In “Spotlight,” a film by Tom McCarthy, reporters investigate the coverup of sexual abuse by the Catholic Church. The reporters struggle at first to realize the full reach of the scandal, but are assisted by abuse victim Phil Saviano, played by Tisch School of the Arts graduate Neal Huff. WSN talked with Huff about working with Saviano to craft the film, his character on “The Wire” and how NYU helped shape his career.
WSN: Did you work with Phil Saviano at all to develop the character?
Neal Huff: Quite a bit. When I auditioned I didn’t know about Phil. I knew about the issue generally and I had always kind of heard of things growing up going to Catholic school. Then I looked at the scene that I read for Tom McCarthy, who is an old friend of mine. I thought, “Oh, this is probably a real guy,” and I asked, and it was. Then I started finding stuff about Phil on YouTube and I realized that he was this real figure in the survivor community. Once I got the part, the screenwriters provided me with a three and a half hour interview.
WSN: So you guys really got into the specifics.
NH: Yeah. There were really three things that Phil brought to the script. One was that abuse wasn’t just targeting boys. It was targeting girls as well. This wasn’t an issue just related to homosexuality. Another was the concept of grooming. I really wanted to know the process of these things. It’s not just some creepy guy in a raincoat throwing you in the back of a van. The grooming, which is a very complex and insidious process, takes place over a long period of time. Also the idea of spiritual abuse as opposed to just physical abuse. That was a very late addition to the script.
WSN: A lot of the tertiary characters are used to emphasize the city’s complexity and the depth of the cover up. Is this similar to your work in “The Wire?”
NH: I think this film is kind of a cousin to “The Wire.” Tom McCarthy, the director, played the unscrupulous journalist in season five. The thing that I learned on the set of “The Wire” and by reading the scripts was that there were no perfectly good or perfectly bad people. That’s true in this film. Everybody has for them good intentions. Another way that it’s like “The Wire” is that when I would watch an episode of “The Wire” at 10, I would have trouble going to sleep because I just felt so woken up. I think the film is like that. For all of its dark subject matter it is inspiring in the end.
WSN: You went to NYU to get your MFA. What was your experience like?
NH: I was kind of miserable in school before coming here. I think I would have thrived in a conservatory atmosphere. That’s the thing with the NYU grad program. You’ve got three years solid, except for summer breaks, of constant laboratory environment, where you’re testing and trying and failing over and over and over like that. I went to Bowdoin for undergrad, and I went to this London program and studied a bit. I met Ian McKellan when he was doing this one-man show about Shakespeare. I sent this note backstage saying that I was a young actor and asking if he would talk to me. I didn’t think that he would say yes but he did. He was so unbelievable. He just took such attention. He told me he thought the best training that he’s seen takes place in the U.S., from Tina Packer and Kristin Linklater at Shakespeare and Company. That’s where he said he’d want to study. So I did this workshop with them and they were all NYU people. So I applied to the NYU grad program and I loved it.
WSN: So are you working on anything new right now?
NH: I have a few films that just came out. One is called “Nasty Baby” by Sebastian Silva, who is a total genius. I think it’s Kristen Wiig’s finest dramatic performance. Another movie is “Runoff” by Kimberly Levin. I’m very proud of both of those. I just shot a few things. I have a small role in M. Night Shyamalan’s next film. I’m also in a couple interesting TV things. “Deadbeat” is on Hulu and I have a really exciting part on “Person of Interest.”
“Spotlight” is currently showing in theaters.
Email Tony Schwab at [email protected]