STORY WRITTEN BY AMY LONGSDORF
For Digital First Media
Even though Shailene Woodley has been an acting pro since she was ten years old, she didn’t get her first iPhone until she turned 18.
By then, she was savvy enough to wonder about how the device would impact her privacy.
“I’m not a technological person and I remember the first time I got an iPhone, I was, like, ‘Oh, I bet they’re going to record [me with] this’ and, ‘I bet people can see through this camera.’
“I sort of joked about it. I’m sure [everyone] has had those moments as well, [joking] about Big Brother watching. You make fun of it.”
As it turns out, Americans’ lack of privacy is far from a laughing matter. In 2003, an NSA agent named Edward Snowden leaked thousands of classified documents to the media which proved that the U.S. Government was recording the cell phone calls of everyday citizens.
Woodley says the news of Snowden’s leaks registered strongly with her.
“When Ed released the information that he disclosed, it hit me with a certain gravitas of, ‘This is real! This is real life! This is not just a suspicion or a hypothesis any more. This is validated.’”
Given her interest in Snowden, it’s not surprising that when she discovered Oliver Stone was making a biopic about the former NSA agent, she wanted to lend her support.
“When I heard that Oliver Stone was making this movie, I actually wrote him a letter,” says the actress.
“I did ask to audition for it but the point of the letter wasn’t to be a part of the movie; it was just to say, ‘Thank you for making a movie like this.’”
Stone was impressed with Woodley’s moxie and cast her in “Snowden” opposite Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays the title role. Woodley plays Lindsay Mills, Snowden’s girlfriend who, these days, lives with him in Russia, where he fled before being charged under the 1917 Espionage Act.
The film, which is based on two non-fiction books about Snowden, co-stars Melissa Leo as documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, Zachary Quinto as journalist Glenn Greenwald and Tom Wilkinson as Ewen MacAskill, a reporter for The Guardian, the newspaper which helped report the Snowden story.
Woodley knew from the get-go how controversial a movie “Snowden” would be.
“When you go on the street, half the people have very strong opinions that [Snowden] is a traitor, while the other half think he’s a hero,” notes the actress, 24. “Everyone has all these very strong opinions about a man that we actually know nothing about.”
Woodley believes that the movie will interest audience members curious about Snowden’s barely-known backstory.
“The thing that I fell in love with about the script is that for me, as someone who did a lot of research on the information that was disclosed, I didn’t know that Ed Snowden was a conservative before he was more liberal,” says Woodley.
“I didn’t know that he wanted to be part of the military before he had any interest in joining the NSA or CIA. [Being an agent] wasn’t on his radar. It was sort of a Plan B.
“We are so quick to judge in our society but so often we are only being fed one narrative, and with Ed Snowden, we’ve only been fed the narrative of mainstream media and independent journalists.
“We’ve never had the luxury of being fed the narrative of the historical events that led him to do what he did. I think that’s what this movie does. Thinking back to the first time I heard his name and the effect it had on me to now, my judgments and beliefs have shifted a little bit because I understand the backstory. So there’s a certain sense of empathy that I didn’t have before.”
In the months leading up to filming, Gordon Levitt and Stone met with Snowden for more than four hours in Russia. Woodley was unable to meet Lindsay until well into the movie’s production.
For the most part, the actress did her homework the old-fashioned way: by reading books and hitting the Internet.
“I read a lot,” she says. “I felt like such a stalker at the time. I was like, ‘If anyone hacks my computer, they’re going to see that I’ve reached back into Lindsay’s years from 2009 on.
“I read every single blog post that she had ever posted, and every single social media feed. I Googled the heck out of all of her photography. There’s only so much you can put together of a person [from these sources] but I feel like we tried our hardest to capture the essence of who she was.”
A native of California, Woodley enjoyed her acting breakthrough in 2008 when she played the title character in ABC Family’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” She made her film debut three years later opposite George Clooney in the acclaimed dysfunctional drama “The Descendents.”
Since then, she’s starred in one hit movie after another, including “The Spectacular Now” with Miles Teller and “The Fault of Our Stars” with Ansel Elgort. She’s also the main attraction in the “Divergent” films, playing heroine Tris Prior.
Amazingly, “Snowden” marks the first time that the 24-year-old Woodley has played a traditional “girlfriend” role in a movie.
“It was nice,” says Woodley. “It was difficult, actually. [I only had] eight or nine scenes. You have to continue progressing the story and move the plot along, while also developing your character and staying strong in that character even as you’re jumping through different time [periods].
“It was difficult for all of us. … Joe and Oliver and I wanted to those scenes to [be] truthful and authentic, yet also display all the different variables that needed to be displayed. It was an interesting experience but it was fun. It was a good challenge.”
In the end, Woodley believes that in addition to being a crackerjack thriller, “Snowden” also works as a romance between two people willing to sacrifice for their love.
“I’m just an actor pretending to play Lindsay Mills and Joe is just an actor pretending to play Ed Snowden but I constantly have to reflect on the fact that Lindsay Mills is a real woman who is now living in Russia because her boyfriend of over a decade is exiled and his passport has been revoked.
“Their love is great enough [that she has] sacrificed whatever comforts she may have experienced in America to live in Russia with him. That’s something that I thought about through this whole process.
“I also recognize that this is not an historical event. This is an event that is happening in real time, that’s very relevant to the point that as we now speak, [Snowden and Mills] are in Russia right now, wondering what the fate of their lives will be when his asylum is up in Russia.”