Some actresses might find the prospect of playing a nun -- dressed from head to toe in a black habit -- daunting, but not Meryl Streep, and not because, with her talents, she seems able to do anything.
"I found nuns' habits to be liberating, not only because they are a negation of things that women in the outside world have to contend with, but also because they focus on the true essence of a woman -- her face and her hands," Streep said while discussing her starring role in "Doubt."
The Academy Award-winning actress, accompanied by her co-star Amy Adams, recently sat down with ABC News Now's "Popcorn With Peter Travers" to talk about the drama, which opened Dec. 12.
The movie, based on John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, is set at St. Nicholas, a fictional parochial grammar school in the Bronx in 1964. It boasts not only an impressive cast -- Oscar winners Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman with Oscar nominee Adams -- but also Oscar-winning director John Patrick Shanley.
"We were very lucky the writer directed," Streep said. Adams agreed, adding that Shanley was able to add his voice and vision to the movie, unlike the Broadway play, which he did not direct.
Streep plays Mother Superior Sister Aloysius, the school's autocratic principal, the superior to Adams' character, the idealistic and compassionate young teacher Sister James. Streep said that, despite her character's leadership position at the school, she and the other nuns were subservient to the priests in the nearby rectory, thereby placing them firmly at the bottom of the hierarchy.
Adams added that her character was "at the bottom of the bottom," describing her as "very compassionate, questioning and examining, [someone] who gets caught up in the conflict and sort of starts it," leaving Sister Aloysius to bear the burden and the blame.
In the film, Sister James notices a pattern of peculiar behavior by a popular priest, Father Flynn (Hoffman) and 12-year-old Donald, the school's first black student, which arouses her curiosity. She suspects Flynn of inappropriate sexual conduct, and tells Sister Aloysius, hoping to be alleviated of her anxiety.
Sister Aloysius not only immediately decides Flynn is guilty, despite the scant evidence, but also refuses to let Sister James out of it.
Describing her character's motives, Streep said, "I don't want her to extricate herself because I needed help. In my struggle to implicate my superior, I had to use my wits to bring down a predator as I see him."
Is Father Flynn guilty? Are things as they seem? The movie plays on the themes of culpability, certainty and, of course, doubt. To keep that spirit alive on the set, Hoffman, according to Adams and Streep, secluded himself from his two co-stars.
"I thought Phil didn't like me anymore," Streep said with a grin, "I thought, 'what happened? What did I do?' But realized it was a position he was taking ... to make me miserable!"
Streep mused that, with doubt, comes uncertainty and for actors, "uncertainty is your friend. As an actor you live in uncertainty. The ship is always rocking. At every given time in your life, you are unemployed. You are more unemployed than employed."
Both Streep and Adams met with the real Sister James, a 70-year-old nun after whom Shanley modeled Adams' character both in spirit and in name.