LIEV Schreiber, 48, is a natural authority figure and brings veritas to every character he plays. It’s probably no coincidence he’s currently playing one of his many military roles in Michael Bay’s The 5th Wave, or that he portrays Marty Baron, the editor at the helm of the Boston Globe’s 2002 Pulitzer-Prize-winning investigation into abusing priests in the Oscar frontrunner Spotlight.
“I’ve never really understood people’s perceptions of me,” says the well-built actor.
While Schreiber admits he’s the team leader on his hit series Ray Donovan (where he plays a Boston victim of the kind depicted in Spotlight; “a total coincidence” he says) he greatly enjoyed the team spirit among the mostly New York actors on Spotlight.
“It’s that very special alchemy that happens when you have a bunch of people who know each other who’ve worked together in the past and have a shared respect for each other,” he says. “There’s just an ease, you relax together very quickly.”
Other cast members include Michael Keaton as the Spotlight team leader Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson who was nominated for an individual Pulitzer and is still a Globe editor; Mark Ruffalo is running around like a blue-assed fly as Mike Rezendes, currently a political writer at the Globe; and Rachel McAdams is journalist Sacha Pfeiffer.
The team had already been involved in groundbreaking investigative journalism before Baron’s arrival, though they never had fully tackled the issue of the priest abuse. As a Jewish person in a Catholic town he was able to take an outsider’s point of view. As Schreiber plays him, he calmly and firmly insists on the unsealing of the Catholic Church’s records of its settlements with the victims, something they had previously refused to do.
“I knew fairly early on that I was dealing with a remarkable person who has spent the majority of his life really trying to stay on the right side of things,” Schreiber recalls. “I don’t think Marty spent too much time worrying about other people’s perceptions of him or what he had to do. And that for me was my inroad to the character.”
Schreiber says the story was steered with precision by director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win) and his co-writer, former West Wing scribe and Harvard-trained lawyer Josh Singer. “They conducted an incredible amount of research to get the details right, to get it through legal and then to assemble it in an artful way that would make a good movie.”
McCarthy recalls a tough road trying to make the film, which had fallen apart four times. “Just the financing and putting the right pieces in place — movies like this need to be handled sensitively.”
He instead made another movie, The Cobbler starring Adam Sandler, and while editing that movie went back to write Spotlight.
“It was great because we were looking at the script with fresh eyes. We really dug in and started pounding the script for months. One of our biggest challenges was to transport people back to a time before it was recognised as a huge problem everywhere. [After the US, the country with the next highest number of reported cases is Ireland.] There’s a great moment when John Slattery’s character Ben Bradlee Jr says ‘90 f**king priests!’ and the audience just connects with that incredulousness.
“The reporters talked a lot about their mutual excitement and horror where on the one hand it was like, ‘Holy shit, this is a big story,’ and as filmmakers we’re all looking for big stories too. But at what expense? They had to wade through these dark waters and talk to survivors and victims for many years. It took a toll.”
McCarthy recalls sitting down with a couple of survivors, Phil Saviano and Joe Crowley. “Sadly Patrick McSorley who is represented in the movie passed away a couple of years after the story broke. He died of an overdose, I believe, as many of the victims did. Those guys are incredible men who were so open- hearted and shared their stories with us. It was hard to listen to but was very informative. The actors who play them remain very close to them. I’ve had emails from Phil and Joe and they’re very happy with the film.”
McCarthy, 49, was raised a Catholic in New Providence, New Jersey. “I’m more lapsed now though am still very connected. My family is very Catholic. I had a very dear friend who was a priest who passed away when I was finishing the movie unexpectedly and for me it was heartbreaking because I realised he was a very forward-thinking, progressive priest. I’d known him for 25 years and he’d helped me a million times. He was always there to lean on. He was everything a priest should be.”
McCarthy, also an accomplished actor, had played a newspaper reporter in the final season of The Wire, created by David Simon.
“David had a huge impact on me in that he educated and inspired me regarding what great journalism’s all about,” McCarthy notes. “I didn’t know that before. He just lives and breathes it. He comes from a second or third generation of journalists and you can feel his passion. I learnt a lot on that show that I took with me into this film.”
Spotlight has been nominated for six Oscars, and Schreiber hopes that younger audiences might go and see Spotlight and be encouraged to pursue journalism as a career.
“That would be a tremendous result. Newspapers are suffering in America, and as we transition into a purely digital world I think it’s a bigger problem than anyone is willing to admit. What I really appreciate about the work that Tom did is it’s a reminder to everyone of how essential journalism is to a fair and decent world and democracy.
“We rely on investigative journalists to keep powerful organisations and individuals accountable and if everything we’re reporting is a result of the commerce associated with selling newspapers it’s impossible to do any long-lead journalism. They just can’t afford to. Having spoken to Marty at the Washington Post it’s very difficult to point the resources in the direction of four or five journalists to cover something over the course of two months, let alone a year, let alone five years, which is something like it took to get this story together.”
While he concedes that the Spotlight story would have made a terrific miniseries, “Imagine fleshing it out over six episodes, one-hour drama,” he’s glad they made it as a movie.
“I think we need to remember that movies have a high standard and cinema is a great art form and it’s very powerful. There’s commerce and then there’s art. I hate to say things as crass as that but I really feel very proud of what everyone did on this film and it’s been so exciting to have such a positive response. To have the real people walk out and say they loved it has been incredibly gratifying.”