You could be forgiven for assuming Nick Robinson is years younger than his true age of 25. The actor has been playing high school students for a full decade, beginning with a four-season run on ABC Family sitcom Melissa & Joey and concluding (or so he hopes) with FX on Hulu miniseries A Teacher.
In fact, Robinson vowed to end his journey as a perpetual teen after playing the eponymous Simon Spier in coming-of-age film Love, Simon. “I’ve graduated, hopefully,” he told Ellen DeGeneres in a 2018 interview, “and won’t be going back.”
Well, it wasn’t long before A Teacher nullified Robinson’s promise, returning him to the world of pep rallies and study sessions.
“I hoped that no one would watch that interview where I said that I would never play high school again,” he tells me over Zoom with a laugh, looking rugged and definitely over-18 in an unpretentious 66˚North beanie and flannel shirt. “I'd made that ultimatum, and then I read the scripts for the series, and I met with [creator Hannah Fidell] and Kate [Mara], and I kind of went, ‘Shit, one more.’”
Robinson joins our call from British Columbia, where he’s currently filming miniseries Maid opposite Margaret Qualley. We delay the interview for 15 minutes so he can get a COVID-19 test — a process he must undergo three times a week while in production. He tells me he had a mild case of the virus earlier this year, back when he was living in Williamsburg and “doing a play.”
That ever-so-casually-noted “play” happens to be Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway, aka the “highest-grossing American play ever.” Judging by our 40 minutes together, 2,500 miles and a computer screen apart, Robinson doesn’t strike me as the type of actor who eagerly name-drops his prestigious projects or A-list co-stars. He greets me by name when he comes on screen — a simple act of courtesy that feels largely forgotten in a year marked by hate crimes and awkward interactions made from beneath face coverings. From his unfussy style to his nearly-dormant Instagram account, Robinson seems like an actor committed to just that: acting (and also maybe being a pleasant and approachable person). He takes questions and answers seriously (even when they’re about bagel toppings), pausing to find the perfect articulation for the words in his head. The celebrity of it all doesn’t appear to be on his radar.
On the rare occasions when he has updated his 1.5 million Instagram followers over the past few months, it’s been to encourage them to vote.
“If there's a time to say something, it's now,” he tells me, his passion for the topic evident in the minutes-long monologue of sorts that follows. “To be honest, I feel like I should be doing more. There have been a million times where my finger has kind of hovered over ‘post’ or ‘share’ and not done it because there is this thing where people would be like, ‘Oh, just stick to acting, we don't need to hear your opinions,’ but fuck that.”
With A Teacher, Robinson is able to participate in a project that not only highlights his acting skill, but furthers a conversation. He plays Eric, a high school student who has an affair with his teacher, Claire (Mara). Unlike many of the predecessors who have tread this same cinematic territory, the series is as dedicated to drawing the viewer into the illicit relationship as it is to immersing them in the brutal and enduring aftermath.
“The show does a little bit of a bait-and-switch on the audience, which is intentional,” Robinson explains. “It makes them complicit in Eric and Claire's relationship.”
Ultimately, though, A Teacher’s stance on its subject matter is clear. “Everyone involved in this production took this story very seriously. It wasn't to make light of these kinds of relationships. It wasn't to glorify them. It really was to make a character study on what happens to these people after the headlines,” he says. “There are a lot of headlines, a lot of clickbait, and there’s not a lot of follow-up.”
The role of Eric wasn’t an easy one to play, and the emotional toll was heavy. “That's something that I'm trying to get better at,” Robinson said of shrugging his character off at the end of the day. But this particular journey compelled him.
“I was really interested in exploring how male survivors internalized this kind of trauma,” he says. “And oftentimes it's really suppressed for years.”
“The relationship is often used as a kind of social currency for the survivors. They're given high-fives and told ‘you're the man’ and all that. So, the push and pull of that, of wanting that to be true, but also dealing with some very complicated emotions internally, I think was what a lot of the second half of the show is about: Eric grappling with the reaction of his peers versus what he's actually feeling inside.”
That said, Robinson’s research would be for naught if he and Mara didn’t have chemistry. Luckily, their connection was instant.
Robinson extolled Mara’s “wicked sense of humor,” which came in handy during some of their more “intimate” scenes.
“You kind of have to laugh at some of those scenes when you're doing it,” he told me. “If you did a macro view it would just be two people with a bunch of burly grips around and camera operators and lights on you. So it's not actually an intimate experience.”
