The Boston Globe: Globe reporters tell their ‘Spotlight’ stories

The Boston Globe
Published: November 29, 2014

For months in late 2001, the Globe’s Spotlight Team chipped away in secret at a story that at first seemed unimaginable — that a succession of cardinals and bishops in the Boston Catholic Archdiocese had for decades covered up the sexual abuse of countless children by priests. In many cases, Church leaders took no action to deny their Roman-collared child molesters access to children.

When the Globe began documenting the extensive abuse and the cover-up in January 2002, the story exploded, first in Boston, then nationally and in countries around the world. In the Boston Archdiocese alone, an estimated 200 priests abused children. Nationally, it is at least 7,000 priests. The escalating disclosures continue, and have shaken the very foundation of the Church.

In September, director Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “Win Win”) and a cast of Hollywood names including Liev Schreiber, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Stanley Tucci began shooting a movie titled “Spotlight,’’ about the Globe’s investigation. The filmmakers used locations in Boston and in Toronto, where they re-created the Globe newsroom and the Spotlight Team’s offices. With camerawork expected to wrap in the Bay State on Sunday, the film is scheduled for release late next year.

For three members of that Spotlight Team — reporters Sacha Pfeiffer and Michael Rezendes and editor Walter V. Robinson — the movie is a constant reminder of the courage of the many victims of sexual abuse whose willingness to tell their stories in 2001 made the Globe’s investigative stories possible.

And the film is also something else for those three journalists: It’s surreal. The “Spotlight” stars have all but assumed the identities of the characters they play, in ways the real reporters have found both humorous and, at times, a little unsettling.

They share their experiences in Boston and Toronto

‘Rachel [McAdams] has asked me how long I kept my fingernails. What size Post-it Notes I preferred.’
By Sacha Pfeiffer | Globe Staff

During dinner at a downtown Boston restaurant, on an evening that was already feeling surreal — Rachel McAdams by my side, offering tastes of her branzino, Mark Ruffalo across from me, telling rip-roaring stories about his bartending days — Rachel leaned over and gestured to my right hand.

You’re wearing a ring you didn’t mention,” she whispered, with a tinge of surprise. I followed her glance to a small gold band on my pinky finger, a long-ago gift from a dear friend. Rachel was right: Weeks earlier, when she’d asked me what jewelry I wore in 2001, I’d forgotten about that tiny ring. And because she is trying to look, act, and even think like I did 13 years ago to play me in the upcoming “Spotlight” movie, the omission caught her eye.

In this scrutiny-by-movie-star, no detail is too minute.

Rachel has asked me how long I kept my fingernails. What size Post-it Notes I preferred. Whether I bought lunch at the Globe cafeteria or brought food from home. Did my husband and I ever cook together? (Yup, he’s a character in the movie, too.) What endearments did we use? Was there ever a time, while writing about priests who molested children, when I broke down?

I’ve gotten used to texts from her arriving out of the blue: “Hey Sacha, random question: Do you remember what kind of shoes you wore around the office? (I know you had your trainers for your walks?) Did they usually have a heel or flat?

My answers have shaped the dialogue, props, and costumes for a Hollywood movie with an A-list cast. When I told Rachel that my late South Boston grandmother, who’s also a character in the film, was called “Nana,” not “Gran,” the writers changed the script. On set in Toronto, when I pointed out that my phone had been to the left of my computer, the crew redesigned my onscreen desk.

Our initial contact was by e-mail. Its subject line — “from Rachel” — needed no last name. We set a date to talk by phone; that conversation lasted an hour and a half. Then we arranged to meet. She took a train to South Station, and as travelers came streaming off the platform I worried I wouldn’t be able to pick her out of the crowd. Suddenly, a peculiar realization: she had asked for photos of me from 2001 so she could have her hair cut and colored like mine. I shouldn’t be looking for Rachel McAdams; I should be looking for a replica of myself.

By the time we met face-to-face, she had listened to taped conversations I’d had with director Tom McCarthy and screenwriter Josh Singer, watched videos of public appearances I’ve made, even tracked down interviews I’ve done more recently as a radio host. I talk quickly — a friend once said I “speak like a machine gun” — and Rachel told me she’d been working to mimic my rapid pace. Eventually, though, it was decided that if she spoke on screen like I do in real life, she’d be too fast for the audience to understand!

She did, however, get to use my actual car: a 1995 Honda Civic. Its cameo in the movie came with a free paint job, leaving me with a 19-year-old diva that gleams like it just rolled off the dealer’s lot.

Why capture the details from a decade ago so precisely? Here’s how Rachel explains it: When actors play fictional characters, “we’re usually making it up as we go along,” but when they portray real people — and “you’re my first,” she said — “it’s nice to have a solid foundation” to create an accurate “inner life.”

I totally think you’re allowed to take liberties,” she added, but “when I have the truth in front of me, I feel a responsibility to get you right and to find your essence.”

You may be wondering if being channeled by a celebrity is going to my head. I’ll simply note that when a British newspaper obtained photos of Rachel filming a scene in which she nailed my look — loose untucked shirt, practical black shoes, even the natural wave in my hair — it eviscerated her appearance as only a London tabloid can. “Rachel McAdams Dresses Down For Role As Investigative Journalist,” the story crowed, citing her “messy tresses,” “clunky” loafers, and “baggy clothes.” Dressed as I did in my late 20s, the actress was pronounced “hardly her red-carpet-ready self.”

Welcome to Hollywood. Flak jacket recommended.

Read Walter V. Robinson’s essay

Read to Michael Rezendes’s essay

© 2014 The Boston Globe | Written by Globe Staff & Sacha Pfeiffer | No copyright infringment intended.

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