Second to Nun
Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis talk about starring in the film version of Doubt.
While the two characters could not be more physically different, it can be argued that Sister Aloysius, the officious Catholic school principal in Doubt -- which has been adapted for the big screen by playwright John Patrick Shanley -- bears a certain similarity to The Devil Wears Prada editrix Miranda Priestley. It's not an argument lost on the woman who played both those roles, two-time Oscar winner (and 14-time nominee) Meryl Streep, but it is one that makes her slightly angry. "Yes, those are both women in positions of power, but there are 20 parts just like that for men -- men who are straightforward or disciplinarian -- and it wouldn't even register on the Richter scale," she says. "But it's true that we're still very uncomfortable at this point in our evolution with women in leadership positions."
While the ultra-righteous and hard-edged nun -- who goes about trying to prove that parish priest Father Flynn (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a pedophile, based on little more than instinct -- will make some viewers uncomfortable, Streep argues that people like her are necessary in our lives. "We need those people who are always watching the door," she says. "If the whole thing was controlled by people who say 'come on in, do what you want, have a ball,' then who knows? Life is a balance between those people who want discipline, clarity, and certainty and those who say we have to always be free."
Moreover, Streep thinks her character's actions are totally justified. "I saw her as having a mission -- protecting the gates of these vulnerable children. And I don't think she would mind being called a dragon for doing so," she says. "We all act on radar that isn't completely logical, and that 's what she does. But I think she has met this devil before and she recognizes it; so she does what only she can do to outwit this man."
Aloysius' feelings for Flynn in no way resemble Streep's for Hoffman's, or any other member of the film's cast, notably Amy Adams as the naive Sister James and Viola Davis as troubled mother Mrs. Miller. "Nobody is more fun for me to work with than Philip, because he's just a volcano of emotions and contradictory impulses, and you never know which ones are going to swim to the surface," she says. "Amy was incredible; she just seems so pure and guileless, and trust me, there are very few 32-year-olds who can play a virgin believably. And Viola was just astonishing; we did that one pivotal scene at least ten times, and she hit it out of the park every time."
Hoffman, who had seen the play more than once, says he was taken aback when Shanley first asked him to take the role -- despite their long professional and personal relationship. "I first auditioned for one of his plays about 12 years ago, and Doubt was given an early reading at the LAByrinth [where he is co-artistic director], but the part was never on my radar," he says. "I was very happy to be a fan of the play, and now I'm very excited to be one of the many in a long line of Father Flynns."
Working with Streep -- for the third time -- also helped seal the deal. "It's gotten to the point with me that our friendship is just as important to me as our working together," he says. "I like just talking with her about things, and yes, I love acting with her, because she's very alive, very smart, and very in the moment -- all of which makes your own acting better and makes any project a little more exciting. Acting isn't always the most comfortable thing, or fun or enjoyable, but with Meryl, it really is."
As for the question of Father Flynn's guilt or innocence, Hoffman says the most important thing was not to convey the answer onscreen. "I think it's so important as an actor not to give it away, because you would just ruin the piece," he says. "I think you can see this film five times and maybe think something different each time, depending even on where you're personally coming from that day or how you feel. John and I have talked about the character's history, but I will never talk about it to anyone else."
Adams' own feel-good spirit was felt on the set by the entire cast, which made one particular scene -- in which Sister James explodes in front of her young students -- a rather difficult one. "That was devastating for me. I had gotten very close to the kids, but I hadn't let them know I was going to be really yelling, and the looks on their faces after that really changed," she says. "They knew I was acting, but they wouldn't laugh on set for the rest of the day."
The film's last scene was also quite memorable for her. "I think Sister James ends up in doubt, even though she really wants to feel certain about what she's done," she says. "So when Sister Aloysius finally admits she has doubts in that scene, Sister James is comforted. I think her own spirit of compassion is finally renewed by that confession."
Davis' part consists of just one lengthy scene, but it has already earned her an award from the National Board of Review and plenty of Oscar buzz. Still, it wasn't the prospect of a gold statuette that convinced the Tony Award-winning actress to take on the small but meaty role. "I liked the fact that she wasn't just a function or a device or an archetype," she says. "John created a fully realized human being, and I don't get to play that very often. A lot of things were hard about this part -- like I had to create a relationship with my son though we're never onscreen together. But I liked that it wasn't easy."
That isn't to say Davis found everything she needed on the page. "Of course, I created my own back-story for her -- about 50 pages worth -- but I forgot most of it because I was nervous about working with Meryl. And I usually remember everything!" she says. "But I have to say, I was shocked at how relaxed Meryl was during rehearsals and our shoot. I had thought she'd stay off to the side to herself -- concentrating, thinking -- but there she is knitting, talking on the phone, eating, and asking 'Hey Viola, you want to go to craft services?'"For TheaterMania's interview with writer and director John Patrick Shanley, click here.