Snowden: Zachary Quinto opens his eyes to surveillance

The actor tells how portraying the role of Glenn Greenwald in Oliver Stone's film made him more aware of US invasion of privacy.

From left, Melissa Leo as documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as former CIA employee and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, Tom Wilkinson as journalist Ewen MacAskill and Zachary Quinto as lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald, in Snowden. Courtesy Jürgen Olczyk.
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Snowden star Zachary Quinto says that being part of Oliver Stone's film, which tells the story of whistleblower Edward Snowden's efforts to expose the United States government's all-encompassing civilian surveillance programme, was a learning experience that opened his eyes to some worrying practices by his own government.

He admits that he did not pay too much attention when Snowden’s actions first made international headlines in 2013.

“I didn’t particularly follow the story closely at the time, though I was aware of it,” he says. “I think like most Americans, I just figured it had very little to do with me. There was almost a sense that Americans are kind of inured to this kind of news and don’t really take the time to understand how vulnerable all of us are – and I was probably guilty of that myself.”

Once he began working on the film – in which he plays lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald, alongside Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden – and examined the documents relating to the story in closer detail, however, his outlook changed dramatically.

“I began to understand on a much deeper level just how far-reaching and indiscriminate and unilateral these invasions of our privacy were,” he says. “It’s a common reaction to say: ‘They’re not after me – I don’t have anything to hide.’ There’s an assumption that as long as these efforts are designed to combat terrorism then it’s a price worth paying – but that’s a dangerous way of thinking that fosters complacency.

“The interesting, and worrying, side note is that not one piece of information that was collected in this huge operation had any bearing in informing or interrupting any terrorist activity anywhere in the world. The government was just playing on fears and asserting that it was protecting the people when, in reality, there was no greater form of protection as a result of this. That’s been confirmed.”

After making his breakthrough on TV as villain Sylar in superhero drama Heroes, Quinto is now best known to cinema audiences as Spock in the rebooted Star Trek films. Was it a challenge to switch from sci-fi fantasy to portraying a real-life character who is likely to see his portrayal?

“I wouldn’t say it was difficult,” he says. “It was a consideration – but it’s important to remember the function of the character in the context of the movie. My responsibility is very different to Joe’s [Gordon-Levitt] responsibility. If the film was called Greenwald, I’d have had a much bigger job of trying to enter the psyche of Glenn, but as it stands, my part of the movie served as a portal into the flashbacks that really explore the heart of this story and the life of Edward.”

Quinto is perhaps being a little modest, as both he and Gordon-Levitt give performances that intimately capture their subjects – but the actor says that such mimicry is not a priority for him.

“It was enough for me to immerse myself in Glenn’s relationship to journalism, read his book and the articles he’s written, watch the many interviews he’s given and debates he’s engaged in, and to understand that what I needed to convey was the urgency of this situation and his clear motivation to honour the integrity of his journalistic nature,” he says.

“That didn’t require the same kind of immersion [as Gordon-Levitt]. I didn’t even meet Glenn before we started shooting, although I had met him before by coincidence.”

Quinto adds that his co-star even travelled to Moscow where he met the in-exile Snowden for “several hours”.

Director Stone met with the whistleblower “about nine times”, says Quinto. This is a typically meticulous approach by Stone, and Quinto says he is honoured to have worked with the director.

“He’s a legend in his own time,” he says. “I grew up around his movies and he really helped shape my understanding of narrative filmmaking and storytelling.

“The opportunity to work with him was a real gift and he’s incredibly intelligent and curious. He’s collaborative, endearing and complex as any dynamic character should be and I have a real respect for him. I’m really grateful for that.”

Snowden is in cinemas now.