STAGE TO SCREENS: "Doubt"-ers Streep, Hoffman, Shanley, Davis, Adams; Plus Michael Sheen

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: "Doubt"-ers Streep, Hoffman, Shanley, Davis, Adams; Plus Michael Sheen
 
We talk about "Doubt" with Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis and John Patrick Shanley. Michael Sheen discusses "Frost/Nixon."

John Patrick Shanley directing
John Patrick Shanley directing "Doubt" Photo by Andrew Schwartz/Miramax Film Corp.

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Doubt, the Broadway play about a nun who suspects that a priest is a pedophile, has been adapted and directed as a new feature film (for Miramax) by playwright and Academy Award winner John Patrick Shanley ("Moonstruck"). His drama, set in 1964, earned the Bronx native a 2005 Pulitzer Prize, as well as Tony, Drama Critics Circle, Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel, and Obie Awards. Limited release for the picture began Dec. 12, but "Doubt" will spread across North America in the coming weeks. I met its cast, and its creator, at a recent press event in California.

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John Patrick Shanley describes "Doubt" as a parable, which Merriam-Webster defines as a "fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle." His inspiration for the story was the idea that "you can never know anything for certain." Shanley felt that he should not lead an audience "to any one conclusion. I want people to think, but I don't want to tell them how to think." He began "with a simple question: 'Did he or didn't he?'" and was determined not "to answer that question at the end."

Much of "Doubt" was shot in Shanley's old neighborhood. "The street where the guy plays the zither is the one I grew up on. The kids' school is where I went. [To depict a reference about the way gossip spreads, wonderful stage actress Marylouise Burke is seen, albeit briefly, tearing apart a feather pillow on a rooftop.] I played on that rooftop, and in the alley where the kids are seen," reminisces Shanley. "Eugene O'Neill calls it 'poetry of the real.'" (Shanley's screenplay is up for a Golden Globe; the nominations were announced Dec. 11.) Onstage, notes Shanley, "There were four characters and a few sets; the film shows the priest's final sermon, the parishioners, the kids." Seeking "a fresh approach" to his work, Shanley chose to direct. His only previous writer-director movie credit was "Joe Versus the Volcano," a 1990 comedy that starred Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, but caused no box-office eruptions. Featured was Nathan Lane, who once told me that that the picture (his second) "was like the most expensive episode of 'Gilligan's Island' ever filmed." At a "Doubt" screening, Shanley recalls, "The moderator mentioned ["Joe"], and the audience applauded. I said, 'You mean, you liked it?' [Laughs]"

To cast "Doubt" (selected by the National Board of Review for Best Ensemble), Shanley "sat down with [producer] Scott Rudin. 'Who do you want for Sister Aloysius?' he asked. I said, 'Meryl Streep.' He agreed: 'Me, too.' Shooting with Meryl is like capturing lightning in a bottle. Every take is completely different, yet each is grounded in the depths and truths of the character.

"Philip Seymour Hoffman [as Father Brendan Flynn] was my idea. I thought he'd make Meryl sweat." For Sister James, who's based on Shanley's first-grade teacher, Sister Peggy, the film's technical advisor, "Amy Adams, along with her work in 'Junebug,' seemed a natural."

But there didn't seem to be "a natural" for Mrs. Miller [mother of the student who may be an abuse victim]. "Her scene with Sister Aloysius is the story's crucible. Viola Davis was Scott Rudin's idea. He's a big fan of hers. I wasn't sure. We tested a lot of incredibly talented people, but the crew stopped breathing when Viola tested. She's one of the most talented actresses I've ever seen."

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Viola Davis in "Doubt"
photo by Andrew Schwartz

Viola Davis admits to being "terrified" when she received a call to report for three weeks' rehearsal. "They said, 'It'll be you and John and Meryl.' Not 'Meryl Streep,' just 'Meryl.' I thought: 'I'm going to go in, and she's going to be a diva.' How could she not be? She's an icon. You've got to allow yourself to make mistakes to find a character. But that wasn't an option for me — 'cause you know she's not going to suck!" When Day One arrives, Davis discovers that Streep "couldn't be any more beautiful as a person."

