Portraying DOUBT: Casting The FilmHOME
When it came to casting the film, Shanley might easily have turned to the some of acclaimed actors who appeared in the stage play but he wanted, instead, to start fully anew, with actors who would bring a fresh and unexpected -- even to him -- perspective on the characters. "I never wanted to simply recreate the stage experience in a film and I felt very strongly that I did not want to simply lift the terrific work of the director of the play, Doug Hughes, and call it my own," he says. "I wanted to achieve a new work and put together a very creative, intelligent ensemble of film actors with great screen instincts."
Early on in development, he started envisioning Meryl Streep taking the role of Sister Aloysius. He knew he needed an actress of unusual skill and subtlety, someone who could go well beyond the simple trope of the dictatorial, heartless nun - someone who could allow the audience, measure by measure, to glimpse the sister's inner passion, and ultimately her doubts about her quest for justice and even her faith. With Streep, he felt, he would be assured of a performance that details and honors all that makes Sister Aloysius compelling and complex, even in her righteousness and certainty.
"In fact, I love Sister Aloysius," says Shanley. "And I think that she is right about a tremendous amount, even the things that she fights for that are hopeless, like fountain pens over ballpoint pens. She is fighting battles we know she will lose, because these changes have already taken place in our culture -- but that doesn't mean she isn't a valiant figure for doing so. I agree with her that something beautiful is lost in those kinds of changes. It's also important to understand that Sister Aloysius became a nun during World War II, and she saw herself as part of the battle between good and evil that was very much a part of those times but which became something quite different in the 60s. The posture that she has worked perfectly in 1944, but in 1964 and especially now, it can seem rather stark and outmoded. But is it really? I'm not sure."
Streep, says Shanley, was full of extraordinary surprises in the role, and illuminated Sister Aloysius in ways even he hadn't foreseen. "Meryl is a protean actress. She has so many colors coming out of her and makes so many intriguing choices, all justified within the parameters of her character," he says. "I didn't realize how thrilling it was going to be to work with her. Her heart and her soul and her imagination are wide open. She's like a six-lane highway."
He continues: "It's like capturing lightning in a bottle when you're shooting with her because every take is completely different, yet each one is justified and grounded in the very depths and truths of the character."
Streep came to the production excited by the expansiveness of Shanley's screen adaptation. "This story is a living organism and John took the opportunity to come in and both expand and distill it to its strongest incarnation. And the astounding thing is the way he opened the screenplay up in a different way, adding characters, adding scenes, adding in the children who become so important and central, the fulcrum of all these events," she says. "I thought it was amazing and brave. In getting more specific, the story becomes more true, and it applies to everybody everywhere, and is filled with things that are familiar to you from your own family, your own business, your own relationships with the world."
Yet the story's ability to provoke on a personal level remained the big draw, says the actress. "This is a story that people really see through the prism of their own biases and experiences, their own emotional connection to authority, both celestial and temporal," Streep remarks. "To me, I think the story is about the quality of mercy, and our understanding of and relationship to that quality in human affairs."
For all the discussion the story sparks, Streep was also impressed by Shanley's willingness to not say anything at all at times, to leave stark, powerful silences -- moments rife with spiritual reflection or emotional shock -- in the body of film. "Sometimes the eloquence comes when nothing is said, when the moment is filled with possibility or menace or even grace - and John understands silence," she says.
In her preparation for the role, Streep worked closely with the nuns at the College of Mount St. Vincent, which she says was a distinct pleasure. "The discipline, the purity, the clear intelligence of these women was fascinating to me, and they were very helpful," she says.
She also learned a great deal from them about another reality depicted in Doubt - the power gap between the priests, who could wield their complete authority in church matters, and the nuns who had to eke out power in very different and subtler ways. "Coupled with their sense of great capability, what I also got was a sense of their hierarchy in the church, how they were always second-tier to the male hierarchy of the priests and how some chafed against that," Streep observes. "All of that was very valuable for Sister Aloysius. And all of it drives the narrative."
Indeed, Streep says that she looked at Sister Aloysius from every conceivable angle to arrive at her portrait. "I wanted to look beyond the habit at the question of who is she? Where did she come from? Why did she spend her life in service in this way? What are her secrets? What is wonderful in her background? What is terrible? That was my job," she says.
