Melissa Leo on Snowden: ‘I’m Very Proud to Be Part of Telling This Story’

The Oscar-winning actress discusses playing Laura Poitras in Oliver Stone’s Snowden.

In director Oliver Stone’s Snowden, Melissa Leo portrays Laura Poitras, the documentary filmmaker whose movie Citizenfour helped break the story of Edward Snowden, a patriotic NSA analyst and hacker who turned whistleblower – and to some, traitor – when he revealed the extent of the U.S. government’s vast PRISM surveillance system, which was mining massive amounts of data on American citizens. With Snowden already a fugitive, Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald (played in the film by Zachary Quinto) went to Hong Kong to meet clandestinely with Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and interview him on camera before he fled to Russia, where he remains to this day after his passport was revoked by the American government.

Leo plays Poitras with a strange calm and very little dialogue, offering comfort at one point to Snowden but otherwise allowing her camera to do the heavy lifting. The actress, who won an Oscar for her supporting work in The Fighter, is almost unrecognizable in Stone’s film, continuing a long string of appearances – in movies and TV shows like Prisoners, The Big Short, Wayward Pines, All the Way, Flight and many others in which she vanishes into her roles. We spoke recently with Leo about her acting methods, working with Stone and Gordon-Levitt, her own thoughts on Snowden and her next role as the woman who led the atheist movement in the U.S.

Den of Geek: When you are dealing with a person who is real and still with us, do you want to seek that person out? I know that you met briefly with Laura. But is that something you would normally seek out?

Melissa Leo: In this instance, not a good idea. The movie is not about Laura Poitras. Had Oliver called and asked, “I want to make a movie about Laura Poitras,” that would have been wonderful, but that’s not what was going on. And Laura is a truly supportive role in the film, whatever she was in real life, great hero and all that. But in the film she is a supporting player.

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So far better for me to be guided by what Oliver needed to tell the Snowden story. Do you see what I mean? Too much information about Laura could have gummed up the works, if I found myself saying, “No, I couldn’t possibly that because,” blah, blah, blah. I could only guess at what kind of angles she went for. I could only guess at how she would have had her camera set in that room from watching Citizenfour. So those were the kinds of trails of real-life information I was taking in. And the chance encounter with her was really just on a personal level of laying in a root, a base, a foundation of confidence that I had, in fact, what seemed to me her permission to play her. That felt important.

Did she give you any insight when you did meet with her in terms of just purely what it was like to be in that room over that period of however many days they were in there and putting him on camera? Just the swirl of emotions and tension and whatever else was happening in there?

I could easily just say, “No, not really.” But there was something at that meeting, and your question reminds me of it. I’m thinking love, but it’s not strong enough. She adores Edward Snowden and feels extremely protective of him. That was obvious as, mostly, the fellas talked with her when we met and I watched them talk about things I know not of.

She doesn’t really think much about herself and her needs. If you see any of her film work, you can see she puts herself in harm’s way all the time to gather her footage. She’s not thinking about herself. And I think in that encounter with Edward, she, in a certain completely platonic, much more familial way, fell in love with Edward Snowden and feels extremely, to this day, very protective of him.

You mentioned before this that an incident that occurred early in your life was the assassination of JFK, and that the government might have had a hand in it. Did that shape you in terms of growing up just having kind of what I would call a healthy distrust of bureaucracies and the government and skepticism about what they are doing? And did that feed into doing this film?

Yes, I am a product of my upbringing. [laughs] I think anybody is, whether you try and walk away from it not. I grew up in a time when there was a lot of unconventional living going on. But my folks were pretty early in that movement of unconventional living. So I really did grew up in the East Village in New York City and then in southeastern Vermont surrounded by alternative thinking people through every moment of my upbringing. The sorrow today is, although I was able to tell my mom I was going to work with Oliver Stone, she’s no longer with us to see the result of that work.

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I’m sorry to hear that.

I know she would be very, very proud of me playing Laura Poitras. It’s good. It’s a tribute to her in another kind of way.

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I know when I was growing up there were Oliver Stone movies that actually did shape my thoughts about the world — JFK, Wall Street, Platoon. Were there any of his early films that really mean a lot to you personally?

My experience of film is not the experience of filmgoers. I’m not much of a filmgoer. When I see films I don’t really remember them all that well and I can mix them up very easily and think I haven’t seen something that, in fact, I had seen just last week! [laughs] But when I was at SUNY Purchase studying acting with a slew of wonderful actors — Ving Rhames, Stanley Tucci, others you never got a chance to hear of yet — a lot of the guys wanted a part in Platoon. And a lot of them were stepping down to New York City to try and get in on the auditions.

