After “Love, Simon,” Nick Robinson vowed he wouldn’t play another high school student.
Then, the script for “A Teacher” came along and the 25-year-old realized, “I guess I’ve got to do more.”
In the limited FX series, he plays Eric, a noble high school senior who gets help with college entrance exams from Claire, a teacher who begins to take more than an academic interest in her student.
“He’s attracted to her,” Robinson says. “Also, Eric sees himself as more mature than his peers and he wants to have a relationship that, at least he thinks, mirrors or proves that he’s older than his years.”
Because she’s bored in her marriage, Claire (played by Kate Mara) makes the first move. Then, it becomes a game that escalates.
Based on a short film with the same name, “A Teacher” lets writer/director Hannah Fidell take a much more intense look at the taboo relationship.
“I was really interested in exploring consent and manipulation and victimhood,” she says. “Our culture is fairly obsessed with female teachers having affairs with their students. But what I was really curious about was what happens after. What are the consequences? Do they both have to live with a scarlet letter for the rest of their lives?”
“A Teacher” goes beyond the actual affair and shows what happens to Eric and Claire years later. To make sure it isn’t just a lurid piece of television, Fidell partnered with the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
“As a victim of sexual assault myself, I wanted to make sure we got the story right,” she says. “We worked with a therapist who specialized in childhood sexual assault to make sure that we understood the specific ways in which male victims internalize this sort of trauma.”
Mara, who’s also a producer, wanted input from survivors and lawyers who represented victims and abusers. “Playing the abuser, I always felt like I knew it was going to be handled in a very delicate way. But what I was really interested in was, ‘Are the abusers worthy of forgiveness?’” she says. “To me, that was a really interesting thing to explore in playing the character.”
Robinson, too, was glad the subject was going to be treated with the “respect and nuance that it deserves.”
Both Mara and Robinson admired teachers when they were in high school but didn’t have crushes on any of them.
In middle school, Robinson says, “you develop some kind of feeling or affection for a teacher and it would oftentimes be confusing at that age.”
Mara says much of that is due to the control they wield.
When Fidell and Mara looked at cases across the country, they were surprised how similar in age the teacher and student looked.
“Just because she looks young…doesn’t justify the fact that she is abusing her power,” Mara says.
“I don’t know why this is such a sort of common fantasy in our society but I think it’s pretty clear…there’s something dangerous and exciting about that initially,” Robinson says.
Thanks to the way Fidell has written the story, the audience is made to feel complicit in the affair. Then, she says, “Eric realizes the relationship is not actually what it seems and there’s a really bad side of it and, potentially, he’s a victim here.”
That prompted Mara to consider what happens years after the relationship ends. “Is her behavior worthy of forgiveness?” she asks. “That was the big thing for me. It’s obviously for the audience to decide and talk about.”
Even though the subject has been addressed in countless ways, Fidell says student/teacher relationships are probably more prevalent than anyone thinks. “Partly, it’s because of social media and the easier direct access that teachers and students have,” she says. “That, in itself, can be dangerous.”
The series will include information to help those who have been in similar situations.