Nick Robinson made his name acting in YA dramas, but after the huge success of Love, Simon in 2018, he was ready to move on from high school corridors and teenage heartache. Kate Mara and director Hannah Fidell had other ideas, though. With the script for A Teacher, they presented the actor with a character whose naivety is entangled in a complex web of lust and manipulation, and a story that offsets innocence with exploitation. Dealing with delicate, provocative themes, this was a story that provided all of the grit, nuance and challenges Robinson had been looking for.
Based on Fidell’s 2013 film of the same name, the FX mini-series centres on an affair between 18-year-old student and soccer team captain Eric (Robinson) and his English teacher, Claire (Mara). After following the relationship escalate and quickly combust, in the second half of the series Fidell explores its uncomfortable consequences as they unfurl, and we’re left to grapple with the lasting trauma Eric faces. Speaking to Mara a few days before the series’ release and in the midst of the US election count, Robinson reflects on the challenges of the role, working with Ed Harris for his recent stint in To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway, and the importance of staying politically energised and engaged.
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KM: So I guess we should talk about our show — how are you feeling about the release? It’s coming out in a few days… NR: I know, how crazy is that? I feel good about it; I feel excited for people to see it and to see some reactions.
KM: I think people should know this — I mean, I think it’s interesting — that when me and Hannah first met you to talk to you about this, you hadn’t even read the script yet. We were both kind of like ‘Oh shit, I hope he’s OK with playing a high schooler again’. We both knew you were probably ready to move on and not looking to play 17, 18. But we also knew you would kill it. So I’m wondering what made you decide to do that again NR: Well first of all, you and Hannah basically ambushed me. I had no idea you were going to be at the meeting; I thought it was a general meeting with Hannah. But it was exciting! And you’re right — I did, at that point, think that I should move on from high school. I’d done a couple of high school roles, but this show was different. It wasn’t a young adult thing; it wasn’t a coming-of-age thing. The whole thing didn’t take place in high school, half the episodes take place outside of it. And it was dealing with some heavy and interesting subject matter — power dynamics, consent, male sexuality, and the fetishising of these kind of relationships.
KM: Speaking for myself, the most challenging part of shooting this was having a newborn baby. Not just having to care for her in the night while we were shooting long days, it was more switching from being a nurturing mum to going to set and being the opposite, a predatory teacher. It’s very flirtatious and this show is very sexual. What was the most challenging thing for you about making this? NR: I mean, I can’t really hold a candle to that… To me, the most challenging aspect was our schedule, really. There was a lot of times we didn’t have a lot of time, and there is a stress that comes with that.
KM: The second half of the show, where your character is experiencing more of the trauma of the relationship, was that a more challenging aspect to shoot? NR: The emotional stuff was challenging, for sure. It’s not always easy for me to get into an emotionally vulnerable place for those scenes. There was also a question for me of finding Eric’s trauma and understanding it, because clearly he was devastated by this relationship. Finding a way to internalise that and have it make sense for me was a challenge.
KM: Towards the end of the nights, sometimes those were more stressful, especially for us. But also I do think back on those as fun, because I felt we had a serious camaraderie. Even though we had this amazing team, it does end up feeling like you and I against the world. Because it’s like if we don’t find it, then it doesn’t matter what’s going on around us. That, to me, was really fun because acting is all about connection and trying to become other people and explore other relationships. NR: At the end of the day, it’s just us.
KM: I think people would like to know how respectful you are, specifically when it comes to love scenes. What’s your prep like? NR: It feels like you’re fishing here… I guess I can just speak for one night in particular, where I would eat wings, chicken wings — Kate is vegan, for those of you who don’t know. This sounds pretty awful now that I’m saying it out loud. But I would eat some wings and smoke a cigarette, and jump right in. And I think it worked?
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KM: I’ll tell you, as your scene partner — even though I think that’s pretty foul — it did make it amusing. It cut any tension. NR: I think it broke the ice. It really just kind of cut through the BS. So you’re welcome!
KM: Thank you… That’ll go down for me in history. But I do forgive you, I think it worked in some weird way. Putting this project into the context of your career so far, you choosing to do this character and this show, is the hope that people will see a different side to you as an actor? NR: That’s always the hope — that each role will show a different side of you or change audiences’ preconceived notions of you, or a subject. And this was certainly no exception. It was set in a world that I had visited in past roles, but in a very different context and very different characters, and ultimately just a very different story. I do hope that people watching this are maybe surprised.
