Phil Saviano is a story to be told by itself ~ a conversation with Neal Huff

Neal Huff is a wonderful actor who has been active in Hollywood for years and has played many pivotal and wonderful roles, both on big and small screen. He’s also a personal friend of Art Shrian, from myNewYorkeye. Art and Neal had a chance to have a conversation about his role in the Oscar frontrunner film SPOTLIGHT. He plays the impactful character of Phil Saviano.

Here are the excepts from that conversation…

Art Shrian: Congratulations on this amazing film. I saw the movie and was very excited to see you in the film. It’s a very impactful and moving story, and you play a very important character in this film. It’s a very difficult and complex character, and you do a wonderful job of bringing it alive. So, how did this part come to you?

Neal Huff:  I’ve known Tom (the director) for years, but I auditioned. He was incredibly nice, and luckily it went very well. Most people in the film are based on real life characters, and bear a striking resemblance to their characters. And that’s definitely the case with Phil Saviano, and me, which was a great help in me getting the role. And yes, it was a great experience, being part of the film and knowing who Phil Savaino was. I knew that it was based on something real, but didn’t know who Phil was. So I asked Tom, that it seems like a real guy, and he said yes.  Then I started doing my research on him and there’s tons of footage and information on him. And over time, I got to know Phil personally, and even became really close friends with him.

Art Shrian: How was the audition process?

Neal Huff: It was just that one scene, actually an earlier version of that scene. I hadn’t read the whole script then. I knew about the subject, but didn’t know Phil’s story. But it went great.

Art Shrian: Talking about that scene, it’s an amazing scene. Talk about an actor’s dream. To be in front of such amazing actors such as Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Brian Darcy James and Mark Ruffalo; and it is one of the best scenes of the movie. You bring so much truth and power into the scene.  How was that experience?

Neal Huff: Honestly, that was one thing I knew, I”ll have in my favor, making scene as truthful as possible. I’ll be talking to these 4 wonderful actors. The energy of that event alone is going to reflect lot of what Phil went through when that happened. When spotlight team called Phil, he felt that star-chamber were calling him. He worked in Public relations for year’s prior, and he knew that spotlight team was a big deal. He felt a real sense of importance there. So I knew, that me going in as an actor, in front of these people, would reflect to some extent what Phil was going through that day.

Art Shrian: Wow, so the dynamic was real in some way.

Neal Huff: Yeah, I was like - if I was nervous, it’ll play well!

Art Shrian: How was the rehearsal process for that scene?

Neal Huff: We rehearsed for few days in New York, before the filming started. We went through the scene with actors, Tom and other writers. But when we were actually doing it, I’m not sure if we did rehearse it. I think we pretty much started filming. As an actor, you want to bring a lot to such scenes. Tom gave me a wonderful direction, that I was really blown away by, when I was on set. As an actor, you feel that with so much information there, you want to relive it. But Tom suggested that I want to feel this man is not doing this for the first time. He’s been trying to share this story for a long time, he has been doing it and telling the people this for years. Which was a completely different direction than I expected it to be. I was blown away by it. So, with this direction, the scene took a completely different light than what I expected it to be. And the greatest affirmation of how it went, when we were shooting the scene in Toronto, when these 2 gentlemen came to me after the scene was done, and shook my hand. I didn’t know who they were. And they said, "that is exactly how it went". And they were Michael Rezendes and Walter Robinson (the 2 journalists who were on scene in real life, played by Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton). I was utterly floored and moved.

Art Shrian: That’s just amazing. It’s a very complex character, who’s part of an important event. How did you prepare for the character, and work on researching and developing it? Did Phil share a lot of personal information? And how did you absorb it and prepare yourself?

Neal Huff: At first, when I got to meet him, I had gone through an interview that Josh Singer did with him in 2012. Then I went up to Boston to meet him. It was a treasure of really complex details. And I had my own perspective on this important issue, which was very close to my own experiences.  I wanted to advocate for this issue. I was brought up catholic, went to catholic school. So I had my own kind of stake. But the more I got to know Phil, I realized that he’s alive for a very strong specific reason. He’s unlike anybody I have ever met.  It’s not that he got lucky, that he’s around, and be able to do what he did. He’s a remarkable character. So I felt a real responsibility to convey who Phil was.