Rehearsal proceeded to be "fantastic! It was a period of discovery. I never saw the play, didn't know what it was about, came in completely green. So much preparation went into our scene. Then we shot it over and over. I went home to L.A., but was called back. 'We want to shoot different angles,' was the excuse. I said, 'You want to shoot the whole friggin' scene again!' John wanted more silences at the beginning, but he said that it was 'some lighting thing,' which was bull-crap!

"When you get a job, you hope that it will be the one that opens doors. When I got 'Doubt,' I thought: 'It's a great role. I get to work with Meryl Streep. This is it!' Since I finished the film, I've done one day of work, in 'State of Play' [a 2009 release, starring Helen Mirren and Russell Crowe]. One day! [Laughs]" She's now a Golden Globe nominee for "Doubt," and won the National Board of Review's Best Breakthrough Performance.

Is she aware that an Oscar nomination may follow? "I don't understand buzz. I just know about work." Her work has brought Davis several honors: an Obie Award (Everybody's Ruby), a Drama Desk (Intimate Apparel), a Tony nomination (Seven Guitars), and a Tony (King Hedley II). Of the last play, she exclaims, "Every day was a joy! Brian Stokes Mitchell was fabulous!"

As a young adult, Davis spent four years at Juilliard, "which stretches you, breaks old habits, and makes you more versatile. But Juilliard doesn't celebrate the individual. It stifles everything that makes you uniquely you. They tried to make me into a small, white woman. For 13 years, I battled it out — regionally, and in New York. I lived in apartments with roaches and mice. Now, I live in a house in Ramada Hills but I'm still very much that girl."

That girl became upset with her screen image during a "Doubt" looping session. "I thought: 'Was my eye twitching? Why did my lips look that way? Awful!' I went home, took to my bed, pulled a blanket over my head, and stayed there two weeks." At the end of the tunnel, however, was a light (a klieg light).

"My husband [actor Julius Tennon] and I went to the L.A. premiere, and the movie was fabulous! Julius, who loves me, and whose opinion counts, said, 'Vee, that was a great scene. You made me cry.' I love it when I move people."

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Amy Adams in "Doubt"
photo by Andrew Schwartz

Feeling like a princess is probably second nature to Amy Adams, Shanley's "natural for Sister James." Adams played Giselle in "Enchanted," and has attracted numerous young ladies in waiting. "They're so cute. Their mothers recognize me. Sometimes, the girls are skeptical, because I'm not dressed like a princess. I can't ruin the fantasy. I tell them, in Giselle's voice: 'I'm in disguise.'"

During "an intense rehearsal period" for "Doubt," the "Junebug" Oscar nominee "wanted to be a good scene partner for Meryl. I wasn't scared of her, I was scared of myself. Meryl and Philip [with whom she worked in "Charlie Wilson's War"] are two people I greatly respect. Working with such talented and powerful actors was intimidating, but I let that help toward how I built Sister James."

Sister Peggy, who inspired her character, "has a spirit that made a lasting impression." Wearing a nun's habit was no problem. "You don't have much peripheral vision, so it keeps you focused. It was very comfortable, and I didn't have to worry about my weight," she says with a laugh. Somewhat naïve as "Doubt" begins, Adams' character changes by fade-out. "Sister James' faith and compassion are intact. God is the same to her, but she's a little smarter about people."

Immediately following "Doubt," Adams and Streep co-starred ("but we don't have any scenes together") in Nora Ephron's upcoming "Julie and Julia." Adams plays Julie Powell, a government employee who tries to prepare, within a year's time, every recipe in the Julia Child (Streep) book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."

