TV

Kate Mara On ‘A Teacher,’ Her Roles On ‘House Of Cards,’ And Playing Unlikeable Characters

With A Teacher (which is available to stream via FX On Hulu), creator Hannah Fidell is revisiting the central focus of her 2013 indie film of the same name, portraying the power dynamics of a wildly inappropriate sexual relationship between a female teacher and her teen male student. But while pop culture (and porn culture) often romanticize (or fetishize) the fantasy of that specific type of relationship, the show is careful to follow things all the way to their end with something to say about the impact on the people involved.

As the teacher, Kate Mara is tasked with playing a literal monster and predator with a vulnerability that tries to not justify her actions but which make you understand the ways the character is broken. It’s a complex undertaking, to be sure, but one that drove Mara’s interest in the role. That and a willingness to play characters that you may wind up not liking. In the forthcoming interview, we spoke with her about that, the show’s use of fantasy sequences, and her relationship to one of her favorite roles in House Of Cards years after revelations about series star Kevin Spacey tainted the show’s legacy.

There’s a lot of space to tell this story in that it’s not, specifically, just about the relationship, but it’s also about the aftermath. Was that part of the appeal to jumping into this?

Kate Mara: It was very important to me. I wanted to make sure that everything about the show was about the consequences as well. So that was a huge selling point for me when Hannah was telling me what her idea for the season was. And I think it’s so important to show the lasting consequences of such a predatory relationship, which happens much more frequently than I think anyone would expect it to.

How much research did you wind up doing on how frequently relationships like this occur? Because obviously, we see things like this pop up in the press from time to time, but I’m sure it’s more frequent than we’re aware of on the surface.

Once you’re actually looking for it, it is not hard to find. It happens so often in America and so it was, very sadly, quite easy to find real-world cases to read about. Hannah and I just constantly texted each other back and forth sending different articles that we would find on a weekly basis. Because my character is a fictional character, she’s not based on anyone specific, a lot of her characteristics and backstory was just made to fit by Hannah. And some of it was from our conversations together and trying to figure out where someone would come to this place in their lives.

Do you reach out and talk to somebody who’s been on this side of this or to get a sense of their psychology, or is it mostly through media reports and trying to just work off the script?

I just didn’t ever have the thought to reach out to someone…a predator or the abuser in a relationship…but Hannah and our writers talked to lawyers who had represented both the survivors of cases like these and the abusers. So I felt like the writer knew a lot about sort of what would happen in these cases based on conversations with people like that and also with therapists and people like that.

When you’re looking at any role, but specifically with this one, do you make a value judgment about the character? Is this character a straight-up villain in your eyes?

I guess I don’t really necessarily characterize roles specifically as like villain or savior or anything like that. But I am specifically more interested in playing characters that are multi-dimensional, who have complicated lives, and make very complicated choices. Obviously, Claire has some moral issues and, when I think something might be challenging to figure out or create, the more I want to do it. And so, for this, I think that was one of my driving forces. I think I was empowered by the complexity of this character.

Empowered just in the choices that you’re able to make with it?

Yeah, just as an actor, I feel much more fulfilled when I’m playing characters who people maybe don’t like so much. [Laughs] A lot of times, I’ll hear, “Oh God, I hated your character in this or that.” And I don’t really take that as an offense. I think if you’re not playing a likable character… Not everybody’s likable in the world. And I’m not saying Claire is not likable. I think there are things about her that are or that should be, but at the end of the day, she is the predator of this relationship and manipulates this boy and has to live with the consequences of that, as she should.

Was there any concern about the use of dream sequences and leaning too far into the fantasy, because obviously, it’s in our culture. There are elements of [this kind of relationship] that meet certain people’s fantasies.

No. I didn’t have any concerns about that. Again, we’re making a show that has to have different elements to it to keep people interested. There are fantasy sequences in all kinds of different shows. I’m sure there are some fantasy sequences in The Sopranos, for example, and the show’s about, basically, murder. That definitely didn’t scare me away. I think those types of things are interesting and keep the story moving. And there’s a reason it’s certain people’s fantasy. And I think to explore that is important.

