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Tina Satter And Star Sydney Sweeney Face Reality In New HBO Film - Exclusive Interview

In 2017, veteran and NSA translator Reality Winner returned home to receive a visit from the FBI. Over the course of a two-hour conversation, Winner eventually revealed to the agents that she was indeed the source of a leak that publicly revealed a concentrated Russian plan to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election. Directed by Tina Satter and adapting her own play "Is This A Room: Reality Winner Verbatim Transcription" — itself a direct adaptation of the interrogation's transcription — HBO's newest original film "Reality" chronicles that fateful FBI encounter.

Starring "Euphoria" alum Sydney Sweeney, the movie is a tense and curious adaptation of perhaps the most awkward arrest in movie history. It's a clever dive into the arrest, showcasing a strong performance from Sweeney as she brings Winner to life on screen. In an exclusive new interview, Looper spoke with director Tina Satter and star Sydney Sweeney about everything "Reality," from its origins in the transcripts to Sweeney's process for capturing the real-life whistleblower.

Capturing the real Reality Winner

This whole situation with Reality was enmeshed in political controversy. It's heavy, and Reality was steamrolled by angry powers-that-be. Sydney, what drew you to this role and this project?

Sydney Sweeney: I didn't know of Reality's story before I got sent the audition, so I had the privilege of being able to enter it without being told a headline or a political view or anything. I looked at Reality as a human being, and that's how I kept my entire thought process throughout it. That's what I also loved about what Tina did with the film: We humanized this experience and this moment in life that, like you said, became so political, and we made it about a person and what they're going through.

That really comes across. It's a complex but sympathetic project. Tina, Reality's leaks had major ramifications, and she was clearly made an example of ... From your perspective — because you adapted your prior project — what would you like audiences to take home from this film?

Tina Satter: To echo what Syd said, [I'd want them to see] that this is this real person. Yes, she's an Air Force vet, but she's at that point just a yoga teacher, doing CrossFit a lot, has essentially a civilian job ... [Reality] was a normal human being and holds all these fascinating dichotomies. [She] does do an action that then vaults her into the geopolitical landscape, but [she] was this very real young person existing in America in 2017, and she did hold these things that are easy to choose to put politics on either side of her, even her interests or her background, or then the action ... but who is that person in the center of it?

[We're] using this particular day as this coming-of-age moment where, because we get to learn so much about her, actually — because she's talking about these details of her life, and Sydney is speaking in Reality's actual words that day — we get this up-close capsule of this human. That was what was so exciting to me about using this content to show this part of Reality Winner's story.

An awkward interrogation of a real whistleblower

Sydney, this is your second time playing a real character, because Snake was based on a real character in "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood." Still, you're well-known for your fictional portrayals. How are your preparation and your process different when embodying a real person like Reality?

Sweeney: For characters like Cassie or Olivia, and mostly all the other ones I've done, I build these books for them that's their entire life laid out in a scrapbook, timeline, journal — anything and everything that makes a person a person. For Reality, I actually had that real person. I was able to speak with Reality, and I filled in all the gaps that usually I create myself. I was able to take that groundwork, put it into my book, build up from that, and then hopefully embody Reality as much as I possibly could.

Tina, it's so interesting that you adapted the transcript directly. It adds an interesting color to it ... It's got to go down as one of the most awkward arrests of all time in parts. How did you go about capturing that awkwardness in performance? It's based on real life, but it seems so surreal.

Satter: Well, it really is in those lines, and the transcript also held all the stutters and the coughs, so for actors and as a director, you get a lot of information out of that transcript. My work was to then bring that information into the screenplay in a meaningful way to help still, so a lot of it is there. Then [I had] conversations with Sydney and Josh Hamilton and Marchánt Davis, who play the other two lead people, of "What is our tone?" and "Let's not ever push anything too far; let's treat these words directly. Let's let its dryness and its weirdness happen as naturally as possible. Let's let this situation play itself out." That was a large part of my directing mandate in our conversations, because I felt it could definitely do its work with these actors treating it very straightforwardly and earnestly.

"Reality" premieres May 29 on HBO and will be available to stream on Max.

This interview was edited for clarity.