HBO’s newest original film REALITY isn’t just ripped from the headlines—the film’s dialogue is literally lifted from a transcript of a 2017 FBI interrogation into Reality Winner, a former Air Force member who leaked classified documents about Russia’s interference into the 2016 election to the website The Intercept. The film is directed by Tina Satter, who first staged the story as a play titled Is This A Room in 2019.
In the film, Sydney Sweeney plays the titular Reality, with whom she spoke to at length and worked hard to personify accurately. “I had the constructs of her actual experiences, memories and life, and wanted to make sure that I embodied her as much as I possibly could instead of creating a completely different person,” Sweeney told ELLE.com.
Sweeney, Satter, and the entire creative team worked to maintain and stay true to the story’s reality, lending to the title’s double meaning. Here’s a breakdown of where Winner is now and how much REALITY resembles her real life.
Reality Winner was sentenced to 63 months in prison, the longest for leaking government secrets to the media.
After The Intercept published the contents of the NSA (National Security Agency) file she mailed them—which described Russian hacking of U.S. voting software and phishing emails sent to election officials prior to the 2016 presidential election—Reality was pinpointed as the source based on the appearance of the documents, which were folded and creased indicating that they had been printed in person. Reality was one of only six employees who had accessed the relevant documents, and the only one who had been in personal contact with The Intercept via a personal email.
She was charged with “removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet,” to which she pleaded not guilty. After a trial in which she was repeatedly denied bond, she changed her plea to guilty and was given a five years and three months sentence followed by three years of supervised release, the longest sentencing for leaking classified information.
Her sentencing became politicized when then-President Donald Trump tweeted about the “double standard” of her sentencing compared to the Hillary Clinton email scandal. Many, including Reality’s lawyer Titus Nichols, believed the tweet was primarily taking aim at the Attorney General Jeff Sessions rather than expressing true support for Reality. Despite having voiced her distaste for him previously, Reality wanted Trump to pardon her but no such clemency was awarded.
In 2021 she was transferred from prison to a transitional facility in San Antonio, Texas on account of good behavior. As of December 2022, Reality was still on probation and living in Texas.
The dialogue in REALITY is the exact transcript of Winner’s interrogation.
Before the film even begins, a title card explains that everything we’re about to hear in the film is directly pulled from the real life dialogue between Reality and the two FBI investigators at her home in Augusta, Georgia.
Satter even goes so far as to show parts of the typed transcript on screen while characters are talking to show how she and the actors captured every pregnant pause, every “uhm” filler, and all of the mid-sentence stammering that occurred during the conversation that day. “I think the biggest challenge was the transcript itself,” Sweeney admitted. “There was just so much there. We filmed so much in a single day, and there was a boatload of dialogue all the time where they were talking in circles.”
Certain parts of the real transcript include redacted information—blotted out in thick black marking—which Satter stylized with blurry camera movements and blank screens. Those are some of the few moments in the film where audiences are reminded that they are watching a filmed version of the encounter.
REALITY’s opening scene is a rare addition to the real-life elements of the transcript.
Before FBI investigators arrive at Reality’s suburban Atlanta home, we’re introduced to the young intelligence worker at her drab cubicle. Shot from above, the scene is mundane as Reality sits at her desk pushing paper while Fox News blares on a TV near her. After a while, she gets up and heads home, the camera tracking her through the parking lot and on her drive home.
Satter has been open that the film’s dialogue is based entirely on the transcript, and these opening scenes notably contain no dialogue. While there’s no evidence this exact version of events occurred, the scene sets up a moment late in the interrogation when Reality finally breaks and admits that the continuous cycle of the right-wing news network and disinformation was disturbing to her. “I felt hopeless and seeing that information being contested back and forth, back and forth in the public domain…why can’t this get out there, why can’t this be public?” Reality, by proxy of Sweeney, says late in the film to justify her leak confirming Russian interference in the election.
The real Reality Winner consulted on aspects of the film.
Sweeney told The Hollywood Reporter at the Berlin Film Festival that her research for the role began first with watching interviews of the real subject before she finally got the chance to speak with Reality herself over Zoom. “We had regular contact, and I talked to her about the incident, but also about her life, the people she knew, her home, just about everything I could learn about her that I could draw from as an actor,” said Sweeney. “I’d have her speak for hours, and I would just start mimicking what she would say.” Sweeney also stated that Reality consulted on the wardrobe and with the art department in order to make the visuals as true to life as possible.
Satter also told ELLE.com that she had been in touch with Reality’s family since she first started working on the project. “I’ve been in touch with her family through the process, [dating back to] when I first made the play. At that point, Reality was still in prison and could not speak. She was released in June 2021, by which time I was doing really early prep for the movie, so I was able to start talking to her then,” she explained.
Reality Winner did talk at length about her pets during the interrogation.
A striking aspect of the film is how much Sweeney’s character talks about her pets and engages in non sequiturs about her rescued pet dog and her cat that is often curled up under her bed. It turns out, those aspects weren’t fabricated or exaggerated. “That’s some of the gold of the original transcript,” Satter said. “You can’t write that. It’s so good,” Sweeney added.
Radhika Menon is a freelance entertainment writer, with a focus on TV and film. Her writing can be found on Vulture, Teen Vogue, Bustle, and more.