It’s only right that Emmy-winning actor and comic Patton Oswalt will next be seen in “The Circle,” James Ponsoldt’s big screen adaptation of the popular Dave Eggers novel of the same name, which dives deep inside a nefarious internet company that values knowledge above all else. Oswalt has long been a prolific presence on the web, thanks to his amusing Twitter account and a Facebook page that he frequently uses to get both personal and political.
In the film, Oswalt plays Tom Stenton, the somewhat shadowy COO of The Circle, a powerful social media operation that exploits bright-eyed new staffer Mae (Emma Watson). When she joins the sprawling corporation, she’s soon sucked into some of the more ambitious ideas hatched by Stenton and visionary Steve Jobs-type Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks). Turns out, the internet can be a scary place, and privacy just might be the last real frontier. IndieWire spoke with Oswalt about his own unique life on the internet, how he combats fake news and his hopes for a still-uncertain future (one that probably doesn’t include Bill O’Reilly).
You’re someone who is prolific on the internet and has embraced its changing nature. Did this film change how you feel about the web?
I don’t know if it changed how I felt about the internet as it is, it certainly made me think maybe it’s the seemingly benign stuff, the over-connectivity that might end up being the problem with the internet rather than the stuff that seemed to be the problem. The stuff that’s a problem right now, the racist trolling and stuff like that is such an obvious [problem], probably because it’s so ugly.
But maybe, the problem down the road is going to be something that seems beneficial right now.
Did this film make you more nervous about the future?
Well, I’ve been nervous about the future since November of 2016, but yeah, there’s definitely some parallels with— again, it’s not even the parallels with what’s going on now that make me afraid. The thing that the film brought up was, “What are the things that we’re missing that are sitting here in plain sight?” We don’t even know. There’s things we’re concerned about because we can see them. What are the things we’re not seeing?
How are you handling those kinds of anxieties in a changing world?
What I’m doing is, I’m looking at what good things are being elbowed out of the way because of these bad things that are coming up, and what can I do to keep the light on them and keep them going. A lot of the stuff that is being kicked loose and brought to light and is dominant right now, I don’t think any of it can sustain that level of hatred and just reactionary venom. It tends to burn itself out.
The danger is that you become confident and comfortable that that stuff will burn itself out, but in the process of burning itself out, it also gets rid of a lot of the good stuff. You weren’t there tending the good stuff and making sure that it was still healthy for when it was time for that to come back. That’s kind of what I’m focusing on.
Obviously, that brings to mind what’s going on now with the allegations against Fox News and Bill O’Reilly.
You know what I hope the positive thing that comes out of Bill O’Reilly being fired by Fox? Everyone is so outraged that this was going on for 10 years, and yes, unfortunately, change of this nature takes a long time. Everyone is so used to [creating] a hashtag campaign and something changes. You talk to the Civil Rights workers of the ’60s or the people that were on Gay Rights in the ’70s, and it was a day-to-day struggle with days that felt like there was no victory or end in sight. It’s the people that keep to it that make the change.
I think that people think that Trump is going to say some horrible outrageous thing and the very next day he’s going to be impeached. It’s like, no, Watergate took years. Look at the ascendant right-wing fringe, these people have been hammering away for two decades. Look at the people that are in the White House now. These are people that were over and out. “Their career is done, blah, blah, blah.” And they just would not stop. They were hammering away at something evil and got something evil through.
So if they can hammer away at something evil and get it through, then you can hammer away at something good and get that through as well.
Have you been heartened by the continued efforts of people, especially millennials, over the past few months?
It’s also really interesting how, I think since the election, Millennials have had their eyes opened to the fact that, “Hey, these seemingly bullshit local alderman or local senate race, actually that shit is really crucial.” That’s how the Republicans built their power base. Now we gotta start doing that. That’s been very, very heartening to see. It’s the so-called boring, un-sexy races where you actually start to make change.
A lot of the criticism of millennials sounds to me more like a prayer on the part of Gen X and older, entrenched conservatives. In other words, they’re trying to put this persona on them because, if that is how they are, then the status quo will stay the way that it is. The exact same things were said about Civil Rights marchers and Peace Marchers and things like that. “Oh, these guys are immature. They have no attention span. They can’t keep this going.”
They were saying in that in a hopeful way, like, “Please let this be how they are, because otherwise if they actually are as tenacious as a cockroach, then shit is going to change. It’s going to be bad for us.” It’s the same parroted shit about millennials. All of the negatives that are said about millennials are negatives that if they’re true, then they will benefit people in power.
How do you consume your news?
Twitter has become very, very good at pointing me towards better sources, just based on the people that I follow. I will go read something at Politico or The Economist or more thoughtful articles rather than something that’s getting a lot of hits.
It’s just like in the right wing publishing world, there is an apparatus in place to make these books “bestsellers” because they have basically machinery that buys the shit and makes it look like it’s selling like crazy. The same economy is happening on the internet, and once you’re able to see through that based on the people that I follow, saying, “No, go read this. Check this out,” that definitely helps.
Does that method help you combat consuming so-called fake news? So many less credible sites are able to game search engines and spread items that just aren’t true.
Again, that’s a survival strategy for them. Maybe you can’t totally dissuade or change people’s minds, but if you can just put enough doubt in people’s heads, you can keep your creepy shit going. That’s why there’s billboards still in the deep South, not even in the deep South, in any red area North or South, you know: “Abortion causes breast cancer,” blah, blah, blah.
Obviously, even they don’t believe that abortion causes breast cancer. They just need to create a little bit of doubt, and then that’s how they can get their shit in there.
You’ve always been so active on Twitter and Facebook and other social media platforms. Have you ever considered giving them up?
Between June 1 and Labor Day, I get off of social media. I’ve done that for a couple years. But my late wife was very, very passionate about Hillary Clinton and about defeating Trump and about progressive women’s issues. Last summer, when I saw all that ugliness going down in the campaign, [I thought], “The platform that I have right now, this summer, I don’t get to take the summer off.”
There’s also been times when I shouldn’t have to have a take on fucking everything. I’d rather live in the moment and have those experiences effect me that way rather than, “Okay, do I have the best joke right now,” or blah, blah, blah.
What does the concept of privacy mean to you?
Well, a really good measure of privacy for me is you getting to decide when your thoughts are shared with the public. You are the one who decides and then you can also fall silent with no explanation for why you did so.
I stop talking and everyone is like, “Let’s sit down and figure out why you’re doing this.” “No, I don’t need to explain shit. I’m just not talking right now. That’s just how it is.”
In a lot of Soviet dictatorships, you were questioned as much about what you weren’t doing as to what you were doing. There was no, “Well, I’m just sitting here and figuring that out for myself.” “No, no, you’re going to figure it out in front of me and we’re going to watch you do this.” That, to me, is what privacy is.
STX Entertainment will release “The Circle” in theaters on Friday, April 28.