Kate Mara is a dynamic and enigmatic performer, an Emmy-nominated actress, and totally unafraid to tackle whatever a role asks of her. That’s the attitude she brought to the table when preparing to step into the shoes the fictional Claire Wilson, a young teacher at a suburban Texas high school and the protagonist of the Disney+ series, A Teacher. Claire, a quiet woman, forms a bond with a popular high school students of hers, Eric Walker (Nick Robinson). Eventually, their relationship turns sexual—and, predictably, it doesn’t end well.
The show, which arrived on Singapore’s shores last week, is an intense, emotionally raw look at sexual predation, abuse of power, and forgiveness. It doesn’t relent after the community uncovers the affair; we follow a devastated Claire through the harrowing fallout, too. This is markedly different from the 2013 film on which the new series is based, which ends just after the discovery.
However, both film and show were directed by Hannah Fidell, who convinced Mara to come onboard not only as the latter’s star but also as producer. Their collaborative relationship, built over the years they put the series together, formed the bedrock of A Teacher. Here, Mara spoke with us to talk about that creative partnership, what she hopes viewers will take away from the show, and how things have changed since its American premiere, six months ago.
Hi, Kate. It must feel weird to be doing interviews for this series when it came out for American audiences all the way back in November.
Hi! It does, except also it feels like time is so odd right now, with the pandemic. Time is so irrelevant right now; until recently, we hadn’t been to a restaurant in over a year. To be talking about the show again is nice. It feels less weird than I think it normally would.
It’s good to hear that time feels unreal, because I’d love to ask you about what drew you to the project in the first place, years ago when you first signed on.
I think probably six years ago is when me and Hannah [Fidell] first teamed up. So it’s been a long journey to get here. I saw the movie version years ago. I thought it was so well done, with such interesting subject matter. So then Hannah reached out to me, and asked if I would be interested in producing it and starring in it. And I hadn’t produced a series before, so I was really excited about that.
I was also excited to look at the story in a different way. The movie, it really focuses just on the relationship. With the show, we really wanted to explore the aftermath and the consequences of the relationship as well, which I think is unique among properties that explore a story like this. So to me, that was a very exciting thing to be a part of.
How did the message and tone of the story change from the big screen to the small? Did you and Hannah want to change anything?
I think she always wanted the show to be different from the series. You know, she didn’t want to remake something she’d already made; she always had a really clear vision. I think that our producing partner had seen the movie and afterwards went up to Hannah and said, “That was fantastic, but what happens next? I want to know what happened [to the characters] after the movie.”
The series captures the aftermath and refuses to let you go, as an audience member. I think that kind of thing can be unusually brutal for a viewer.
Yeah, definitely. It raises a lot of questions that I think that people are uncomfortable with. People—normally the focus is on the relationship and all that exciting tabloid fodder, headlines, that kind of thing. But the character study is in the aftermath.
So what aspects of the character most excited you as you were preparing to dive into the role?
Well, I was definitely interested in this question of forgiveness. Is she worthy of forgiveness? Will people think she’s worthy of forgiveness? Does Eric think she’s worthy of forgiveness? You know, is she able to live a normal life after this? How does it affect her relationships moving forward? I was really excited to explore all of that.
I think people have a preconceived notion of what a female sexual predator looks like and acts like. Were you at all interested in busting open or subverting any of those stereotypes?
People who are predators or bad guys tend to show up on screen in a very specific visual way. I like that about our show—that it does sort of shake that up a bit, you know, and makes you look at things differently. I think that makes people uncomfortable, you know, especially seeing a woman who’s a predator. People aren’t used to that. It’s been interesting to see the reactions.
Did any of those reactions surprise you?
The reaction that I’ve read a lot of on social media is—there are the people who don’t understand why this type of story is made, and are maybe offended by that. And I do think a lot of those people actually just haven’t watched the show, because if you watch it all the way through, I think it’s a very clear, you know, character study. It’s about male victimhood and all of these very important things. But I think if you’re just looking at the surface, I guess you could be offended by anything, really. It was kind of interesting to me how passionate people can be about this subject matter.
How did you and Nick [Robinson] develop your relationship prior to filming?
We spent a lot of time with Hannah. There were a lot of conversations, so that we were just very prepared for all the different scenarios that could play out. Emotionally, physically, all of those things, so that we were as sort of connected and comfortable as possible when the days actually came where we had to shoot these scenes. I think we really built a strong foundation. There were never really any questions about what the purpose of a scene was, or where our characters were emotionally. We definitely did the homework.
In rehearsal and filming, was it more difficult to put together the sex scenes or the intense, emotional confrontations between Claire and Eric?
Both were pretty tricky. Probably the emotional scenes were more difficult, though. I feel like they just take a toll on you. For the sex scenes, everything was so choreographed and talked about. It just felt like a safe environment to be shooting in. And that was always a really important thing for Hannah. You know, she wanted to make sure that we were all on the same page at all times. That was very clear on set.
What are the most important lessons you learned as a producer on this series?
You have to have so much patience, I think, and belief in a story in order to see it through. It takes a very long time and a lot of effort. It’s not that different from producing a movie in some ways, but I had never been a part of pitching a show to a bunch of different networks and streamers and all that. So it was a really interesting position to be in, to see it from a producer’s perspective. And during production, doing things like watching the dailies after work—you really get a fuller picture of what it takes to make a show.
Six months on, have your thoughts changed about what you’d like people to take away from the show?
I think that in any important story—or just any story at all—the beauty of making movies and television and everything is getting to explore different aspects of life and different people’s lives. Getting a glimpse into somebody’s life that is very different from our own. It’s important and useful for us all, to open up conversations that maybe we wouldn’t have had otherwise. That’s very appealing to me, and always will be.