Adams (a Golden Globe nominee for "Doubt") had one scene that required 11 takes, and was very grateful that "Meryl was on the other side of that camera for me, every time. She so understands an actor's challenges."

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Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Doubt"
photo by Andrew Schwartz

Mention of Shanley's comment that Philip Seymour Hoffman was cast "to make Meryl sweat" seems to confuse him. "I don't know about that. I love working with Meryl. We challenge each other," the actor says. He looks amazed when told that Adams felt intimidated by him and Streep. "Amy intimidated? Amy? No. She may say that, but it's baloney!"

Had Hoffman ever attended Catholic school? "No. Friends of mine did. They told me about it. A priest told me what was happening in the Catholic Church in the '60s. He was very helpful, but the story's not about the Catholic Church."

How does he deal with possible "Doubt" Oscar buzz? "You keep going on with your life. I just had a third kid [a girl, with partner Mimi O'Donnell; they have a son, Cooper (5), and daughter, Tallulah (2)]. I've got work coming up. That's what I think about."

Winner of an Academy Award (and 22 other Best Actor honors) as "Capote," Hoffman also received nominations for another Oscar ("Charlie Wilson's War"), an Emmy ("Empire Falls"), and two Tonys (True West, Long Day's Journey into Night).

Movie sets, he states, are "kind of boring — 12 hours doing scenes several times. It's hard to keep concentrated." He also finds movie publicity "kind of boring."

(For some reason, the Golden Globes decided to nominate him in the Supporting category, for what is clearly a leading role.)

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Meryl Streep in "Doubt"
photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Enter Meryl Streep, and all is right with the world. Filling the room is a streak of Shanley's "lightning in a bottle," bright'ning at full throttle. Considered by many critics "the greatest living film actress," I found her to be a classy, comical, down-to-earth delight.

Known for her accent on talent and talent with accents, there's buzz that her performance as Sister Aloysius may garner a record 15th Oscar nomination. Is that distracting? Should there be less talk? Affecting a grande-dame manner, Streep says, "No, I don't think it should be less. [Laughs]" She adds, "I wish all scripts were as good."

First seen at Sunday Mass, the nun scolds a slouched-over student. Explains Streep, "That was a very specific thing John wanted. He said, 'Bend down, look at him, turn your head [sideways], and say: Straighten up!' I chafe against such direction. 'Oh, I have to put my head down, and turn like this; do I?' That was his visual expectation, but it drove me nuts!"

In "Doubt," Streep and Hoffman play combatants. (Flynn: "I can fight you." Aloysius: "You will lose.") Their last time out, they were mother (Arkadina) and son (Konstantin) in a 2001 production of The Seagull, at the Delacorte in Central Park.

Did she enjoy the movie's three weeks' rehearsal? "Every director works differently. On 'Adaptation,' Spike Jonze said, 'Let's just do it.' I loved that. But 'Doubt' was fun, too. It was good to have an in-depth rehearsal."

New York Times critic Ben Brantley called Streep a "rare chameleon movie star who never just plays variations on her own personality." Audiences, he continued, don't confuse an onscreen "haunted concentration camp survivor" (her Oscar-winning "Sophie's Choice" role) or her "icy fashion editor" ("The Devil Wears Prada") with "the actress who portrays them." Sealing an imprimatur of that are her last three roles: a Dancing Queen ("Mamma Mia!"), a rigid nun ("Doubt"), and a seasoned chef ("Julie and Julia").

It was her singing (of "O Holy Night," in French) at a seventh-grade Christmas concert that changed her life. Actually, it was the standing ovation it received. "I quite liked it. Someone told my parents they should get me voice lessons." Every Saturday thereafter, the teen traveled from Bernardsville, NJ, to Manhattan, to study with Estelle Liebling (1880-1970). Streep remembers, "The student before me was Beverly Sills. I went to her debut at City Center, and decided that night I would not be an opera singer."

