Movie Sneaks: What ‘Spotlight’ respects about the church-scandal-breaking journalists and the actors who play them

The closing credits scroll had ended, the lights were up at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre, and “Spotlight” co-writer and director Tom McCarthy was introducing the actors — Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams, among them — who brought to life the movie’s story of the Boston Globe’s painstaking investigation into a pedophilia scandal within the Catholic Church. The audience cheered and then rose to its feet when McCarthy brought the real-life journalists on stage, leading to a moment that the filmmaker described later as gratifying but a bit awkward.

“They didn’t know what to do,” McCarthy said of the reporters so used to working behind the scenes. “If they could have pressed a button and dropped through a trap door on stage, they would have done it.”

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McCarthy and “Spotlight” co-writer Josh Singer spent 2 1/2 years crafting a film that details the Globe’s reporting, beginning in 2001, that proved Boston archdiocese leaders knew there was widespread sexual abuse among its priests but did little or nothing about it. The finished movie, which opens in limited release Nov. 6, plays as a detective story that also explores the question of why people look the other way when “good” institutions do terrible things.


McCarthy and Singer each grew up avid sports fans and, as they wrote “Spotlight,” they started to think about how the reporting team mirrored championship sports squads. Every member had a specific role, understood their function and performed it at a peak level.

And once McCarthy cast the film, the actors followed suit.

“We had the right kind of group,” McCarthy says, “the kind of actors who would want to do this kind of ensemble material. It’s not for everybody. Some actors want to be out front. Keaton, McAdams, Ruffalo have worked long enough to be out front in every movie they do now. They deserve it. But this gave them something else, the chance to be part of a group dynamic and feed off each other.”

Keeping with the sports metaphor — Singer, for one, can name every member of the Philadelphia 76ers team that beat the Lakers in the 1983 NBA Finals — the filmmakers assessed the four members of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Spotlight reporting team and the actors who played them. The coming months will decide if the film earns the equivalent of the Sixers’ championship ring.

Michael Rezendes / Mark Ruffalo

Mark Ruffalo, with an inset photo of Michael Rezendes.

Mark Ruffalo, with an inset photo of Michael Rezendes.

(Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times / inset - Steven Senne/Associated Press)

The lead writer and reporter on the Spotlight team’s investigation on the church’s sexual abuse cover-up. “Work is his life,” Singer says. Ruffalo plays him in the movie.

“Mike’s a long-distance runner, and I think that tells you everything you need to know about him,” McCarthy says, noting that he made a point of inserting a scene of Ruffalo running along the Charles River in the movie. “That’s Mike. He’s relentless. And he loves journalism the way certain directors live for cinema. He loves the aura of it, the history of it. He wanted to work at the Globe for a long time before he got there, and when he made it, he was hungry to make his mark. It’s like a low-round draft choice making the NFL. They play with a chip on their shoulder. Those are the guys you want on your team.”

Ruffalo was the first cast member signed. The 47-year-old actor shuttles between Marvel movies (he plays the Hulk) and indie films (he earned an Oscar nomination for “Foxcatcher” last year) and is an outspoken political activist.

“Mark’s energy and approach to life is very different than Mike’s,” McCarthy says. “Mark is relaxed, while Mike’s very tense. So Mark would carry that tension in his body. You could see him tighten up when he would get to set and then shake it off at the end of the day. It was exhausting, just watching it.”

Sacha Pfeiffer / Rachel McAdams

Actress Rachel McAdams, with an inset photo of Sacha Pfeiffer.

Actress Rachel McAdams, with an inset photo of Sacha Pfeiffer.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times / inset - Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

A reporter revered for her intellect, empathy and ability to get subjects talking because of her insatiable curiosity. Editing the movie, McCarthy discovered that the actress he hired to play her, McAdams, possessed the same gifts — acting, listening and acute observation.

“There are two jobs where being a great listener really helps: acting and journalism,” McCarthy says. “And I do think that’s more than just being present. It’s listening for what someone’s really saying, both on the surface and below. Sacha presents that curiosity in such a pleasant way, it’s almost easy to miss. And Rachel did a great job of capturing that. It never feels antagonistic, but it’s impossible to avoid. She’s just going to keep coming. She got the victims to tell their stories with specifics that were crucial to the investigation.”

Walter “Robby” Robinson / Michael Keaton

Actor Michael Keaton, with an inset photo of Walter Robinson.

Actor Michael Keaton, with an inset photo of Walter Robinson.

(Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times / inset - Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

The project’s editor was also involved in reporting the investigation, making him, in his own words, the Spotlight team’s “player-coach.”

“Robby knows everyone in Boston — wealthy and working-class, powerful and ordinary, and he can talk to them all,” Singer says. “You needed that in this investigation as it reached every social strata in Boston. He’s a chameleon.”

Keaton, McCarthy says, has that shape-shifting quality too. But before casting the 64-year-old actor, McCarthy asked to see “Birdman,” so he could see Keaton doing something different. Obviously, he was impressed. Plus, Keaton had already played a metro editor before in Ron Howard’s 1994 movie, “The Paper.”

“Yes, his resume worked on every possible level,” McCarthy says, laughing. “And he loves making ensemble movies. He has done a ton of them. He picks his projects carefully, but with this one, we had a connection through our work and the work of the other actors. He looked like he was having a ball every day.”

Matt Carroll / Brian d’Arcy James

Brian d'Arcy James, with an inset photo of Matt Carroll.

Brian d’Arcy James, with an inset photo of Matt Carroll.

(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times / inset - Paul Marotta/Getty Images)

A specialist in spreadsheets, Carroll put together a database of the church’s directories, finding the priests that had been put on “sick leave” or were “awaiting assignment,” notations that made them people of interest for the investigation.

For the Record
Oct. 30, 9:47 a.m.: An earlier version of this article misspelled actor Brian d’Arcy James’ first name as Bryan.

“Matt has a great brain for metrics,” McCarthy says, “but beyond that, you just meet him and he’s a rock solid guy. And on any team, that’s an asset tough to quantify. Just knowing you’ve got someone in the room who’s level-headed and direct and will provide you with a strong opinion whether you like it or not.”

“He and Brian are very similar guys,” McCarthy continues. “Grounded. Reliable. Brian shows up for work, and it’s automatic. He put on his Matt Carroll uniform and made it happen.”


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