Nick Robinson is trying to answer a question until he loses his train of thought. “I might need to get some more coffee,” he says, before bursting out into laughter. It’s a busy time for the fast-rising actor, who’s been on a constant upward trajectory since appearing in a long-running sitcom (Melissa & Joey) and major blockbusters (Jurassic World). In a year where the world remained stagnant, Robinson kept moving forward. His hectic schedule leaves little time to recharge, and in a metaphorical accident so on-the-nose, his phone dies in the middle of our conversation before we pick up where we left off a few minutes later.
Robinson is currently in Toronto filming the upcoming Netflix drama Maid starring Andie McDowell and Margaret Qualley, but he’s also been on our screens in the FX on Hulu miniseries A Teacher as Eric, a high school senior who starts a relationship with his English teacher (played by Kate Mara). It’s an uncomfortable watch, as the show takes a nuanced approach to the relationship by directly addressing what it is: a flagrant abuse of power. (Each episode is bookended with warnings of grooming and a link to support for victims.) It all crystallizes in its powerful final episode, with Robinson pulling off a shattering monologue that outlines the trauma Eric suffered.
A Teacher also marks a turning point for the actor. It’s hard to deny that he has perfected the role of the emotional soft boy, seen in roles like the weepy Everything, Everything and the queer rom-com Love, Simon. (How does he play them so well? “I was one,” he says, simple as that.) But now he’s graduated and looking to the future. “I’m not really necessarily modelling my career after any particular person,” he says. “I’m just making it up as I go along.”
To mark the ending of A Teacher, GQ caught up with Robinson to talk about his research process, what the show says about masculinity, and that devastating finale.
GQ: When you were reading the scripts for the first time, was there anything specific that stood out to you that made you want to take this role?
Nick Robinson: I met with [creator] Hannah [Fidell] and Kate before I read the script and Hannah walked me through the general idea. The show is grappling with some complex ideas around consent and in Eric's case, he's a kid. He's not an adult yet, and Claire is, and she's in a position of authority. It’s also taking a closer look at male survivors of abuse, sexual or otherwise, and the ways that male survivors are treated differently from female survivors. And the way that men will internalize that abuse and the way that it can express itself later in life.
You’ve talked about your research which involved speaking to a psychologist who specializes in male survivors. What was your perspective or knowledge on the issue before you signed on to the role? Did your viewpoint change at all as you were learning more?
When I first heard the pitch, I was guilty of what I think a lot of people's first reaction is when they hear about a relationship like that, like, "What's the big deal?" And the more that I read the scripts, and spoke with the psychologists, the more that opinion did a full 180 and completely changed. The show is very subtle. I think that's what makes the show unique. It really shows the insidious nature of grooming, and the slippery slope of consent, and all the grey area in between. If you saw Eric and Claire on the street just holding hands, you probably wouldn't think twice. But Claire is in a position of authority and she abuses that position. And it's a breach of trust for Eric. He should be able to go to school, and trust that his teachers will remain his teachers.
Speaking with the psychologist, it was really interesting to hear him talk about his experience with survivors of abuse. More often than not, they will refuse to see themselves as victims or survivors for years afterwards, if not, decades. It really takes a lot of work to sometimes reframe the relationship in a way that shows what it really was, or at least shows where boundaries were crossed. Oftentimes the relationship between a female teacher and a male student is fetishized and it's celebrated in some circumstances. Eric experiences this when he goes to college. His fraternity sees the relationship as a good thing and he uses it as a kind of social currency. And that push/pull between how his peers view the relationship and how Eric feels about it inside is what drives a lot of the second half of the series.
What I thought was really interesting about the show is how it portrays not just the treatment of male survivors, but how that relates to masculinity. How men aren’t allowed to express their pain. Did playing this role have an effect on your own relationship to masculinity at all?
