When John Patrick Shanley decided to make a film based on his Pulitzer-winning play Doubt — about a conservative nun and her clash with a progressive priest, Father Flynn, who may have abused an altar boy — he wanted to recapture the look and feel of the Bronx Catholic school he attended as a boy. So, quite naturally, Shanley called his first-grade teacher, Sister Peggy, now 73, and asked her to serve as the movie’s technical consultant. We spoke to both by phone last week about nuns on film, Meryl Streep’s performance, and how to break Philip Seymour Hoffman’s concentration.
John, for you to bring on an expert like Sister Peggy you must’ve been concerned about the difficulty of accurately portraying nuns on film. Had you seen many nun movies that didn’t quite convince you?
John Patrick Shanley: The Flying Nun. I still can’t get over that premise. What kind of mind thought that up? But we’ve both taken a journey from 1964 to 2008. Sister Peggy was my teacher when I was six, so the jump for us was 48 years. So much has happened in the world. I didn’t know anything about the way that the nuns — I knew how they behaved in the classroom and in the church, but I had no idea how they behaved, for instance, in the convents, and that was something we very much needed Sister Peggy for.
Can you give an example of something specific that she might’ve helped with?
JPS: I never actually said this — I was very very happy with the stage version of the show, but I didn’t like the ways that the nuns’ bonnets looked. I thought they looked ragtag. And then in the film, the bonnets looked exactly as I remembered them. I knew that was in part to Sister Peggy, she was policing those bonnets.
SP: Yes! Absolutely. I showed them how to make it on the desk in school. We actually went up to our retirement convent and had lunch and met the one and only living sister, Charity, 93 years old, who wears the habit. She’s quite with it and she got up and modeled it. Meryl came up to watch this too. And I agree, the bonnet is much better worn in the film.
Sister Peggy — Amy Adams’s character, Sister James, was based on you. How much of yourself did you see in her performance?
SP: I saw myself more in Amy Adams than in Heather [Goldenhersh, who played Sister James in the stage version]. To me, Amy was more the way I think I would be at the time. I could see the conflict; it’s kind of like a seesaw ride. You’re trying to be respectful to your principal and superior in the convent, yet at the same time you’re warmly human and aware of Vatican II and the changes going on. I would have liked Father Flynn’s approach, I’m sure I would’ve.
Meryl Streep’s reading of Sister Aloysius’s character is quite different from Cherry Jones’s in the play…
JPS: When Cherry Jones did the first reading for me, I was like “Okay, this is transformative. This is a big leap.” She really turned into somebody fairly different from Cherry. And that was very exciting and terrific. On film? That probably would have been too big a leap. In a play you need a slightly bigger size than you do for a film. I was not surprised by Meryl’s first take on the character. I just had an immediate feeling of natural recognition, where I went, “Oh yeah, that’s the woman — that’s Meryl Streep and that’s Sister Aloysius.” That’s what you’re looking for [on film]. You don’t want the leap to be so great that it’s hard to switch over to Meryl. You want it to be so narrow that it isn’t transformative.
Sister Peggy, you worked primarily with Amy and Meryl. Did you work with Philip Seymour Hoffman at all?
SJ: I didn’t really speak to him very much. He’s the most focused actor I’ve ever seen. I’d pass him in the hallway and he’d be pacing just like a real priest and looking down at the book. He was really into that part. In the beginning, I was kind of teasing and I’d say, “Good morning father.” And then, after a while, I thought, “Uh oh, I’m not doing that.”
John, at this point, who do you think is more tired of being asked whether Father Flynn is guilty — you or Philip?
JPS: Well, I think Phil is more tired of it. I actually enjoyed the fact that somebody has this restlessness at the end of the film. There’s something that they want to put to rest for themselves, so frankly, they don’t have to think about it anymore. I like that. I would very much dislike taking that away from them. Phil, I think, would just like to kill them all.