Oliver Stone’s Snowden, which opens Sept. 16, provides a complex backstory to a man most people know by name and have an opinion of – even if few have dived deep into the motivations of what drove Edward Snowden to commit acts of treason against his own government.
Stone uses the filming of Snowden’s Citizenfour documentary interview in Hong Kong as the starting point for this story before diving into the life of a man who has always wanted to remain private.
Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt steps into the role of former CIA technician and NSA infrastructure analyst contractor Ed Snowden, a role the actor literally took on for free. Gordon-Levitt donated his acting fee to fund a project which will see his production company hitRECord partnering with the American Civil Liberties Union to explore the connections between technology and democracy.
Technology is something the actor remains a fan of, even after delving into the amount of daily data the government and giant corporations collect on Americans and citizens of other nations around the world. In an exclusive Digital Trends interview, Gordon-Levitt explains how playing Snowden has impacted his own thinking about technology, how his dream job includes a much more hands-on relationship with tech, and more.
Digital Trends: How did your opinion of Edward Snowden evolve as a result of working on this film?
“I tend to see the Internet as something that has had, and will continue to have, enormous positive impact on all of our lives.”
Gordon-Levitt: When I first got the job offer from Oliver Stone, I was just excited to get a job offer from Oliver Stone. I’m a fan of his. But I had to admit to myself that I really didn’t know very much about Edward Snowden. I had heard his name, but when I asked myself, “What exactly did he do and why did he do it,” I realized I couldn’t answer those questions very specifically, so I knew I had a lot of learning to do, and it went from there..
What did having access to two different books, The Snowden Files and Day of the Octopus, open up for you as you researched and got into this role?
I read everything that I could and I watched all of his speeches and talks. There’s so much you can read about Edward Snowden. And it’s interesting because there’s such a wide variety of different perspectives on him, and on what he did and why he did it. So it definitely presents you with a conundrum: Who do I believe? How do I know which one is right? These two people are saying the exact opposite things about him, and then it’s about trying to analyze your source. This person’s saying that what he did was a service to the country. This person is saying that what he did is harmful to the country. Who are these different people? Where are they coming from? What is their incentive? Who do they work for? Who pays them? And those are all the questions that I was trying to get to the bottom of as I did my research.
What did you learn personally from being able to interact and meet with Snowden?
When I met Ed, I was really focused on him as a human being, which is funny because he’s always trying to take the attention off of himself, personally, and put the attention on the issues that he brings up. But because I’m going to play him as an actor, I really wanted to get a sense of what he’s like … things like how did he shake your hand, how does he sit in the chair, how does he eat his lunch? Those little personal details can be valuable for me as an actor playing this guy.
What type of training or research did you do specifically around cyber security, coding, or the technology aspect of what he did?
Well, I know little bit of code, very little, but my brother’s actually a really good computer programmer, so I’ve been around it. I wouldn’t say I’m good at it.
What did you code?
It’s been a while, but when I was 14 I spent some time learning C++. I made a very simple game using geometry to figure if one character is at this position and another character is at that position on the screen, you can use the Pythagorean Theorem to find the distance. And if this character is so many spaces away then make the monster go chase the character. I had a blast doing it … It’s really an art form in and of itself because you can tackle any problem any number of ways, and different people have their own styles. I really admire coders. It’s one of those things that if I live to be 1,000 and I had infinite time, I would love to spend the time to learn how to do it better.
But Snowden is someone who is actually extremely good at it. And I know this not from my own authority, but I’ve spoken to other people who are extremely good at it, who have spoken to him, and they can attest he is legitimately excellent as far as a technologist.
How did hacker Ralph Echemendia help with this shoot?
“Companies present us with these contracts of legalese and expect us just to agree without really explaining in plain language what the contract says. I don’t think that’s cool.”
What Ralph was doing security-wise had less to do with us and more to do with protecting the footage that we were shooting every day. As far as what he was doing with us actors, he was making sure that the lines that we said were technically logical. So when we would use technical terms, we understood what we were saying. There’s nothing worse than an actor saying words that you can tell they don’t actually know what they’re saying, so he was just making sure that we understood — at least to some degree — what we were talking about. And he was really valuable in that regard.
Was there anything that really stood out to you either through the research or the script about just how far reaching the technology is today and how much access the government has to what everyday people are doing?
It’s not only the government, there are companies collecting information as well. But look, I’m a real optimist when it comes to technology and I tend to see the internet as something that has had, and will continue to have, enormous positive impact on all of our lives. Before working on this Snowden project I never really stopped to think about any potential downsides, and the truth is every technology, especially a powerful technology, always can be used for good or for bad.
I’m glad to be having this conversation with you right now, even. It’s worth us examining for a second that there are ways that this technology can be leveraged not for the benefit of us all, but for the benefit of just a few people, and what can we all do to try to make it go in the right direction.
There’s a line in Snowden that references the thing that we should really be worried about in the future of terrorism is cyberwarfare. Where do you see the line between fighting against future threats like that and also protecting civil liberties at the same time?
Often times those causes are aligned. In fact, by ensuring our civil liberties we are also ensuring better security against hackers and such. This is one of the things Snowden is always talking about with his Freedom of the Press Foundation, which is coming up with technological solutions to protect the privacy and the ability of journalists and citizens to communicate.
At the Snowden Comic Con panel, Oliver Stone spoke out about the amount of data mining a game like Pokémon Go is collecting. What are your thoughts on everything from games to music companies accessing personal information?
It’s something we should be aware of. Before doing this movie I never really thought about it when I would check the box and agree to terms of service if I was joining something new on the internet. I never really thought about what I was agreeing to. And nowadays I do think about it for a sec, which isn’t to say that I’m actually capable of reading all of that legal language in those agreements. Frankly, that’s a custom that we should shed … this thing where companies present us with these contracts of legalese and expect us just to agree without really explaining in plain language what the contract says. I don’t think that’s cool, and it’s worth us trying to get an understanding of what we’re agreeing to.
One question I always ask myself now when I join anything or I agree to anything on the internet is “How is this company making money?” They all make money. They all offer things for free, and that makes it sound cool because I don’t need to worry about the money. But nothing is for free in this world. There is no free lunch. So it’s worth paying attention to how this company is making money off of me. I’m not saying that any particular company is doing anything bad, it’s something we should be aware of because we shouldn’t just let this stuff slip by us without examining it. The only way we’re going to make sure that the internet evolves in a positive and beneficial direction is if we all take some responsibility to think about these things.
Snowden hits theaters nationwide Friday, September 16.