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So the notion of now, all these years later, being invited by Oliver to work on one of his films felt, to me, an inclusion in a society that I have always wanted to be a part of. And to have this now on my résumé of an Oliver Stone…that in itself is just remarkable. And as Zach has pointed out again and again, I have to concur with that notion of “this film in particular,” because it’s such a Stone project, the subject and the way he tackles it. So, super proud to be a part of it. Amazed that I was asked. Delighted.

What was your own learning curve in terms of the real-life story of Edward Snowden? What did you know going into this? What do you know now coming out of it?

I guess when one does a fictional tale and does this sort of press work on it, it’s easier to talk about because it’s so much about the acting and the work and the character. And I know so little about the real world. I really choose, especially at this point in my 50s, to live in a world of my fantasy/pretend/make-believe. It aids and abets my work better than being distracted by the outside world.

You probably sleep better at night, too.

I can sleep at night! Exactly. A few hours, a few moments on the radio in the morning of what’s going on out there. And then I just cannot listen anymore. It hurts me too bad. I think it’s all nonsense. So I don’t pay that much attention.

So I think from my experience, and I think it’s…maybe I’m glad you are asking, maybe because it’s sort of a private delight and it connects back to the other question you asked. Coming from where I come from, to be asked by Oliver to have this role in this film for him, it just feels like a way of participating in that world I’m so afraid of that makes some sense to me. And that’s more the way that I can honestly come at that kind of question than really any notion of what I thought.

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[Regarding Snowden] I probably thought something along the lines of, “So what’s new?” I have a big problem when “Papa” is standing in the room saying, “Don’t do that,” and then he goes and does it. That confuses this child. So I’m very proud to be a part of telling this story. If somebody said, “Hey, dad’s not behaving well. I think we should talk about it.”

I’m going to say something to you and I  hope you take it as a compliment. My wife and I will watch movies, and my wife will say, “Wow. Melissa Leo was great in that movie.” And I’ll be like, “That was Melissa Leo?” Because I think of you as disappearing physically so much into your roles that you look so different from film to film. Is that something you make a point of doing?

Somebody told me once that De Niro — I think it was actually his hairdresser that told me this — has never had the same hairstyle in any two films. It’s an interesting little factoid. It sounds to me rather on purpose, of something he and his hairdresser are working on.

I don’t know that I’ve ever done that so much on purpose. I haven’t led my life and work. My life and work has led me. It just interests me more. I learned in acting school you cannot leave yourself behind. You are the tool. You are the instrument. So Melissa will be present in every character whether you recognize her or not. But I love when somebody finally sees my brown eyes and goes, “Oh my god!” Or hears my voice. And I’ve been told several times my voice is the most recognizable.

My dad, when I played a character on Homicide years ago, Sister Kay Howard, my regular character, my father didn’t recognize me. So don’t feel bad. I take it as an extreme compliment. It’s not what I’m meaning to do. But it is a part of what I do. I don’t work on bringing myself into the role, because I know I will be there. I work on: what are those things that are far away from her? I asked Oliver again, and again, and again did he want me to come with my long red hair, which is what he hired me as, or did he want me to dye my hair and come with Laura’s long brown hair? I asked again, and again, and again. I was very happy when I finally got the call a couple days before I left New York to fly to Hong Kong that, yes, he wanted me to dye my hair brown.

You are playing (founder of the American atheist movement) Madalyn Murray O’Hair next in The Most Hated Woman in America. That’s got to be interesting. Not controversial at all.

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[laughs]  I think it will be a total eye-opener for people. If people know who Madalyn was, they know that she’s the woman who took prayer out of public school by making the Supreme Court do it back in the early ‘60s. The truth of that tale, the “In God We Trust” on our dollar bills, that’s not something that’s been there since the beginning of time. That’s something that happened in the late ‘50s and ‘60s in this country, in this supposedly land of the free.

And Madalyn got up there on a soapbox and she liked it and continued. So I play Madalyn from 36 to her death close to 80. It was shot in 18 days. I haven’t seen it yet, but it was an extraordinary thing to be a part of. There’s a lot about Madalyn, especially the end of her life, that nobody knows about. I really hope to reveal that. And I hope to have some eyes opened as to who she is and what is this country that we live in today.

Snowden is out in theaters today (September 16).

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