Nick Robinson had previously made a name for himself as a teenage heart throb, staring in hits such as Love, Simon and Jurassic World. But now, he takes a turn in FX’s A Teacher, about Eric (Robinson), a student who develops an inappropriate relationship with his English teacher (Kate Mara).
A Teacher instantly established itself as something special and worth talking about. Despite it’s controversial subject matter, the series was an instant hit, becoming the most viewed show on FX on HULU. The series makes you as a person, someone who is or has been young decide where the moral grounds stand on relationships between a person of trust and the trustee, and whether our male/female biased is justified in a situation like this.
A Teacher owes a lot of its success to the cast and crew, mainly from its two leads played by Kate Mara and Nick Robinson. They masterfully in their subtle ways show the emotional effects of being in a physical relationship which the law, society and morals say a big “NO” to, leaving us to make up our own minds.
We were really curious to know where the people who were involved stood on this, which is why our Benji Bury got the opportunity to speak to Robinson to ask about his experience playing Eric and his stand on the series controversial subject matter.
Benji Bury: Thank you for speaking on behalf of AwardsWatch.
NR: Of course.
BB: It’s the age old question, how did the role of Eric end up in your hands?
NR: So I met Hannah [Fidell] and Kate back in early 2019. We went and got a coffee and they just pitched me the show. I actually didn’t know Kate was going to be there. I was going into the meeting thinking it was just with Hannah, and then she brought Kate along, and they both kind of surprised me and told me all about the show, and that was my introduction to it. And then I finally got to read some scripts a few months later. By that summer we had started filming in Calgary. So, it was a pretty truncated process, actually. Probably six months from hearing about it to actually being on set, which doesn’t always happen. And that was my first experience with it, it was getting coffee with Kate and Hannah.
BB: Most of your previous roles have been very teen orientated, whilst this show, basically from the get-go, from the first episode you know it’s not going to be like that. Did you appreciate being able to kind of step outside of this and try something more for mature audiences?
NR: Yeah, definitely. I mean, it’s funny because it was sort of revisiting territory that I had been to before, just being in a role that’s set in a high school. But yeah, all of the actual content of the show felt much more adult and elevated. So that was all exciting to me, it felt like a great way to kind of cap my filmic high school experience. It was set in high school, but it wasn’t really meant for teenagers.
BB: I can imagine if you’re somebody who is a fan of yours, seeing this on Hulu, it would be shocking to see something so different to what you’ve done before.
NR: Yeah, no, absolutely. That was also the hope. I was hopefully being able to use, maybe some of my past projects, or expectations from the audience to kind of surprise people or subvert their expectations a little bit.
BB: Your character really fluctuates in his behaviour in this show, throughout the whole thing. So I was curious to ask, was it a difficulty playing a character like that? Did you appreciate being able to play a character like that?
NR: Yeah, he does fluctuate a lot over the course of the show. Both during the course of the relationship and after. I mean the show spans 10 years, the last episode. So yeah, people change, and so does Eric. And just over the course of the relationship, I mean, it’s just a very tumultuous time for young Eric, and he’s trying to figure out a lot on the fly. And the way that the relationship ultimately ends is devastating for him. And I think the show does a great job of showing sort of the fallout of the relationship, and what it does to not only Eric, but also to Kate. I mean, she, in the later episodes is blaming herself for the relationship, just like Eric is, how the relationship ended. And so it really shows kind of the trauma that these two characters carry with them through the rest of their lives. And yeah, I thought that was one of the exciting parts about the show, is that it had scope. You could really see this relationship from beginning to end, and then after. So yeah, it was an exciting challenge and fun to play.
BB: Did you have much time to get to know each other, and learn your character together? Or was it more like just in the show where you meet and then that’s it, it developed from there?
