You probably know Nick Robinson best from the 2018 hit Love Simon, a rom-com in which he plays a closeted high-school kid who grapples with his identity while falling in love with a classmate. After the film, the 25-year-old — who has played teenage characters for a decade — told Ellen DeGeneres that he was done playing younger roles.
But then A Teacher came along with a very different high-school story. Written and directed by Hannah Fidell, the show follows an English teacher (Kate Mara) who begins a sexual relationship with her 17-year-old student, Eric, played by Robinson.
It’s adapted from Fidell’s 2013 film of the same name, but while the original film ends when the relationship ends, the series takes it several steps further, exploring consequences for the abuser and the long-term trauma experienced by the survivor. As such, we see the former Disney star take on much darker material than ever before. The Cut spoke to Robinson about playing a male survivor, all of those queasy sex scenes, and how Me Too made A Teacher possible.
What drew you to this role, especially given that you’d sworn off of teen roles?
I was pretty hesitant, but there were a lot of interesting concepts to be explored through the lens of this relationship. With Eric’s character, specifically, we put a lens on male survivors of sexual abuse, and how there could be a double standard there, as well as the tricky nature of consent. It felt like a complicated and timely story.
You were very good in the role — convincing to the point where I found it upsetting to watch! How did you prepare for it? Were you speaking with survivors? Have you seen something like this play out in your life?
It never happened to me in my life, thankfully. I was in touch with a psychologist who worked a lot with male survivors of sexual trauma. He spoke to me at length about his experience treating these survivors, and the ways that they cope with the abuse, and how that’s oftentimes very different from female survivors.
He was saying that even in the cases of extreme abuse, oftentimes male survivors would not see themselves as a victim in the narrative of the relationship until years later — sometimes a decade or more. Then they would really start to examine the relationship with a more critical lens.
You mentioned Me Too earlier, and the director, Hannah Fidell, says that she didn’t think this show would have been made without it. I think everyone — perhaps men in particular — learned a lot during that time. I’m curious, had you been offered this role pre-Me Too, would you have accepted it? And did you learn anything during the movement that lends itself to a job like this?
I can’t really say what I would have done if this role had come around if Me Too hadn’t happened yet, but I can say that, yes, absolutely, I think I, along with most of my peers in this industry, learned a lot from the Me Too movement.
And I think to a certain extent it informed Eric as a character in the show; there’s a culture around male victims of sexual abuse. There’s a high five and a slap on the back. You see that a little bit when Eric is in college; he uses the relationship as a kind of social currency. But I think more than anything, it brought about a culture that made a show like A Teacher possible, and I think from a studio perspective, it brought about a realization and a reckoning that these stories need to be told.
I keep thinking about that last scene between Eric and Claire when they meet up 10 years after their relationship ends. It’s painful to watch because Eric is not okay — he’s still carrying the baggage of the relationship, whereas Claire has a husband and a family and a seemingly perfect life. When I watched it, I wasn’t sure if it was satisfying. Having grown close to the character, how did you feel about it?
Eric, I guess in particular, couldn’t quite find closure. But at the same time, I think that his confrontation with Claire hopefully brought about a type of closure. And you don’t get to see how these characters are sort of outside the context of this story. I’d like to think that Eric actually lives a pretty happy, normal life. I think when he went back to the school and saw Claire, there were a lot of triggers that I think maybe made the wound fresh. But I think he’s moved on.
I was sort of surprised by how many sex scenes this show had. Were they more challenging given the context of the show and the story line?
I had done sex scenes before and they are a universally uncomfortable experience. There’s really nothing particularly sexy about doing a sex scene. It’s like two people on a film set with a bunch of lights on them and big burly grips running around and camera ops and camera assistants and the director and the DP. There’s a lot of people.
But Kate and I got along really well. She has a great sense of humor, and we were able to just kind of laugh in between takes about how ridiculous the whole thing was. And yeah, it’s kind of heavy. It’s kind of gross. But [the sex scenes] were an important part of the show, although not my favorite scenes to shoot.
Have any survivors reached out to you about your performance?
One person messaged me and said that they had been through something similar, and said thank-you for making the show. That was gratifying to see. I think the show is geared towards everyone, and it’s supposed to challenge some of your preconceived notions. So if a survivor reaches out and says, good job — that’s high praise, it’s a great compliment, it means we did our job effectively.
A Teacher is available on FX.