Ashley Zukerman may not have seen all the scripts, but he knew he wanted to be part of A Teacher, a provocative drama about an illicit teacher-and-student affair.
The Australian-American actor told news.com.au he “was familiar enough with [creator] Hannah [Fidell] and [star] Kate [Mara] to know that this isn’t a romantic drama, that they’re trying to do something very interesting”.
A Teacher is a TV show that rewards those who stick with it through to the end, a 10-episode series, airing and streaming through Foxtel*, that explores the complexity of grooming between an adult woman and her teenage student.
It’s not a series you can pick up some weeks and leave in others, it’s about the whole, needing the time and space to delve into the dynamics of the often-subtle aspects of grooming, and then the fallout.
It’s a commitment but those who stick with it will find themselves challenged to recognise behaviours that might not have been obvious previously.
“There’s bravery in how Hannah is telling the story in that way,” Zukerman said. “It plays with perspective as we think we’re telling one story, but it goes on the same journey [as Nick Robinson’s student character, Eric].
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“I think everyone who watches it is at a different level of understanding of grooming, of this kind of abuse, so everyone will see it in a different way.
“You might be uncomfortable with it, but some people might see it through [Nick’s] eyes as an exciting thing. They might not pick up on those moments of grooming, which I think is the problem, those things are hard to see. Predators know exactly what they’re doing and how to do it.
“That’s the challenge for the audience, for them to reckon with what they’re seeing, even though it’s uncomfortable and confounding and it’s only at the end that it actually all becomes clear what the show is trying to say.”
Portraying the character of Matt, the husband to Mara’s titular character, Claire, Zukerman’s role is isolated from the main thrust of the story, of that relationship between Claire and Eric.
But not being part of the meaty aspect of the series doesn’t bother Zukerman, who’s happy to have a role supporting the storytelling vision. He didn’t read all 10 scripts until after he had filmed his role but was confident that Fidell’s series would vindicate his instincts.
“What’s being explored here isn’t simple or basic, and it’s not sensationalist,” he said. “From the beginning, it was very clear that it wasn’t sensationalist, that it would be an important and nuanced way to look at something that, to my knowledge, hadn’t been discussed before in this way.”
Zukerman’s big on-screen breakout was in the Australian cop drama Rush, which was filmed in Melbourne where he grew up and trained at the Victorian College of the Arts.
While he’s been involved in many Australian productions including The Slap and The Code plus onstage in Angels in America, the Californian-born Zukerman has mostly worked in the US, where he’s been based since 2014.
You may remember him from his leading role in Manhattan, the 1940s-set historical drama about the birth of the atomic bomb, alongside Marvelous Mrs Maisel star Rachel Brosnahan or as the duplicitous Congressman Peter MacLeish in those explosive first episodes of the twisty political thriller Designated Survivor.
But all that may pale in comparison to the role he’s working on right now, as Robert Langdon in TV series Dan Brown’s Langdon, which will pick up the character from the third book in the series, The Lost Symbol.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, that’s the iconic character Tom Hanks has played three times, in The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons and Inferno. Zukerman admitted that being part of something that has such worldwide recognition is “too big to fathom”.
It’s not even the Hanks connection that’s intimidating, it’s the fact that Dan Brown has such a large legion of fans.
“I imagine Tom Hanks might’ve also felt in awe of the love people have for the books!
“The approach we’re taking with it is we’re using the third book as a jumping off point but setting it before any of the other stories,” Zukerman explained. “We’re setting it when he’s younger, he’s not known yet and he’s a little rough around the edges.
“The power of the books is that everyone sees something different in Robert Langdon, they see themselves and they go on a journey with him. It’s knowledge that’s his superpower and that’s something I can definitely get behind.
“It’s only in the studying of it that I actually understand now how brilliant an idea it is to make your hero a symbologist. It’s inspired because symbology is really a thread through history. What a wonderful way to approach history.
“I’m just in the thick of that now, trying to catch up – the ridiculous task of trying to understand as much as [Brown] does.”
Before we see Zukerman suited up as the world’s most famous fictional symbologist, the delayed trio of Fear Street movies might be released first, although there’s no confirmed date yet beyond “mid-2021” for the horror films acquired by Netflix after the cinema release was scuppered by COVID.
Adapted from the popular R.L. Stine young adult books about a strange town in the American state of Ohio, Zukerman is in an ensemble that also includes Gillian Jacobs, Sadie Sink and Darrell Britt-Gibson.
A trilogy of movies based on pulpy YA novels that had its heyday in the 1990s might not sound like high art, but Zukerman said that as much as they’re fun, “there’s something at the centre of them, those films are going to be extraordinary”.
Sounds like everything is coming up Ashley.
A Teacher is on Fox Showcase and Foxtel Now on Sundays at 8.30pm
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