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Spotlight's Neal Huff on Playing a Catholic Church Abuse Survivor

Spotlight's Neal Huff on Playing a Catholic Church Abuse Survivor

Neal Huff as Phil Saviano in 'Spotlight'

The actor considers Spotlight and his role of Phil Saviano to be his career highlight and will always be indebted to Ian McKellen.

Spotlight has thoroughly captured the attention of critics and moviegoers with its dramatic retelling of the Boston Globe Spotlight team's investigative efforts to expose sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic Church. Praised as a realistic and compelling portrayal of journalists at work, the film showcases the Boston Globe's revelatory discovery of the Church's misdeeds.

Nominated for six Oscars, Spotlight has brought much needed attention to the victims, abuse, and the advocacy done on their behalf. Phil Saviano--a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest--represents the Spotlight team's original source. As a leader of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), Saviano is a pivotal character in the film, and though he's only in a handful of scenes, his name and tale inform the Spotlight team throughout.

When tasked with the immense responsibility of playing Saviano, Neal Huff--an actor known for roles in HBO's The Wire and Show Me a Hero--embraced the importance of getting the role right. Huff spoke with Out about Spotlight's success and cultural impact, his career-defining advice from Ian McKellen, and how Phil Saviano changed his life.

Out: I just watched Spotlight and absolutely loved it. In many ways it's doing exactly what you hope a film will: inspire conversation, win awards, and make money so more films like it can be made in the future.

Exactly. This is kind of the dream. You hope that you can do a project with this sort of purpose behind it, and it's so rare that something like this makes it. It's a rare thing to be in [a film] that hits a nerve like this with everyone. It's been really unprecedented in my life, to be honest.

Let's rewind. How did your acting career get started?

I realized it's what I've been doing my [entire] life in a weird way. My mom would be able to tell who I was hanging out with at the dinner table every night, because I sounded like that person at the end of the day [laughs]. There's some element of me that's always been doing that to some extent.

I did have that classic moment when you ask a more successful actor, "Wow how do you do it? What do you recommend? Do you have any advice?"

Ian McKellen was doing his one-man show, Acting Shakespeare, in Boston and I was there in the middle of this production of Henry IV, Part 1 and [kept thinking], I'm not sure it's going well. I can't believe I did this, but I sent a note [saying], "Would Mr. McKellen be open to talking at all?" And they were like, "Absolutely, come back after the show." I met him after the show and the guy was extraordinary. He actually fully informed my trajectory. I will always be indebted to him.

Would you consider your role in Spotlight a career highlight?

Absolutely. Even that is an understatement. To be able to play Phil Saviano in this film has been one of the great, great experiences of my life. Getting to know this man has taught me what it is to really have integrity and real character. He's had an open heart about everything and by getting to know Phil, I feel like I know what it is to be a better man. As big and overblown as that sounds, it's true. The chance to play him, represent him and speak for all the people he was speaking for is one of the great privileges of my career.

How did you prepare to for the role?

Josh Singer [Spotlight's writer] and Tom McCarthy [Spotlight's writer/director] got me in touch with him. Right from the get go Phil and I started talking and spending time together. We became great friends. He came down to New York [and] I spent time with him up in Boston.

He's got a very interesting body language and the way he communicates is very kinetic. He's connected to his body, so I thought there's all this amazing material to draw on that is specific and original. So when I first met him I thought, Oh I need to learn all of these mannerisms of Phil. But the more I got to know him, that kind of took a backseat to what I was learning. What initially was a treasure trove of interesting detail quickly became a huge responsibility, because I realized I was going to be the proxy for Phil and for all the people Phil was representing. Some actors don't like to get to know the people that they might represent if it's a real person, but I felt in this case that Phil and I were an absolute team.

How did that preparation translate into filming your scenes?

I knew Phil felt a certain level of adrenaline going into the Spotlight office and meeting them. So there was a certain level of nerves and anticipation, and I knew that talking to Brian d'Arcy James, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and Michael Keaton would serve me well because any nerves and anticipation I had about going in and talking to those unbelievable talents would hopefully translate in a similar way to how Phil felt.

How did Saviano respond to your portrayal?

The fact that Phil Saviano said he felt vindicated by a film and my portrayal of him is more than I could ever ask for. [Also] when I finished that scene where I come and meet the Spotlight team, Walter Robinson and Mike Rezendes walked up to me and they said, "Just want you to know that that was what it felt like. What just happened is exactly what we felt." They were being so generous to me. So between those guys and Phil saying he felt vindicated, it's more than you could ever hope for as an actor.

What other projects do you have coming up?

I've got a bunch of TV [projects] coming. A couple of little film [roles] as well. The next immediate things are [roles on] The Blacklist, Person of Interest, and Deadbeat.

Check out the trailer for Spotlight, if you haven't already:

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