‘Winner’ Director Wants to Highlight the Humor, Humanity of Whistleblower Reality Winner | Video

Sundance 2024: Susanna Fogel’s follow-up to “Cat Person” explores how a “funny, vibrant millennial person could become Public Enemy No. 1”

In “Winner,” which premiered Sunday at Sundance 2024, “Cat Person” director Susanna Fogel wanted to explore why an ordinary 20-something named Reality Winner leaked an intelligence report about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections and ended up serving five years in prison for treason.

As Fogel told TheWrap editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman at our Sundance Portrait and Interview Studio presented by NFP, she loved Kerry Howley’s script, which portrayed Winner as “this funny woman who was very much her own person” and “sort of too smart for her own good.”

Kathryn Newton, who plays Reality’s sister, Brittany, was also at the studio, along with costar Danny Ramirez.

“Just the idea that this funny, vibrant millennial person could become Public Enemy No. 1 — how did that happen? Besides just the headline, that was what drew me to it,” Fogel said.

She and star Emilia Jones, reuniting after working together on “Cat Person,” conferred with Winner personally to nail the specifics about her case. Read on for TheWrap’s conversation with Fogel, Jones and Newton below.

Susanna, you don’t think of the film as a comedy?

Susanna Fogel: No, but that there’s humor in it. I think that distinguishes it from most movies that are also a little political. A serious movie about a funny person was what we set out to do, because Reality is funny. Her sense of humor got her into a lot of trouble. Reality is complicated and polarizing, but she’s really lovable.

Why did you decide to cast Emilia Jones as Reality?

S.F.: We just needed someone who could sell her sense of humor and who felt like a real, accessible person and not just a symbol of a thing. 

Emilia, in that moment in the film when Reality is going to break the law, did you have to build up to that in your head? Was that a switching moment or was she just wired that way from the jump?

Emilia Jones: I listened to loads of podcasts that Reality has done and interviews, and I tried to get inside her head in that way. And then, obviously, I spent time with her. But I love that in the script, Reality has these voiceovers. It’s kind of like a monologue in her head. And when I was shooting that scene when she is wanting to have a look [at the classified information], she’s like, “You would want to look, right?” And when I was reading [the script], I was like, “Yeah, I guess I would, I just don’t have the guts myself.”

That’s why I admire Reality. Since doing this movie, I definitely think about things differently. I think some people in life are happy to sit back and let life play out. And there are a few people who want to stand up and they want to question things. Reality wants to improve things and people and situations wherever she goes. That is sometimes a recipe for conflict.

S.F.: Obviously, it changed her life in ways that were very traumatic for her. But also, there’s this teachable moment [about] whether we should take a stand when we see something failing an institution in that way, or whether we shouldn’t. We’re kind of like, “Oh, the institutions are so broken, they’re so broken,” but who’s willing to take that risk [to become a whistleblower]?

You’re sort of at your most ethically and ideologically extreme in your 20s. And you’re defining your character by your ideology. And the stakes for most people are like, getting in a fight with someone on Twitter, not five years in prison.

Watch TheWrap full conversation with the “Winner” team in the video above.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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