The new film “Spotlight” is an ensemble project. In telling the story of the Boston Globe investigative team that won a Pulitzer in 2003 for exposing the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, the movie focuses on a group of reporters, editors, and locals who helped bring the story to light.
But at the heart of the film is Walter “Robby” Robinson, the veteran Globe reporter and editor who led the paper’s Spotlight team while making peace with his own place in the Catholic community. Robby urges his reporters to move forward with the story, even though his devout friends urge him to drop it.
During much of the production of the film, Michael Keaton had the real-life Robby nearby for reference and support. Keaton, who also played a newsman in Ron Howard’s 1994 film “The Paper,” spoke with the Globe about playing the real-life Robby, and about the genuine bond that formed between the real Spotlight team and the actors who played them.
Q. You filmed part of “Spotlight” on a set, but many scenes were shot at The Boston Globe. Was the real newsroom what you expected?
A. It was about exactly what I expected. I kind of already knew — having played a journalist a couple of times. I wasn’t ready for anything fancy schmancy, as they say. All that stuff is bare bones, and it should be, I guess. And it’s probably going to get, given the future of newspapers and journalism, even barer bones.
Q. I was surprised that the cast was so committed to portraying our reporters so accurately. When you do a biopic and play Ray Charles, everyone knows whether you’ve done it right. But playing these characters — who would know that you’ve portrayed Robby so accurately?
A. I wasn’t sure either when we started how that was going to work out. [Director] Tom [McCarthy] and I discussed it, and the trick to these things — well, it’s not the trick, it’s the practical approach, at least for me — [is that] the essence of the person will really tell you a lot about who they are on a deeper level. You and I both, as human beings, have certain mannerisms, certain ways you ponder something — the way you ask a question, in addition to what the question is. It can say a lot about a person. I’m not dissimilar, going in, from Robby. And I also like him. He’s a person I’d hang out with. So it was so easy, frankly. Mostly I just wanted, without being manipulative — well, I manipulated him [laughs]. I’d ask him certain things because I wanted to see how he answered and how he held his head and how he thought about things. There’s this, like, gene in journalists, where there’s always something else going on. There’s like A — and then there’s A1 and A2. Or there’s 1 and there’s 1A and 1B, you know what I mean? And I don’t think that’s a terrible thing. I just think it’s part of the gig and part of the personality that takes the gig. Most of the guys were hovering around the person they were playing. I didn’t really do that. I’d go over and say, “Hey Robby, say this thing for me,” and then he’d say it.
Q. You have a good history of playing lively, interesting journalists — specifically in “Spotlight” and “The Paper.” I’m always surprised when a writing job translates well on screen.
A. You’re absolutely right — you know what it’s like. Day to day, minute to minute, or hour, there’s not that much going on. I played a detective once, and that’s a very specific type of occupation. For certain roles, you cannot get around doing the research. When you shadow a detective, they will tell you, 90 percent of what they do is so dull and it’s just endless paperwork, and then that other 10 percent is not. I would say you may have had a similar obstacle to some degree with playing a newsroom [character]. So to make this as engaging as it is and to make people lock in and follow the story and be entertained at the same time, man, that ain’t easy. That’s difficult. You have to credit Tom and [co-writer] Josh [Singer] with that, and maybe especially Tom.