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.”
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.”