Sydney Sweeney Delivers a Master Class In Subtlety in HBO’s ‘Reality’


The new HBO film Reality, which is now streaming on Max, is an entirely different kind of role for Sydney Sweeney. For one thing, in Reality, Sweeney’s character is not a Gen-Z youth. For another, there is nothing remotely sexual about her. And yet the Emmy-nominated actor is every bit as compelling as she is on shows like Euphoria and The White Lotus, proving that she truly does have the range.

Directed by Tina Satter, from a screenplay by Satter and James Paul Dallas, Reality takes “based on a true story” to a whole new level. Adapted from Satter’s 2019 stage play, Is This A Room, the movie depicts the real-life FBI interrogation of 25-year-old Reality Winner (played by Sweeney), a former NSA translator who was arrested in 2017 for leaking classified documents to the press. At the very beginning of the movie, viewers are told that all of the dialogue has been taken, verbatim, from a transcript of the actual FBI recording of Winner’s interrogation. It’s a fascinating acting challenge, because nearly the entire movie relies on the performers’ interpretation of real words spoken by real people. Sweeney—who, like her charcter, is 25—more than rises to the occasion.

The movie opens with Reality Winner—and yes, that is her real name, given to her by her father at birth—driving home after a day at work at the National Security Agency. She pulls into her house, and before she can exit her vehicle and put away her groceries, she’s accosted by two FBI agents, R. Wallace Taylor (played by Marchánt Davis) and Justin C. Garrick (played by Josh Hamilton). What follows is an odd conversation that hovers in the strange space between polite pleasantries and simmering hostility. Sweeney is all confused smiles, awkward chuckles, and natural charm, as she valiantly attempts to make small talk with the FBI agents who are searching her house.

Reality movie with Sydney Sweeney
Photo: HBO

But underneath all, Sweeney holds onto a very visceral undercurrent of fear. As we later find out, Winner leaked classified documents detailing the Russian interference in the 2016 election to the press a month prior to her interrogation, so she must have, at least on some level, suspected why the agents were there. She never asks for a lawyer, never raises her voice, and at one point even cracks a joke about her weight. She cooperates fully, with a smile on her face, but Sweeney conveys Winner’s obvious fear through subtle choices: Her eyes darting around the room wildly, or her hands fidgeting relentlessly as she holds them behind her back.

It’s only when she’s confessing to her crime, less than an hour into the interview, that Sweeney lets the fear take over completely. She drops the veneer of politeness. Her eyes fill with tears that don’t fall. You see the gravity of the situation fully on Sweeney’s face, as her character realizes her life as she knows it is over. She swallows back sobs as she calmly describes printing the classified document, smuggling it out of the building, and mailing it to the anonymous tip line at The Intercept.

Then Sweeney really gets to play, because after her confession, the politeness comes back. Director Tina Satter adds a level of surrealism to the scene by distorting the picture and audio, as Winner and the FBI make small talk about Winner’s cat, despite the fact that everyone in the room now knows Winner is very likely going to jail. Suddenly, it’s like a switch flips in Sweeney—with her worst fears confirmed, her fears are now gone. Her tone and body language change completely. She circles the room, and confidently speaks about what she has done. She is no longer a scared young girl, she is a self-possessed woman.

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Sweeney has clearly always been capable of a performance like this, but Reality feels like the first time she’s been given the time, space, and opportunity to fully flex her abilities. Hopefully, she’ll have more opportunities like it to come—like in her upcoming crime thriller Americana, which premiered at South by Southwest earlier this year. Reality proves Sweeney is clearly leveling up in her career, and I, for one, am ready.