That job was enhanced, Streep notes, by Shanley's way of working with actors. "Throughout, John was very open to invention, and he'd very happily say, 'I never saw it that way before.' He would say that quite often and it made us feel wonderful and free, which is what you want from actors," she comments.
With Streep as Sister Aloysius, Shanley felt his options for Father Flynn were narrowed to those few actors powerful enough to truly stand up to her in the climactic one-on-one confrontation. Shanley says, "Phil was the only actor I could think of who could make Meryl sweat through every scene. And when they had their big scene, it was a battle royale; it was gladiatorial, it was outsized, and it was thrilling to watch. It was one of the most electrifying weeks I've ever had."
Shanley also thinks the two actors share something key in common that was essential for the roles. "They both have that quality where you can see a long way into them when they're performing but you can't see to the bottom. You can't unravel the last knot in the yarn, you can't open the last door - and those are eternally tantalizing, attractive qualities," he observes.
For Streep, the choice of Hoffman was especially interesting because she and Hoffman had previously played mother and son on stage in "The Seagull." "In this story, we're adversaries, but it's also much more complicated than that and that's what Phil brings to it - all these layers of humanity," she says. "So many people want to reduce the role to 'who's right, who's wrong,' but with Phil, you're never able to pin him down because his passionate interest is in bringing out all the contradictions."
Shanley notes that the duo created an electric, yin-and-yang presence whenever they were together on the set. "The set became like the ring that prizefighters go into," he observes. "They would just sit in their respective corners when we weren't shooting, with their heads hanging down, in some private universe of some very, very tormented place, and get ready to do that scene. And then when they were called to do it, they would get in there and the walls would shake."
Hoffman had enjoyed the play numerous times from the audience, and its intricate web of themes had always attracted him. "I really like that there are no absolutes in this story, except people's passions. I love that it's a battle between the old and the new and, in the midst, religious issues, ethical issues, political and gender issues, and racial issues are all left up in the air," he says. "I think that's an astounding and rare thing."
Still, he was taken aback when he was offered the role. "When John Shanley called, it did take me by surprise because I'd never thought of myself in the part," he says. "But I knew it was a challenging, interesting piece and if John was offering me the role there must be a good reason for it. So it was one of those times when you say yes because it feels right and only then do you start to figure out what the role's really about."
Once Hoffman began to peer beneath the surface of Father Flynn, he became even more fascinated by the character, the ways in which he is both revealing and those in which he conceals himself. "I would describe him first as a modern thinker," he says. "He has a way of looking at faith, religion and a lot of things in life that I think challenges the status quo of how the church is run."
That modernity rankles Sister Aloysius well before she ever has reason to accuse him of anything and makes them natural enemies - and yet, Hoffman sees them as sharing much in common. "I think they're similar in a lot of ways," he offers. "They're both very strong individuals who see things one way. She sees him as a threat to her way of life, her identity and her view of the church; and he sees her as a threat to how he wants to relate to the parishioners. And neither one is someone who will back down."
There's one key difference between them. "Sister Aloysius can't really live in the world of doubt, in the world of the gray; she needs a right and a wrong, and she needs absolutes, " Hoffman notes, "while Father Flynn actually tries to exist in the world of the unknown, which is not an easy place to be."
Hoffman says that he came to his own private conclusions as to Father Flynn's actual guilt in the matter at hand but he never shared them with Streep or Adams and he, like Shanley, prefers to let the audience come to their own decisions. "One of the wonderful things about this story is that at any given point, you might have empathy for any one of the characters, and I think people will be split over Father Flynn," he says. "It's an unsolved mystery. It isn't necessary to always offer the answer."
To further prepare, Hoffman spent time behind the scenes of a Catholic church learning the duties of a parish priest. "A lot of what I wanted to know was about the physical, logistical movements of a priest, and also knowing about the history of the church and the transformation it was going through at the time was important. But at heart," he hastens to add, "the story is not really about the church at all but about human beings in general. Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius could be anyone in any setting."
The catalyst of all the unsettling doubts about Father Flynn is Sister James, the idealistic young teacher who first shares with Sister Aloysius her vague worries about Donald Miller's unusual private meetings with the Father - and who never is sure if what she saw adds up to anything at all and who lives with tremendous guilt over her own culpability in the events that follow. As the battle between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius accelerates, Sister James comes to mirror the audience, weighing both sides of the argument while trying to figure out if there can be any just conclusion.
