It takes audacity for an actress to play a high school teacher who grooms her student, but it’s someone such as Kate Mara who embraces the challenge to meticulously play such knotty femmes with no sweat results. Mara portrays such a protagonist – or antagonist depending on how you view it, which only underscores her canniness with her craft—in FX’s Hannah Fidell limited series A Teacher, which follows the build-up and fallout of a scandalous affair between an older woman and her pupil. It’s a more-often-than not scandal that has frequented headlines since the 1990s with such teachers as Pamela Smart and the late Mary Kay Letourneau, and it’s an arresting subject to cover in the throes of #MeToo. Mara brings a subtle sympathy to the intricacies of Claire Wilson, forcing viewers to ponder who’s guiltier: The predator or the prey? A Teacher is another notch in Mara’s belt of elevating material in a resume which includes such complicated characters as compromised journalist Zoe Barnes in Netflix’s House of Cards and Hayden McClaine in season one of American Horror Story: Murder House.
DEADLINE: When it came to the psychology of high school teachers who are involved with their students, what did you learn?
KATE MARA: Well, that’s complicated, because I really don’t have an answer. I definitely did research into these stories, and specifically the Mary Kay Letourneau one, and there’s a documentary that I watched that I found really fascinating. But, it’s not like I could go and talk to one of these people. I don’t have an answer, and I think that that was one of the reasons why I think playing the character and exploring the show is so interesting, because you just have to do your own assessment, and try and find pieces of these specific people and stories that, maybe do make sense, or if you were to make up a backstory about somebody and maybe why they got to this place, it’s hard, because there isn’t just an answer for that, that we’re aware of.
DEADLINE: What struck you about Claire’s complications, and her past?
MARA: Well, we decided very specifically that she was very much the caretaker in, you know, as a child, even, with her mother being ill and then passing away, and her father being an alcoholic for most of his life. That was something that was important to us because it then shines a light on maybe why, even in her early 30s, she’s feeling like she never really had a childhood, or was never able to let go and experience that kind of high school or even college life, that the kids that she’s teaching are. So, that was something that was important for us to, and we show some of that in the show, but a lot of it really was just for us to know as well.
DEADLINE: What were your thoughts on the ending where Nick Robinson’s Eric Walker blames Claire for ruining his life?
MARA: I definitely sympathize with her. I think it would probably be hard not to, since I played her, and I do, I know all the things that she’s thinking, and whatever, but I really admire the ending because [showrunner] Hannah [Fidell] just really wanted to give the character of Eric the opportunity to finally have the last say, and to finally be able to have the power and the control, and to look across the table at this person who really changed the trajectory of his life in so many ways, and really say most of the things that he had been thinking and feeling. So, I thought that was very cool, and I also think that leaving something, not that it’s open-ended, but, I like the feeling of, some people are going to like this, and a lot of people are not, and it’s a complicated story, so it’s going to have a complicated ending.
It’s really interesting hearing people’s responses, because a lot of people are like, “It doesn’t matter that she served time. What she did is not forgivable.”
DEADLINE: What kept Claire and Eric coming back together? They couldn’t quit each other.
MARA: Well, I mean, I don’t think it’s just one thing. I think that, most people probably can relate to that kind of relationship, where it’s somebody that, for whatever reason, whether it’s just a physical connection, or a chemistry, or if it’s just emotional, or, I just think that there’s so many layers to it. I think that the main thing is that they both, in that specific time in their lives, really feel seen by the other person, and it’s almost like they both feel like they’ve been rescued, in a way, by the other person. I think that really pulls them together, over and over again.
DEADLINE: Do you think it’s a bigger stigma for women to commit these crimes than men?
MARA: Yeah, 100%. I think there’s a real difference between if it was a man, and if it… I think if it was a man, most of the time when we see that headline, or we hear that story, we automatically, like you said, go, “Oh, no, that’s wrong.” There’s nothing, you know, ‘hot’ about it, right? And then, when it’s a woman, and I think is one of the main reasons we wanted to tell the story, is because people have such a hard time, or people have a much harder time seeing a young woman as the villain, as the predator. They just do. That’s just the reality. And a lot of kids as well hear this story, or younger people, and go, “High-five, cool, you had a thing with your older teacher.” We touch on it in the show a lot, but, absolutely, I think that there is definitely a difference, and that’s one of the reasons why I find this kind of story so fascinating, because it really is a cultural thing, and specifically in our country, I think. It’s something that society has really specifically created as this stereotype.