NR: We had a little bit of a chance beforehand to get to know each other. Hannah had built in a two week rehearsal time. Hannah would have us over for dinner, we would hang out. So we did have some time to actually, yeah, to get to know one another before we started filming. Which was great. You don’t always get that. And Kate was also a brand new mother at the time. She had a newborn baby. I think that was also taking up the majority of her attention and time. But to her credit, she still carved out time to hang out and just get to know one another. And that was actually the most impressive thing in a lot of ways of all, it was just that Kate was, we would shoot for a couple hours then she’d have to go take care of the baby, and then she’d come back, and we’d shoot, and then she’d go back and take care of the baby. And it was an impressive feat to be taking care of a newborn and filming the show.
BB: I think that shows just how much of a passionate actress she is.
BB: Did you appreciate being able to have the opportunity to meet Kate and get to know her? Because obviously for a role and a show like this, the characters have to seem like they know and understand each other in order for it to work.
NR: Yeah. I mean, that was part of the fun, definitely, was getting to know Kate. And the way the show is structured, when Eric and Claire meet for the first time, they don’t know much about each other, and so that sort of lent itself to just, as the show progressed, we also got to know each other better, and it helped with these character developments. So it was all kind of happening in real time. And yeah, and it was a lot of fun. She’s got a great sense of humour, it’s dealing with some heavy subject matter, but we both just laughed a lot and had a really nice time.
BB: Speaking of it being a heavy subject matter. Did you feel at all kind of uncomfortable or hesitant with this role because of how mature and controversial it is? Or did the cast and crew and Kate really help you feel more relaxed about the whole thing?
NR: Definitely the latter. I mean, Hannah, Kate, Michael , our producer, the whole team at FX, it all felt really safe and protected and sort of elevated. So I wasn’t too worried about the subject matter necessarily going into it. I was just more excited. It felt like something different, something I hadn’t done before. And I was just excited for the challenge, really.
BB: I can imagine a lot of the research for this film you would have done a long time ago, because you’ve been a young man before. But I was curious, did you do any sort of other research for this role?
NR: Yeah. I mean, I leaned on Hannah quite a bit for her resources. She did a lot of the leg work leading up to the show, in the writer’s room. She had spoken to a lot of different experts on this subject, or people who experienced it first hand. She lent me some of those resources. I spoke to a psychologist who deals a lot with survivors, male survivors of sexual trauma. And he kind of walked me through what his work was like, helping and treating the survivors and the trauma that’s associated with that. And then beyond that, I mean, I did in fact go to high school at a certain point in my life. So I sort of had that experience in my back pocket. And I’d heard about these kind of relationships all the time. I mean, as soon as you start Googling, you will find that a female teacher, male student, it happens more than you think. And they always get headlines too. So there’s a lot of articles out there. That was the extent of my research mainly.
BB: It’s interesting that you bring up that you see headlines about this, because something I was curious to ask you, I feel like when men do this, whether it’s a male teacher, or just like a male adult figure in someone’s life, I think it’s so common that we kind of normalize it. I’ve never personally been through it, but I’ve known people who have had that sort of inappropriate relationship with an older man when they were a young girl or boy. But when it’s older women, with like a younger boy or girl, it becomes the worst thing ever, and you’d be much more likely to kind of be aware of it. So do you think the show’s important for representation on both sides of the spectrums, it’s just awful, any which way?
NR: Sure. Yeah. I mean, I think that you do bring up an interesting point that there is and can be a double standard in relationships like this. I’ve also found it to be the opposite way, where people will say, “Oh, well, it’s not that big a deal.” If it’s a female teacher and there’s kind of this macho culture of a slap on the back – “What’s the big deal?” And also, I mean, these stories are always scandalized and fetishized to a degree in our culture. So, yeah, it’s strange. There can be a double standard. And when it is a female teacher, it feels like the headlines are much more salacious and kind of breathless and people are… Yeah, they’re fetishizing it in this weird way. I think that Hannah set out to make a show that really kind of showed all sides to the story, and showed the fallout, showed these characters, after the headline had come out and beyond. And to see them kind of just grapple with suddenly having this relationship become public. I think that there’s a certain amount of representation there, I guess. I think Hannah ultimately just set out to make a very human show about these two people, and less so about the sort of global representation of it, and more just about these two characters.