Says Shanley of the character: "Sister James has something to learn from everybody in the story, and the people in the story have something to learn from her. Nobody in this story is right. Nobody is wrong. Everybody in this story has to change, and everybody does change, including Sister James."
Taking the role of Sister James is Amy Adams, the actress who garnered an Academy Award® nomination for her breakout role in "Junebug" followed by the lead role in Disney's smash hit Enchanted. It was Shanley's screenplay that compelled Adams to go after the part fervently. "I was familiar with the play and just loved the way he adapted it for screen," she says. "I also fell in love with the character, and it became something that I felt very strongly about doing. So I really fought for the part."
Adams was deeply moved by Sister James' decency and by the profound internal changes she goes through. "She's someone who really operates from her heart, from her soul and her faith. She believes in goodness," says Adams, "but the events that occur with Father Flynn shake her whole sense of reality and her sense of self. They make her question things in a new way, and reveal how just one little seed of doubt can change everything. It's not that she loses her faith, but the way she sees things - her teaching, her sense of self, the way she understands God -- is forever altered. She comes to see that what is true for one person is not necessarily true for another and I think she is able to move forward from there with a renewed and profound sense of her own faith."
On the set, Adams found her real-life anxieties about starring with Streep and Hoffman echoing the nerves Sister James feels as she stands between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius. "I was with these two enormously talented, enormously powerful actors which was frightening and intimidating. So I let that work toward how I built Sister James," she comments. "Sister James wants to please them both and hopes to learn from them both. So did I."
The building tension between the threesome comes to a boil in the "tea scene," in which Sister Aloysius first confronts Father Flynn with her unsavory accusations, while Sister James squirms with concern and guilt - a scene that Adams remembers vividly: "I have to tell you that with the discomfort and the awkwardness of it all, I felt nauseated with all the tension - and I hope the scene will create that same sense of urgency and discomfort in the audience."
Streep - who would go on to star in Nora Ephron's Julie & Julia with Adams right after production of Doubt -- was equally taken with Adams' gifts. "There are very few people who can convey truly innocence, who have the quality of untrammeled snow," she says. "She can create the feeling of a girl who truly believes - and that's why she is where she is. Amy is the real deal."
Another deep influence on Adams was the presence of Sister Peggy, on whom her character was originally based. Adams notes that she did not set out to become Sister Peggy, but rather to get at her fundamental nature. "I wasn't interested in her mannerisms or doing an impersonation of her," says Adams, "but it was her spirit that made such an impression on me. She's so full of life and has such a twinkle in her eye and you can still see the girl in her. That's the essence that I wanted to emulate."
She also found that simply wearing the nun's habit was transforming. Says Adams: "It's a really interesting universe when you're in the bonnet. You don't have a lot of peripheral vision so it gets you focused. It removes all sense of vanity -- and Sister James has no vanity. It's all truly about the soul with her, and that was so refreshing." It was also challenging, admits Adams. "Playing someone in doubt sounds simple, but it really shakes up your universe when you're doing it."
Adams says she and the rest of the cast were immeasurably helped by Shanley's openness to that learning process. "John did not bring any preconceptions to this," she explains. "He made that very clear to us, saying I don't need anything from you that I've seen before. He was so open to learning something new about the piece through what we brought. He didn't ever force me into an analytical place in my brain; he always kept it in an emotional place that was very, very true."
The most unexpected piece of the puzzle in Doubt is Mrs. Miller, Donald's mother, who comes to St. Nicholas at Sister Aloysius' behest and takes the Sister by surprise with her urgent insistence on what she believes is necessary for her son's survival. "Mrs. Miller gets at the terrible, difficult bargains people sometimes have to make to survive and for their children to survive," says Shanley.
When it came to casting Mrs. Miller, the director was won over by the audition of Viola Davis - the Tony Award-winning actress who garnered an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Antwone Fisher. "I have to say that I feel she is one of the most talented actresses I've ever seen," says Shanley.
Although Mrs. Miller has but one extended scene, her confrontation with Sister Aloysius is the crucible of the story, creating a net of complexity and doubt, the aftermath of which will change the Sister far more than she expects. "It's a very human moment that transcends any time period," Davis says of their encounter. "Mrs. Miller is, most of all, a mother trying to save her child. She's not going to toss him aside and say, 'well, he's gay, I don't have any scope of understanding of it so I'm not getting involved.' No, she has decided she is going to love him and accept him, even if she has no way of knowing what he is going through. And I think in many ways she has more courage than any other character in the story."
