Mara said she was interested in exploring how the character could redeem herself.
“The big question for me was: Is her behavior worthy of forgiveness?” Mara said during a recent Television Critics Association panel. “It’s obviously for the audience to decide and to talk about.”
Show creator Hannah Fidell based A Teacher on her feature film of the same name, from 2013, which also explored the premise of a teacher-student relationship. Fidell, a survivor of sexual assault, said she worked with the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network and legal experts to create the correct messaging surrounding the show.
Fidell starts each episode of the series with a warning cautioning viewers they are about to see a story involving sexual situations and sexual grooming and concludes with a link to resources via the RAINN.
“The show is about consent and abuse and manipulation and victimhood,” Fidell said on the panel.
Mara agreed that Claire is abusing the power she has over Eric as an authority figure. The actor said A Teacher explores how Claire rationalizes a relationship with a minor in her class.
“I was very interested in the lies that she was telling herself to justify her behavior,” Mara said.
One of those rationalizations is that Claire is young enough that the age difference between her and Eric is small. Claire says she is in her 30s, though does not specify her age. Eric is 18, so he has reached the legal age of consent.
“That doesn’t justify the fact that she is abusing her power,” Mara said.
Mara, who in real life is 37, added that the age difference between Claire and Eric reflected many of the real cases of teacher-student relationships Fidell shared with her. Mara said she continued to receive Google alerts about such stories throughout the filming.
“It was alarming how similar in age the teacher and student looked,” Mara said.
Claire and Eric’s relationship begins with Claire offering private tutoring for his SAT test. Eric fantasizes about Claire, and after one of their lessons, he moves in for a kiss. Claire initially refuses.
“I can understand how a student might fall into that trap of that relationship,” Mara said. “It’s someone you really admire and respect, who gives you attention, makes you feel like an adult, all of those things that we crave as teenagers.”
When Claire gives in to the attraction, she believes she is in love with Eric. Mara agrees her character makes a mistake, but she had to understand what led Claire to make that decision.
“I think I definitely have sympathy and compassion for Claire for different reasons,” Mara said. “As we explored her backstory and things like that, I think that I had to find things that I was sympathetic to.”
Mara said she finds it more interesting to play characters who make decisions and choices she doesn’t agree with.
“The fun of being an actor is exploring those types of situations and scenarios,” she said.
Mara saw similarities between A Teacher and her role on House of Cards. On the Netflix political drama, Mara played Zoe, a reporter who has an affair with congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) to obtain inside information.
“The character Frank Underwood, whom she was having the affair with, was the one in the position of power, whereas Claire, being a teacher, is the one abusing her power,” Mara said. “Even though my character, Zoe, was of age, she was dealing with abuse of power.”
Mara did not say whether she found cause to forgive Claire by the 10th and final episode of A Teacher. The pursuit of such qualities was enough to invigorate her throughout playing the role.
“I do find that characters that are a little bit scary to play, people who are a little bit morally complicated and who I don’t necessarily relate to, are the ones that I’m craving to explore and play,” Mara said. “I’m always looking for a challenge.”
A Teacher premieres Tuesday on FX on Hulu.