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How much did Larysa Kondracki, the co-writer and director of the new political thriller The Whistleblower, want David Strathairn to play a brief but pivotal role in her film? Enough to write a letter to the Prime Minister, asking for an exemption to the rule that limits the number of U.S. actors who can work in Canadian co-productions. (The film also stars Rachel Weisz and Vanessa Redgrave.) Strathairn's character, an internal affairs agent who helps (or does he?) blow the lid off a scandal, "needed a lot of layering," Kondracki said in a phone interview. "It needed to be off-balance, subtle. I knew David could pull it off. And boy, did he ever."

The Whistleblower, which opened in select cities yesterday, is a small-budget movie about a huge, harrowing subject. It's the true story of Kathryn Bolkovac (Weisz) who, while serving as a United Nations peacekeeper in Bosnia, uncovered an entrenched tangle of human trafficking. To her dawning horror (and ours, watching the film), she learned that not only was there a thriving trade in underage girls forced into becoming sex workers; but also, their clients were the very forces who were there to protect them, including local police and UN employees. When Bolkovac tried to alert the UN, her files were closed, she was fired, and the colleagues she'd accused were reassigned. Eventually, she brought a wrongful dismissal case in the British courts (DynCorp, the for-profit contractor who hired her for the UN, is based in England) and won. But the story hasn't received much attention in North America – until now (see sidebar).

"So there I was, writing, 'Dear Prime Minister, you may know David Strathairn's Oscar-nominated work in movies such as Silkwood, The Firm and Good Night, and Good Luck,' " Kondracki said, laughing. " Silkwood is one of my favourite movies of all time. And I love the whole era of seventies filmmaking, all those paranoid thrillers with something to say. David was part of that; he has that prestige and experience. The concept that he was going to do my movie, for scale, was ridiculously great."

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That's the thing about Strathairn – as familiar a screen presence as he is, you feel like you're always seeking him out, always discovering him. No matter who he's playing, he radiates something thoughtful, private, spotlight-shunning. To interview him, I had to wend my way through a maze of corridors in the Toronto studio where he's currently shooting a series, Alphas, for the SyFy network – past the trailers and offices, deep into the set, dressed to look like a Brooklyn office. A wraparound photograph of the Manhattan skyline, lit for night, pulsed outside the "window." It was lunch hour, so all was quiet, except for one unseen crew member wailing away on an electric guitar somewhere in the maze.

Finally, at the centre, there was Strathairn, 62, sitting very still on a sofa. His posture was perfect, his manner shy but cordial. He has a soft, throaty voice, square, elegant hands and a good head of hair, now grey. "I was lucky to have this role find me," he said, with typical modesty. "I read a lot. I like to see what's out there. And the whole project really felt like Larysa grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and said, 'We're going to do this.' Her passion, dedication and fortitude was evident throughout.

"It's a nervy film," he continued. "She isn't pulling punches. You hope it creates that little man on everyone's shoulder who should be tapping you, saying, 'Read between the lines. Why don't we know about some of these things? What are the forces that keep it from us?' Very often whistleblower movies have a kind of melodrama to them. But there are such real moments in this."

Real moments are Strathairn's specialty. A self-professed Luddite, he still goes to the library for research. Recently, he's been reading about neurology for his role in Alphas, where he plays an Oliver Sachs-like doctor who heads a team of humans with special brain powers; and about American history from 1860 to 1865 for his upcoming role as William Seward, the former secretary of state, in Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and directed by Steven Spielberg, which begins shooting in October.

Even after a four-decade career, which began in 1979 with The Return of the Secaucus Seven (made by his frequent collaborator, John Sayles, whom he met while they were classmates at Williams College), Strathairn still gets excited about each new role. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, yeah. It's important to remember that people now routinely turn to movies and TV to learn things, as much as they do books. I find that pretty exciting. Cave of Forgotten Dreams – what if they hadn't let Herzog into that cave? That's a real gift that he's given us. So if you have an opportunity to give somebody some insight, or tweak their curiosity, it's good."

Kondracki offered examples of how enthusiastic a collaborator Strathairn can be. "At one point my producer said, 'Is David Strathairn setting his own mark for this scene?' " she remembered, laughing. "The cinematographer rushed up to him and said, 'Please, we'll do that,' but he said, "No, no, I love it.' He was so present. He sat and watched scenes he wasn't in. He ate his lunch with the crew. One night we had to shoot outside Toronto's city hall – we got them to leave their lights on for us, because we couldn't afford to light it. It was 3 a.m., freezing, but there was David, looking up at the building, going, 'This is amazing.' He's been in so many great films, and he's still so happy to be there." She paused. "He was also the set crush," she added. "He's so gentle and ethereal, but there's always something going on in there."

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) was Strathairn's splashiest role, a rare star turn, Oscar-nominated, and for a minute it seemed it would lead to more starring parts. To everyone but Strathairn, that is. "I knew it was special, and there were bright lights after," he said. "But I also knew it was a one-time experience. To have it come even once, you're kind of blessed. Now it's back to doing what I'd been doing before, finding projects I like and have a chance to get involved with." Lately, he's played a lawyer in Howl, a doctor in the much-lauded HBO movie Temple Grandin, and a king in The Tempest opposite Helen Mirren.

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"I'm very, very fortunate, and have been for a long time," he said, "because there are a lot of us out there. It's a buyer's holiday for casting directors. There are a lot of great actors, and some of them don't work as much as you want to see them. Work comes in waves, and I'm in a fortunate wave. The water is very warm."

I almost said we're the fortunate ones. But he'd have just pooh-poohed me. Then, ever the gentleman, he walked me back through the maze to the front door. I kept saying I knew the way, but he kept walking me, all the way out to my car. Only then did he go get his lunch.

Will the UN get the message?

Will the UN officially react to The Whistleblower? Director Larysa Kondracki has been holding screenings of her film around the United States, and that's the question audiences ask most often. Recently, Kondracki said, "someone high up in the UN" leaked an internal memo dated July 5 to her which stated that, during a meeting that day, a 40-minute discussion ensued as to how the UN wanted to deal with the film. The memo has since been published on the Internet, by, among others, Colum Lynch of the Washington Post.

"Some participants," the memo reads, "felt the UN should be proactive and condemn unacceptable practices in Bosnia, inform on improvements of UN policies since then, and firmly commit themselves to doing so in the future." Others felt "a proactive approach … is counter-productive and would contribute to the film's impact. They preferred down-playing the film and instead preparing answers on an if-asked basis." The memo went on to say that a small group will be established to prepare a proactive approach, pending further discussion with colleagues in Geneva and New York.

"I was really excited by the first half of the memo," Kondracki said. "I do believe in the UN. That organization needs to exist. But I was disheartened by the second half, especially the part about not wanting to contribute to the film's impact. I've been told since the memo came out that they're sticking to damage-control mode. Basically, they're hoping ours isn't the little indie that could. It makes me lose faith in the organization I'm hoping I can help."

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One thing that's important to note, Kondracki said, is that "no one is saying this didn't happen. This is not a Hollywood-ized version of events. We toned down the truth to make it digestible for audiences. And so much of what happened is continuing to happen in countries around the world. There are grey areas in these kinds of stories, but this isn't one. Peacekeepers hired by the UN should not be buying and selling girls and boys."

– Johanna Schneller

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