Joey Nolfi
October 26, 2017 AT 01:39 PM EDT

Though winning an Oscar positioned her among a clan of the most esteemed actresses working today, Melissa Leo has long set her sights on joining a sisterhood of a different kind.

“They had me at nun,” Leo tells EW of being approached to star as a ruthless Reverend Mother in Maggie Betts’ moving coming-of-age drama Novitiate, which has generated awards buzz (particularly for Leo’s supporting turn) since its Sundance bow. “I always wanted to play a nun, and to play the Reverend Mother was a thrill of a lifetime for me. But, generations back, my family were not churchgoers, which is an unusual thing in the United States.”

Historically speaking, Betts’ 1968-set film — which she says was inspired by Mother Teresa’s biography Come Be My Light — examines the radical changes threatening a convent’s traditional operations, as the Catholic Church attempts to radically progress its values under Vatican II.

“It’s a deep, interesting subject, and it’s fascinating as an actor to explore someone who is pointedly not who we are,” Leo says. Betts adds: “If you don’t know, you think of nuns as doddering old ladies, but in fact they’re extremists in terms of their passion and love, and they fall in love [with God] so hard, which I think is beautiful about it.”

The Leftovers‘ Margaret Qualley plays a young nun, Cathleen, searching for herself as she explores her relationship to God, her experience shaped largely by the Reverend Mother, a kindhearted superior (Dianna Agron), and her non-religious mother (Julianne Nicholson). While the transformation into a God-fearing nun was daunting in itself, Qualley took the role a step further, using a real whip during a scene which sees Cathleen performing penance for her sins.

“She really whipped herself in the movie, she insisted on using a real whip. I was sitting there like, this is very authentic, but at the same time this kid is whipping herself,” Betts says. Qualley continues: “Honestly, it comes down to laziness because I hadn’t ever whipped myself in life, so I was like, well, this will be easier than pretending that I know what it’s like to whip myself.”

Novitiate is in theaters Friday, Oct. 27. Watch EW’s interview with Leo, Qualley, Betts, and Agron above. For an in-depth look at Betts’ original screenplay (complete with script notes), head here.

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