BB: I guess my next question, which kind of leads on to that. I’ve spoken to a few people who’ve seen the show, and some feel very kind of like one side this relationship is awful. I have spoken to some who kind of feel more open about it, kind of have mixed feeling on it. Do you think that people should be allowed to have mixed feelings? Or do you feel like –
BB: Oh, so you do?
NR: Yeah, I think absolutely people should be able to feel what they feel about the relationship, and have mixed feelings about it. I don’t think there should be any kind of monolithic response. I think it’s good actually, that people would have different reactions to it, and discuss it and hopefully come away with a different perspective. But no, I mean, that was part of the fun, I think, after the show came out, was seeing some of the discussion online, and around the show, and people’s opinions kind of changing as the show progressed. Because plenty of people, especially at the beginning were actually rooting for Eric and Claire. One of the things it does really well is to kind of lure in the audience and make them sort of complicit in the relationship, make them on some level, want these two characters to be together. And then it shows this kind of brutal aftermath and, maybe cause people to sort of re-evaluate their initial take on the relationship. But I think it’s good that people have different opinions, definitely.
BB: Are you happy that it started a conversation, and will carry on to start a conversation? Or is your worry that maybe it will turn into this one thing that people kind of forget about the show as a whole?
NR: I’m always happy if there’s a robust conversation happening around something that I’m in. I kind of keep tabs on it from the side lines through social media and stuff. And I always get a kick out of when something is actually bringing up a lot of emotion and passion in people in different… I saw a few comedians and other people do takes on the show, SNL spoofed it. That was really cool. Just to see anything that you’re in have a sort of a cultural moment is great. And then hopefully that sort of translates into a more nuanced conversation or a more nuanced memory around the show, or a legacy for the show. Hopefully that’s what we hope for.
BB: And I think that’s the best thing about it, because places like SNL talking about it and parading it shows there is a conversation to be had, and after a while it’ll come away from this show in general, and kind of move on to the conversation within itself. And that conversation will keep going and going and going.
NR; Yeah. I mean, hope so. I think that new people may discover the show, and it was the most watched show in FX on Hulu history, which was also exciting. People really, I think it just hit at the time when people, could have been the lockdown, I don’t know what, but it just, it did hit a moment, so hopefully people will kind of keep discovering it.
BB: Okay, sir, this his will be my final question for you. What did you learn from playing the character, Eric?
NR: I learned a lot about male, sort of the male gaze when it comes to a lot of different things. The male gaze towards trauma and how trauma can be interpreted very differently for young men, and the way that it can then translate itself into daily kind of actions and thought patterns. And also something that you touched on kind of the double standard that can exist between male abusers and female abusers. And, I mean, I also made some great friendships off the show, which is learning, I think that counts for something. Hannah and I have stayed close. And I just saw Kate a few nights ago at a Rose Bowl screening, which was really fun.
BB: I guess it’s clear to say that one of your biggest hopes, and one of Hannah’s and Kate’s biggest hopes with the show is that it opens minds of both men and women and keeps our minds opened.
NR: Yeah. I would say, hopefully it can spark a conversation around consent and abuse of power, and just kind of re-examining, maybe something that you, some clickbait you saw, or something that, as an initial take, you thought was appropriate, and just taking a closer look at it, and hopefully helping have a more nuanced conversation around the idea of consent and power dynamics, and power roles in relationships, and how there’s a lot of grey area. It’s really hard to know when you stepped over the line.
BB: Nick, I thank you very much, sir. You’re very open and I really appreciate the talk. I learned a lot from it, personally.
NR: Awesome, man. Thank you.
A Teacher is currently available to stream in full on Hulu. Nick Robinson is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series, Anthology Series or Movie.
Photo: Chris Large/FX