Following Vassar (B.A. in Drama) and Yale (M.F.A.), she answered an open audition call for the Public Theater that resulted in her Broadway debut, in Trelawney of the 'Wells'." Between 1975 and '77, Streep appeared in four other Broadway plays; she has also performed in seven Off-Broadway productions.

Chosen as Oscar's Best Supporting Actress of 1979, as Dustin Hoffman's estranged wife (for which Kate Jackson had been sought), in "Kramer vs. Kramer," Streep had auditioned for the role of his overnight "guest" (played by JoBeth Williams). "They asked, 'Would you read this other part, just in case?'"

Robert Benton, who wrote and directed the picture, was having a problem writing Mrs. Kramer's final courtroom scene, and asked Streep if she'd take a crack at it. "The scene was brilliant," he later said. "I cut only two lines of what Meryl wrote. What you see on the screen is hers." (Benton won Oscars for his screenplay and direction.)

For "Doubt," Streep earned a record 23rd Golden Globe nomination (with six wins, to date). She was also nominated this year for her work in "Mamma Mia!" She's won three New York Film Critics Awards (winning for each nomination), and is a three-time Emmy nominee, winning twice, 25 years apart: "Holocaust," 1978, and "Angels in America," 2003.

Accepting for the latter, in which her four roles included Ethel Rosenberg's ghost — and a rabbi, Streep said (tongue-in-cheek), "There are days when I, myself, think I'm overrated. But not today!"

Thrilled with her 2004 AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, her acceptance acknowledged her iconic image: "I wish I were her; I really do!" She thanked her late parents for having "taught me everything I know about drama," and her husband (since 1978), sculptor Don Gummer, for "his gorgeous DNA," and for giving her "the four biggest prizes in my life." Their oldest three, Henry, Mamie, and Grace are actors. ("My kid [Louisa]," says Streep in the "Doubt" interview, "is applying to college this year.")

Three-year-old Mamie (born Mary Willa) played Streep's daughter in "Heartburn." (Joked mom, "She got a better review in the New York Times than I did.") Mamie later portrayed younger versions of her mother's characters in "The House of the Spirits" and "Evening." Streep says that she advised Mamie to find a profession with fewer disappointments, but (with maternal resignation) admits, "She doesn't listen to me."

Last month, "Mamma Mia!" became the U.K.'s biggest-grossing British film ever. Did Streep have any idea that the movie would do so well? "I wasn't surprised. They were — over at Universal City. Why? Because they're [whispers] men. [Laughs] That musical's budget would have fit into the prop budget for 'Hellboy.'"

Come February, Streep starts "an untitled comedy, with Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin. It's about a divorced couple, whose youngest child is graduating college. I go to the graduation, and my ex [Baldwin] is there. But somebody interesting [Martin] has just come into my life. Is it possible to go back — or has the ship sailed?"

Remarks Streep, "The more complex and contradictory movie characters are, the more interesting they are to play. It's very gratifying to see a film ["Doubt"] contend with that."

Concludes Streep about "Doubt": "I met a 96-year-old nun who, in 1963, ran the New York City school system, a gigantic responsibility. But she was still subservient to her parish priest. Things change, yet not at the top. You won't see a woman celebrate Mass — or a woman Mullah — or a woman Dalai Lama."

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"Hello, good evening, and welcome!"..."I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow." The former was a British-TV host's greeting to viewers; the latter, an announcement by the disgraced 37th U.S. President.

Over the course of four summer evenings in 1977, the David Frost/Richard Nixon TV interviews (just released on DVD) played to the (then) largest news-program audience ever. The event was turned into a 2006 play (his first) by TV-and-screenwriter Peter Morgan who, following London and Broadway engagements, has adapted it for the screen. Directed by Ron Howard, "Frost/Nixon" has received five Golden Globe nominations: Picture, Director, Actor (Frank Langella), Screenplay and Score.

