'Love song to female investigative journalists': Keira Knightley on 'Boston Strangler'

“Boston Strangler,” a true-crime drama told from the perspective of two tenacious South Shore female reporters who broke the story of the infamous serial killer, is streaming on Hulu.

The movie is a crime drama based on the real-life case of the serial killer who murdered 13 women in the Boston area during the early 1960s. Filmed in and around Boston between December 2021 and February 2022, the movie is the latest high-profile Hollywood project to shoot in the area.

The cast, Keira Knightley, Carrie Coon, Chris Cooper and Alessandro Nivola, joined director Matt Ruskin, a Watertown native, on March 6 for a news conference held via Zoom to talk about making the movie in Boston, the pioneering female journalists who cracked the case and how most of the actors were banned from adopting a Boston accent.

Braintree gets its closeup in ‘Boston Strangler’

“Boston Strangler” started filming in December 2021 at locations in Boston and surrounding towns, including the former Foster Elementary School in Braintree. The school was transformed into a Michigan police station, where Keira Knightley's character travels to during her investigation of the serial killer.

Several ‘60s-era vehicles, including cars with “Michigan State Police” on the doors, were parked at the school and in the driveways of nearby homes on Jan. 26-27, 2022.

Vehicles from the 1960s are parked at the closed Foster School in Braintree for the filming of "Boston Strangler" on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022.

“Boston Strangler” began shooting on Dec. 6, 2021, at a school in Belmont that was temporarily turned into a Cambridge police station. Other shooting locations were on Dwight Street in Boston's South End and the neighborhood near Doyle's in Jamaica Plain. Scenes were also shot in Roxbury, Roslindale, Lynn, Lowell, Wellesley and Malden.

“In terms of the look and feel for the film, we wanted to create something that felt authentic, that really transported people back to this time,” Ruskin said. “Boston is a very different city these days. We were lucky enough to be able to shoot in some of the old neighborhoods, but a lot of that is gone, so we had to recreate quite a bit of it.”

Keira Knightley as Milton resident and investigative reporter Loretta McLaughlin in a scene from "Boston Strangler," streaming March 17 on Hulu.

Keira Knightley as Milton’s Loretta McLaughlin

“Boston Strangler” centers on how the late Milton journalist Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley, “Pirates of the Caribbean”) and her fellow Boston Record American reporter, Scituate native Jean Cole Harris (Carrie Coon, “Gone Girl”), challenged the sexism of the early 1960s in covering the story.

They were the first reporters to connect the murders to one suspect, dubbed the Boston Strangler. Despite derision and ridicule from investigators, the two worked tirelessly to pursue the story and keep women informed of the dangers.

Longtime Braintree and Milton resident Loretta McLaughlin is played by Keira Knightley in "Boston Strangler."

“This whole film is really a love song to female investigative journalists,” Knightley said. “It highlights how important it is to have women in positions of power in storytelling because these two women really went, ‘This is an important story. This is information that needs to be in the public in order to keep women of Boston safe.’  Largely, it was a story that had been, at that point, ignored by the male establishment.”

McLaughlin, a longtime Braintree and Milton resident, died in 2018 at age 90. She was a recipient of the Abigail Adams Tribute award for 1995. The award, given by the Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus, honors outstanding Massachusetts women who have made significant contributions to the political, economic and social rights of women.

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She had a long career in journalism, starting as a beat reporter covering Massachusetts politics for State House News Service. She also covered the 1950s Brinks robbery and was a medical reporter for the Boston Herald.

Knightley said she could not resist the chance to play a trailblazer like McLaughlin and also course-correcting history.

“You’ve got a case where most people didn’t know that it was two women who broke the story," she said. "They’ve largely sort of been erased from the history of this case.”

McLaughlin retired from journalism as the Boston Globe’s editorial page editor. She wrote the Globe’s endorsements of William Weld for governor of Massachusetts, Bill Clinton for president of the United States and Thomas Menino for mayor of Boston.

Knightley said she was in awe of her character's "tenacity."

"I've been speaking to quite a few women who've seen the film, and this word keeps coming up, which I find fascinating, which is it was 'cathartic' to watch it. ... All of the things that she came up against, whether it's the male-dominated workplace or desperately trying to have a home life and a job and trying to raise children at the same point as trying to get justice for these women ... her tenacity (and) the fact that she became an award-winning journalist whose children clearly adored her, I found that very inspiring."

Carrie Coon as Scituate's Jean Cole in a scene from "Boston Strangler," streaming March 17 on Hulu.

Carrie Coon as Scituate’s Jean Cole

Carrie Coon, best known from “Gone Girl” and the HBO hit series “The Gilded Age,” plays Scituate journalist Jean Cole Harris, the more experienced reporter of the duo. Coon said the most shocking part of the real-life Boston Strangler investigation was “that these women were so integral to breaking the case and to force the police departments to share information. Their names are never mentioned in association with it. … These women had been erased from the story.”

Cole died in 2015 at age 89. She grew up in Scituate, one of six children of the town’s fire chief, Howard Cole, and his wife, Margaret. She began a long newspaper career as a “copy boy” for the Boston Daily Record in 1944. From 1972 until her retirement in 1981, she wrote for the Boston Herald American. Much of her work involved investigative reporting, twice exposing deficiencies in the state’s nursing homes after going undercover as a nurse’s aide. She also helped chronicle the criminal elements operating in downtown Boston, coining the moniker “the Combat Zone.”

Jean Cole had not planned on becoming a reporter, but she ended up having a highly successful career that spanned decades.

Coon said McLaughlin and Cole’s personal stories affected her, not just as an actor but also as a woman and mother of two young children.

