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Reality: How Euphoria’s Sydney Sweeney transformed into America’s most unlikely whistleblower

Jul 12, 2023

Before she was accused of betraying her country and sympathising with terrorists, the former US Air Force Intelligence translator-turned-whistleblower Reality Winner doodled anime cartoons in her notepad and slept under a Pikachu bedspread. She believed in her country's freedoms and its potential, which is why she says she leaked a classified National Security Agency report into Russian interference in the 2016 election. She despised Donald Trump, yet you’d also have to pry her massive, pink and black AR-15 from her cold, dead hands. If there was a guidebook for Americans on how to adopt coherent, easily decipherable political stances that make for clear-cut film adaptations, Winner had never read it.

"Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning were ready to burn the whole thing down," explains playwright and filmmaker Tina Satter, who has made her directorial debut with a movie drama based on Winner's arrest. "But it was hard for Reality to be [claimed] by either political side. She’d served in the military and owned a bunch of automatic weapons. She had the profile of – in a very general way – a Republican patriot. But then she’d taken this other action, going against the government and against Trump. So she wasn't a clear fit. She holds all these complexities."

Up until the moment when Winner was given the longest prison sentence in American history for leaking government information (five years and three months), the most interesting thing about her was her name. It was a half-joke that her father hoped would become a prophecy: a real winner at life, someone might one day say. But then 2017 happened, and Winner's life became defined by her apparent treachery. Working as a translator for an NSA contractor in Georgia and fatigued by the Trump administration, the then 25-year-old printed top-secret documents that exposed Moscow's interference in the presidential election, stuffed them into her leggings to bypass her office's security, then mailed them to a news website.

Reality, which boasts a de-glammed and almost revelatory performance by the Euphoria star Sydney Sweeney as Winner, picks up from there, with the FBI identifying the analyst as the source of the leak and descending upon her home. The film is a tight, suspenseful 83 minutes of ripped-from-the-actual-transcript interrogation – think a history lesson taught by Alfred Hitchcock. Satter, 49, had previously dramatised the transcript of Winner's arrest for the stage, in a play titled Is This a Room that was performed on and off Broadway, but cinema gives it a new dimension: rooms seem smaller, faces loom larger, bureaucratic small talk oozes more menace.

Satter says that it was Winner's resolute normality – particularly in the context of the seriousness of her situation – that sparked her initial interest. "It was utterly irresistible," she says. "She was just a girl. It was a Saturday. She had a gym date later."

Satter hadn't seen Sweeney act before she sat down to watch her audition tape, but friends had vouched for her, urging the playwright to go through her credits. "In The White Lotus and Euphoria, she's almost deceptively good – she has amazing chops." They met up, and Sweeney convinced Satter to take a chance on her. "She’d tell me she’d never quite done something like this, and I saw that she was really up for the challenge of it. She wanted to sink her teeth into something."

Reality told us that it's too much for her [to see the film] and too traumatic to see herself in that moment. She's not ready yet to do that

Tina Satter

Reality was shot over the course of 16 days, largely in the bare backroom of a nondescript one-floor home in Upstate New York, every umm and ahh forensically carried over from the FBI transcript. At times it plays like a horror movie, its blonde hero sliding towards an inevitable fate. More than anything it is a shocking depiction of the consequences of speaking truth to power, and an indictment of American intelligence under the Trump administration and beyond. Barack Obama, it should however be noted, notoriously utilised the Espionage Act – a means to prosecute government employees who’ve discussed classified information with foreign powers or, more commonly, the media – more than any other US president in history.

Winner spent four years behind bars followed by five more months on home release. She is currently living under court-ordered supervision in Texas, an order that won't expire until the end of 2024. After she was released in 2021, Winner declined invitations to see Is This a Room but has had regular communication with Satter, Sweeney and Emily Davis, the actor who played her on stage. Winner's mother and sister have long signed off on Satter's work, too, hoping that both the play and the film will aid in their collective fight for her to be pardoned.

"What Reality told us most recently was that it's too much for her [to see the film] and too traumatic to see herself in that moment," Satter says. "She's not ready yet to do that." She is happy, though, that the film will shine a wider spotlight on whistleblowers and the failings of the Espionage Act. "I’m paraphrasing her a little bit," Satter cautions, "but she's told me that what happened to [her] has happened to other people and that it happens all the time – that imbalance of power – and more often to people who are not white, and who don't have supportive families. And that it's important for our culture to understand that these things go on every single day."

Satter has now been enmeshed in Winner's world for six years, and it's resulted in a shift in her perspective and a new understanding of what it means to fight for your country. "I was kind of the cynical, jaded American artist," she laughs. "Like, ‘ugh – America's humiliating, it's all so terrible.’ But Reality was like, ‘We shouldn't be being lied to – and I can see that it is wrong.’ That's the most simple [description] of what she did. So it made me think that, wow, she actually cares about our country, and how it could be better. And what if I wasn't so cynical? What if I cared more that the state operates in a certain way? What could happen if all of us paid more attention?"

‘Reality’ is in cinemas from 2 June