Spoiler alert! The following story contains details about HBO's "Reality," a new film about whistleblower Reality Winner.
Sydney Sweeney is always up for a challenge.
“Reality” is no exception. In HBO’s nail-biting new thriller (now streaming on Max), Sweeney plays former Air Force linguist and National Security Agency contractor Reality Winner, who was arrested in 2017 on suspicion of leaking a confidential document to nonprofit 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 movie 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 is set entirely at Winner’s house, with tense moments that are frequently stranger than fiction.
“I was reading the dialogue like, ‘You can’t even write stuff like this!’ “ Sweeney says. “I was very intrigued by it (but also) scared, because I knew I wanted to be able to honor Reality’s voice as much as possible.”
Sweeney and writer-director Satter tell USA TODAY about the true-life story behind “Reality.”
The NSA whistleblower's real name is Reality Winner
Winner's mom confirmed the authenticity of Reality's name in early conversations with Satter. “Reality’s father, who’s now passed away, got to choose (her) name and said he wanted ‘a real winner,’ “ Satter recalls. “Her dad was a bit of a character.”
Reality Winner's Pokemon bedspread, personal Quran gave a glimpse at who she was
Pictures of the actual Winner, 31, are featured throughout the film, all of which were provided by her family or pulled from social media. (In the most memorable photo, Winner smiles while holding her pink-and-black AR-15.) Sweeney and Satter were fascinated by Winner’s eclectic belongings, from her sketchbooks to her punk-rock posters.
“Her Pokemon bedspread, I just loved that,” Sweeney says. “It was such a funny choice for her, and that spoke about her humor and the person she is at home.”
Adds Satter: “Her marked-up Quran was really important to show, because Reality has this wide-ranging interest in religion. Her Quran was then used against her in her attempts to get bail, like, ‘She had a strong interest in the Middle East! Maybe it meant something sinister about her character!’ But it was truly this intellectual and spiritual interest for her.”
Much of the FBI interrogation was spent talking about her dog and cat
For a movie about leaking classified information, a surprising amount of Winner’s initial interrogation was focused on everyday minutiae. When FBI agents arrive at her house in Augusta, Georgia, she asks if she can put away her groceries first so they don’t spoil. A gym junkie, Winner stresses about missing an upcoming powerlifting competition and a yoga class that 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 high-stakes moment in someone’s life, and there’s almost levity to the conversation around the dog and 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 were going to be OK.”
She complained about TVs showing Fox News at work
The film opens with Winner working in a cubicle, surrounded by TV screens blaring Fox News. Later, as she’s being interrogated, we learn that she filed multiple complaints to her bosses about Fox News playing in the office, suggesting that Al Jazeera or "a slideshow with people’s pets" would’ve been more appropriate.
Trump repeatedly denied that Russia hacked the U.S. election in his favor, although Winner's leaked document showed evidence of Russian cyberattacks on local election officials.
“The repeating denials and lies about things that she literally could see ‒ that’s why she chooses to share that information,” Satter says.
Winner has said "explicitly that Fox News was truly, really intense to have happening all day long," Satter notes. "What felt like a very specific news view in her head and workspace did make a big difference and was very aggravating.”
Reality Winner is now out of prison
In 2018, Winner received the longest sentence ever imposed by federal courts for leaking material to the media, and was the first person sentenced under the Espionage Act when Trump took office. She was released from prison in June 2021 on good behavior, and is on probation until November 2024.
“She’s considered the signature person charged in the Espionage Act of the Trump administration,” Satter says. “She did get this extremely intense sentence. She probably was being made an example at some point, in the way they wanted to frame that case.”
She’s been ‘very supportive’ of the film, but can’t watch it yet
Winner has not yet seen the film for herself. “She spoke again quite recently to us and said it’s still too traumatic for her to watch and (relive) that day," Satter says. "But she does approve of it and has been very supportive.”
Sweeney also got to watch the movie with Winner’s family at the Berlin International Film Festival premiere in February. “It was absolutely incredible,” Sweeney recalls. “Her mom hugged my shoulders and said she gained another daughter, and that she truly 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