When director Oliver Stone called and asked him to play the lead in a movie about Edward Snowden, who exposed massive government surveillance programs, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was excited and nervous.
Not because he was playing a man some have called a hero and others have labeled a traitor. He admits he didn't really understand the controversy surrounding Snowden.
"I was just flattered and honored because I grew up loving Oliver Stone movies," says Gordon-Levitt, a boyish-looking 35-year-old who asks everyone to call him "Joe." "But then I was like, 'Man you know, the truth is I don't really know that much about Edward Snowden...' I looked into it, and one of the first things I noticed is everyone tries to simplify it, but it's not simple. It's just not simple."
That's what Gordon-Levitt, who got his start as a teen on the TV comedy series "3rd Rock from the Sun," wants people to take away from "Snowden," due out in September. This isn't a simple story about a guy wanting to right what he saw as a wrong. Instead, it's about the debate every democracy should have about personal privacy and national security. Gordon-Levitt's research inspired him to donate his salary from "Snowden" to the American Civil Liberties Union and to a video project -- called "Are you there, Democracy? It's me, the Internet." -- created by his online production company.
Gordon-Levitt spoke with CNET News Editor in Chief Connie Guglielmo about meeting Snowden in Moscow, seeing his VR dreams start to come true and why he thinks the internet is in its infancy. Here's an edited transcript of their conversations.
What did you learn about Snowden from your research?
There was this hearing in 2013, before anyone had ever heard of Snowden, [when] a director of National Intelligence named James Clapper testified before Congress and swore to tell the truth. Senator Ron Wyden asked him, "Is the NSA collecting millions of private records of American citizens?" James Clapper said, "No, sir." He was lying. [But] no one had any evidence he was lying until later that year. Snowden provided that evidence.
Here's why that's important to me. I'm not comfortable with someone as important as a director of National Intelligence getting up in front of the world, the Senate, swearing to tell the truth and telling a lie. That's not what this country is about. The whole point of this country -- what's so great about this country, why I'm so thankful to be born and raised in this country -- is the government is accountable to the people.
Whether or not you think mass surveillance is a good idea, whether or not you care that the government is invading your private life -- because some people don't care -- the government shouldn't be lying about it...
If James Clapper had just told the truth, then we could have the debate. That's what a democracy is. We're supposed to have that conversation. For that reason alone, I'm grateful that Snowden did what he did.
I'm sure glad that I was born in the United States, and I know Ed is, too. I know because I talked to him about it. He does not like being in Russia. He wants to come home.
Do you see him as a whistleblower or a traitor?
It's not a simple story. And that's the most important takeaway: Things like this aren't simple, and when we try to reduce them to simple sound bites, it doesn't help anything or anybody. Personally, I believe what he did was really beneficial to our country.
You met him in Moscow before you started filming. Was he what you expected?
I know a fair amount of really techie people, and let's be honest: They'll probably be the first to [admit] they [don't have] the most social skills. They're not always the easiest to connect to on a personal level.
So I was wondering if that's what he's like. [But] I found him really easy to talk to, really warm and very thoughtful...and [someone] who really cares a lot about the future and about his country.
Think about what he did and the dangers he put himself in. It's a little shocking because he seems like just this really nice, sweet guy. [Laughs] He doesn't seem like the kind of guy that risked his life for what he believed in, because when you think of a guy [like that], you tend to think of a big, macho, physical fighter.
You've played some interesting sci-fi characters, from an alien in "3rd Rock from the Sun" to thought-provoking roles in "Inception" and "Looper." What do you like about sci-fi?
I've loved science fiction ever since I was little... I just love thinking about the future and the way technology might change the future. [In] "Star Trek: The Next Generation," whenever they would leave the Starship Enterprise and walk around on a planet, they would be walking around with little computers.
And I remember thinking to myself, "Man, it'd be so cool if I could walk around with a little device that I could just hold in my hand and learn things from it." And lo and behold, this is what happened. I don't know, is that a coincidence? I tend to think that sci-fi sometimes plants the seeds in the minds of the engineers and inventors, who then grow up and build the future.
Do you think people are using the internet to its fullest potential?
We're still using computers the way we used our television or our radio in that we're mostly just consuming. [But] the internet offers enormous potential for people to really come together and work together and be productive. As a culture, we're not used to that yet.
When the printing press was invented in the 1400s, at first all they did was print Bibles, which was revolutionary because Bibles were very rare. But eventually the printing press led to the Renaissance, the invention of science, the invention of democracy and the Industrial Revolution. Some of the biggest, most important things that have ever happened in human history were facilitated by the printing press.
But it didn't happen right away. It took time for people to get used to the invention and start using it in innovative ways. It's going to be the next generation, our kids or our kids' kids, who are going to use computers in a new revolutionary way.
So we'll have to wait and see...?
Becoming a dad makes me very optimistic about the future. The kids being born today, the tech that they're going to grow up with is so fucking cool, I just can't wait to see what they do with it.
You started an online community called HitRecord.org that's trying to change how people collaborate -- kind of a crowdsourced production company. What's your thinking there?
It's a little different than a lot of websites because it's an open community and anyone can join. But the point isn't to just talk with your friends or follow famous people. The point is to work together. A lot of times on the internet, you'll see people saying, "Hey, look what I made. Here's my video or here's my photo or here's my song."
On HitRecord, it's less about "here's what I made" and more like, "Hey, let's all make things together." I'm there directing the creative process, and me and the folks in my office turn the fruits of our collective labor into productions. Then when those productions can make money, we pay the contributing artists. I'm really proud of that. I'm really proud of the stuff we make together.
How did Snowden become a contributor to HitRecord?
Mr. Snowden -- Ed as he calls himself -- contributed to one of our projects called "Are you there, Democracy? It's me, the Internet." It's a bunch of videos about people talking about how technology impacts democracy, for better or for worse.
He was speaking optimistically about how technology impacts democracy and how technology could make the future a better place. I feel like you don't always hear that. He has become a symbol of the downsides of what technology could be, and he often speaks about how technology is misused. It was cool to hear him speak more optimistically. He was talking about energy and education and medicine and how that all makes for a more egalitarian society and a more democratic society.
This is a big year for virtual reality, and I know you're into VR. What's the appeal?
When I was 12, I got to try this really early version of virtual reality. It was a video game thing. You had your headset and a hand controller, not terribly dissimilar to what they have today, except the graphics were way, way more elementary. But I loved it. And I've been waiting since then. When is that gonna come back around? When's that going to be popular? When are we really gonna start seeing the art?
It's exciting, like the way it must have been 100, 120 years ago when motion picture technology was first invented. Nobody knew how to make movies. Nobody knew how to tell a story with this new technology. And that's kind of where we're right now with virtual reality.
How are longer-form, more-complicated stories going to be told? It's exciting because no conventions have been established yet. It's up to us to decide.
What piece of tech would you like invented that hasn't been yet?
They say that it's been invented, but it never really works. They call it Facetime or video chat or Skype or whatever, but that shit never really works. I want a video talking [app] that actually fucking works. That's what I want.