Actor Liev Schreiber is perfectly content with not taking centre stage in director Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (opening in Toronto Friday, November 13th, then expanding across the country in the coming weeks). The ensemble production, which is garnering serious award season buzz, isn’t the story of a single person, but an entire team working towards the greater good.
McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) conveys the true tale of a 2001 probe conducted by The Boston Globe‘s crack team of investigative journalists, dubbed Spotlight, into sometimes decades old allegations of sexual abuse carried out by priests within the Catholic Church. It’s a difficult story to tell, both on-screen and off, and few felt that pressure more than the character Schreiber portrays: former Boston Globe and current Washington Post lead editor Marty Baron. He’s the man who would push for the story to be told, spark tremendous controversy in the process and eventually publish the investigation that would net the reporters involved Pulitzer Prizes.
For the actors, it was a set that felt like an actual newsroom — a place where everyone was working together with the same goals in mind. It was a great experience for Schreiber to work with such a stacked ensemble cast, including Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Mark Ruffalo, especially since most of the actors had worked together in various capacities previously.
“There’s a certain alchemy that occurs when you put actors together who have a level of familiarity with each other,” Schreiber says during an interview this past September, just after the film screened at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. “Most of us had worked with at least one other member of the cast before — there was a trust level and shorthand between us that sped up the process and deepened the work. One of the other big factors, for us, was that we were all acutely aware of our good fortune, in regards to the material we were given, in particular the characters. I don’t think there was an actor who was not profoundly proud of the character they were playing.”
“Because the work had already been done by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, in terms of compiling the information and research, all I had to do was find an angle on the character that would support the architecture of the film.”
As good journalists should, Schreiber approached McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer’s material from a research aspect first, sitting down with Baron and getting a feel for what it must have been like for an outsider being brought into the notoriously cloistered Bostonian society and culture.
“Marty graciously invited me down to Washington to spend some time with him about two weeks before we started production,” Schreiber explains of his prep for the performance, one that Baron says is pretty spot on. “We sat together in his office for a couple of hours and he was terrific. I had heard all these things about Marty when I started exploring him. First of all, he has an incredible list of accolades and achievements that are remarkable and commendable. That makes him an intimidating person. I also heard that he was inscrutable, unemotional and often intense. However, for the most part, I found that not to be the case.
“Because the work had already been done by Tom and Josh, in terms of compiling the information and research, all I had to do was find an angle on the character that would support the architecture of the film. There was this notion in the script that, to some degree, it took an outsider to crack this case. I wondered what it would feel like to be somebody forced upon these Boston writers by [Globe parent company] The New York Times to go in and pursue this story— this Jewish guy, who represented the other side. Marty was incredibly matter-of-fact about it. He said, ‘my job was that I was asked to be the editor of this local newspaper, and it was my job to look for content that would be essential to the Boston community.’ You have this arc of an outsider trying to navigate the needs of this community that’s completely foreign to him, and he reads Eileen McNamara’s column before his first staff meeting and thinks, ‘it seems absolutely essential to this community that these documents be revealed.’ Coming from a place like Miami, where there’s this great legislation that allows for easier access to files and court documents, he was fully expecting that to be the case in Boston. Of course, when he gets there, he sees that the answer is no, you don’t have access to anything and there were certain things that were kept private. When it comes to something like this, Marty finds that unacceptable. I asked Marty if it was important that he was an outsider, he said, ‘no.’ What was actually important was that he do his job and service that community. I think that’s part of what makes him such a remarkable editor.”
“You have this arc of an outsider trying to navigate the needs of this community that’s completely foreign to him, and he reads Eileen McNamara’s column before his first staff meeting and thinks, ‘it seems absolutely essential to this community that these documents be revealed.'”
It was a role that Schreiber(who lives in NYC, along with McCarthy) never thought he would get, due to his closeness with the writer/director, but one he was thrilled to take.”Tom and I went to school together, so at first I never imagined that he would even hire me. I thought he just wanted my opinion [laughs].Having researched the Catholic Church and the priest abuse scandal for other projects, when I read the script Tom sent me, that wasn’t the story, for me. The story was about how this was an incredibly timely love letter to investigative journalism, particularly locally-based, long-lead journalism. I felt like the timing of that and the thoughtfulness the script showed were just remarkable. I called him and told him this was just an amazing project. I said, ‘I’m so fucking jealous of you right now and so proud of you that you wrote this and that you’re gonna make it.’ Then he asked me if I would consider playing Marty Baron. When he asked me, I was in a mall in Georgia and I just said, ‘Holy shit, yes.’ These are the kinds of opportunities you know only come once or twice in a career. It was incredibly intimidating — the idea of playing someone like Marty Baron — but it was all there on the page, so it was going to be alright.”
I point out that his role in Spotlight is almost the flip side to the one he inhabits as TV’s Ray Donovan, the project he mentioned previously, where he researched the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals. In the Showtime-produced series, Schreiber plays a Boston born “fixer” living in L.A. who makes problems for celebrities and big shots disappear. That character comes from a culture where problems are dealt with quietly and “in house,” whereas someone like Marty Baron is a complete outsider, coming into that culture for the first time. It wasn’t a realization Schreiber made previously, but something he definitely contemplates as we talk.
“We all need to be reminded what role the press plays in our democracy and society.”
“My mind is kind of being blown as you say this,” he laughs, clearly enjoying the parallel between the two projects. “Because I’m just now thinking about the Donovans and how much that Boston culture is entrenched in family and community. There are negative aspects to that, going all the way back to the bussing riots, and positive ones, like with the “Boston Strong” mentality, which came up after the bombings. You love your community and you fight for it — there is a very close-knit, tight culture. Maine has it as well, but no one seems as interested in that. There are these pockets of culture in American life where they have their own place and mentality, and Boston definitely qualifies as one of the strongest examples of that. That’s what Marty had to contend with when he came to that paper. Right now, I’m whizzing through my head how we can work that into season four of the show, but there’s something very right about how insular that can be and there are obviously pros and cons to that. It’s only now that you mentioned it, and I can’t believe it only now dawned on me. I’m only now realizing that, as an actor, I’m actually servicing one of my other characters at the same time, and that’s fascinating to think about.”
What does Schreiber hope audiences will take away from Spotlight? A better understanding of why the world needs great journalists, now more than ever. “We all need to be reminded what role the press plays in our democracy and society. Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer have pulled that off in an extremely entertaining way via the structure of a thriller. They’ve managed to articulate the craft of investigative journalism and also the courage and emotional sacrifice, integrity and tenacity that define the survival of victims of sexual abuse and the reporters that doggedly pursued this story.”