Set in the 1960s, Sister Aloysius feels throttled by the fact nuns, and women in general, are considered secondhand citizens. And while her motivations are suspect - no spoilers will be disclosed here - Sister Aloysius makes a stand against someone viewed as more powerful, even though her actions go against the established rules.
During Q&As promoting Doubt, Streep has listened to writer/director Shanley discuss his inspiration for this story which focuses on women and their place in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. "John Patrick Shanley said he’d always been very interested in women. He always felt like an outsider himself. He was born in this milieu – the alleyway that you see at the beginning of the film is the alley he looked out as a little boy. He was an artistic soul. He felt different from others so he was interested in people who were outside the power structure. He was interested in women and the nuns, and he loves women. So, he’s interested. That’s half the battle is seeing through the other person’s lens," said Streep.
"I was trying to explain to my daughters it’s 1964. In 1963, I graduated from 8th grade. In ’67 I graduated from high school and I was going to go to college, but I would go to college with the aim of meeting someone to get married to and maybe have some little study something. The professions open to me, and I was smart, were teaching, nursing, hairdressing, show business. Not law school. It was a completely different world and it was not that long ago to me. And now, my kid is applying to college this year and the enrollments in the California schools are 60/40 women to men. The whole thing has just changed and yet not at the top. Not in the hierarchy of the church. You’ll never see a woman celebrate mass. There is no woman mullah. There is no woman Dali Lama. If for a day, they could put themselves in our shoes to know it’s just different. So, that’s where Sister Aloysius sits as a career choice for a smart, ambitious, self-directed person who has a vocation. She feels she wants to dedicate herself to making the world better."
Streep added, "I met one nun who is 96 years old who ran the New York City school system in 1963. 70,000 kids in Brooklyn alone, and she ran it. That’s like running a corporation. There wasn’t as woman anywhere in New Jersey where I was growing up running a business that size, but she had a gigantic responsibility and that was something. But she was still less. She was still subservient to her parish priest. And that’s an interesting power dynamic. I’m sure it feeds into whatever the antagonism is in this. How could it not?"
The character of Sister Aloysius offered the 2-time Academy Award winning actress something to really sink her teeth into. "…Movie characters have become reductive, generally, and the more complicated and contradictory that they are, the more fun they are to play and to watch and to follow and to recognize as familiar, because we are complicated people. All of us. And we all have a lot going on and it’s very gratifying to contend with the complications of humanity and how mysterious the ways of men and women," explained Streep. "I mean it’s just so rich, this landscape of human beings and their conflict. I just think that’s great and I wish there were more opportunities. Usually it’s because you are adapting a play they say, ‘Oh, it’s just too talky,' you know? 'Just show me what [you] are doing.’ And there is something to that, the power of film. But there is also a power in this kind of paring away of everything except the encounter of human beings. It’s like van Dyck. Just take everything away but the light and the faces and the hands. Everybody wearing black. It’s gorgeous."
Shanley conducted three weeks of rehearsals with his cast which also includes Oscar-nominee Amy Adams (Junebug) as Sister James, a sweet young nun who works closely under Sister Aloysius. Asked how she feels about the rehearsal process, Streep replied, "I don’t have a 'thing' or a 'way'. Like everybody does it differently. Every director wants a different thing. Spike Jonze, we’d just roll up to the set and he’d say, 'Okay, let's go.' I liked that. That's fun. That was on Adaptation. But this was fun, too, and very valuable because we didn’t have a lot of time. It’s good to have rehearsal when they don't give you money because you need to condense the time. And each 10 minute scene, that big fight scene with Philip and I, we knew, just in terms of time we had three takes at it, you know? Or at least that’s what they told us. [Laughing] I believed everything. So, that was intense and good to have a really in-depth rehearsal period. And that isn’t to say when we weren't on the set stuff didn't change. Stuff did change, because you get there and it's real. It's not taped on the floor. There's the wall. Oh, you just walked through a wall. It wasn't like that. You're surrounded by the actual world and the air is actually different, and you walk in the church it's just different, different. And having the kids around us, because we didn't really rehearse with them. That raised the stakes in all of this."
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Doubt hits theaters on December 12 and is rated PG-13 for thematic material.