started a company that would be impossible without the internet. But I do think there’s probably some potential downsides to it as well. Every technology can be used for good and can be used for bad and I think before doing this movie I never really spent the time to think about the potential downsides of the amazing technology that we’re lucky enough to have today. So I like taking that extra time to kind of, just think about it for a second.
SR: We heard that Edward Snowden actually praised your performance. Was that a huge relief for you?
JGL: *laughs* Yeah, that’s the other side of playing someone who’s still alive – they’re going to see the movie. He told me that members of his family were calling because they’d seen the trailer and they were telling him that I sounded like him. That was sorta the ultimate victory as far as I was concerned.
SR: The ultimate compliment.
Snowden opens in U.S. theaters September 16, 2016.