NEW YORK — As he was preparing to star as a reporter in a film called "Spotlight," actor Mark Ruffalo had a journalistic experience of his own. He was sitting in the Boston Globe newsroom at the elbow of investigative reporter Michael Rezendes, whom he was set to play about a year ago, when he saw a detail in a video involving a case of neglect at a state prison that led to multiple deaths.
"You became really riveted and just took over the computer mouse so you could see if something was wrong with the oxygen tank," Rezendes said to Ruffalo, describing one area of inquiry.
"I was a little obsessed," the actor replied, with that mix of charm and sheepishness that might be called Ruffalo-ing. "It was just seeing the stakes of this young man losing his life and no justice was coming."
Ruffalo and Rezendes were in a waiting area outside "Charlie Rose," part of a larger group of reporters and actors who had just been quizzed by the TV journalist about "Spotlight." Tom McCarthy's film, which opens Friday, chronicles the Globe's investigation into the Catholic Church scandals of the early 2000s. What began as a small inquiry at the prodding of the paper's new editor Marty Baron soon turned into a full-on investigation by its deep-dive Spotlight unit, looking into dozens of cases involving the sexual abuse of young boys.
The Globe eventually exposed a systemic coverup, forced the resignation of the archbishop of Boston and changed the perception and actions of the Catholic Church.
Known for an anti-histrionic brand of humanism, the actor-filmmaker McCarthy ("The Visitor," "Win Win") takes on his first fact-based story, bringing to it the same empathy and attention to detail as his fictional stories. Much of the movie is told in the low rumble of the typical newsroom, punctuated only occasionally by the growl of a big scoop or decision.
Central to all that noise are Globe personalities. That includes Spotlight foot soldiers like Rezendes and continues up the masthead to Spotlight editor Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) and Baron (Liev Schreiber). In confronting reticence and a daunting power structure, the journalists are courageous and occasionally colorful but also largely workaday figures; unlike most films about reporters, the film takes pains to capture the more mundane ways they behave, talk and work.
"As a researcher I'm a very amateur journalist," McCarthy said over lunch. "And on 'The Wire' I played a very bad journalist," referring to the compromised Scott Templeton. "But I think [show creator and former journalist] David Simon did tell me what it meant to practice the craft—the passion, the insight, how to gain access, how to sometimes squeeze, when to be patient in not running the story and when to pull the trigger. And these guys did all of that."
Also at the "Rose" studio were Keaton and his real-life counterpart Robinson, as well as Sacha Pfeiffer, a key member of the team who is played by Rachel McAdams. Their schedule was intense: in a 24-hour span, Keaton, for instance, appeared on stage at the city's 92nd Street Y, went on "Today" ("It's not a show I usually watch but the questions were pretty good"), met a Times reporter together with Robinson, high-tailed it to "Charlie Rose" and then turned out for a red carpet at the movie's premiere — a kind of meta fire-drill in which the man who plays the reporter now gets to be grilled by same.
Though they've been speaking to each other for basically a century, actors and journalists have long harbored mutual suspicions. It's fueled, in part, by the sometimes adversarial relationship between stars and the tabloid media, to be sure, but also perhaps by an unspoken belief by each that their work is slightly more difficult, or important.
By fashioning "Spotlight" from a close collaboration between actors and reporters, McCarthy achieved two goals: He offered a more authentic on-screen representation of journalists, and he prompted veterans on both sides of the divide to contemplate each other.
"I think an actor is fortunate because he gets to be a curious person and try to find out the truth. Even if it's the craziest, silliest truth in the scene, it's still the truth," Keaton said, as he sat next to Robinson at a hotel restaurant. "And that's what reporters do."
Added the journalist: "I really think there is a similarity to the mission. Look, I'm a fossil, and I still believe the printed word is powerful and can change people's minds. And then you see what a film can do — it's 12 years later, and they're raising public awareness in a much more profound way."
As anyone who's ever tried to interview a reporter — or, for that matter, live with one — soon learns, they are not what might be called the most forthcoming sort. Years of posing queries makes them prone to, and rather good at, batting away the tough ones themselves.
Rachel McAdams, who eerily channels the speech and manner of Pfeiffer, said she found herself running into a wall.
"I kept trying to ask her the questions, and she kept turning them back to me," the actress said with a laugh in a phone interview from a set in Madrid.
Still, McAdams kept at it, sending texts and emails at all hours of the night. The actress would ask everything, from small details, like how Pfeiffer held her bag, to larger questions of how she spoke to accused priests and survivors. (The reporter's specialty in the investigation was teasing out the latter's stories.)
Pfeiffer nodded knowingly at McAdams' challenges.
"This has been beyond surreal and often extremely uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable to have the tables turned on you." She gave a quick laugh. "It did make me realize I can be intense."
The reporter was less willing than Rezendes to have her story told. Questions from McCarthy and his cast, after all, often went beyond the technical to their personal lives — Rezendes' spartan living quarters ("Yeah, it's kind of like [it is in the movie]," he admitted) and Pfeiffer's marriage — as performers sought to bring an additional degree of psychological depth.
"Most actors I've seen researching a fact-based role ask the person how they did something," said Michael Sugar, one of the film's producers. "These guys wanted to know why they did it."
The pairs also often bonded over the movie's themes. Robinson attended Boston College High and was steeped in Catholic teachings; Keaton was also raised in the faith. At the restaurant, the journalist runs down the reactions of the city's church leaders — it goes from silence to careful condemnation, while Keaton shows Robinson an article in that day's paper about the Vatican's more aggressive stance on the environment.
At one point Robinson's phone went off, betraying a ringtone of loud church bells. "The altar-boy stuff dies hard," Keaton quipped.
McCarthy, who wrote the film with Josh Singer, spent several years traveling to Boston from New York to talk to Globe writers, occasionally getting into some old-fashioned reporter-editor faceoffs to cajole them to open up. He also kept people like Bradlee Jr. on set to ensure the film had the correct newsroom vibe.
"So you'd go to that meeting or not go to that meeting?" McCarthy recalled asking him. " 'Not go to the meeting,' " McCarthy said, imitating the editor's raspy intonations. "Door open or closed? 'What's being discussed? Oh, that? Closed.' "
There is an evangelical quality to McCarthy's mission; he is prone to describing journalists as unsung heroes. But if "Spotlight" is a view of a particularly heroic chapter of American journalism, it is not glamorized. Reporters pursue dead ends, they make wrong choices, and, occasionally, they are even complicit in the coverup, if accidentally. One of the film's virtues is that it does not let Globe editors off the hook for ignoring a story that for years was staring them in the face.
This is a notably different characterization than that sine qua non of journalism movies, "All the President's Men," to which the film has already been compared.
"I guess I opened that one up," McCarthy said, laughing, when he brought up the Alan Pakula film unsolicited. "Look, that's a paranoid thriller. This is a drama with some thrilling moments. Journalism is so rarely thrilling. The work is usually tedious. And I felt more like, 'Let's just commit to what we know.' "
Some of the actors were enamored of reporting work just the same.
As they waited outside the "Charlie Rose" studios, Rezendes described the results of the prison investigation to Ruffalo, telling him that it "took me and a year and a half to get the Commissioner replaced and a special prosecutor appointed."
Ruffalo began stirring at that last phrase. "Who does that?" he said. "I mean, really," he added in a high excited voice. "I love that. What politician? What individual? Who else can do that?" he said, as he grew more excited. "Man, I just love that."