I think now more than ever the ideas of what makes a man and what is and isn't masculine are changing. And I think it's for the better. I mean, the whole phrase toxic masculinity is a relatively new phrase. If [people] look at Eric, they say, "Well, you got laid, what's the big deal?" Which is crass, and it's not giving any space to Eric's emotional well being. Traditionally, to be a man, you should be emotionally detached and strong, and someone who can just take care of things. All of that can be good, it can be a great thing. I mean, I love the traditional, masculine values in a lot of ways, and I identify with them, but you just have to leave space for a more nuanced identity, or a conversation around that identity. It's when things become really binary that you run into issues. I think that's where toxic masculinity stems from, that it's considered binary and rigid and inflexible, in terms of, this is what a man does and this is what a man doesn't. I just think that the whole concept of masculinity is much more fluid now than it has ever been. Some people view it as a threat which is completely the wrong way to look at it in my opinion.
The latter half of the season explores the aftermath of Eric’s relationship with Claire and how it has affected him. I read an interview with Hannah Fidell where she said that in her research, she discovered that how other people treat victims is actually more traumatic to them than the abuse itself. What do you think is going through Eric’s head when his friends don’t take his abuse seriously and avoid treating him like a victim?
Well, it's complicated. I don't think Eric wants to be treated as a victim. I think he just wants a more nuanced conversation around the relationship. If anything, he wants people to see the relationship for what he sees in it. Because he thinks he's loved, and he thinks that this relationship is totally normal, or is it's not something that should be punished. And he's also wracked with guilt, because in his eyes, he's largely responsible for the fact that this woman that he loves, or he thinks he loves, is going to face serious consequences.
His friends come at him like, "You're going to be a legend for this." And then his mother and others say, “You're a victim. It's going to be okay. Claire's a bad person." So it's confusing. If you remember what being 17, 18 is like, it's already a confusing time. It goes back to the whole idea of consent. Did Eric really have the emotional tools to consent to a relationship like this? I think the answer is no. And hopefully, in the later episodes that starts to become clear, and people see that we weren't trying to glorify these relationships, and try to really take a look at them and see some of the repercussions.
Eric has to internalize his trauma in a way that demands a lot of subtlety for an actor. Did getting into that headspace affect you personally in any way?
Not really. Doing heavy emotional scenes isn’t my favorite thing because it does sometimes require you to get into a funky headspace. I've tried to get better at that, to leave everything at work at the end of the day, because it is ultimately a job. It is a challenge, but that was why I took on the role. For me, trying to just find a way to internalize some of Eric's abuse in a way that makes sense was the guilt that Eric feels, because he's blaming himself for the collapse of this relationship and the collapse of Claire's life.
There’s a scene in the final episode where Eric reunites with his younger brother who’s now at the same age as Eric when he first started seeing Claire, and it dawns on him how young he was. I don’t know if this was intentional but I thought it was a really smart way to weaponize how viewers have grown accustomed to actors in their 20s playing teenagers.
I think it's a really powerful and poignant moment in the series. In the case of the two young men that were playing my brothers, they were actual teenagers — and they look young! When you are 17, or 18, it's amazing how much older you feel at that time than you actually are. Being confronted with that face to face is the final nail in the coffin. Any romantic ideas that Eric had towards the relationship ended after he saw his brothers. It's a real moment of realization for Eric about what his relationship was. And it's a galvanizing force for him to ultimately confront Claire.
We see Eric confront Claire on the abuse she inflicted on him in the final scene. It’s so raw and direct in a way that’s rare for stories like this. What was it like filming that scene?
Stressful! Outside of the content of the scene, we had a really tight schedule for this whole shoot, so we were kind of running out of time. And I felt the time crunch that day a little bit, because it's such a pivotal scene. But maybe it helps to feel that stress. I think it's hopefully a moment of catharsis for him, and maybe for the audience as well. How often do you get to see a survivor confront their abuser in a way as direct as that?
That whole year for me was really intense because I was right at the end of the shoot. Right after that without any delay, I flew to New York and went directly into rehearsals for To Kill a Mockingbird. And so that whole little period of time, I associate with a high level of stress in my mind. Ultimately, it all worked out.
Originally Appeared on GQ