Kate Mara and Nick Robinson of FX on Hulu’s A Teacher talk to Awards Daily about reactions to the show and their on-screen relationship.
When it came to putting together a provocative TV drama about an illicit relationship between a teacher and a student, one important quality FX on Hulu’s A Teacher series creator Hannah Fidell looked for was chemistry between leads Kate Mara [who also served as executive producer] and Nick Robinson, so she set them up on a coffee date.
“After I got that coffee with Kate,” says Robinson with a laugh, “sparks were flying.”
“Nick didn’t know I was showing up,” laughs Mara. “So I think [Hannah] did that on purpose to see us interact with each other, to know what it was going to be like. You could tell instantly whether or not you were on the same wavelength as someone.”
Although there was one thing Mara and Robinson were not on the same wavelength about at that first encounter.
“It’s a funny visual,” says Mara. “The table was very high and Nick didn’t know until the very end when I stood up that I was eight months pregnant. He was like, ‘Whoah! When are we shooting this?'”
Why is chemistry important to a show about a predatory relationship that deals with grooming and has a warning at the beginning and end of every episode? A Teacher is a rare series that makes audiences as complicit as its characters.
Claire and Eric’s Happy Ending?
In an Awards Daily interview, Fidell remarked that fan reaction to the show has been really interesting, since audiences want Claire and Eric to get together, even going so far as to send her messages about it. How does that make the actors feel?
“Concerned,” deadpans Robinson.
“I think that’s a compliment to the show,” says Mara. “If people weren’t conflicted or confused about seeing these two people together at the very beginning, or if the audience didn’t see their chemistry, then it wouldn’t work. I think it’s a good thing that people talk about it in that way and feel badly that they want these people at certain moments to be together.”
“I fully agree with that,” echoes Robinson. “People who are having conflicting feelings about the push-pull of ‘Is this wrong?’—that means we all have done our jobs. That means it was a success.”
Making the Audience Complicit
In addition to making audiences complicit in Claire and Eric’s relationship, it also makes them question predatory nature. With Claire seemingly a normal teacher you might see at any high school across America, does that mean that anyone can be a predator? Mara doesn’t think so.
“She 100 percent was on a mission to mess up her life,” says Mara. “I think the point is that she doesn’t feel worthy of love. I don’t think it would have been with just any student.”
And when it came to telling her only teacher friend at school Kathryn (Marielle Scott) about the relationship, which resulted in ruining her career and life, this was just denial.
“At that point, she was was telling herself all kinds of lies, why this might be okay. I don’t think it was one reason why she told her, it was many. Tequila was also involved.”
When it comes to Eric’s arc, from being in love with Claire to realizing that he was being groomed, audiences don’t get to see Eric’s “a-ha” moment when he makes the epiphany.
“I think it takes him a long time,” says Robinson. “Into college and beyond, the way it impacted Claire’s life, he’s wrestling with a lot of guilt and conflicting feelings. He’s being told different things from different people. It seems to be a common thing among survivors that it doesn’t ever fully go away or make sense necessarily; it can always be with you in one way or another.”
Bringing Grooming into the Vernacular
We’ve seen teacher-student relationship depicted on television before, with characters from Kelly Kapowski to Pacey Witter. And yet in these instances, these forbidden relationships are never depicted as having a power imbalance at play or addressing grooming, when an adult prepares for a sexual encounter with a child.
“When you say Pacey, I know exactly what you’re talking about,” says Mara. “I think we’re in a different time, for sure. If you’ve seen the Britney Spears documentary [Framing Britney Spears on Hulu], you see her being asked questions in interviews that are completely outrageous that today wouldn’t happen or if it did happen, it would be very upsetting and people would be talking about it. I think luckily society is maybe moving in another direction where our eyes are a little more open to the subject matters and how we should be treating them and not glorifying them.”
“Grooming was not a definition up until recently, at least not a common vernacular,” says Robinson. “The decision FX made to put the trigger warnings at the beginning and the end of the episode was a smart one, just to underline the show and bring awareness to it. We’re in a different time now where the conversation is a little more nuanced than it was before. It was funny though to see people’s reactions online; there were definitely people who didn’t think there was any grooming going on.”
Career Performances from Mara and Robinson
For Mara and Robinson, Claire and Eric were roles that were quite a departure from what audiences are used to seeing from these actors.
Mara’s last TV appearance was as the sad housewife to philanderer Evan Peters on FX’s Pose and before that her lead role as Zoe Barnes got side-swiped (quite literally) by Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) on Netflix’s House of Cards.
“What I was attracted to in playing Claire was that I knew that a lot of people would judge her right away,” says Mara, “before anything even happened in the series, because of what she’s eventually going to do. I’m attracted to playing those kinds of characters. I want to play people that I find challenging to connect with or that I know other people won’t necessarily be on board with. I think it’s fun to explore the choices people make and the psychology behind those choices.”
Robinson has made his young career playing the boy next door in TV shows like Melissa & Joey and in films like Love, Simon, but despite playing a teenager in A Teacher (he’s 25), it marks his most adult role to date.
“This was set in high school, which was familiar territory for me at that point,” said Robinson. “It was exciting to revisit a story set in high school but have it be completely different from any other story I had done set in that world. The subversiveness of that was appealing. It’s definitely dealing with some adult themes. I thought the show had a lot to say in terms of its content, messing with people’s expectations in terms of what these kinds of relationships do to people and the aftermath.”
All episodes of A Teacher are available on FX on Hulu.
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer that lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, The Cut, Paste, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thrillist, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @heydudemeg.