September 21, 2023

“You can’t even write stuff like this!”

Spoiler alert! The following story details HBO’s “Reality,” a new film about whistleblower Reality Winner.

Sydney Sweeney is always up for a challenge.

“Honestly, if a character wasn’t difficult for me, I wouldn’t do it,” says the actress, 25, a two-time Emmy nominee for HBO’s “Euphoria” and “The White Lotus.”

“Reality” is no exception. In HBO’s heart-pounding new thriller (now streaming on Max), Sweeney plays the former Air Force linguist and National Security Agency contractor Reality Winner, who was arrested in 2017 on suspicion of leaking a confidential document to the non- profit news site The Intercept. She was found guilty and sentenced to more than five years in prison for the data breach, which helped expose Russian interference in the election of former President Donald Trump.

The real Reality Winner, left, and Sydney Sweeney, who plays her on HBO's

The real Reality Winner, left, and Sydney Sweeney, who plays her on HBO’s “Reality.”

The film is an adaptation of Tina Satter’s 2021 Broadway play “Is This a Room,” which was written verbatim from the FBI transcript of Winner’s interrogation and arrest. The 82-minute film takes place entirely in Winner’s house, with suspenseful moments that are often stranger than fiction.

“I read the dialogue like, ‘You can’t even write this stuff!’ says Sweeney. “I was very intrigued (but also) scared by it, because I knew I wanted to honor the voice of Reality as much as possible.”

Sweeney and writer-director Satter tell USA TODAY about the true story behind ‘Reality’.

The real name of the NSA whistleblower is Reality Winner

The winner’s mother confirmed the authenticity of Reality’s name in early conversations with Satter. “Reality’s father, who has now passed away, got to choose (her) name and said he wanted ‘a real winner,'” Satter recalled. “Her dad was a bit of a character.”

Reality Winner’s Pokemon Bedspread, Personal Quran gave a glimpse of who she was

“It was an exercise for my brain,” Sydney Sweeney says of the dialogue-rich “Reality,” which was shot in just 16 days. “My memory skills are much better now.”

Photos of the actual winner, 31, are featured throughout the film, all of which were provided by her family or taken from social media. (In the most memorable photo, Winner smiles as she holds her pink and black AR-15.) Sweeney and Satter were fascinated by Winner’s eclectic possessions, from her sketchbooks to her punk rock posters.

“Her Pokemon throw, I just loved that,” says Sweeney. “It was such a funny choice for her, and that spoke to her humor and the person she is at home.”

Satter adds: “Her marked Quran was very important to show because Reality has such a broad interest in religion. Her Qur’an was then used against her in her attempts to secure bail, such as, “She had a strong interest in the Middle East!” Maybe it meant something ominous about her character!’ But it was really this intellectual and spiritual interest for her.

Much of the FBI interrogation was about her dog and cat

Josh Hamilton, left, Sydney Sweeney and Marchant Davis perform together

Josh Hamilton, left, Sydney Sweeney and Marchant Davis star together in “Reality.”

For a film about the leaking of classified information, a surprisingly large portion of Winner’s initial interrogation focused on mundane 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. Winner, a gym junkie, stresses that she has to miss an upcoming powerlifting competition and a yoga class she’s teaching. There’s also a lot of back and forth about Winner’s pets and who will take care of them when she goes to jail.

“It’s one of those times when there’s a lot at stake in someone’s life, and there’s almost lightheartedness in the conversation around the dog and the cat,” says Sweeney. “She was an animal lover and a mother to (them). She was responsible for them and she wanted to make sure that whatever happened to her, they would be okay.

She complained about TVs showing Fox News at work

“She has so many interesting layers as a person,” says Sydney Sweeney. “There are so many contradictions about what it means to be a woman, especially in Reality Winner’s shoes.”

The film opens with Winner working in a cubicle surrounded by TV screens blaring Fox News. Later, while being questioned, we learn that she has filed multiple complaints with her bosses about Fox News playing in the office, suggesting that Al Jazeera or “a slideshow of people’s pets” would have been more appropriate.

Trump repeatedly denied that Russia hacked the US election in his favor, even though Winner’s leaked document showed evidence of Russian cyber-attacks against local election officials.

“The repeated denials and lies about things she could literally see — that’s why she chose to share that information,” says Satter.

Winner has said “explicitly Fox News was really intense to happen throughout the day,” notes Satter. “What felt like a very specific news image in her head and workspace made a big difference and was very annoying.”

Reality Winner is now out of jail

Reality Winner, who pleaded guilty to sending a classified US report to a news organization, walks out of court in Augusta, Georgia, in 2018 after being sentenced to more than five years in prison.

Reality Winner, who pleaded guilty to sending a classified US report to a news organization, walks out of court in Augusta, Georgia, in 2018 after being sentenced to more than five years in prison.

In 2018, Winner received the longest sentence ever imposed by federal courts for leaking material 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 is considered the signature indicted in the Trump administration’s espionage bill,” says Satter. “She has received this extremely severe punishment. She was probably made an example at some point, as they wanted to frame that case.

She is “very positive” about the film, but cannot watch it yet

“Reality” director Tina Satter, left, and Sydney Sweeney at a screening of the film in New York earlier this month.

Winner has not yet seen the film himself. “She spoke to us again quite recently and said it’s still too traumatic for her to see and (re)live that day,” says Satter. “But she approves and has been very supportive of me.”

Sweeney also got to watch the film with Winner’s family at the Berlin International Film Festival premiere in February. “It was absolutely incredible,” recalled Sweeney. “Her mother hugged my shoulders and said she had another daughter and that she really saw her daughter in my performance. That 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

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