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No Average Joe

Snowden’s star wants to spark multiplex debates


Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is as personable as you would imagine from watching his movies. He politely introduces himself as Joe to every journalist that crosses his path. He’s also a notch aloof. Happens when you have to answer the same questions over and over.

These days, those questions have to do with his role as former NSA contractor and whistleblower extraordinaire Edward Snowden in the biopic of the same name by Oliver Stone (see review this issue). It’s uncanny how similar Gordon-Levitt looks and sounds like Snowden, and yet it doesn’t feel like mimicry.

The actor, in Canada for the Toronto Film Festival, acknowledges he wasn’t that familiar with the analyst and his actions, but quickly became partial to his crusade.

Is there any qualitative difference between watching this movie versus being exposed to a work of journalism about Snowden, like Citizenfour?

This movie is less about information or technology. It’s more about emotion. It’s a political film and it’s bound to be controversial, but my job is to make this feel like the story of a human being.

Snowden’s story seems to have a natural dramatic arc, ready-made for a movie. Was it as seamless as it looks?

Oliver Stone tends to focus on extroverted, fiery characters, whether it’s Mickey and Mallory in Natural Born Killers or Barry in Talk Radio. Edward Snowden is not your typical Oliver Stone protagonist. He is a very even-keeled guy. That was a back-and-forth we were always having: trying to find the balance between bringing the intensity and drama Oliver puts into his movies, and being faithful to who Ed is.

That said, his real life is dramatic enough.

True. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2004 when the war in Iraq was at its most dangerous, and over the course of nine years he went from believing everything his country was doing was right to becoming inquisitive, more skeptical.

How did your perception of Edward Snowden change from the moment his name first emerged to when you found yourself portraying him?

After getting over the excitement of getting offered a job by Oliver Stone, I said to myself “Edward Snowden… I know that name…” I wasn’t clear what exactly he did. If you Google Snowden, you get all these different opinions and perspectives, and most of them are overly simplistic. His story is very complicated, but we live in a culture where everyone is trying to reduce things to a headline or a tweet. I enjoyed diving deep enough to get the nuances and complexities of the story.

Would you agree this movie is more likely than Citizenfour to cement the story of Edward Snowden in most Americans’ minds?

I love Citizenfour and I watched it over and over again. I even ripped the audio off, put it on my headphones and listened to it while I slept. (Director) Laura Poiras deserved the Oscar she got for it. But for better or for worse, Americans don’t watch documentaries that much. They did a test screening of this movie in a suburb in San Diego and no one had seen Citizenfour. Snowden is aimed at an audience that goes to multiplex theatres. My hope is that folks who don’t know the details may enjoy seeing the story, and it sparks some conversations.

You decided to adopt Snowden’s very characteristic voice pitch. Did you have the choice not to?

Because so many have heard Edward speak, I thought it would be odd not to sound like him a bit. Honestly, people’s voices and postures are more than superficial details, they are indicative of their personalities.