KM: I’ve remembered you as a kid actor, but when I saw Love, Simon, is it weird to say I was like ‘That’s our guy’? It’s such a different character, such a different tone. I went to see it with my friend Richard Lawson, who is a film critic at Vanity Fair. We were both so blown away by your performance in it and your rawness and your honesty. Obviously it really is very different than your role in this, but there was something about your performance that I was like ‘He would kill this’. So I’m so glad that you wanted to. I didn’t get a chance to see you on Broadway — I’m sorry, I really wanted to! What was it like going straight from our show to your Broadway debut? NR: It was crazy. That whole year, actually, was really crazy. I was really lucky to work back-to-back, but it was a marathon. I flew from Calvary to New York, missed the first rehearsal day, spent the night at my girlfriend’s place, woke up and went right into the second rehearsal for To Kill a Mockingbird. But I guess the good thing about theatre is that you have that rehearsal time, it wasn’t like we were going straight into shooting something that lives forever on celluloid. I had some time to acclimate and readjust. It was still really stressful; I don’t know if I could do it again, to be honest. But also, I knew it was going to be a challenge and I wanted that. I wanted to test my boundaries.
KM: Was it Ed Harris, that you were in To Kill a Mockingbird with? NR: Yes!
KM: Because he’s one of my favourite, favourite actors. Was that surreal? Have you been intimidated by anyone you’ve worked with? NR: Yes, I have. You might be an example! I’m always intimidated, every time I go onto a film set or any job for the first time. And then, over time, you start to get comfortable and find your lane.
KM: It sort of feels like the first day of school, the first week of shooting, I think. NR: Totally, you’re not sure what’s going to happen. You’re trying to figure out where you fit into all of this, but usually it works out. Ed was at first, of course, very intimidating. He’s a legend. Still smokes unfiltered cigarettes, so he would go outside and smoke unfiltered cigarettes in-between scenes. But ultimately a sweetheart. He’s a teddy bear that has a murderous rage inside him
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KM: But also just so handsome, like wow. What a face. NR: The baby blues. He’s got some incredible eyes, he does. When you hear about piercing blue eyes, you think Ed Harris.
KM: Absolutely. NR: He’s great. You can learn a lot too just by watching people, and what was great about doing the play is that’s all you did. You just sat around in a room and watched people work through their creative processes. It was really cool, I felt lucky to be there.
KM: With everything that’s happened in the past year, has it changed your outlook on, or your approach, to what you want to work on?
NR: Yes. Well it’s changed my life, for sure. I think it’s changed everybody’s life. And because of that, it’s also changed how I work, how I live, how I want to live my life. 2020 has been a doozy, I’m not going to say anything that someone else has already said, but it has definitely changed my perspective on things. My priorities have changed, the way that I view the world has changed. I feel very lucky to be working right now, in a different way than I have before. I always feel lucky when I’m working, but especially to be doing it now, on a good job, I just feel very grateful. Also, being in Canada is a perk…This is a tangent, but I’m in Victoria on Vancouver Island, and there’s been 250 cases of Covid for the whole pandemic. I think they’ve had five deaths, there’s maybe one person hospitalised on the island right now. Coming from the States,
from California, [it was] just a reminder of what competent government can do. It’s like it didn’t have to be like this; it’s just sad. But I do feel like hopefully, if nothing else comes out of this year, maybe some changing of our collective priorities…
KM: I obviously haven’t known you for very long, but I think you have been really righting your voice over the past seven, eight months on social media. I feel like you really have been using your voice for a lot of movements. I don’t know if you felt that sort of desire before, but I do feel that urgency now from you. I think it’s so important that, as actors, we all feel the responsibility in some way to help progress change. Not just in Hollywood, but in the world. NR: Sure, yeah. Not even just actors, but I think it’s important that everybody makes their opinion heard and be like ‘This is not OK; these things that are happening are not OK’. To not normalise it, and to not brush it under the rug. And I’m still kind of finding my voice, so to speak. I’m still not particularly comfortable with expressing it on social media…
NR: I feel the same way. KM: It’s an ego thing, taking your ego out of it and being like ‘No, this is clearly the right thing to do’. And then just doing it. I feel more content with those decisions, when I just do it, than I do when I’m posting something self-promoting about whatever. I think it’s really important, clearly, to be civically engaged right now. You saw how close the election was. It’s so imperative, if we want to have any kind of democracy that works, that people stay engaged, they stay energised, they keep their voices heard. Not just after this election, but in the midterms and in 2024. And it’s exhausting, but that’s how change is affected. Again, maybe that’s another silver lining of this year, or this presidency — that there was the highest turnout since 1900. People are hopefully starting to pay more attention, and waking up and seeing just how dangerous and fragile our democracy is when it’s in the hands of the wrong people. It’s been a wild, wild ride, and this year has just been crazy. It’s been a convergence of so many things all at once. I think now, assuming that Biden wins, we’re kind of just left to pick up the pieces and hopefully be able to move forward as a slightly more united country. To me it doesn’t feel like a time for celebration; it’s kind of a sombre moment, and one where I hope we can put down the pitchforks and torches.
NR: And actually unite. KM: Yeah, and understand each other as people, not as parties.