“Their stories of how they became journalists, as individuals, were very compelling, very moving stories. (They) certainly echoed the lives of the women in my world who grew up in the Midwest. My mother was a nurse. One of my grandmothers was a teacher, and the other was a homemaker. And those were the opportunities available to women aside from secretaries. So Jean’s fight to become a journalist was very moving to me.”

Keira Knightley as Loretta McLaughlin, a Milton resident, and Kingston's Chris Cooper as Jack MacLaine, in a scene from "Boston Strangler," streaming March 17 on Hulu.

Kingston’s Chris Cooper plays a grizzled newspaper editor

In the movie, Loretta McLaughlin (Knightley) clashes with a tough newspaper editor (Kingston’s Chris Cooper) who doubts her reporting chops.

“You’re on the lifestyle desk,” Cooper’s Jack MacLaine snaps. “You’re not covering a homicide.”

Cooper, an Academy Award winner for “Adaptation,” said in researching his role he went straight to an expert:

“I was lucky enough to rub shoulders with Eileen McNamara, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who worked for the Boston Globe in the ’70s and ’80s," he said. "Loretta was a mentor to Eileen, and Eileen directed me to exactly what I needed. ... Eileen directed me to source material that was so specifically for the ’60s newsroom, what happens politically, terminology I wanted to know, hierarchy within the paper. That’s where my interest is, and that’s where my research led me.”

Cooper won an Academy Award in 2003 as best supporting actor for his work in "Adaptation." He was nominated for a Tony Award in 2017 for “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” Other film work includes "Seabiscuit," "Capote," "American Beauty," “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” and “The Bourne Identity.”

In a 2019 interview with The Patriot Ledger, Cooper said he loved filming “Little Women,” “The Company Men” and Ben Affleck’s “The Town” in Massachusetts. It's "get in the car and go to work," said the actor, who lives 30 miles south of Boston in Kingston with his wife, Marianne Leone, a writer and actress.

Writer-director Matt Ruskin attends a special screening of "Boston Strangler" at the Museum of Modern Art on Tuesday, March 14, 2023, in New York.

No Boston accents

Director Matt Ruskin, a Watertown native, knows how possessive Bostonians are of their infamous accent.

Flub it, like Blake Lively in “The Town” or Jack Nicholson in “The Departed,” and ridicule awaits.

When filming began, Ruskin said he told his cast that anyone not from Boston was not going to do a Boston accent. Knightley is British and Coon grew up in Ohio, and they were disappointed.

“We were like, 'Please let us try. Please let us try,'” Knightley said. “And he's like, 'No way. You're not from Boston. You're not doing it.'”

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Coon said the script was written in the rhythms of Boston accents, which made it “hard to resist.”

“Everybody wants to try it, but Matt took away that pleasure,” she said, with a laugh.

“It was important to me not to go down that road if it felt unnecessary,” Ruskin said. “I didn't want that to get in the way of the story we were telling.”

For example, Ruskin said McLaughlin’s parents were Irish immigrants, so she would have grown up in a house without Boston accents.

“They were just trying to assimilate,” he said.

As Detective Conley, Nivola, a Boston native, offers a hint of an accent, but most of the dropped R’s are saved for the smaller supporting players, all plucked from a pool of regional actors to fill out the police department and reporting corps. That added another layer of authenticity.

“You'll be hard-pressed to find anyone working in the police department who doesn't sound like that,” Cooper adds, with a laugh.

Boston native Alessandro Nivola as Detective Conley, in a scene from "Boston Strangler," streaming March 17 on Hulu.

Alessandro Nivola and Quincy’s ‘Craigslist Killer”

Nivola (“The Many Saints of Newark”) plays the lead detective seeking the Boston Strangler. Despite being a Massachusetts native, this is Nivola’s first time playing a Boston character. And he says he based his performance on a Boston homicide detective who investigated the “Craigslist Killer.”

Quincy resident Philip Markoff was dubbed the "Craigslist killer" after he shot and killed a masseuse at the Marriott Copley Hotel in Boston's Back Bay in April 2009. He had been living in the HighPoint apartment complex off Quarry Street in Quincy when he was arrested and charged with that slaying. Markoff killed himself in jail while awaiting trial.

Nivola said he found a “fascinating” video of the police detective’s two-hour interrogation of Markoff.

“It was actually the first time I'd ever really listened to a real police interrogation start to finish. And it's so brilliant. ... I basically just imitated the voice of the detective in that investigation.”

Albert DeSalvo, right, arrives for a court appearance in Cambridge on Jan. 10, 1967. A judge sentenced DeSalvo, a factory worker who claimed he was the notorious Boston Strangler, but questions still swirl around DeSalvo's confession.

Who was the Boston Strangler?

Thirteen Boston-area women, ages 19 to 67, were sexually assaulted and killed between 1962 and 1964, crimes that terrorized the region and grabbed national headlines. All the victims were strangled with articles of their own clothing; one also was stabbed repeatedly.

In 1967, Albert DeSalvo – who confessed to the crimes but was never charged – was convicted on unrelated armed robbery and sexual assault charges. He was sentenced to life, and was stabbed to death in 1973 at the state prison in Walpole.

The Boston Strangler has long been the subject of movies and books. Tony Curtis played DeSalvo in a 1968 movie that also featured Henry Fonda and George Kennedy. Marshfield author Casey Sherman, a nephew of victim Mary Sullivan, wrote “A Rose for Mary,” a 2003 book about the case. Sullivan, 19, had moved from Whitman to Boston just three days before she became the final victim.

This article originally appeared on The Patriot Ledger: Knightley, Coon, Cooper talk all things 'Boston Strangler'