How does an actor play a character accused of a misdeed with a youngster when it’s not truly known whether he did what he’s accused of?
Philip Seymour Hoffman contemplated that question in his role as the otherwise-benevolent Father Flynn in John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt.”
Flynn is accused of having “taken an interest” in one of his altar boys at the St. Nicholas School in New York City in 1964 by the dead-certain Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), who will stop at nothing to prove his guilt — be it true or not.
“In Father Flynn’s view, it’s a character assassination,” Hoffman says.
To help walk the fine line between “did he” and “didn’t he,” the actor decided to find out as much as possible about the background of his character.
“All the actors who’d played him before had done that. It’s kind of a little club you join,” he explains.
After gathering research on his own, Hoffman went to his director — who also wrote the story and play on which the film is based — to query his original intent.
“We literally kicked everyone out of the room and he told me,” Hoffman recalls.
So between Shanley’s thoughts and his own creation, Hoffman had an informed source to tell him the truth.
“There’s something very specific that helped me inform myself specifically in order to play those scenes,” he says of several “discussions” between Flynn and Sister Aloysius in which the two characters go toe-to-toe about the truth. “But it’s a history I’ll never tell anyone.”
Shanley’s casting choice was an important one, once he’d established who would play the knuckle-cracking Sister Aloysius.
“I thought, ‘OK, I’ve got Meryl Streep doing this role, and she’s got tons of ammunition with this dialogue. I’ve got to have a guy who makes her sweat,’ ” the director recalls. “I immediately thought of Phil.”
Besides his scenes with Streep, Hoffman found particular enjoyment in several engaging sermons that Shanley has Flynn deliver.
“I remember when I saw the play” — which he first became aware of at a long-ago reading at New York’s Labyrinth Theater Company, of which both he and Shanley are members — “those sermons were showstoppers.”
Of Shanley’s screen adaptation, he notes, “John’s writing is topnotch. There’s nothing more you want to say, and there’s nothing less you want to do. You’re really able to just infuse it with all the life you can bring. The words are there to help you out. That’s what actors are looking for.
“It’s not even about whether (Father Flynn) did something or not. You never know, and that’s why this play’s so great.”
Favorite film this year
“You know, I’ve just had my third child, so the amount of films I’ve seen this year is very low. I want to see ‘Benjamin Button,’ ‘Che’ and ‘Milk.'”
“Don’t be impulsive. You’ll know when it’s time.”
“More often than not, it’s just something happens during the day. I went to see my producing partner running a marathon and saw some of the older participants. In that moment, it made me think, ‘Ah, I’m glad I’m alive. It’s a good thing.'”