Joseph Gordon-Levitt goes deep in playing Edward Snowden
It was a matter of luck that actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt bears a physical resemblance to government whistleblower Edward Snowden. But when Gordon-Levitt, whose varied career stretches back to his days as the super-smart alien Tommy on “Third Rock from the Sun,” was invited to play the part by director Oliver Stone, he realized he had a lot of decisions to make and work to do. Gordon-Levitt spoke about the experience recently in Los Angeles.
Q: What were your first thoughts when the role was offered to you?
A: I was excited to be hearing from Oliver Stone because I’m such a fan of his. The next thought I had was that I didn’t know that much about Edward Snowden. I’d heard his name before, but if I asked myself what exactly did he do, and why did he do it, I couldn’t answer those questions. So I Googled his name, and when you Google Edward Snowden, you see a wide variety of different perspectives. There are some people who feel very negatively towards him, and others who feel very positively towards him, and then you find yourself in a conundrum. It’s like who do I believe, and why? As I dove further into it, and spent days and days trying to form my own opinion about why he did what he did, one thing I noticed was that everybody — both on the positive and negative side — was oversimplifying it. So I would hope that seeing this movie would encourage people to look into things a little deeper, spend a little more time on one thing rather than just scrolling through and spending little bits of time on lots of things. You have to take it upon yourself to go on your own kind of quest, and read lots of things, and read opposing things, and then look into why one person’s for him and why another is against him, and try to get to the bottom of it.
Q: Were you at all concerned about taking this part?
A: There were voices in my professional life who cautioned me, who said that Snowden is a polarizing figure in this country. Some people were saying this might have an impact on the commercial strength of your career, if you alienate the people in this country who dislike Edward Snowden. But I don’t really make my decisions based on the commercial viability of my career. I make my decisions based on what I find inspiring and what I want to do.
Q: And you actually got to spend some time with Snowden.
A: Yeah, a few months before shooting I went to Moscow and got to spend about four hours with him and with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills. He’s always trying to take the attention off himself and put the attention on the issues that he’s raising. But I’m an actor, and I was going to play him, so I was going to focus on him, personally. I wanted to get a sense of him as a human being, how he talks, how he sits, how he shakes your hand, how he eats. All of those little details are really valuable to me.
Q: But what did you talk about?
A: We talked plenty about the internet. We both have a real love for the internet. We also talked about movies and music and about the difference between an artistic mentality and an engineer’s mentality. I’m certainly more of an artist than an engineer, but I was about to play an engineer, so I was trying to build that bridge between those two mentalities, and we talked about that.
Q: You got his voice down really well in the film. How did you go about that?
A: It was a lot of repetition, finding everything I could on YouTube and just listening to him talk, over and over. I took the audio off the documentary “Citizenfour,” and put it in my headphones, on repeat. Eventually I started internalizing it.
Q: Did working with Oliver Stone for the first time live up to your expectations?
A: Oliver is the only one who could make this movie properly. If you think about it, in American cinema, and I mean mainstream, big-scale, Hollywood movies that are for entertaining a broad audience, he’s really the only one in that league who is willing to stand up and say, “I love my country, but this thing that our government is doing goes against the principles of what this country is all about, and I want to shine light on that.” No one else has done that so pointedly and courageously as Oliver Stone. So if you’re going to make the Edward Snowden story, I think he’s really the only guy to do it.
— Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.