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What drew Kate Mara to play a teacher who seduces a student?

Kate Mara poses outdoors in upstate New York. The actress stars in the limited FX series "A Teacher."
Kate Mara stars in “A Teacher,” about a married 30-something schoolteacher who engineers an illicit relationship with one of her students.
(Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times)

Kate Mara spent a long time waiting to hear that the FX on Hulu drama “A Teacher,” which she starred in and executive produced, was a go-project. When the call finally came, however, she had to inform the powers-that-be that she was in the family way. The dark limited series, based on creator Hannah Fidell’s 2013 indie film of the same name, is about a married thirtysomething schoolteacher who engineers an illicit relationship with one of her students (Nick Robinson).

“We had to schedule around me having my child,” says Mara, who, when she first started talking to Fidell and producer Michael Costigan, about expanding the movie into a 10-part series, probably never imagined she’d be filming intimate sex scenes while tending to an infant, including frank discussions with her co-star about feeding time. “We were very open about it on the set,” says Mara. “Sometimes I’d be in the middle of a very emotional scene and I’d be like, ‘Uh oh. I gotta go.’ He was always very sweet about it.”

What’s preproduction like when you’re close to giving birth?

We had to do chemistry reads with me nine months pregnant, which is very awkward. We have tapes of me reading with a couple of different, really great, actors. I look ridiculous, fully pregnant, and they’re trying to avoid looking at my baby bump. But that’s how it happened. It was a whirlwind. We only had two months to shoot the entire series. It was crazy.

Kate Mara as Claire Wilson in "A Teacher."
(FX)
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[There were] a lot of women working behind the scenes on this show. I had the baby on set with me every day and was breastfeeding between takes. I definitely wouldn’t have chosen the timing. I wanted to be cocooned in a house with my child. But I felt so much support from our director, producer and DP. I knew I was going to be taken care of.
What attracted you to the part of an adult woman who seduces a teenager?

I’ve always been fascinated by the real-life stories of a student/teacher [relationship]. Not really the headlines, but more how and why it happens, from a teacher’s point of view. I think for a lot of people, it’s really hard to wrap your head around that. As an actor, I’m always looking for things that I find hard to connect with. I want to explore human emotions, people who have different mind-sets than you do, but who you also relate to in some way. We wanted to make her not just the villain. We wanted people to connect with her on a human level.

Kate Mara and Nick Robinson in a scene from "A Teacher."
(FX)

What did you deem most important?

It’s a human desire to be seen, not just romantically speaking. And if you feel sort of like you’re not [connecting] or lost in some way, which we all do at some point in our lives, where do you end up? That was something that I was really holding on to when we were building her backstory and sort of who she was today, and why she ends up in this predicament, why she makes these horrible choices.

At 6-foot-1, Nick Robinson towers over you. Was that intentional?

One hundred percent. This was actually a part of our pitch. Whenever you’d see [a newspaper story], there’d be a picture of the teacher and one of the student. Of course, there are different scenarios, but almost always they look the same age. I’m really tiny. Most guys are taller than me. So that wasn’t very difficult. We thought, “If we can visually have them look not far off [in age] it does do something very odd to the human brain.” You go, “Oh, is this OK?” Obviously, it’s not. There’s a serious abuse of power happening. But it’s interesting what happens to people’s thoughts when [they] get confused visually.
What did your executive producer role teach you about auditioning?

As an actor, [casting] can be a frustrating experience. You get feedback where they’ll say things like, “You were so good,” and [talk about] how it was so hard for them to not cast you. And you roll your eyes and think, “That’s a really stupid thing to say when you’re not hiring me. I don’t even want to hear that.” But being behind the scenes, watching all these great actors audition for roles, I can appreciate how hard it can be. There are so many great actors and people bring different qualities to the roles.

Kate Mara poses on a bench
“It’s the greatest compliment ever when ‘SNL’” does a parody of your work, says Kate Mara of the sketch show’s take on “A Teacher.”
(Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times)

Talk about the “Saturday Night Live” sendup where the teacher rolls her eyes at her student’s attempts to woo her.

That was so exciting. We were all, like, screaming. It’s the greatest compliment ever when “SNL” does that. Kristen Wiig and I are friendly and I texted her immediately. I was, like, “I can’t believe you didn’t give me a heads up.”

And her answer was?

I think she probably had other things going on, like her kids. You know what I mean? [laughs] I think she genuinely was like, “I don’t know. I just didn’t think of it.”


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