Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt Compares Snowden to Rosa Parks

Appearing on Tuesday’s NBC Today, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt gushed over playing NSA leaker Edward Snowden in a new movie and even compared the fugitive former intelligence analyst to a civil rights icon: “...he did break the law and he admits that he broke the law, but then there’s examples of people who break the law who aren’t necessarily doing the wrong thing. Like one example I thought of is Rosa Parks.”

Gordon-Levitt continued: “You know, back in her day, it was illegal where she lived for a black person to sit on the front of the bus and she was told to go sit on the back of the bus and she refused. And at that time, that was breaking the law and half the country thought she was a criminal. But we look back and now we're grateful that she broke that law.”

Moments earlier, co-host Savannah Guthrie touted how the actor was “able to go to Moscow and meet with Ed Snowden.” Gordon-Levitt praised the wanted criminal: “Yeah, well, I sat with him in an office....And it's funny because he's always trying to take the attention off of, you know, himself personally and put it on the issues that he raises, which is something that I admire about him.”

Fill-in co-host Willie Geist concluded: “So after you did your research, you came to the conclusion that he had done something good for the country, I take it.”

At the top of the segment, Gordon-Levitt also cheered the film’s left-wing director Roger Stone: “I was just excited and flattered. I’m such a fan, he’s made, you know, JFK and Born on the Fourth of July and Platoon and Wall Street and so many great movies.”

On Monday, his co-star Shailene Woodley was on the morning show to promote the movie and proclaimed: “I just thought it was courageous and brave and really neat that a big Hollywood director like Oliver Stone – he’s the only person who could make a movie like this – was willing to tell a story that was so relevant and happening in real time today.”

Here is a full transcript of the September 13 interview with Gordon-Levitt:

8:47 AM ET

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: We’re back now, it’s 8:46. We’ve got Golden Globe nominee Joseph Gordon-Levitt here. In his new movie, called Snowden, he takes on the role of one of today’s most polarizing figures, Edward Snowden.

WILLIE GEIST: The movie follows Snowden’s progression from a young man who wanted to join the Army after 9/11 to the NSA whistle-blower behind what is considered the biggest security breach in U.S. intelligence history. Take a look.

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: Snowden on the Big Screen; Joseph Gordon-Levitt Plays Fugitive Whistleblower]

UNIDENTIFIED MAN [ACTOR]: Most people already catalogue their lives for public consumption.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT [AS EDWARD SNOWDEN]: Well, they catalogue part of their lives, and they do it by choice. We're not giving them the choice, we're just taking everything.

MAN: Most Americans don't want freedom, they want security. It's a simple bargain. If you want to play with all the new toys and be safe, you pay the price of admission.

GORDON-LEVITT: Except people, they don't even know they’ve made that bargain.

GEIST: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, good morning.

GORDON-LEVITT: Good morning.

GEIST: Good to see you.

GORDON-LEVITT: Thanks for having me.

GEIST: It's hard to find somebody who does not have an opinion, at this point, about Edward Snowden. You’ve heard the sort of the binary debate, hero, traitor. Did you have preconceived notions about him when you heard about this role and walked into it?

GORDON-LEVITT: You know, the truth is when Oliver Stone, the filmmaker, first offered me the job – well, first, I was just excited and flattered. I’m such a fan, he’s made, you know, JFK and Born on the Fourth of July and Platoon and Wall Street and so many great movies. But the next thought I had was, “Okay wait, Edward Snowden, which one’s he? I know I recognize the name but what exactly did he do and why?” And I realized I actually didn't know any of the details, so I had some learning to do.

GUTHRIE: And you actually, as a part of your preparation, were able to go to Moscow and meet with Ed Snowden. What was that meeting like and what were you trying to learn from that meeting?

GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah, well, I sat with him in an office. Him as well as his long-time girlfriend, Lindsey Mills, who’s played in the movie by Shailene Woodley. And it's funny because he's always trying to take the attention off of, you know, himself personally and put it on the issues that he raises, which is something that I admire about him. But because I'm an actor and I'm about to play him in a movie, obviously I am focused on him personally and those little human details of how he walks or how he talks or how he would shake my hand and things like that. That was all really valuable for me.

GEIST: So after you did your research, you came to the conclusion that he had done something good for the country, I take it. Did your idea about him change at all as you went through the process and learned more and got to know him a little bit?

GORDON-LEVITT: Yeah, it's funny. You know, you Google him and you get all these contrary opinions. And a lot of them are – they're really simple. But what I found was it's not a simple story. You know, there’s obviously – you know, he did break the law and he admits that he broke the law, but then there’s examples of people who break the law who aren’t necessarily doing the wrong thing. Like one example I thought of is Rosa Parks. You know, back in her day, it was illegal where she lived for a black person to sit on the front of the bus and she was told to go sit on the back of the bus and she refused. And at that time, that was breaking the law and half the country thought she was a criminal. But we look back and now we're grateful that she broke that law.

GUTHRIE: Let's talk about your preparation because one of the things I really noticed was even in that clip, your voice. You really nailed the voice. He has kind of a distinctive deep voice, but it’s not one that everyone knows. So as an actor, to make that choice, that's a lot to take on. “I’m going to do this movie in a voice that is not familiar to me.” Why did you want to do it and was that an intimidating thing to take on?  

GORDON-LEVITT: I mean, you know, for me, a lot of my favorite actors are the ones who kind of disappear into their character. You don't see the actor on the screen, you see the character that they’re playing. And the character that I was playing was this guy, and you know, you're right, not everyone has seen his interviews or the documentaries about him.

GUTHRIE: So were you listening to them non-stop trying to –

GORDON-LEVITT: Oh, I put them in my earphones on repeat, I slept with them. I just listened and listened.  

GEIST: So he’s got asylum in Russia, he had it extended a couple of years ago. He'd like to come home, he’s said that. Do you think he ever gets that chance?

GORDON-LEVITT: You know, I don't know. But I think the little bit that I've gotten to know him, I think what he cares about more than his own personal life – I mean, that's clear he risked his life to do what he did – is just the fact that, you know, we're having this conversation right now about government accountability, about mass surveillance. You know, what he's always said is mass surveillance might be right, it might be wrong, but it’s a conversation that we should be having as the people. That's kind of what makes America great, is we're a democracy and we all get to kind of have these discussions. And so I think he's glad that, you know, the conversation has just begun.

GEIST: A lot of people talking about this movie, a lot of people can go to see it on Friday. Joseph, thanks so much. Good to see you.

GORDON-LEVITT: Thank you.

GUTHRIE: Thank you.

GEIST: Snowden hits theaters this Friday.

GUTHRIE: Thanks so much.

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