In Doubt, the big-screen adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning by John Patrick Shanley, Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius, a nun in 1964 who becomes convinced that her parish's priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), might have had an inappropriate relationship with her school's first black student. A witch hunt follows, prodding the audience to examine the nature of such accusations, the often flimsy evidence they're based upon, and even the motivations of those who point the finger -- like Sister Aloysius, a woman made bitter by a man's church.
Cole Haddon: It's fascinating how John [who also directed the movie version of his play] uses nuns to explore women as second-class citizens. It provides a wonderful window into the female psyche, I imagine.
Meryl Streep: John said he'd always been very interested in women. He always felt like an outsider himself. He was born in [the] milieu [of this world] -- the alleyway that you see at the beginning of the film is the alley he looked out as a little boy. He was an artistic soul. He felt different from others, so he was interested in people who were outside the power structure. He was interested in women and the nuns, and he loves women. So, he's interested. That's half the battle is seeing through the other person's lens. I was trying to explain to my daughters it's 1964. In 1963, I graduated from 8th grade. In '67 I graduated from high school and I was going to go to college, but I would go to college with the aim of meeting someone to get married to and maybe have some little study something. The professions open to me -- and I was smart -- were teaching, nursing, hairdressing, show business. Not law school. It was a completely different world, and it was not that long ago to me. And now, my kid is applying to college this year and the enrollments in the California schools are 60/40 women to men. The whole thing has just changed, and yet not at the top. Not in the hierarchy of the church [for sure]. You'll never see a woman celebrate mass. There is no woman mullah. There is no woman Dalai Lama. If for a day, they could put themselves in our shoes to know it's just different. So, that's where Sister Aloysius sits as a career choice for a smart, ambitious, self-directed person who has a vocation. She feels she wants to dedicate herself to making the world better.
CH: Did you meet any nuns that helped you fill out Sister Aloysius's character?
MS: I met one nun who is 96 years old who ran the New York City school system in 1963. 70,000 kids in Brooklyn alone, and she ran it. That's like running a corporation. There wasn't a woman anywhere in New Jersey where I was growing up running a business that size, but she had a gigantic responsibility and that was something. But she was still less. She was still subservient to her parish priest. And that's an interesting power dynamic. I'm sure it feeds into whatever the antagonism is in this. How could it not?
CH: You've made a career out of playing incredibly complex women, but this is probably your most complicated in the past four or five years.
MS: Movie characters have become reductive, generally, and the more complicated and contradictory that they are, the more fun they are to play and to watch and to follow and to recognize as familiar, because we are complicated people. All of us. And we all have a lot going on and it's very gratifying to contend with the complications of humanity and how mysterious the ways of men and women. I mean it's just so rich, this landscape of human beings and their conflict. I just think that's great and I wish there were more opportunities. Usually it's because you are adapting a play they say, "Oh, it's just too talky," you know? "Just show me what [you're] doing." And there is something to that, the power of film. But there is also a power in this kind of paring away of everything except the encounter of human beings. It's like [Anthony] van Dyck. Just take everything away but the light and the faces and the hands. Everybody wearing black. It's gorgeous.
CH: John told me you guys had several weeks of serious rehearsal before production began. Is that conducive to your process.
MS: I don't have a "thing" or a "way." Like everybody does it differently. Every director wants a different thing. Spike Jonze, we'd just roll up to the set and he'd say, "Okay, let's go." I liked that. That's fun. That was on Adaptation. But this was fun, too, and very valuable because we didn't have a lot of time. It's good to have rehearsal when they don't give you money because you need to condense the time. And each ten-minute scene, that big fight scene with Philip and I, we knew, just in terms of time we had three takes at it, you know? Or at least that's what they told us. [Laughs] I believed everything. So, that was intense and good to have a really in-depth rehearsal period. And that isn't to say when we weren't on the set stuff didn't change. Stuff did change, because you get there and it's real. It's not taped on the floor. There's the wall. Oh, you just walked through a wall. It wasn't like that. You're surrounded by the actual world, and the air is actually different, and you walk in the church it's just different. And having the kids around us, because we didn't really rehearse with them. That raised the stakes in all of this.
CH: What about the Oscar buzz surrounding your performance? Do you ever get tired of it?
MS: Pffft. No, I think it should be less [laughs]. You want me to say that, but no. I'm very gratified that people are responding to it. But I feel like it's the whole thing in this one. It's the whole thing. There isn't one area of fat or indulgence or show-offy directorial flair. It's just what the story needs. That's all it is. And because it's so tight, it just tightens as it goes. Beautifully plotted. And I am the recipient of praise for something John conceived. And we are all as good as that script.
CH: By the way, I loved Mamma Mia!. I think it shocked a lot of people how well it did.
MS: They were surprised over there in Universal City [Universal Studios produced the movie]. I was not surprised [laughs].
CH: Why do you think that is?
MS: Because they're ... [whispers] ... all men! Not that there is anything wrong with it. It just puts certain blinders on to, you know, what is going to be popular. But it is very gratifying because it's so hard to get enough financing. I mean the budget for that musical would have fit into the props budget for any Matrix film or, you know, Hellboy 2. It so outdid Hellboy at the box office.
CH: Rumor has it Universal wants to produce a sequel. What do you think about that?
MS: Now! Now! Now! As long as they shoot it in the Pelion, then I'm right there.