A 17-year-old high school student is looking to up his SAT scores. He runs into his English teacher at a local diner and she offers to tutor him. Soon enough their after-school sessions turn intimate, and it’s not long before controversy implodes around them.
That’s the premise of “A Teacher,” which just wrapped its 10-episode run on FX on Hulu. The limited series, written, directed and produced by Hannah Fidell, is based on her directorial film debut of the same name, which only touches the surface of the provocative scenario. Fidell’s goal with the show was to fully explore the ramifications of student-teacher abuse and create a dialogue about predatory sexual assault and grooming.
Kate Mara, 37, jumped at the chance to produce and star in the series, and convinced “Love, Simon” actor Nick Robinson, 25, to be her on-screen partner. The co-stars play Claire Wilson and Eric Walker in the Texas-set story, which follows a promising high schooler and the endless trauma he endures after being seduced by his educator, an unhappily married woman in her 30s.
“A Teacher” culminates a decade after the scandal. Eric is now a youth counselor and Claire, after a short prison sentence, is remarried with two children. The pair run into each other while Eric is in town for his high school reunion.
As guilt seemingly washes over her, Claire feels inclined to ask Eric to lunch. During their meetup, Claire tells him that cowardice prevented her from reaching out to apologize, but she was happy to see they both moved forward with their lives.
“I didn’t move forward with my life,” he tells her. “Our relationship fucking destroyed me.”
Claire goes on to say how sorry she is and that she should have stopped him from pursuing her. That’s when Eric states exactly what she needs to hear.
You’re in denial. Do you know how long it took me to figure out that I wasn’t responsible? That you were the one creating those moments? Do you know how long I hated myself because I thought that I hurt you? I lost years.
“I have to live with this forever, and so do you,” Eric adds before walking out of the restaurant.
In this interview, Mara and Robinson discuss that final scene, the audience’s reaction to the series and society’s biased views on victimhood.
What kind of reactions have you seen to the series? And are they what you expected?
Nick Robinson: Yeah, actually, I think it’s what we all hoped for. I’m not really on Twitter, but I’m on Instagram and I see people’s takes. The dialogue amongst the viewers, that’s kind of the most exciting part because there seems to be real conversations happening. Even just from the “A Teacher” Instagram page, I’ve been reading comments and there’s been some conversations that FX has done a good job of facilitating. But yeah, you never know how something is going to be [received].
In my opinion, once I do something, once I finish the job, once it comes out, it’s really none of my business what people’s experiences are with it in a lot of ways. It’s amazing to check in and see what people are saying, but it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with me because people will experience the performance how they want to experience it.
A lot of people are shocked by it, yet drawn in. They want to watch it, they want to turn it off. It is the kind of show that really starts a conversation ― for good and bad.
Kate Mara: Yeah, it has been interesting. People are very passionate about their feelings and I think that, for the most part, people have a lot of conflicting feelings about the show. What I love about it, and really what we wanted, is that there’s a lot of conversation happening about it and how it makes people feel. The fact that it’s making people feel so passionately in one way or another is a good thing. And I guess because we’ve lived with it for so long and I’ve seen so many different versions of every episode, I’m always surprised when people are surprised. But it’ll be interesting to see people’s reactions to the end of the show since it’s more about the consequences.
I had the chance to watch all 10, 25-minute episodes in a row and it was very effective ― just to see, immediately, how both Claire and Eric face what has happened over the years. But how do you feel about the episode-at-a-time rollout? Is it as effective?
Mara: It’s funny that you mention that because I think my experience is different as a producer on it. I’ve watched all the dailies. I watched every episode many, many, many times. So, you know, I haven’t really been watching it as a viewer every week. Nick, have you seen every episode?
Robinson: I haven’t seen the show in its entirety. I have seen parts of every episode and I’ve seen everything up until maybe 9 and 10. But I’m excited to see people’s reactions to the final episode.
It’s a real gut punch. Nick, I know you said you weren’t really looking to play another high schooler, but this story is not your typical teen offering; it has dark, complex layers to it. Is that why you decided to take it on?
Robinson: Yeah, I mean this story is very different from most high-school-set TV shows. It’s trying to bring attention to totally separate issues than the coming-of-age tropes that we usually see. In some kind of twisted way, this is kind of a coming-of-age story, but just a much darker, more adult, complicated one. So, yeah, that’s why I decided to do it. And Kate and Hannah are both very persuasive people.
Mara: I am very persuasive, this is true. Yeah, it feels like forever ago. I thought that he had read the script of the first few episodes already and then when he sat down …
Robinson: I’d been told nothing.
Mara: Yeah. And I was like, oh, crap, OK, well I guess we have to like pitch it to him now.
Robinson: I didn’t even know you were going to be at the meeting. I just thought I was going to have some coffee with Hannah to catch up, talk about life, like a general thing.
Mara: That is so funny. It was so unclear, our intentions.
Robinson: I was ambushed!
Hey, it worked out. Kate, what was your experience like signing on to the project? Did you know right away this script was something you wanted to take on as a producer?
Mara: Hannah and our producing partner on this, Michael Costigan, both approached me, I think it was five years ago now, with the idea of making [her movie “A Teacher”] a series. There wasn’t a script or anything, it was just the idea and the offer of starring in it and producing it with them. And, you know, luckily I had already seen the movie and Hannah’s other work so I knew her style and what she was going for. So, it was great because it was so early on and I was very involved with the creativity of it.
