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How actress Jean Seberg became a target of the FBI


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Now: The life of a star of the silver screen becomes the subject of a new movie.

Jeffrey Brown explores the drama behind the camera and how secret FBI surveillance is brought to light.

It's the latest in our ongoing Canvas series on arts and culture.

Jeffrey Brown: American actress Jean Seberg was best known for her role in the film "Breathless," a classic of the French New Wave cinema. In it, she plays the American girlfriend of a French criminal.

The film helped make Seberg a global star.

Now comes the new film "Seberg," directed by Benedict Andrews.

Benedict Andrews: We have a couple of moments where we copy Jean perfectly, the famous ending of "Breathless" where she stares down the barrel of the camera, and it's a defining moment of modern cinema cafe.

Kristen Stewart from the "Twilight" saga and, more recently, "Personal Shopper" and "Charlie's Angels," portray Seberg.

Kristen Stewart: I'm saying things that they don't want here. Do you understand?

I really only knew her from "Breathless," Herald Tribune, the T-shirt.

Yes, but all was really struck by that performance. I obviously wasn't around when that movie came out, but I don't think it was a very typical way of performing then. I think that she was so kind of available and present, and in a way that felt kind of radical.

Jeffrey Brown: Radical and vocal, traits that ultimately cost Seberg her career and possibly her life. That is the focus of the new film.

Kristen Stewart: This country is at war with itself in, Vietnam, the oppression of black people in America.

Jeffrey Brown: FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover started a surveillance program to infiltrate and undermine groups the FBI considered subversive and a threat to the political order.

Actor: Who is that?

Actor: Some actress is just grabbing some publicity.

Actor: She has a history of donations to civil rights groups. She's a sympathizer, sir. I think she could be useful.

Jeffrey Brown: In addition to Martin Luther King, anti-Vietnam War protesters, and the Nation of Islam, the bureau also targeted the Black Panther Party.

In a chance meeting during a flight, Seberg met the head of the group's Los Angeles chapter, Hakim Jamal, and through him became a financial supporter of the party and the target of the FBI.

The film dramatizes a relationship between the two that never existed in reality.

Actor: Our job is to cheapen their image in the eyes of the public.

Actor: Seberg, you got to stop. They will destroy your reputation, your career, your family.

Benedict Andrews: We see the same tools that are used to make cinema, the cameras and the microphones, turned against her. And that same private space that is so precious in her and so open becomes attacked by the state because of her idealism and her politics.

And I was fascinated by what happened to this woman. How did she survive that? What does it take to destroy someone's truth?

Jean Seberg: Good morning.

Man: What's your name?

Jean Seberg: My name is Jean Seberg.

Jeffrey Brown: A native of Iowa, Seberg got her start by chance, winning a talent contest, beating some 18,000 hopefuls and getting cast as Joan of Arc in Otto Preminger film "Saint Joan."

That success led Columbia Pictures to put her under contract, eventually casting her in roles opposite major stars like Burt Lancaster in the film "Airport."

Jean Seberg: They been pressuring me about that transfer to San Francisco.

Jeffrey Brown: So you're an actress playing another actress.

What did you see in her that suggested a kind of an openness, a different kind of acting?

Kristen Stewart: I think that she was present. When she was in a place and a time, that's where she was. And there was no amount of preparation that would make her a better actor, that remove the experience of discovery.

Movies do this beautiful thing where they bring us closer together. And I think that it makes total sense that she, from a really young age, always championed the underdog and did it -- did it without any sort of fear.

She was reckless. There was something reckless about her in every aspect. Even her performances feel reckless. I feel like you never know what she's going to do, because she doesn't know what she's going to do.

Jeffrey Brown: In the new film, actor Jack O'Connell plays FBI agent Jack Solomon, who was assigned to follow Seberg.

Benedict Andrews: Jack finds that the what he's involved in is very different from what he set out to do and that actually he's involved in a very dirty, secret, ugly war.

And, for me, the intertwining of those lives, the watcher and the watched, is the kind of glue -- the glue of the storytelling, and for the audience to experience the surveillance thriller, in a way, by the FBI story, but to see the mechanics of surveillance and see that turned against Jean.

Jeffrey Brown: Like Jean Seberg, Kristen Stewart has experienced life as a young star under constant media attention.

Did you feel a connection in that sense of the kind of scrutiny?

Kristen Stewart: I have been saying, like, on a very comparatively superficial level, yes, definitely.

You know, I have never been so viciously attacked in the way that she was. Everyone's impression of is not necessarily going to be the same, and there's not a correct one.

Maybe you can pick up like a certain magazine that you know lies to you, but people kind of typically know that those things are taken -- you know, people take them with a grain of salt or whatever. Maybe some people don't. Who cares? I don't like really care.

But to have lies spread about you is so vicious.

Jeffrey Brown: "Seberg," the film, is now showing around the country.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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