Meryl Streep’s Sister Aloysius has no doubt that Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has done the unspeakable with one of his altar boys in John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt.” The tough-as-nails nun goes to all extremes to prove his guilt.
So who did the multiple-Oscar winner use as a model for this complicated woman, who scares the kids in the St. Nicholas School in 1964 New York as well as Father Flynn?
“She didn’t mention anybody,” says writer-director Shanley, who adapted his play for the screen, “but I think she used herself. She’s a very complicated lady and has a lot emotionally going on. And like the best actors, she’s extremely imaginative.”
Streep’s Sister Aloysius is definitely “old school,” a quality Flynn attempts to bring up to date, unfortunately in vain.
“She’s a classicist,” Shanley explains. “She’s somebody who’s read Plato, who’s thought about the Greek city-states. She has an educational philosophy, is a serious person and isn’t there to be liked but to get the job done.”
Shanley’s choice to play the sister varied from the stage production, in which actress Cherry Jones carried the torch.
“Meryl was my first choice for the role,” he explains of his movie adaptation. “I didn’t direct the Broadway production of the play, and I didn’t want to just lift the director’s work and call it my own. (Producer) Scott Rudin asked me who I wanted, and I said, ‘Meryl,’ and he said, ‘Me, too.'”
“She’s a very alive woman, so alive in the moment,” notes Hoffman of his co-star. “She does a lot of the work for everyone in the room. You really react off her and rely on that. She gives me something that’ll be quite full, and that I’ll be able to react off of truthfully.”
At first, Streep avoided rehearsals — “She said she didn’t want to ‘blow (her) best stuff,'” Shanley recalls — though the actress eventually found value in the process. With her younger co-stars, however, Streep was careful to meter any comfort level.
“She said, ‘I don’t want to get to know them,'” referring to the child actors playing her students. “‘I want them to be afraid of me,'” a choice that paid off in big ways onscreen.
Her character’s look is decidedly glum — fitting for an all-business nun of the ’60s. “There was no glamorizing of the sisterhood,” Shanley notes, “and that was something very important to Meryl.”
Shanley found working with an actress of Streep’s ability to be very collaborative, yet there wasn’t a lot of banter.
“You have a person of incredibly high versatility who’s extremely sensitive to suggestion. You don’t have to say much,” he explains, “but if you say one thing, you’re gonna get something.”
At one point, the director joked that the tenacious nun should have a limp, a la “Moby Dick’s” equally tenacious Captain Ahab.
“I said that at rehearsal, and son of a gun, the next day she was rehearsing and she was limping,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Are you really going to limp?’ She said, ‘You’ve got to be careful what you say to me.'”
Streep will co-star with Amy Adams in Nora Ephron’s “Julie & Julia,” due next summer, and is also attached to an untitled Nancy Meyers project.