Though Robinson’s still playing high school, the rules have changed. The laugh-tracks have fallen away and the happy endings once found at, say, the top of a ferris wheel, are just out of reach. His performance in A Teacher is a departure from a body of work that tends to skew “teen,” but it’s a defining one.
Read on below as Robinson tells us his favorite “long and bad” joke, recounts his first kiss, and names his favorite Robert.
What's the last thing you do before you fall asleep?
Honestly, especially recently, the last thing before I do before I fall asleep is check the news and check social media. Probably not healthy.
If nothing else, can we please just end this to change the news cycle? Because it's crazy-making. The whole thing is just, it's constant turnovers. I'd just like some peace and quiet.
The plotline of 2020 is really insane and implausible. It jumped the shark a long time ago.
Who’s your favorite villain?
You see him as a villain?
I do. But that's the best part — most of the really good villains have some humanity and are maybe slightly ambiguous, but I think ultimately, yeah, he's a villain.
What was the first album you ever owned?
“Who Let the Dogs Out” is one of the first songs I really remember having playing, in like kindergarten, so I didn't buy it. But I had a portable CD player, which was really cool. And I had a Roy Orbison Greatest Hits CD that I liked a lot.
Do you still listen to that?
Sometimes. Yeah. I was also a big Elvis fan growing up. A lot of the oldies. And I do still listen to that, but there are newer folks now that I prefer, I guess.
What's your favorite cheesy pickup line?
Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?
It's a classic. It's really the first one that popped into my head.
I'm going to assume you've never used it in real life?
If you ran for office, what would your slogan be?
I don't think I would ever run for office. It's not something that appeals to me, but I did see a good hat the other day that said “Make Orwell Fiction Again,” that I thought was kind of funny.
Name one place you've never been but have always wanted to go.
Vietnam, I would say, or Thailand. Southeast Asia generally. Egypt ... I'd like to go to North Africa as well sometime. A friend of mine shot a movie in Vietnam and fell in love with the country and it's been on my to-do list for a while.
Tell me your favorite joke.
My girlfriend told me this actually.
Billy Bob, Dick, and Jim were three best friends and lived in a small town. One day Jim tragically died in a fire. His body was burnt to a crisp. He was unrecognizable. So the coroner asked Billy Bob and Dick to come in to identify the body because they were best friends and walk into town every day together. So Billy Bob shows up to the coroner's office, looks at the body, turns to the coroner and asks him to flip the body over, takes one look and says, "Nope, that's not Jim." And then Dick comes in, asks the coroner to flip the body over. He takes one look. He says, "Nope, that's not Jim." Coroner was flabbergasted by this because there was really no way to identify the body. And he asked Billy Bob, he said, "How do you guys know that this isn't Jim?" Then Billy Bob said, "Well, every day Jim and Dick and I walk into town, everyone says, "Look, here comes Jim with those two assholes."
That's horrible. It's also really long too. So that's great, when it's long and bad.
Describe your first kiss.
God, magical ... No. My first was with Lauren Halbertson in the seventh grade in the basement of her friend's house, and it was on a dare. Lauren had braces, I remember. It was a big deal.
Not a love connection?
She's the one that got away, maybe. I think we may have “dated” for a few weeks in seventh grade. Hot gossip.
Roberts: Downey Jr. or Pattinson?
I love both of them. I'd say recently, Pattinson.
What's your favorite project of his?
Good Time is pretty great. I'm excited to see his take on Batman. I did not like Tenet, but I thought that he was good in it.
Who is your celebrity crush?
Lea Seydoux and AOC.
Have you ever met either of them?
I think I may have been in the same room as Lea Seydoux but I don't think we ever met. Never met AOC.
What would you say to AOC if you met her?
Keep going. Thank you. Don't stop. All of those things.
What’s your favorite bagel?
Pumpernickel. I'm a schmear guy. There was a bagel place right by the L in Williamsburg. I would go on the way to the play. I would stop there a lot and get a bagel: pumpernickel with sun-dried tomato schmear. It's kind of a weird flavor combo, but it was good. I also love a smoked salmon cream cheese.
A Teacher begins streaming on FX on Hulu Nov. 10.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Virtual photographs by Sandy Kim. Polaroid Photos by Nick Robinson. Production by Kelly Chiello.