How Sydney Sweeney embodied the 'multiple layers' of NSA whistleblower Reality Winner
Reality Winner had just pulled into the driveway of her Augusta, Ga., home on a late afternoon in June 2017 when two men approached her car.
They worked for the FBI. They wondered if Winner, a contractor for the National Security Agency and former Air Force veteran, had time to answer a few questions. A few hours and about a dozen agents later, Winner, then 25, was handcuffed outside her home, faced with charges of leaking a damning classified report about Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election of Donald Trump.
Winner's interrogation by the agents, Justin C. Garrick and R. Wallace Taylor, would inspire the verbatim for Tina Satter's 2019 play Is This a Room, an unnerving stage drama that debuted both off and on Broadway that accounts for — in addition to the exhaustive dialogue — every pause, stammer, and cough in the tense 65-minute transcript that would lead to Winner's incarceration under the Espionage Act.
HBO Sydney Sweeney in 'Reality'
Sydney Sweeney, the Emmy-nominated star known for her role as Cassie on Euphoria and Olivia in The White Lotus, steps into the interrogation room as Winner in Reality, Satter's upcoming feature film directorial debut based on her acclaimed play.
Though she wasn't familiar with Winner's story until she read the script, "I was completely blown away because I've never read something that flowed that way, directly taken from a transcript," Sweeney tells EW recently, following the first day of production on Echo Valley, her upcoming Apple film with Julianne Moore.
The role is a contrast to the ones Sweeney has become well known for ("At first they were not sure someone who played Cassie could pull off Reality," she says), but the actor knew it would be a good challenge.
Lily Olsen/HBO Sydney Sweeney on the set of 'Reality'
"There were multiple layers to it that I was fascinated and drawn in by," she explains. "She embodies all of these different contradictions that defy what it means to be a woman, a veteran, a millennial. And then also just the actual situation: the interrogation, the fact that this was a real moment in a woman's life that felt surreal and incredibly tense with huge consequences."
Winner's interrogation — in the movie conducted by actors Josh Hamilton and Marchánt Davis — occurs in an otherwise vacant spare room located in the back of her home, with the film sitting squarely on Sweeney's ever-shifting mannerisms. "At one point it became one giant scene," she says of filming the sequence. "It was a good 50, 60 pages [of transcript]; I think that was the most challenging part. I wanted to honor Reality's dialogue as much as I possibly could." It also helped that she was able to meet the real Winner, who she says was very involved in bringing her story to the screen.
HBO Sydney Sweeney, Josh Hamilton, and Marchánt Davis in 'Reality'
"It was incredible having her involved because it's her story, it's her life," Sweeney says, noting that she was struck by Winner's sense of humor. "When I went back and read the transcript after speaking with her, I saw so much more of her [in it]."
Winner, who pleaded guilty to one count of felony transmission of national defense information, was sentenced to five years and three months in prison in 2018 — the longest sentencing imposed for the charge, per The New York Times. Notably, she was the first person to be prosecuted by the Trump administration under the Espionage Act. Winner was released in 2021 on good behavior and will remain on supervised release until November 2024.
"I am not a traitor. I am not a spy," Winner, now 31, told 60 Minutes in her first post-prison interview in 2021. "I am somebody who only acted out of love for what this country stands for." The public, she says, "was being lied to."
It's a divisive topic, no doubt — but Sweeney stands firm that political affiliations aren't under attack in Reality.
"What I loved about this movie was that we didn't reduce Reality to the headlines," she says. "It can be interpreted through more of a partisan lens in the movie [and] is offering a window into a woman's life and what she went through that day. It's not about left or right, or what's wrong or correct."
Reality premieres May 29 on HBO and Max.
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