He’s very open about talking about this abuse he suffered. He’s never repressed it, and been an advocate his entire life. His story is just extraordinary. His priest abused him at age 11. He was diagnosed with HIV positive in 1984. In 1992, he almost wanted to take his own life. But he bounced back. And then he decided to spread his story and be an advocate for this issue. He wasn’t sure how long will he live, but he wanted to use this time at its best. He read this small article in Boston Globe, about this priest, Father Holly, molesting kids in 70s in New Mexico, same priest who molested him in 60s. And no one had talked about this priest or others in a negative way, in his hometown or around in public. Phil got in touch with Globe to connect with these folks who were abused. And he started SNAP. He found a path and destiny, to do what he did. His generosity and spirit was really the furnace for what I was doing.

Art Shrian: Wow, it seems like a story to be told by itself.

Neal Huff: Yes. Who knows what would have happened if spotlight wouldn’t have called him in. They used lot of his help in the beginning to reach out to people. He was key to it all. If you really told Phil Saviano story, that could be a film in itself.

Art Shrian: So what are your thoughts on this important and sensitive subject? It’s unfortunate that it happened, and still happens out there. How has this impacted you and what has been response of your family and friends, and other practicing Catholics, to this film?

Neal Huff: Two examples. My mother goes to church every day. And she’s huge supporter of this film. She was upset that Kim Davis, the court clerk, got an audience with Pope. She was very disappointed. She loves the pope, but her biggest disappointment with him is that why not Phil Saviano get an audience with the Pope. She still goes to church, but also is very hopeful that a story like this will be a good thing for church. It’s the hiding of truth that is the problem. It’s devastating for my mother to see such suffering and pain of people. But still is very hopeful that things will change for good.

I have a close friend, who’s a priest. He married us. I spoke to him last week, and he loved the film. He was concerned how the film will portray the community in certain way. But he liked the film. And he feels that things will move in positive direction. I was really encouraged to hear that he feels that movie is a good thing moving forward.

Art Shrian: Agreed. It’s important that truth is not hidden and right action is taken to fix this kind of corruption. And hopefully things will change for good, and a movie like this definitely helps people understand the issue better and give it more spotlight!

Art Shrian: So, what else are you working on right now?

Neal Huff: There’s another film that came out this fall, Nasty Baby, with Kristen Wiig. I just adore the film. It’s almost a weird look of new definition of family. And cross-reference of gentrification of Brooklyn. Sebastian (the director) is a remarkable genius and does great job with this film. Also working on bunch of things on TV. I have a part in Billions. Also I have an interesting part in Person of Interest, probably airing in summer. Deadbeat is a really fun show, which I’m on. I had a great time on Blacklist. Had great time working with amazing Tim Hunter.

Art Shrian: It’s an amazing time for TV in America with so much good stuff going on. What are your favorite shows right now?

Neal Huff: I’m about to watch River on Netflix, with Stellan Skarsgard. I’m very excited about Portlandia. I loved Master of None.

Art Shrian: There’s so much film and TV stuff going in New York now. How is it to be a working actor in New York City?

Neal Huff: It’s always been my dream. I watched actors like Christopher Walken and William Dafoe, or if you go back in 60s & 50s, like Brando, Dean, DeNiro and many others. The idea of working actor in New York City has always been amazing.  I’m lucky that I have been hanging around here.

Art Shrian: It’s truly a wonderful time to be an actor in New York City. What’s your favorite representation of New York city on screen

Neal Huff: Taxi Driver. I love the film, and I still watch it regularly. It’s like a moving painting of the city. It’s just amazing!

Art Shrian: Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, definitely do a great job of bringing New York City on screen.  Right now on TV, I relaly like what Louis CK does with his show Louis. It’s very honest representation of the city.

Neal Huff: Yes, I love Louis. I can’t wait until the next season comes back. I watch the same episode many times over. I adore the show.

Art Shrian: So last question, what’s your most favorite thing about New York City?

Neal Huff: My most favorite thing about New York, is that you can see anyone from any part of the world. And you can get authentic food from any part of the world here. You go down Roosevelt Av, every block is a completely different ethnicity, completely different cuisine. And that to me is the most favorite part of New York. It’s amazing to see the diversity and authenticity of food and people from around the world, I love it!

Art Shrian: Cannot agree more. New York City is a little worked in itself. That’s one of the reasons why I love New York City… Thanks a lot for taking time to talk to us, and share all this wonderful information and thoughts. Congratulations again on this wonderful movie and All the best!