Reprising his (third) Tony-winning portrayal, Langella plays the former Commander-in-Chief, opposite the sterling Frost of Michael Sheen, whom Morgan had in mind when he wrote the play. Named "the most exciting actor of his generation" by the London Observer, Sheen is probably best-known to American audiences as former prime minister Tony Blair in Morgan's "The Queen," starring Helen Mirren.

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Michael Sheen in "Frost/Nixon"
photo by Ralph Nelson

Like Meryl Streep, Michael Sheen has a chameleon quality that allows him to play varied characters, many of them based on real people, including Frost and Blair (whom he also played in Morgan's teleplay "The Duel"). "I do not do impersonations," he insists. "I have to totally inhabit a person, in order to take the audience on a journey, and it's their emotional journey that becomes meaningful."

Sheen's stage-and-screen portrayals of real-life characters include Caligula, Nero, Mozart, Robbie Ross (one of Oscar Wilde's lovers), H.G. Wells, Kenneth Williams (of the British "Carry On" series), and soccer coach Brian Clough (in the upcoming "The Damned United," again penned by Morgan).

"Playing a real character brings two responsibilities," he explains. "It's not only the responsibility to the writer and story, as with any character, but also a responsibility to the person. I have to find something that I identify with, something that I connect with, in the person.

"It's an imaginative thing in me that I project onto that person. Then, hopefully, an audience can identify and empathize with that person." So, he captures the essence of the person. "I wouldn't say the essence — it's an essence — of a person. Who knows what the essence of these people are? Hamlet says [Act 3, scene 2]: 'You would pluck out the heart of my mystery.' As to what is the mystery of the heart of each of these people, of Frost, or Blair, I wouldn't presume to know."

Hamlet and Richard III, two roles that are, according to stage lore, supposedly impossible for the same actor to play, were once goals for Sheen. "I'd still like to do Hamlet, before I get too old, but Richard becomes less a possibility all the time [Laughs] — the older, more tired, and frail I become," says the actor, not-yet-40.

London stage credits include When She Danced (his post-RADA debut), Peer Gynt (in the title role), Romeo and Juliet, Charley's Aunt, Look Back in Anger, The Dresser, Henry V, The Homecoming, Amadeus (which he also played on Broadway), and Caligula.

Two real people, says Sheen, "I would love to be able to play are Bobby Kennedy and Kenneth Tynan. They both have hugely impressed me. I find them fascinating." Has he told Peter Morgan? "I think so. [Laughs] I don't think he's much interested in either one." Plans to play Dylan Thomas fell through, but Sheen still hopes "to play him one day."

Thomas (1914-53), was Welsh, as is Sheen, who was born "a little bit down the road from" (but was raised in) Port Talbot, Wales, birthplace of Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins. "I wish I could have met Burton," who died when Sheen was a teen.

He has met Hopkins, "quite a bit, over the last couple of years. Tony's a gracious man, and great actor. I was honored to be invited to his 70th birthday party, last year, in Port Talbot. He invited my Mom and Dad, too."

Upcoming films: "Unthinkable" (playing an American Muslim terrorist); Tim Burton's live-action "Alice in Wonderland" (as the Cheshire Cat), with Johnny Depp (The Mad Hatter) and Anne Hathaway (The White Queen); and "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans" (starring as werewolf Lucian).

Although Lucian was killed at the end of "Underworld" (2003), he was seen in flashbacks (actually old clips) in "Underworld: Evolution" (2006), and returns in the third entry, since it's a prequel. Actress Kate Beckinsale, Sheen's former partner, played vampire Selene in the first two pictures.

Selene, as a child in the second film, was played by their daughter, Lily Mo Sheen ("now almost 10"). The actor accumulates frequent flyer miles between the U.K. and L.A., in order to spend time with the child, who lives with her mother (now married to Len Wiseman, director of the first two "Underworld" pictures).

Might Sheen, in order not to compete with his co-star as Best Actor in the Oscars, accept a nomination as Best Supporting Actor? "That would be silly, I think. It was brought up, but seemed nonsensical. It's not a supporting part, and I don't do these things for awards.

