Spoiler alert! The following story features details about HBO’s “Reality,” a new film about whistleblower Reality Winner.
Sydney Sweeney is always up for a challenge.
“Honestly, if a character wasn’t hard for me, I wouldn’t be doing it,” says the 25-year-old actress, twice Emmy nominee for HBO’s ‘Euphoria’ and ‘The White Lotus’.
“Reality” is no exception. In HBO’s biting new thriller (now airing on Max), Sweeney plays former Air Force linguist and National Security Agency contractor Reality Winner, who was arrested in 2017 on suspicion of leaked a confidential document to the non-profit news site The Intercept. She was convicted and sentenced to more than five years in prison for the data breach, which helped expose Russian interference in former President Donald Trump’s election.
The film is adapted from Tina Satter’s 2021 Broadway play, “Is This a Room,” which is scripted verbatim from the FBI transcript of Winner’s interrogation and arrest. The 82-minute film takes place entirely in Winner’s house, with tense moments often stranger than fiction.
“I was reading the dialogue like, ‘You can’t even write stuff like that!’ “said Sweeney. “I was very intrigued by this (but also) scared, because I knew that I wanted to be able to honor the voice of Reality as much as possible.”
Sweeney and writer-director Satter tell USA TODAY the true story behind “Reality.”
NSA whistleblower’s real name is Reality Winner
Winner’s mother confirmed the authenticity of Reality’s name during initial conversations with Satter. “Reality’s father, who is now deceased, had to choose (his) name and said he wanted ‘a real winner,'” Satter recalled. “His dad was a bit of a character.”
Reality Winner’s Pokemon Quilt, The Personal Quran Gave A Glimpse Of Who She Was
Photos of the real winner, 31, are featured throughout the film, all provided by her family or taken from social media. (In the most memorable photo, Winner smiles while holding his pink and black AR-15.) Sweeney and Satter were fascinated by Winner’s eclectic personal effects, from his sketchbooks to his punk-rock posters.
“His Pokemon bedspread, I just loved that,” Sweeney says. “It was such a funny choice for her, and it spoke to her humor and the person she is at home.”
Satter adds, “His Annotated Quran was really important to show, because Reality has this very broad interest in religion. Her Quran was then used against her in her attempts to secure bail, such as, “She had a strong interest in the Middle East!” Maybe it signified something sinister in his character! But it was really this intellectual and spiritual interest for her.
Much of the FBI’s interrogation was spent talking about his dog and his cat
For a movie about leaking classified information, a surprising amount of Winner’s initial interrogation focused on day-to-day details. When FBI agents arrive at her home in Augusta, Georgia, she asks if she can put away her groceries first so they don’t spoil. A gym goer, Winner insists she missed an upcoming powerlifting competition and a yoga class she teaches. There’s also a lot of back-and-forth about Winner’s pets and who will take care of them if she goes to jail.
“It’s such a significant time in someone’s life, and there’s almost a levity to the conversation around the dog and the cat,” Sweeney says. “She was an animal lover and a mother to (them). She was responsible for them, and she wanted to make sure that no matter what happened to her, they would be okay.
She complained about TVs showing Fox News at work
The film opens with Winner working in a cubicle, surrounded by television screens showing Fox News. Later, while being questioned, we learn that she has made several complaints to her bosses about Fox News playing in the office, suggesting that Al Jazeera or “a slideshow with people’s pets” may have was more appropriate.
Trump has repeatedly denied that Russia hacked the US election in his favor, although Winner’s leaked document showed evidence of Russian cyberattacks on local election officials.
“The repeated denials and lies about things she could literally see – that’s why she chose to share this information,” Satter says.
Winner said “explicitly Fox News was really, really intense to take place all day,” Satter notes. “What looked like a very specific news sight in his head and workspace made a big difference and was very annoying.”
Reality Winner is now out of jail
In 2018, Winner received the longest sentence ever imposed by federal courts for leaking information to the media and was the first person convicted under the Espionage Act when Trump took office. She was released from prison in June 2021 for good behavior and is on probation until November 2024.
“She’s considered the signing of the Trump administration’s Espionage Act,” Satter said. “She had this extremely intense pain. She had probably become an example at some point of how they wanted to frame this case.
She’s been ‘very supportive’ of the movie, but can’t watch it yet
Winner has yet to see the film for herself. “She spoke to us again quite recently and said it was still too traumatic for her to watch and (relive) that day,” Satter says. “But she approves of it and has been very supportive.”
Sweeney also got to see the film with Winner’s family when it premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. “It was absolutely amazing,” Sweeney recalled. “Her mother gave me a hug and told me she won another girl and she really saw her daughter in my performance. It was such a beautiful moment to share.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ‘Reality’: What’s fact, fiction in Sydney Sweeney’s shocking HBO movie