No, I agree. I think, it also speaks to the psychology of the characters here as well.

Yeah.

Obviously, to speak to Claire’s dissatisfaction with her husband, you can’t just do that with words. I think it did make sense, specifically. So, obviously, this was a film before. How much conversation was there with Hannah about things she wanted to do differently?

When she brought it to me, she said she definitely wanted this to stand alone. And while it deals with the same subject matter, we definitely wanted it to feel different, to look different, and for the character to have a different journey in a lot of ways. In most ways. So, that was definitely important. And obviously, we have a lot of time to explore these characters. I don’t know for her, if she just scrapped the movie altogether when she was writing this. I don’t think she did, but for me as an actor, the character was a very separate character, from her in the movie.

FX

You’ve had a long career. You’ve had other scenes where you’ve been in romantic relationships on screen. How is it different in terms of establishing chemistry and even choreographing any intimacy with Nick (Robinson) on this, since the power dynamic is so different from anything else you’ve done?

That’s a good question. I always felt like Nick and I were a team, from the very beginning. Everything always felt very comfortable with Nick. And he understood what we were trying to make. The three of us had a lot of discussions about all of the intimate scenes. We wanted it to feel almost like it was improvised or like it was just happening off the cuff, but none of it ever was. It was all very specific and that was important and that really did help. It helps the awkwardness of those scenes… They can feel awkward, sure. And if they’re supposed to be awkward and that’s exactly how you should feel while making them, but I never felt unsafe, I guess, is a good word to use. I always felt we knew exactly what we were doing and what the goal was. So I really loved working with Nick and so, it was all around a good experience and we would connect before a scene and just go, “Wow, can you believe this scene?” Or we’d try and laugh about it after or laugh about it during to try and stay sane and connected.

Going back to what you said before about playing characters that people don’t like. Obviously, Zoe Barnes from House Of Cards fits that description. That character in that world at that time…it’s obviously a very different time right now and there were complicating factors attached to the show, but would it be interesting to you to face this world with that character ?

Well, the amazing thing about that show is obviously it’s still… My God, it’s still so relevant today and I love that. I love the character, Zoe Barnes. That was one of the top two favorite characters I’ve ever played. Yeah, in a dream scenario, to explore what she would be doing today in this climate, I’d be curious to see. And, like I said, that was such a fun role to play. And complicated.

Everything that happened there and everything that happened with Kevin Spacey, how does that influence your view of what the work was? Because there was an impact, obviously. It’s not going to be on top ten lists and people aren’t going to think about it, only because of its association.

That is a very sad reality. That’s a sad reality because I do think that the show is so great and specifically, that first season because Fincher was obviously the mastermind behind that and there’s just nobody like him. That is a very bad thing, that people don’t really want to give it that kind of credit now because of all that’s happened since then. But for me, my experience was my experience and I’ve said it before, David Fincher totally changed my… he is one of the all-time greats and it was definitely the greatest work experience I’ve had. And so, it’s very bittersweet, I have been to say.

When something like that happens, when there’s an artist, who’s tainted and then it taints the whole project… In general, just as a consumer of art, where do you stand on separating the art from the artist?

Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t know how to answer that. [Laughs] That’s my honest answer. I really don’t have something for that. I actually don’t know. I have to think about that.

I don’t have a set answer either, honestly. I don’t blame you for not having an answer. It’s probably an unfair thing to ask.

So you think you’d probably go, “I don’t know, actually.”

Yeah!

Well, that makes me feel better.

I was really looking for you to answer for me.

It is a good question though. And I’m going to spend some time thinking about it and exploring that. [Laughs]

The first three episodes of ‘A Teacher’ are available to stream now on FX On Hulu with more episodes dropping every Tuesday.

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