Film

Sydney Sweeney on the Reality of life as a whistleblower

Sydney Sweeney felt the "weight" of playing a whistleblower in new film Reality – but the pressure spurred her on

Sydney Sweeney

Sydney Sweeney. Image: HBO

As calls for institutional scrutiny reach deafening levels across the globe, how whistleblowers are punished by the systems they expose is an increasingly pressing issue. At the age of 25, US Air Force member and NSA translator Reality Winner leaked government intel disclosing Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. For her crime, she received the longest sentence ever imposed for unauthorised release of government information to the media – just over five years in prison. 

Winner’s story is the basis for the tense new film Reality, but the film stays clear of tackling Trump’s victory, electoral transparency and voter data harvesting. For Reality’s star Sydney Sweeney, a rising young actor who’s already gained popularity and acclaim for her roles in Euphoria and The White Lotus, it was a much more human concern. “It was me being able to amplify what Reality went through in that moment. All that weight you felt was truly just me living in it.”

Working with writer-director Tina Satter, Sweeney was keen to show that behind the complex and nebulous discussion surrounding what Winner leaked, the agency of a young woman choosing to alter the trajectory of her life was most compelling. “Tina wanted to show the surreal and in-real-time calculations that Reality had to go through for this life-changing moment, instead of making it a headline or about a political party,” she explains.

Reality unfolds in real time as FBI agents gradually fill the walls of Winner’s modest Georgia home, with two lead agents Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Taylor (Marchánt Davis) bearing down on her in conversational but firm tones. “I wouldn’t have been able to pull off my performance without them,” Sweeney says of Hamilton and Davis. “I give so much credit to them.”

Sydney Sweeney wSydney Sweeney, Josh Hamilton and Marchant Davis in Reality
Sydney Sweeney with co-stars Josh Hamilton (left) and Marchant Davis in Reality. Image: HBO

Sweeney, previously best known for three-dimensional characters fluent in the histrionics of high school, is tremendous as a woman who feels nerve-shredding consequences creeping up on her. Every actor had the unenviable task of relaying the exact words recorded in the FBI transcript from Winner’s arrest. Sweeney wasn’t just playing a real person, but saying exactly what she said on the most eventful day of her life. Instead of finding it prescriptive, the fixed record of the language offered something to grasp onto.

“Everyone looked at [the script] in a very religious context, wanting to honour this moment as much as they possibly could,” she says. “The words were definitely a lifeboat.” But she only got to this point after meeting with Winner herself. “When I first read it, I felt like I was in this box. I was trying to figure out how to find the freedom within it, because I’m usually very free with my dialogue and characters. And then after I actually spoke with Reality, I went back and reread it, and I saw so much of her in it. It just flowed and rolled off my tongue so much easier. I saw her humour, I saw where she was trying to completely redirect a conversation. It completely switched in my mind.”

Most of the action takes place in a bare, ugly back room of Winner’s home – an oppressive, liminal space where her life is upended. The narrative’s growing, tangible momentum existed as well in the shooting schedule. “We filmed the whole movie in 16 days, which is quite quick for a film. We started outside with all the exterior work, and then we moved into the room and finished there – I want to say we were there for like seven or nine days?” Sweeney says. “The more time we spent in the singular room, it felt like the walls were closing in. The weight of the experience that this woman went through felt heavier and heavier.”

This weight is complicated by the fact that at the point where Sweeney’s script ends, a real woman was taken into custody with no clue when she’d be released. Sweeney treated the responsibility the way she does any role: “I approach all my characters in a very similar manner where I build these character books for them. I build their entire life from the day they’re born to the first page of the script. Their memories, a timeline of their life, relationships. I did that for Reality as well, because I look at all my characters as real people that live in a TV screen. I just had someone to actually bounce off of for her timeline and memories.”

Last week saw the release of the long-awaited Durham report, which was critical of the FBI’s decision to launch the investigation, concluding that overall it “lacked rigor”. 

Sydney Sweeney doesn’t imagine where the audience’s sympathies lie with her characters (“All of that is like outside noise”), but one audience reaction to Reality did get to her. At the film’s Berlin premiere, Sweeney clocked Winner’s real mother and sister sitting behind her. “Towards the end of the movie, her mom leaned over and grabbed my shoulders, just crying. She said that she just gained a daughter and she truly saw her daughter on screen. That was the most moving, powerful thing that someone could say to me.” 

Realising who was sitting behind her sounds more terrifying than any FBI interrogation. She laughs, “I definitely took a very big inhale.” 

Reality, starring Sydney Sweeney, will be released in UK and Irish cinemas on June 2

Rory Doherty is a critic and filmmaker

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income

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