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Casting The Film
When it came to casting the film, Shanley might easily have turned to the some of acclaimed actors who appeared in the stage play but he wanted, instead, to start fully anew, with actors who would bring a fresh and unexpected -- even to him -- perspective on the characters. "I never wanted to simply recreate the stage experience in a film and I felt very strongly that I did not want to simply lift the terrific work of the director of the play, Doug Hughes, and call it my own,” he says. "I wanted to achieve a new work and put together a very creative, intelligent ensemble of film actors with great screen instincts.”

Early on in development, he started envisioning Meryl Streep taking the role of Sister Aloysius. He knew he needed an actress of unusual skill and subtlety, someone who could go well beyond the simple trope of the dictatorial, heartless nun – someone who could allow the audience, measure by measure, to glimpse the sister's inner passion, and ultimately her doubts about her quest for justice and even her faith. With Streep, he felt, he would be assured of a performance that details and honors all that makes Sister Aloysius compelling and complex, even in her righteousness and certainty. "In fact, I love Sister Aloysius,” says Shanley. "And I think that she is right about a tremendous amount, even the things that she fights for that are hopeless, like fountain pens over ballpoint pens. She is fighting battles we know she will lose, because these changes have already taken place in our culture -- but that doesn't mean she isn't a valiant figure for doing so. I agree with her that something beautiful is lost in those kinds of changes. It's also important to understand that Sister Aloysius became a nun during World War II, and she saw herself as part of the battle between good and evil that was very much a part of those times but which became something quite different in the 60s. The posture that she has worked perfectly in 1944, but in 1964 and especially now, it can seem rather stark and outmoded. But is it really? I'm not sure.”

Streep, says Shanley, was full of extraordinary surprises in the role, and illuminated Sister Aloysius in ways even he hadn't foreseen. "Meryl is a protean actress. She has so many colors coming out of her and makes so many intriguing choices, all justified within the parameters of her character,” he says. "I didn't realize how thrilling it was going to be to work with her. Her heart and her soul and her imagination are wide open. She's like a six-lane highway.”

He continues: "It's like capturing lightning in a bottle when you're shooting with her because every take is completely different, yet each one is justified and grounded in the very depths and truths of the character.”

Streep came to the production excited by the expansiveness of Shanley's screen adaptation. "This story is a living organism and John took the opportunity to come in and both expand and distill it to its strongest incarnation. And the astounding thing is the way he opened the screenplay up in a different way, adding characters, adding scenes, adding in the children who become so important and central, the fulcrum of all these events,” she says. "I thought it was amazing and brave. In getting more specific, the story becomes more true, and it applies to everybody everywhere, and is filled with things that are familiar to you from your own family, your own business, your own relationships with the world.”

Yet the story's ability to provoke on a personal level remained the big draw, says the actress. "This is a story that people really see through the prism of their own biases and experiences, their own emotional connection to authority, both celestial and temporal,” Streep remarks. "To me, I think the story is about the quality of mercy, and our understanding of and relationship to that<

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