It was Phil Saviano’s persistence to bring his story of sexual abuse to the attention of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team that led to a full-scale investigation into the allegations and reports of sexual misconduct by priests of the Archdiocese of Boston and its cover-up by officials in the Catholic Church. This investigation would eventually win the paper’s reporters the Pulitzer Prize, and more than 10 years later become the focus of Tom McCarthy’s critically acclaimed Spotlight. Neal Huff, who plays Saviano in the film, worked with McCarthy on HBO’s The Wire, on which the former played a political aide and the latter a morally challenged reporter. While their working relationship may have allowed Huff to get his foot in the door, it was the physical and emotional intensity of his audition that sealed the deal. The New York stage, film, and television actor’s incredibly deep connection to Saviano is very much evident on the screen, and during our recent chat, he discussed the making of Spotlight and his relationship with Saviano, as well as his urgent desire to play his character in a way that was at once truthful and necessarily representative.
What was it like meeting the real Phil Saviano?
When I read the script I didn’t even know if the character was an actual person. So the first thing I did was ask if they had any info on him beyond the scene itself. It turned out that [co-screenwriter] Josh Singer had done a really extensive interview with Phil in 2012 and he shared that with me. I immediately asked if I could get in touch with Phil, add within days I was in Phil’s house, spending time with him. That began what has become a really significant friendship in my life. He’s a real original, from the way he thinks to expresses himself. He was so generous. I immediately knew that it was going to be a collaboration between us. But I also knew that the character had to serve a certain function in the story. There are a few survivors in the film, and they all serve different functions—even as notes for the audience. And so I spent a lot of time talking with Tom [McCarthy] about what he really needed. We knew there was Phil, but there was also the Phil Saviano character, which was what they needed for the purposes of the scene. Phil knew this wasn’t exactly about him—that he was representing a lot of people.
How did you gain his confidence?
He said he could tell my heart was in the right place and that he knew I had a very personal stake. I had friends who’d been abused from childhood and high school, so I was very curious. And the thing with Phil is his remarkable generosity. I have never met anybody like him in that regard. He’s very open about what happened to him and he never repressed any of it. He just thought he was the only one, which is why he never talked about it.
Did you discuss his medical history as well?
The trajectory of his health is quite breathtaking. He’d been through lots of peaks and valleys. I wanted to know where he was at in 2001 when the Spotlight team called him in. He had been diagnosed with HIV in 1984, when he thought he had got some strange virus. But in 1992 he was very sick and had many opportunistic infections. That was also the moment when he saw a piece in the Globe about the man who had abused him many years ago, who was now accused of doing the same thing in New Mexico. Then, by the time he finally settled with the church, but hadn’t signed the confidentiality agreement, protease inhibitors had come in, and that was a saving grace. But then again, a couple of years later, because of the doses of AZT that he was given in the early stages, he needed a kidney transplant. Nobody in his family really matched, so the word was put out nationally through SNAP [Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests] and a woman in St. Paul—also a survivor of clergy abuse—donated a kidney. He’s doing great now.
What was it like shooting the pivotal scene at which Saviano brings his story and evidence to the Spotlight team?
The actual event was a four-and-a-half hour conversation with the team. A lot was divulged at that meeting, which you couldn’t do in the film. But, boy, his story just continues to floor me to this day—how he hung in the way that he did. Phil is the only guy, as far as I know, who didn’t sign a confidentiality agreement after he settled with the church. And he had the instinct to sue the Worcester diocese of Massachusetts. He started organizing all this information about the bishops in the diocese—how they moved bad priests around. I think it was almost mind-boggling to the Spotlight team, when they brought him in, that not only did he have the information, but that it was all so unbelievably detailed and kind of ready-made for them.
Did Saviano have suggestions for the script?
More than suggestions! Phil is persistent. So I went to Tom and I said that I learned the scene as written, but I could also do it this way, or this other way. He basically went down the list and said “yes” to this and “no” to that. So we did get some points across that were really important to Phil and to the people that he’s in touch with. For instance, the fact that it isn’t just boys that are abused, but also girls, and in great numbers. And the whole process of what he calls “grooming,” which means you’re not just picked in your classroom or your playground by a monster. Phil describes how the process unfolds from the initial contact: A bond is created all the way to the point where the bond is so strong between the offending person and the child, and it’s so insidious. It seems likes it builds in its own insurance policy; the child won’t speak out because of such a strong bond. There’s a really appalling science to it. First, a little joke and a little bond where you triangulate off another authority figure. Then it slowly builds into a dirty joke, and then maybe some card tricks with dirty pictures. But then the pictures get dirtier. But always, the child is being made to feel that they’re so special, that they have this really special connection. It’s just so evil.
What was it like to play the scene with that particular group of actors in the room?
When Spotlight called him in, Phil already knew that the team was a serious force to be reckoned with, so he was on his toes. So I thought that no matter how nervous I am in front of those amazing actors, I knew that any adrenaline that I had will help me. That said, as soon as you put foot on that set there was no ego. According to Tom, the day we did that scene was the day when Spotlight became a team on the set. They had shot a lot stuff solo before, but this was the first day that those actors had come together as a group.
Do you think that McCarthy’s experience as an actor helped your performances?
More than I could have ever predicted. His direction was so sophisticated. He really wanted you to feel that Phil had been at this for years, trying to get this story told and nobody was listening. If you look at each one of those actors there’s a lot stage chops in that film. Everybody knew where to take their moment and then step back for the next person.
All those actors were recognized recently by the Screen Actors Guild Ensemble award. Did you mind that you were not included in that group?
You see, I had no idea that, according to SAG’s rules, you got to have single-card billing, which means, in the credits, it has to be just your name on the screen for however long or short. But I love my union, and I do have health insurance, which is a great thing. Tom made it very clear from the beginning that, because of the responsibility we have to the story, this was a film that needed to be obsessed with authenticity. He said the film lives or dies on how well it’s cast and played, down to the very smallest roles. I can honestly say that, wild as it was to learn that about the award thing, it’s such a profoundly exciting thing to be a part of this ensemble. And I am part of the group that’s going to be honored with the Robert Altman for Best Ensemble at the Film Independent Spirit Awards on February 27.
How did Saviano react to the film and your portrayal of him?
I attended a screening for the survivors portrayed in the film, and sitting in that small editing room in Boston was really nerve-wracking. But Josh Singer and Tom were really clear that they wanted the survivors to have as much love and support around them, and for them to know how much care we all took in bringing their stories. Phil said that he felt validated and that, for him, it was the greatest day ever. Like Phil, who was representing so many different people when he was talking to Spotlight, I knew that by extension I was going to be representing Phil and those voices to a much larger audience. Hopefully this story will be talked about on a larger scale, more than just going to the film or watching the awards. Because this issue has, over the last few years, kind of faded into the background and now it’s coming back into the conversation. Phil keeps me abreast of survivors who send him messages [after seeing the film]. To see people feeling validated all over the globe is totally unprecedented in my life, to say the least.