The real-life story of Reality Winner’s arrest unfolds as such a sharp piece of on-the-nose political theater that it almost seems to have been dramatized. On June 3, 2017, the FBI showed up at the former Air Force member and NSA translator’s house to question her about a leaked document that they’d traced back to her. Over the course of the interrogation — during which the agents did not read the ex-intelligence specialist her Miranda rights and during which she refrained from requesting a lawyer — Winner’s composure gradually deteriorated. She was arrested under suspicion of releasing an intelligence report that detailed Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections before being sentenced to five years and three months in prison, the longest ever for the crime.
Tina Satter’s subsequent dramatization of the arrest — first in 2019’s play “Is This a Room” and now in the HBO film “Reality” — pulls directly from the transcript of the actual conversation. Starring Sydney Sweeney as Winner and Josh Hamilton and Marchánt Davis as FBI agents Garrick and Taylor, “Reality” strings the film’s tension through details that would seem mundane in real life. Inadvertent stuttering, repetitive questions and even the act of putting groceries in the refrigerator build around the film’s central conflict.
Davis, whose previous credits include “The Day Shall Come” and Broadway productions “Ain’t No’ Mo’” and “Good Night, Oscar,” chatted with Variety about the filming process, his preparation for the role of agent Taylor and working with Satter.
How did you become involved with this project?
I actually auditioned for the Broadway production back in 2021. That’s when I first met Tina. After reading the transcript, like most people, I had a lot of questions about what happened that day. I ended up not doing the Broadway production because I was not ready to go back to the stage. So when it came time to do the film, I got a call — like, “Hey, you remember that thing?” And I was like, “Yeah.” And they’re like, “Well, they’re making it into a film.” And I’m like, “Really?” They were like, “They want you to do it,” and I was like, “Really?” That’s how it was thrust into my sphere.
What research did you do to prepare for your role?
Understanding all the logistics was like the first thing, understanding why they didn’t read her Miranda rights. So I consulted with a friend who was a former FBI agent, who talked to me about the kind of interview that they were conducting. This kind of interview would be called a noncustodial interview, which means at any point during the interview, Reality Winner could have walked away. Our job was just to on that day was to gather to interview her and gather information. Then there was another team that would come along called the Evidence Response Team. They would come in and get all the evidence.
For me, it was really about understanding what the hell we had to do — the basic nuts and bolts of what my job is on that day, all the information on what I don’t know. Then it becomes about the interpersonal relationships and how you play off this other person to get the information that we have out of the person standing across from us.
What was your specific approach to your character?
One of the most liberating parts about this is that Reality describes him as a “40-something-year-old white guy with a beer belly.” I’m not that. That is a bit liberating that you put a black body in this space, and so you open up the lens in which people start to see this and navigate this world and the lens in which this character has to navigate the world. Taylor is approaching it from a different stance than Garrick and he’s just trying to do his job the best he can, because he can’t fail — which is why sometimes it might come across as being like bad cop to Garrick’s good cop. But ultimately, he can’t fail in doing this job.
How did that directly affect the dynamics of your performance?
All of it comes out of understanding the given circumstances, understanding what the job was, and how my body — along with this body next to me — will get that job done. Physically, I’m much different looking than than Josh, and so what I have at my disposal is different than what he has at his disposal. Then you infer from that information, then the information that’s on the page. Then there are the things that are in between.
One of the questions I asked off the bat was, “Were their weapons disclosed or undisclosed?” That was one of the things that differed from the original Broadway production, because in the Broadway production, you could see the weapons, whereas when we asked that question of Reality, she said she did not recall seeing a single weapon that day. So I go, “Oh, that’s great for us,” because then that means if she didn’t recall seeing a weapon that day, that means these guys went in knowing that they wanted to be as disarming as possible. Then you infer — If they went in knowing that information, how then do you behave off that information?
What was it like working with Tina Satter?
Wonderful. I’m the kind of actor that asks a million and one questions. She welcomed those questions that allow us to get as specific as possible with some of the more nuanced details of the day. Then she got as specific as possible with some of the nuanced details, like [Reality’s] bedspread. There are probably other knickknacks and things throughout the house that you notice that were there on the day.
What sort of projects do you want to tackle next?
When it comes to film, the things that have been popping are the things that are politically driven, I find. I really enjoyed that, because I think I have a finger on the pulse of things that are happening, so it’s fun to be part of projects that are doing the same. Moving forward, I would love to continue that trend — not so much political, but just projects that have a finger on the pulse of what is happening.
Which directors and writers do you think have their fingers on the pulse of what’s happening?
Jesse Armstrong. Episode three, season four [of “Succession”] was one of the best episodes of television I’ve ever watched. I don’t know how he got me to feel for those people specifically. I was about to turn off the TV and I was in tears. I love Boots Riley. I love everything that he’s done. I think he’s phenomenal. There’s some episodes of TV that have really crushed me. Peter Hoar directed an episode of “The Last of Us” that had me in fucking shambles. Then there’s a friend of mine, Zoey Martinson. We shot a short. I hope that after “Reality,” we can make it happen after this strike is done.
This interview has been edited and condensed. “Reality” is available to stream on Max now.