It’s a heart-wrenching story, and I’m sure you want to make sure you get it right and that the right conversations emerge from it. Were you nervous at all to do this?
Mara: Um, I wouldn’t say I was nervous, but there were those extra additives. There’s not just my performance, but, you know, the show and the movie as a whole. For me, that’s why I wanted to be a part of producing it.
I had only produced one other thing before [“My Days of Mercy”] and it was pretty heavy. It was a gay love story, but also the death penalty was a very, very big part of it. So that and a story about a teacher having an illegal relationship with her student is also pretty intense. So I guess I am attracted to things that are a little bit more dramatic and heavy and complicated. That’s much more interesting to me to be a part of something like that.
Robinson: Lighten up, Kate. Jeez.
Robinson: I’m only kidding.
Mara: I need to do a comedy.
It’s a strange dynamic for viewers, who root for these characters in a way and then realize oh, no, no, no. It’s the idea of fantasy vs. reality, which is what they are facing themselves. Can you discuss that a bit, and how you both felt playing Claire and Eric?
Robinson: Really the first five episodes walk this tightrope act, this high-wire act, between building this relationship and then revealing the insidiousness of it and the ways that both of these characters are making mistakes. And then, in the later episodes, all the cards are laid on the table and you get to see a full perspective of the damage the relationship has done. And it’s no longer from Eric and Claire’s POV and their perfect bubble when they’re in their relationship. I think that was intentional.
I think Hannah wanted to make the audience complicit in the relationship and one of the ways to do that was to make the audience sometimes question, “Is this right? Is this wrong?” And in some cases kind of root for Eric and Claire at the beginning, and then ultimately have the rug pulled out from under them in later episodes. And, I mean, this is not a perfect analogy between a movie and a series, but it kind of reminds me of the first 15 minutes of “Gone Girl” a little bit, where they’re trying to do this weird sort of bait-and-switch.
Mara: Even though we know that this is wrong, it was important for us as actors, storytelling-wise, to really attempt to make it as believable as possible that these two people might end up together if certain things were different. We did want the audience to feel lost in it, as well.
The show also addresses the messed-up culture and sexualization of a teacher-student relationship. When Eric goes to college, for instance, his friends joke with him about his relationship with Claire and how they “bow down to him.” How did you make sure to weave those moments in?
Robinson: I don’t think it was hard in the case of showing the ways these relationships can be fetishized because it just takes a couple of frat bros to say, “Dude, you are the man.” There’s a disconnect there. If the gender roles were reversed, I don’t think those guys would be saying the same thing to a girl who could’ve been in that situation. It’s twofold ― those relationships are sexualized, hyper-sexualized, sometimes in pop culture, but maybe because the male counterpart is usually deemed a more than willing participant in the relationship.
Mara: The whole stereotypical teacher-student, male-female aspect of this is really one of the big reasons I wanted to tell this story. I think people have a really hard time seeing the female as the abuser. It’s just not talked about as often. You know, men are not really brought up, typically, to feel OK to say that they’re a victim in any way, you know? Whereas with females it’s very different. So I just think the double standard is really interesting and very, very prevalent in our society. If you just look at the news in general, if you just Google search and look up “teacher-student relationship,” less stories come up of male teachers than female teachers. And it’s not like they’re not happening, it’s just because it seems society has a fascination with the female being the abuser and the male being the victim. Like you said, there’s this fantasy version of it as well which is, you know, going back to the headlines ― it’s more salacious for some reason than a male teacher and a female student.
Right. And it’s hard to navigate all of that when telling a story focusing on a male victim. Nick, did you get the chance to meet with a specialist or even someone who experienced abuse to talk about victimhood?
Robinson: Yeah, I met with a psychologist who Hannah brought into the writers’ room. We spoke at length about his work and what he has seen working primarily with male survivors of abuse or sexual abuse. The way that male survivors view the abuse is vastly different from how, sometimes, female survivors view it, according to him. A lot of times it takes a long time for them to come to terms with it and see themselves in any kind of victim role.
I think Eric, in the beginning, has a lot of guilt around the relationship and thinks that it’s his fault that Claire is in jail. You know, he’s been raised by a single mom in Texas and didn’t have a man around to provide so he feels he needs to take care of things. And so he feels he failed to like protect Claire.
Yes. Then, as a man, Eric seems to feel completely different about it. He’s realized how wrong it was, and you see that in the final scene between the two of them. Claire’s kind of moved on and has a family and an OK life, and he’s still very much struggling.
Robinson: Yeah. He is struggling. He’s also kind of moved on with his life, but I think he comes home after a year or something and sees his brothers, who are basically the same age he was when the affair started. I think that really put it in perspective for him and it kind of clicks. He gets to confront Claire and it’s a moment of catharsis for Eric, and hopefully maybe for the audience as well. Just to spell out in detail how the relationship affected him and the ways in which she crossed boundaries.
And Kate, in terms of playing a woman who abuses her power and grooms this young man, how did you process that final scene? Claire seems to never really understand the pain she’s inflicted on Eric.
Yeah, I think Claire is definitely in denial for most of the show. She has moments of trying to understand, but I think she tells herself a lot of lies to sort of keep the denial going. That very last scene is proof of that. I do genuinely think she’s pretty surprised to hear what he says. And, you know, even having children, the fact that she mentions that [becoming a mother] definitely made me realize that it was wrong of us to have this relationship, she still thinks it was a mutual problem and not just her fault as the adult. So it was interesting to see that and to play that throughout.
“A Teacher” is streaming on FX on Hulu. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.
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