"I've seen Helen Mirren's fantastic performance get rewarded [with an Oscar], and hopefully Frank Langella's fantastic performance will be, too. James McAvoy in 'Last King of Scotland' [another Morgan screenplay] was every bit as good as [Oscar-winning] Forest Whitaker, but it went unrewarded. Life doesn't end if you don't get a nomination. I've had enough time to lick my wounds off for not getting nominated for a Tony. I'm fine now. I'm used to it."

Which role, thus far, has given him the most satisfaction,? "I couldn't say there's any one. There's a satisfaction in telling a story that means something to someone. I would say that, first and foremost, I'm a storyteller — and it's the most privileged position to be in!"

There's an anecdote Sheen tells that bears repeating. He asked Frost, "What is it like to see yourself portrayed?" Said Frost, "It reminds me of the Yogi Berra line: 'It's like déjà vu, all over again.'" Unfamiliar with Baseball Hall of Famer Berra, Sheen thought it odd for the TV host to quote cartoon character Yogi Bear.

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Various and Sundry

Speaking of déjà vu, Liza Minnelli is all over again. She just extended at the Palace until Jan. 4, 2009, only two days short of her opening 35 years ago (Jan. 6, 1974) at the Winter Garden, when she remarked that the tickets had her name misspelled (one "n").

Meryl Streep once acknowledged that Minnelli was an early influence: "Her desire to give you something [in a performance] was just so fantastic!" Well, it still is. Liza's proof positive that "The Winner Takes It All."

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Two entries competing for Best Picture Golden Globes, "Revolutionary Road" and "The Reader", star five-time Oscar nominee Kate Winslet and have some theatre connections.

The former, directed by Winslet's husband, Sam Mendes (Broadway credits: Cabaret, The Blue Room, Gypsy, The Vertical Hour; Oscar winner for "American Beauty"), reunites Winslet with "Titanic" co-star Leonardo DiCaprio, both of whom are up for Globes. This time around, they're not lovers. They're married. Playing an older married couple are Broadway vets, two-time Tony nominee Kathy Bates and Tony winner Richard Easton.

The latter, which teams Winslet with Rafe Fines (spelled Ralph Fiennes), is directed by Stephen Daldry (Tony winner for An Inspector Calls, currently represented on Broadway by Billy Elliot — the movie of which he also helmed), from a screenplay by three-time Tony nominee (Plenty, Racing Demon, Skylight) David Hare.

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Two actors on opposing sides in "Frost/Nixon," Oliver Platt (Frost strategist Bob Zelnick) and Kate Jennings Grant (former Nixon press assistant Diane Sawyer) will share the same Broadway stage, as Nathan and Sarah, in Guys and Dolls.

Craig Bierko and Lauren Graham ("The Gilmore Girls") are Sky and Adelaide in the revival. The 1951 original won five Tonys: Musical, Robert Alda (Sky), Isabel Bigley (Sarah), George S. Kaufman (Director), Michael Kidd (Choreography). Sam Levene and Vivian Blaine created the roles of Nathan and Adelaide.

Blaine was one of three original-cast members, along with Stubby Kaye (Nicely-Nicely) and B.S. Pully (Big Jule), to reprise their roles in the 1955 movie version, which also starred Marlon Brando (Sky), Frank Sinatra (Nathan), and Jean Simmons (Sarah).

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Congratulations to Storyline's Craig Zadan and Neil Meron on the Golden Globe nomination for "A Raisin in the Sun", which I covered in my February column. But what happened with other nominations? Audra McDonald and Phylicia Rashad won Tonys for the revival, and deserved at least nominations.

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Happy holidays! Happy 2009! Happy New President!

Stage to Screens is Playbill.com's monthly column that connects the dots between theatre, film and television projects and people. Contact Michael Buckley at stagetoscreens@aol.com.

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