She goes on: "Her day-to-day life is pretty much hell: watching her son beaten by his father, working her fingers to the bone to pay for him to go this Catholic school. And the only source of happiness she has is her love for her child. So when the phone call comes from Sister Aloysius, she knows and fears that it could blow even that bit of happiness away."
While Davis sees the character's impulses as timeless, she also notes that Mrs. Miller is hamstrung by the realities of the culture in 1964. "She knows that as a black, gay, young man, her son doesn't have a lot of options. What choices were open to a young black male in 1964, especially one who is confused about his sexuality? She's fighting huge obstacles -- the fact that his father hates him, the fact that no other school wants him, the fact that he is being picked on and beaten," Davis explains. "So she sees Sister Aloysius as very threatening. All she hears from her is: I'm going to destroy your son. She sees her as someone willing to destroy lives just to be right."
Davis notes that such a confrontation between teacher and parent would be quite different in 2008, but circumstances leave Mrs. Miller with little power other than trying to communicate the depths of her sheer human struggle. "Nowadays, she would probably just cuss Sister Aloysius out, but I came with very specific mannerisms that were dictated by those times. Because the Sister is not only a nun but a white woman, Mrs. Miller knows she has to try a different approach to get some space in her heart, to try to let her to see her point of view. Ultimately, she is begging for her son' s life in the best way she feels she can."
As Sister Aloysius approaches Mrs. Miller with such absolute conviction, Davis observes, Mrs. Miller becomes the very embodiment of her own wrenching doubts. "There is a lot of doubt in Mrs. Miller that I hope you can see, doubts about whether what she is doing is best for her son or if it is going to screw him up in ways she can't even understand. She is put in a terrible position by Sister Aloysius. Mrs. Miller just wants her son to get through the school year to have a shot at a life he deserves, so how is she to respond to Sister Aloysius' suspicions, when there is no evidence of wrongdoing?"
Davis doesn't feel ill will towards Sister Aloysius - on the contrary, she was fascinated by the journey she makes. "Sister Aloysius has lived her whole life believing there's a right and a wrong way to do things. She doesn't know any other way to live and she holds onto that because without it, it feels to her like she's going to die. I think that's why she breaks down in the end. It's very hard for her. But, you know, it's not a bad thing to feel doubt, to delve into the unknown. That's when you grow."
The key for Davis was making Shanley's words come alive with all the confusion, desperation and vulnerability of a real mother in mortal pain over her son's plight. "I didn't want to make her just a social mouthpiece," she says. "I wanted her to be fully realized, and to really discover her." To do so, Davis says that she talked with a lot of people about the dilemma Mrs. Miller faces, looking for authentic reactions. "I asked different mothers what they would do to save their children if they found themselves in similar circumstances and I got a lot of revelations from that."
Shooting outside in the elements brought additional flavors to Davis' performance. "It was so cold when we were shooting that it made me close up a little bit, hold myself tighter," she observes. "It was also this very private moment that we shot in public, in a housing project with lots of people around and that informed the scene in a completely different way, helping me to bring out Mrs. Miller's desperation and the hope for intimate communication with Sister Aloysius."
Working with Meryl Streep for the first time was a thrill for Davis. "It was terrifying and I was awestruck," she remarks, "but Meryl couldn't have been any more beautiful. She's such a fantastic actress, I really wanted to meet her at her level. She so humanized Sister Aloysius that it really affected me. She wasn't just this relentless, hard-core person -- you could see this woman's vulnerability."
Streep says it was Davis who took her breath away: "Mrs. Miller defies every one of the Sister's expectations and I thought Viola was perfect. Her work was so fully realized and revelatory that it was hard for me, because I saw how exposed and desperate this mother was, and I felt so much for her."
Of all the things that inspired her, though, Viola Davis says the greatest inspiration was Shanley's insight into Mrs. Miller and all the characters. "All the power and impact of this story were in his head," she says. "Only he could really bring it to life because he knows each and every one of these characters. He knew Mrs. Miller -- I imagined her."
READ MORE: Manifesting DOUBT: The Design/ Behind DOUBT: The Sisters of Charity Remember Life in 1964