DEADLINE: When and how did you get the acting bug?
MARA: Well, I was very, very young, and when I was nine, I started to say, “I want to be on Broadway.” So, my parents put me in community theater, and I took voice lessons, dance classes, and all those things. When I turned 12, I started leaving notes on my parents’ pillows at night, because I was very shy, and I just couldn’t bear the thought of actually having to say it out loud. But I would write them notes every night, saying, “I really think I need an agent. I want to go to the city and audition for Broadway.” They were like, “That’s great, but we don’t know agents.” My dad is like, “I’m into football.” It’s funny, because people hear that, and they’re like, “Well, I’m sure your parents had connections, they were in the football industry.” I’m like, “In what world is that the same industry?” So, anyway, we got the address of a friend of mine’s manager, and we sent a headshot, a cassette tape of me singing a couple jingles, and my resume of ten community theater shows. And by some miracle, this manager, who was then my manager for ten years, who by the way is a great manager, she’s still a manager, she’s Kerry Washington’s manager today. She just happened to see my headshot. I think they were casting Great Expectations, the role of a young Gwyneth Paltrow, and for whatever reason, she was like, maybe we should send this girl out on this audition? So, she called us up on our home phone and was like, I’d love to meet you. And so, my mom and I drove an hour into the city, and we sat down with her. I smiled, and she didn’t know that I had, like, a mouthful of braces. She was like ‘No! When are you getting those things off?’. And then, of course, I was like, ‘We’ve got to get them off today.’
DEADLINE: I know you love Broadway, but was there a particular show that you saw that made you tell your parents, “I want to do that job for the rest of my life?”
MARA: The one that comes to mind is probably Annie, just because I was really young when I saw it, and my hair wasn’t that ginger, but I was a redhead. I have auburn hair. That was it. I was like, I want to be her and play pretend people for the rest of your life. Sold. I think I was nine when I saw that, and that’s how I felt, and I still feel it today. And then also, I just happen to have a daughter who literally looks like Annie. My two-year-old has orange hair. So, I’m like, oh my God, I wonder if she’s going to feel the same things that I felt when watching that show.
DEADLINE: One of your early feats was landing a role in a Sydney Pollack movie Random Hearts. How did that feel? What was that process like?
MARA: God, he was just the best. He was the perfect director for a, you know, I was 14. It was interesting, because I wasn’t really aware of this guy; everyone loves him and he’s so successful, and I didn’t have that intimidation, because I was too young. I knew some of the movies he’d directed. Harrison Ford, of course, I was like, that’s cool, and Kristin Scott Thomas as well. I was more nervous just about the performance of it all. But you know, I’ll never forget it, because Sydney Pollack was just a complete angel, and just amazing to work with.
DEADLINE: Have you and your sister Rooney Mara ever been up for the same role?
MARA: Yes, back in the day. I mean, maybe now we are, it’s hard to say. But, when we were both auditioning for things on a daily basis, there were occasionally things that we were both being auditioned for, and we were living together at the time, so we would actually help each other. We would read lines with each other, and there was actually a movie that I auditioned for, that is a terrible movie, but I did it anyway, that I had to put myself on tape for. It was some sort of romantic role, and she was reading the guy role for me. I just think of that, and it makes me laugh, because we sent in the tape, and it’s her voice doing the lead guy role, and me being romantic with her, and I did get the part. So, we had real moments of being able to be really supportive of each other when we were first starting out, which I think is such a rare experience for people to have.
DEADLINE: When an actress looks back on their résumé, there are usually several projects where they hit a wave along the way and rode it. When you look back, what were those projects?
MARA: The first one is definitely Brokeback Mountain, because when I got that part, I remember it being very exciting. I was in such a small amount of that movie, that at the time, it didn’t do very much. But when the movie came out, it really did feel like it opened a lot of doors for me. That movie definitely led to the role that I got in this movie called We Are Marshall, which then led to the role that I did in Mark Wahlberg’s movie Shooter, and then continued. It definitely opened doors, for sure.
DEADLINE: What was the most rigorous audition you’ve gone on?
MARA: Definitely for The Dark Knight to be Catwoman. That was the most exciting and intimidating by far, but also so lovely, because the experience was so kind of dreamlike, and Christian Bale was so cool, and supportive. It’s just a very surreal experience, doing that.